Paul Niedermeyer (CC founder) is the undisputed king of VW bus profiles, owing to his personal history with them. He has waxed historically and philosophically on various buses, but not much on the campers. There have also been many shorter articles on campers by others, often later Vanagons. Surprisingly, though, the T2 (Bay) Westfalia Campmobile has so far escaped a full-length profile on these pages.
It shall escape no more. I submit that I am the man to undertake this, not because I am an authority on VW’s or that I speak a lick of German, but because it’s my destiny. I have some deep-seated history with these most unique mobile homes that our other authors probably don’t have. More on that later.
Click through for some VW Microbus and Westfalia Campmobile background and a deep look inside an amazing late T2 Westy.
Driving by myself one day recently, I happened upon this nice example parked in front of a shopping center. No “for sale” sign or anything, just parked there by itself. Shortly after that, my wife unknowingly sent me an internet article about a certain VW camper van.
Pictured above is virtually the same van, with one small difference, and I’m not talking about the spare tire. This one has 994 miles and sold at a Paris auction in February for $110,000 (or 101,320 €). It had a good story of how the original owner took it on a single vacation then “not getting used to the manual gearbox, it [was] left unused until its sale in 2018”. There is probably a lot of understatement and subtext in that sentence. If you’ve ever driven one, you know what I mean. It’s not hard to imagine someone being so distraught about how it drives, particularly on the highway, as to park it and never drive it again. Well, most people would sell it, but maybe it’s a little surprising you don’t see more of these in time capsule condition for that reason.
Let’s start at the beginning. Paul has previously covered the early history of the VW vans (see links for his articles at the end), so I’ll just give a brief version. In the early postwar period, VW was making the Beetle (or Type 1) at their Wolfsburg factory. In the factory, they used improvised flatbed trucks (plattenwagen) on VW chassis for moving parts around the facility. This gave a visiting dealer named Ben Pon the idea of adapting the chassis to a box-shaped truck using standard VW mechanicals.
VW ran with this idea, developed prototypes and production of the Transporter (or Type 2) began in 1950. Looking at the picture, the tires look hardly wider than a bicycle’s, which was adequate because its speed was hardly faster than a bicycle. Alright, I’m exaggerating, but not by a lot considering we are talking about a vehicle that was designed to haul 8 or more passengers or large amounts of cargo with the 30hp (gross) engine it shared with the regular Beetle. It also shared the Beetle’s wheelbase and suspension, but the unibody frame was significantly beefed up for its hauling duties.
As one might expect from a German company, the Transporter was a very stout, well-designed vehicle. Road And Track tested a 1956 model, which had 36hp (gross) since 1951, and got a 0-60mph time of 75 seconds (I didn’t know 0-60 times went that high). The bus did have a sticker on the dash advising a top speed of 50mph, but if one was patient, they found it could make 70 with a tailwind. None-the-less, they liked it. Tom McCahill in Popular Mechanix said, “It is as versatile as a steamship con man and twice as useful. It will climb anything but not fast. When the grade gets real grim the speed is not much better than a fast walk but it will get there.”
The VW bus became a German, then a European, then a worldwide phenomenon. Nobody up to that time had sold a vehicle with such space efficiency and versatility. This, combined with the fact that it shared the standard Volkswagen’s engineering and quality, all at a very reasonable price, made it a hit. Hit is probably an understatement. Revolutionary is a better word, and more aptly applied here than to any vehicle since the Model T.
More revolutionary than the Beetle? I’ll let the readers decide. Sales of the bus were only between 3 and 6 percent of Volkswagen’s total production from 1951-1978, but its influence in its market segment was huge. In fact, it invented its own market segments. As the poster above illustrates, it has been used for anything a light duty truck could be imagined to do.
One of those imagined uses brings us to our main subject: the campers. It didn’t take long to conceive of using the bus for a camper. Westfalia Werke converted its first microbus into a camper in 1951, starting a relationship with VW that would last through 2003 with the last Westfalia VW’s.
