Retro Road Test: Volkswagen Type 2 camper

Say ‘campervan’, and most people’s thoughts inevitably turn to the iconic Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter. Built from 1951 – and so designated as the Beetle was ‘Type 1’ – the softly-cornered and box-shaped van was the brainchild of Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon who saw the potential in a small commercial vehicle which shared a similar mechanical make-up to the bug-shaped passenger car. Now affectionately referred to as a ‘Splitty’ due to its split windscreen, this new size of VW proved extremely popular.

Available in a bewildering range of variants, the first-generation ‘T1’ Type 2 was replaced in late 1967 by a facelifted version, the Type 2 ‘Bay Window’, so-called because of its one-piece panoramic windscreen. While the overall style hadn’t changed, the front end was more modern than that of the T1 and the overall look was arguably less graceful than its predecessor. Produced in Europe for 12 years, the angular third-generation ‘T3/T25’ replaced it in 1979.

Official or third-party campervan conversions have been part of the Volkswagen Transporter range since 1951, the last Type 2s being manufactured in Brazil during 2013. We’re driving the late ‘Bay Window’ Type 2 here produced after 1971 and owned by Happy Campers, a Volkswagen campervan rental company based in Essex.

Popular in both Europe and the US, many companies took the lid off a Volkswagen Transporter or Microbus and created a home from home. With exotic-sounding names such as ‘Moonraker’, ’Sunlander’ and ’Sundowner’, Devon in particular promised drives and Type 2s of adventure.

What are its rivals?

What are its rivals?

Perhaps most obviously in the UK, the Ford Transit provided homegrown competition to the light commercial VW during the 1960s, with Dormobile conversions of both it and the Bedford CA van going bumper-to-bumper with their new German rival in the campervan marketplace. Nowadays, while a brand new Volkswagen California might offer all the glamping luxuries its £37,657 starting price affords, a Type 2 offers retro chic, if not much warmth in those dark winter nights.

While you will be (mostly) protected from the elements, for that true camping experience, you could always opt for one of Volkswagen’s cheaper £250 Type 2-shaped tents which are similar in size to the actual van. Or, for the price of a good-condition Bay Window Type 2, a whole heap of nights in a warm Travelodge or even one night in the Royal Two Bedroom Suite during high season at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai.

What engine does it use?

What engine does it use?

Four main engines powered the Bay Window Type 2 and as with the Beetle and other contemporary Volkswagens, a programme of steady improvements and upgrades saw worthwhile changes throughout the Type 2’s lifecycle. Early Type 2s used the Beetle’s 1600cc ‘upright’ four-cylinder air-cooled unit.

Updates in 1972 saw the twin-carburettor 1.7-litre flat-four ‘pancake’ engine – so-called because it lays flat rather than upright in the engine bay – with 66bhp from the Volkswagen Type 4 fitted into the van, while a year later, a 68bhp 1800cc unit became an option. Finally, a 70bhp 2.0-litre version of the same Type 4 saloon engine was made available. Should you come across a Type ‘2c’ Brazilian or Mexican model built from 1995 to 2013, these were fitted with modern water-cooled Volkswagen engines, including a 1.4-litre unit from the Polo which could run on petrol or ethanol.

What’s it like to drive?

What’s it like to drive?

If you’ve any ideas about campervans and speed, best abandon them here. The 1974 Westfalia-converted van in our pictures is powered by the 1600cc 50bhp flat-four, and a small output engine and a 1,300-1,500kg kerb weight do not make high speed or performance bedfellows. Don’t ‘budget’ going over 50mph either: just accept the bumbling nature of the Type 2 and you’ll be fine. Oh, and ignore the queue of traffic behind you which will snake behind you and be prepared to pull over to let that traffic pass you. Regularly.

Grip the skinny steering wheel – bus-like, unsurprisingly – and revel in the upright driving position. Once you’re on the move, be slow with the wand-like gearstick. It’s not the most positive of shifts, although with only four speeds, at least there are only a small number to master. The brakes are what you might expect of a vehicle largely based on the Beetle: they do stop you, but you have to think ahead. At least the off-beat throb of the air-cooled engine is a satisfying and archetypal soundtrack.

Depending on conversion, visibility is either good or bad. Classed as one of the best and prestigious Type 2 camper conversions, the Westfalia comes with a range of neatly installed cupboards and furniture. However, while they make it hugely practical, they mar rearward visibility somewhat. Other conversions feature storage units below window height, which mean whatever you see out of the windows is beyond the physical dimensions of the van. Much easier when trying to park – unimpeded vision and a large glass area means you know exactly where the extremities are.

Reliability and running costs

Reliability and running costs

With most versions of the Bay Window Type 2 campervan being over 40 years old, reliability can occasionally be an issue. Batteries can suck charge if left standing for long periods of time, while the engine isn’t the easiest of units to get to, being effectively stuck in a fairly tight box underneath the back window. Access to the aforementioned battery can be an issue, depending on where in the engine bay it’s located.

On the plus side, the age of Type 2s mean mechanicals are relatively simple, and shared commonality with other Volkswagen models mean there are lots of spare parts available from places like Just Kampers and VW Heritage. A 1.6-litre twin-port reconditioned engine costs from £1,500, while a 1972-1979 front panel starts at £157. Doors are priced from £315. In regular use, expect fuel economy to top out at around 25 miles per gallon.

