The Timeless Allure of VW Camper Vans: Why they Still Make Van Lifers Drool

VW Campervans have endured through the decades, which is why van lifers are still choosing these iconic rigs for full-time travel. Which one is right for you?

There isn’t a more iconic van than the VolksWagen campervan. It’s a universally-recognized symbol for road trips, boon docking, and surfing adventures.

These mini buses have conquered the hearts of many generations and have been the world’s favorite camper van for over 70 years. 

There’s even a Facebook page called I love my VW more than my girlfriend

The fact that new models still look astoundingly similar to the early ones is a testament to their heritage. 

These classic camper vans also sport some incredible practical features. You can easily park them in standard parking spaces, store them in a small garage, and keep some of the rear seats to travel with family. The elevated roof allows you to stand up inside and have a separate sleeping area. 

Because the VW has been, and continues to be, so popular, there are lots of different VW camper van models to choose from. Prices for these little beauties are also very affordable here in the US.

Let’s start from the beginning…

The Original Microbus (Transporter T1)

The iconic VW bus has been a favorite since the 1960s

The original T1 was the Maggiolino (which means “beetle” or “bug”) – a car that was designed to be practical, without frills. In the 1940s, Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon, who worked at the Wolfsburg factory in Germany, liked the Maggiolino and had the idea to turn it into a cargo van called Plattenwagen. This was based on a Type 1 chassis and had a small cab plus a load bed at the front. The staff used it to carry heavy panels around the factory. 

The design inspired Volkswagen to launch the Transporter T1 after the Second World War. This was also called the Splitty, because it featured a split windshield on the front. 

T1s are pretty much impossible to find and were not built as campers originally. They’re too old to be much use to van lifers anyway – in the USA, they were manufactured in the 1950s.

The VW Type 2 (T2)

  • Production: 1967-1969
  • Weight: 3,000lbs
  • Sleeps: 2 adults + 2 children
  • Features: Galley with burner and sink, windows, double bed.

This is the earliest model of a VW van you can get your hands on. It’s known as “The Bus” in the US, the “Camper” in the UK, and “Bully” in Germany. It’s the most iconic model of VW Campers. It became extremely popular in the 60s because it was a people mover that was cheap to buy and maintain.

This is why it was also dubbed “hippie van.”

The exterior of the VW Type 2, with its curved windshield, the headlamps looking like two eyes, the VW logo acting as a nose, and the distinctive decorative strip, is quintessentially classic. The large windshield looks like a bay window, so it also gained the nickname of “Bay.” The engine is rear-mounted, which is part of the reason why it feels so spacious for such a small vehicle.

The T2 was a light commercial vehicle produced between 1967 and 1979 in Europe and the United States; although the model was manufactured up until 2013 in some developing countries, like Brazil. T2s engine options included 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, and 2.0-liter gasoline engines.

Real Life Example of the T2 VW in Action

Tia and Jordan tour Australia full-time aboard their 1975 VW Kombi, Stella, with their pup Zenna. The couple self-converted their T2 bus into a camper DIY. Their design features a small kitchen that slides out, a couch which turns into a queen size bed at the rear, and a set of lower cabinets on the driver’s side.

Stella came with a manual pop-top roof, but the couple only use it to be able to stand up inside. “Originally, we didn’t have a particular type of van in mind to take on the road” explains Jordan. Then they found an ad for Stella.

“We thought we’d just go see [her] and have a look – explains Jordan – but […] she was just too perfect not to take home.” Stella was freshly painted in yellow and had no rust, “which is pretty rare for a vehicle of such an age”. The guys truly love their T2 and enjoy slowly cruising Australia on board it. Their favorite thing to do aboard Stella? Kicking back and relaxing on their couch while enjoying the views.

Vanagon Westfalia (T3)

  • Production: 1979-1990 
  • Weight: 3,075lbs
  • Sleeps: up to 4 adults
  • Features: Galley with burner and sink, double bed, windows, 93 cubic feet cargo space.