Could I drive it every day?

Could I drive it every day?

The original Type 2’s leisurely pace and old-feeling controls really limit it to country roads only rather than fast-flowing motorways. But don’t get too carried away on those leafy lanes, though – it doesn’t really handle as such, just charmingly lollops from corner to corner. Its boxy shape means it is very practical, though, and you really can pack everything into it a family would need for a weekend away. As well as the numerous storage units, sink, hob and fridge, there’s also a ‘rock ’n’ roll’ fold-down bed, and, on this particular Westfalia, an elevating roof with additional sleeping space for two. Perfect for adventurous kids who want to go up the almost literal wooden hill to bed.

How much should I pay?

How much should I pay?

The popularity and increasing rarity of the earlier split-screen Type 2s mean that prices are climbing to almost shocking levels. Therefore, the Bay Window Type 2 is a much more affordable buying option. We’ve seen a project van go for around £2,500, while good, presentable vehicles are advertised at £4,000-£8,000.

The 1974 model in our pictures cost £13,000, while really absolute top condition Type 2 ‘Bays’ can fetch anything from £15,000-£25,000 and more. If that sounds expensive, a desirable UK market split-screen ’Samba’ bus was recently up for £75,000 at auction! If you fancy something a little more drivable but still with 1970s style, the ultra-modern water-cooled South American-import Type ‘2c’ campers can start from around £30,000, rising to £50,000 plus.

What should I look out for?

What should I look out for?

Bay Window Type 2 campervans fall into three models: Type ‘2a’ curved bumper models were built before 1972, while the Type ‘2b’ vans which followed are distinguished by their flat and square box-type bumpers. Type ‘2c’ vehicles are the later and pricier South American-built models with more modern, often water-cooled engines. If you’re considering going down the VW camper route, the most important thing to look out for is rust.

The bottom six inches of the van needs particular attention, especially around the wheel arches, chassis box sections, as well as the sills. But, higher up, roof gutters can also be susceptible to the dreaded tin worm, as can the areas behind the front seats inside the van. Also look for perishing seals and non-rippled panels on those slabby sides.

Mechanically, oil leaks around the gearbox flange usually means the engine has to be removed to fix a worn rear crankshaft seal, while bearings in the gearboxes themselves are known to whine. Also, move the crankshaft pulley forwards and backwards to gauge movement – if it seems loose with plenty play, there is probably internal bearing wear and the engine will need rebuilding. Similarly, check the steering for play, too.

Heaters and controls which appear to not work can mean new heat exchangers, and you may need to wrap up warm, as some T2 campers have no or little working heating at all. The standard system is renowned for its inefficiency as the warm air from the engine has to find its way to the front of the van. Aftermarket auxiliary petrol heaters can be, and often are, fitted and these will need to be checked for operation. Petrol smells point to worn-out rubber pipes and fuel tanks can also rust through.

Also look out for a 12V model as opposed to a 6V van, as the more powerful system is both more reliable as well as obviously being more comfortable and useful. On the subject of electrics, try to ascertain whether all the necessary and desirable camping ancillaries such as the fridge works and check the state of the leisure battery (a secondary battery to power all the interior appliances and/or auxiliary heating systems).

Check that the extra ancillaries all work, too – broken water taps, hob burners and inoperative fridges would make a weekend away more gloomy than glamping. If a pop-top or elevating roof is fitted, check the canvas isn’t torn or full of mould, and that it works properly and has all the necessary fly screens and other protection from all the insect-sized wildlife you may encounter in the great outdoors.

Should I buy one?

Should I buy one?

We wouldn’t call the Volkswagen Type 2 campervan a starter classic, as there is a lot to look out for. But, as a practical, roomy, and characterful drive, then yes, there is plenty to recommend it. Most love the looks alone, and the fact that Volkswagen made the Type 2 almost indestructible means that most will last for years if looked after and given a little bit of TLC now and again. Devon, Dormobile, Holdsworth and Westfalia are but four conversions, the latter being the most coveted in T2 campervan circles due to its nicely-finished and practical built-in cupboards and fittings.

The rarer Viking has the crowning glory of all the elevating roof campervans, though, with the largest room up top – up to six people can sleep in a Viking, as opposed to four in a Westfalia. Much more comfortable than a tent, with a Type 2 you really can take everything, including the kitchen sink. And, as with most other cult classics, an enthusiastic ‘scene’ of Type 2 owners will be both helpful and social in equal measure.

Pub fact

Pub fact

A pretty duo-tone Type 2 burbling along a country lane may be seen as the archetypal Volkswagen campervan, but few people realise that more technologically extreme versions were also made. In the early 1970s, Volkswagen started to experiment with electric vehicles, and the T2 Elektro was powered by a 17kW/23hp continuous output electric motor, with a peak output of 33kW: projected range was 80 kilometres/50 miles. Astonishingly, around 150 were actually built.

Inside, an 850kg bank of lead acid batteries were sandwiched between the cargo floor and the chassis, in the middle of the front and rear axles. The van had a kerb weight of approximately 3,075kg and whirred onto a top speed of 75km/h/46mph – such concerns as 0-60mph times don’t apply here. Planned for use in urban areas, the T2 Elektro featured modern-day electric vehicle technology, such as regenerative braking and a single-speed direct drive transmission. Fully-developed prototype hybrid and even gas turbine variants also tested new Volkswagen technology.