This generation of VW vans was introduced in 1979. It has a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and is larger and heavier than a T2. The design is square and angular. Some VW enthusiasts think that this new body is unattractive and lacks the charm of the T2.

In fact, they think “the myth” of The Bus ended in 1979. Yet, many van lifers love third-generation VW buses. They are known as Vanagon Westfalia in the US, although some people use either name interchangeably.

Hardcore fans call T3s “the wedge” to distinguish them from the Kombi. The Vanagon is the very first VW campervan – it was professionally converted by Westfalia-Werk – and it’s the first model to come in a four-wheel-drive version.

The T3 came with either a 1.6, 1.7, 1.9, 2.0, 2.1, 2.3, 2.5, or 2.6-liter gasoline engine.

Example of the Volkswagen Westfalia on the Road

Josiah lives and travels full-time in his 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon since 2017. Much of the camper is original, although he made a few modifications, like adding a solar system and lithium batteries, to make his life a little easier. Josiah comments: “I generally find [the Vanagon] frustrating to use, but I got into the van life because of what’s outside of the van, not the inside.” He continues:

People sort of look at you like you’re crazy [using a VW Westfalia for van life]

Josiah, Westfalia owner

Josiah loves exploring the US from his classic campervan. His favorite spot on the van is the rear bench, where he can lean against the window and work on his laptop or chill out. 

The Westfalia conversion was truly innovative – nothing like it had been done before. Josiah thinks the German engineers who designed it were geniuses, because “they managed to find a way to fit four people in a tiny cargo van.” Every detail was designed to optimize the limited space, while offering a good amount of comfort.

EuroVan (T4)

man sitting on the rooftop of yellow VW campervan parked in a mountain area
Photo: On the rooftop of a yellow VW campervan by Ax the Nomad
  • Production: 1990-2003
  • Weight: 5,500lbs
  • Sleeps: Up to 4 adults
  • Features: Pop-top, galley, cabinets, windows, fresh and grey water tanks, 2 small tables.

The T4 was produced from 1990 until 2003 in North America. It’s with this model that VW introduced a front-mounted engine. To distinguish the commercial versions from the camper version, VW started calling them a Transporter (this is the empty panel van) or Caravelle (this is the model with 3 rows of seats). The T4 has long list of diesel and gasoline engine options – from a 1.9-liter diesel to 2.8-liter gasoline.

Yellow VW campervan on the road at the edge of the mountain
Photo: Yellow VW campervan on the road at the edge of the mountain by Ax the Nomad

Ax has owned two T4s over the years and has been living on one for a year. He currently travels part-time while he works in Estonia, his home country. However, he plans to quit his job and move to the Alps – his favorite place on Earth – aboard his trusty T4 by spring 2024.

So far, he’s traveled to 15 countries, including Norway and Sweden, on a EuroVan. Ax says: “Before [my current T4] I had […] a smaller version. I knew I needed something a bit longer and taller for full-time living and to comfortably fit a motorcycle inside […].

Plus I had always dreamt of a four-wheel drive home-on-wheels that I can take almost anywhere.” He even managed to take his T4 up the highest off-road in Europe, Colle del Sommeiller, at 3000 meter elevation. “At the top, I got to enjoy a night in complete isolation with no signal and a clear sky full of stars” he recollects.

Ax comments: “Somehow I’ve never broken down with [my EuroVan]. For my needs and budget, there is no better option”.

Matt and Kelli have traveled extensively around New England and all the way to NY with their GSP Nova aboard a 2002 VW EuroVan. Matt confesses: “I have always dreamed of owning a VW Bus.” Most of the gear on board is original, although their model doesn’t have any cupboards, so the lower bed makes use of the full width of the van.

The bed in the manual pop-up roof “is slightly narrower than the one below” according to Kelli, so the guys only use to create extra headroom. Kelli also explains that they chose to remove one of the benches to create more space between the front and rear seats. 

Volkswagen California (T5 and T5.1) – not available in the US

VW California
  • Production: 2003-2015
  • Weight: 6,173lbs
  • Sleeps: Up to 4 adults
  • Features: Pop-top, galley, cabinets, windows, fresh and grey water tanks, 2 small tables.

In 2003, VW launched the T5, a model with a larger dashboard and smaller bonnet. It looks sleek and elegant, even as a people mover. It’s with the T5 that the camperized version of the VW takes the name “California”.

The interior layout mirrors exactly that of the T4 with an updated look and a few new details. This model later got a facelift and became the T5.1. It came with one gasoline engine option, a 3.2-liter, and a number of diesel engines to choose from.

The T5 was not sold in the US, because it is classed as a light truck, so it was subject the the 25% chicken tax on importation.  

Katy from Otis And Us, who travels in a T5 with her husband and three children in their spare time, says: “We have always enjoyed a road trip [because] we have the opportunity to travel and really explore an area.” 11 years ago the family chose to buy and convert a T5 because: “At the time it was a newer model with low mileage and was to be our main drive, so the camper would still be relatively easy to park on the school run. We opted for a VW in the hope it would hold its value, if we decided to sell.”

Katy from Otis and Us with family beside a TF VW campervan
Photo: Katy from Otis and Us with family

Katy comments: “We converted it on a budget and 11 years later, with three children and a huge dog, we have made the most incredible memories and still absolutely love our little home on wheels.”

She continues: “Would we do it all again? In a heartbeat! We often consider getting a bigger van, now that our family is growing, but for now we will continue to enjoy our campervan adventures as a family of five in our T5 camper.”

Tom chose a T5 as a family camper van because it wasn’t the typical white van, it fit within his budget, had a tailgate rather than barn doors, and had AC. His red T5 was the first vehicle he looked at. “It was perfect, immaculate” he remembers.

VW California Ocean T6 and T6.1 – not available in the US

  • Production: 2005-2023
  • Weight: 6,173lbs
  • Sleeps: Up to 4 adults
  • Features: Pop-top, galley, cabinets, windows, fresh and grey water tanks, 2 small tables.

The production of the VW California Ocean started in 2015, which then underwent a facelift in 2019 and became the T6.1. At this point, we can sat the VW bus turns into a real luxury vehicle. It comes with air conditioning and a digital control panel; plus the pop up bed lifts with the push of a button.

Engine options only include a 2.0-liter gasoline, a 2.0-liter turbo diesel, and a 2.0-liter twin-turbo diesel. Just like the T5, it was not imported to the USA.

It’s the ultimate modern VW bus for comfort and has been extremely expensive to buy in Europe, especially as production has slowed down during the pandemic. Buying a used California Ocean was often more expensive than buying a new one, as the lead time to get it could be nearly a year. People just wanted to hit the road and forget about Covid.

Corinne and River travel full-time as digital nomads around the world with their daughter Mila. A few years back, they spent two weeks touring the UK aboard a T6.1 California Ocean and had an amazing time. Corinne says: “We think [road tripping on a VW bus is] a really great way to travel.”

Will and Sarah have owned both a T6 and T6.1, so they are big fans of this model. Sarah was attracted to it due to its heritage. They love all the little clever ways in which things are stored without taking up any space, like the camping table and chairs.

“Because it’s evolved from the T1 all the way through, there’s so many accessories and things that are specifically designed for it – comments Sarah – There’s so much bespoke stuff for this van.” Will and Sarah are currently have a Westfalia Sven Hedin on order.

T7 California – not available in the US

  • Production: from 2024
  • Weight: 4,409lbs
  • Sleeps: Up to 4 adults
  • Features: Remotely-controlled pop-top, galley, cabinets, two sliding doors, windows, fresh and grey water tanks, 2 small tables.

The T7 is the latest VW bus model. The people carrier version is called Multivan, rather than Caravelle. It’s been introduced in 2022 and is based on the MQB platform. The T7 comes with either a 1.1 or 2.0-liter gasoline engine, a 2.0-liter diesel engine, or a 1.4-liter plug-in hybrid engine with 215 horsepower. The T7 California will be available throughout Europe from 2024.

The coolest feature about the T7 is that it han two sliding doors, so you can open the van up on two sides and get and and out from either and you can use the kitchen inside or outside. The model comes with an awning as standard. Both front seats swivel and can be adjusted in height.

The front cockpit is sleeker and less voluminous, so it takes up less space. You can lift the pop top, turn on the lights, and turn on climate control remotely via an app. It comes with a big dedicated camping battery to offer plenty of power.

VW Grand California – not available in the US

  • Production: 2019-date
  • Weight: 6660-6982lbs
  • Sleeps: 2 adults and 2 children
  • Features: Fiberglass add-on roof with bed, galley, cabinets, one sliding door, windows, fresh and grey water tanks, 1 small table.

In 2019, Volkswagen launched the Grand California – the biggest ever model of a VW bus. It reflects the modern, popular #VanLife style designs. The higher, fixed top means you can stand up inside in multiple spots and its windows make the inside of the vehicle super bright. The galley and fridge are accessible from both inside and outside.

The Grand California is based on the VW Crafter and comes in two versions – a short-wheel base 600 (sleeps 2 adults and 2 kids) or a long-wheel base 680 (sleeps two adults). Of course, this model offers a lot of extra space, compared to the classic ones. Inside it, there are a sleeping area is at the back of the van, an optional second bed, a wet bath with cassette toilet, a decent-size kitchen, and a big dining area.

On the 600, there is a small alcove bed above the front seats, ideal for kids.  All versions come with a 177PS 2.0-litre diesel engine, which is paired with an eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard. Just like any other VW van after the T3, it comes with a 4-wheel drive.

The Wayward Home publisher Kristin Hanes rented a VW Grand California in Switzerland and loved its nimble size, the kitchen and interior wet bath for a hot shower after a long hike.

The bed was pretty small for two adults, so she opted to go in the “upper” bed and her and her partner both slept a little more soundly this way.

California Beach Camper (T4, T5, T6, T6.1)

The California was also available in the Beach version for the T4, T5, T6 and T6.1. The Beach is a camper with fewer amenities inside, which allows you to retain all the seats for carrying more people when you travel. 

Standard features include a pop top, a camping table and chairs, and a heater. 

The T6 and T6.1 also came in a Coast version, which was slightly more kitted out than a Beach, but less than a California. 

Transporter and Caravelle (T4, T5, T6, T6.1)

The T4, T5, T6, and T6.1 were also available in a commercial vehicle version under the name Transporter (no windows) or Caravelle (3 rows of seats). Many van lifers have chosen to buy one of these and turn them into campers DIY or through a conversion company, because they have a lower purchase price. Of course, if you don’t add a pop top, the Transporter only offers a small space inside.

However, big VW fans on a budget often jump at this option. Over time, you can virtually turn a Transporter into a California by adding windows, a pop top, a kitchen unit, swivel front seats, a heater, and a bench. 

That’s what Dan Chambers did with his 2008 Transporter T5. He is super pleased with the end result. Even though he installed every bit of kit DIY, Dan says “it works absolutely faultlessly.” He spent a total of 31,000 pounds to create his dream VW camper van, which is quite a lot. But considering a new one costs £80,000-90,0000, it’s a pretty great result.

The Timeless Allure of VW Camper Vans

Different models of this iconic camper appeal to different people. The older models, like the T2 or the Vanagon, attract vintage enthusiasts who don’t mind traveling slowly and living a simpler life on the road. This breed of van lifers travel with all the tools they need to fix their classic camper on the road, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The latest models, which come at an extra cost, are tiny luxury RVs with a sleek exterior and an incredibly ingenious interior layout, down to the smallest detail. They are reliable, nimble, and fuel efficient. These suit van lifers and campers who prefer to travel with more comforts, such as AC, and need modern technology integrated into the dashboard.

Some people can’t understand why VW camper vans are so expensive and in demand. They are small (some say cramped) and lack some of the facilities of an RV, like a bathroom. Yet, there are plenty of people who can’t resist their timeless allure.

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  6. TintFrisco says:

    The model looks so vintage and classy 🙂

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