Westfalia was Volkswagen’s official conversion firm, with their products listed in VW catalogs and sold at VW dealers. There were other companies that did aftermarket camper conversions, such as Dormobile, Devon, and Danbury. This article will just focus on the official Westfalia models, or Westy’s as their fans often call them.
I haven’t been able to find a definite date that Volkswagen began officially selling the Westfalias. They were definitely low volume the first few years. My Standard Catalog of Imported Cars first lists a camper available (presumably just in the U.S.) for 1956. If you have more specific information, please let me know.
First generation buses (1950-67) are known as T1’s (Transporter gen 1), also called Split Windows for the two-piece windshield. Westfalia made a number of different configurations for the campers, which they called Special Models or SO’s (sonderausfuhrungen). These models often came with optional tents designed to attach to the side of the van, greatly increasing the sheltered space.
The SO42 is a later T1 package. Quite nice, but the camping features are not nearly as sophisticated as they would become in later Westfalias.
T1’s are easy to identify, not that you are likely to encounter one on the road. They all have the sweeping character lines on the front (I call it a widow’s peak), sliding windows on the front doors and horizontal louvers above the rear wheels for engine air. There is very little outward change over the 18 years it was produced, though there were a number of functional refinements. As an aside, thinking about the T1 it has occurred to me that it’s ironic that a vehicle that was so conservative in a mechanical and business sense became so closely associated with political liberalism.
The pop-top is very small on these, and is clearly not designed for sleeping space.
1968 saw a complete makeover for the Transporter, now a T2. The most obvious change is the windshield, which is now a larger, curved one-piece, making this generation affectionately known a Bay Window. Fans also sometimes call them Breadloafs. Other major changes included more front overhang allowing larger doors for ease of entry/egress as well as a bit of “crush space” for just a smidgen of accident safety, roll down front windows, sliding side door (an industry first), redesigned suspension including a rear without swing axles or reduction gears, and a larger 1600cc engine (65hp gross, tests listed 0-60 mph times down to about 37sec!).
The early T2 camper layout is similar to the later T1’s, with a few additional features available like a sink with electric pump and electric fridge. The biggest difference was a much larger, front-hinged pop-top with a built-in cot for sleeping one.
A tent was still available.
Compared to the T1, there were quite a few visible year to year changes in the T2 VW bus and the Westfalias. I’ll list some of the easy-to-spot ones.
1971- wider wheels with small round vent holes and flatter style hubcaps (style used through 1991!)
1972- new tall taillights and revised air intake scoops (squared instead of crescent-shaped)
1973- front turn signals moved above headlights next to air vent. Bumpers squared off, no longer wrap-around in front.
1974- pop top switched from front hinged to rear hinged. The new pop top included full-width mattress big enough for two adults. Forward driver-side rear-facing seat replaced with cabinet allowing for optional propane stove. First year for front seat headrests (In U.S. at least. I haven’t been able to definitively document this).
1976- interior configuration changed again to have all cabinets on driver side with large open floor on passenger side, rear closet switched from passenger side to driver side. This is the general configuration they would stick with through 2003.
There were quite a few mechanical changes, as well. Some of the major ones:
1971- front disc brakes
1972- new 1700cc (1679 actually) engine shared with VW/Porsche 914, good for 63hp (net). Sometimes referred to as “Porsche powered” vans, though really the 914 was VW powered.
1973- automatic transmission available
1974- engine increased to 1800cc (1795 actually)
1975- carbs replaced with Bosch electronic fuel injection
1976- engine displacement increased again to 2000cc (1970 actually), 67hp @4200rpm (net). Road tests had these with 0-60 times of 20 sec or just under. Blinding speed for a VW bus.
That brings us up to our subject van. Honestly, I haven’t been able to determine the year exactly. I can’t get it to come up on any of the license plate look-up sites and I haven’t been able to find any clues visible in the pictures that would specify the year. 76-79 is the best I can say. Let me know if you can nail it down better.
Let’s take a look inside the Campmobile, as the insides is what this vehicle is all about. I couldn’t get access inside our subject van and as you can imagine, through-the-screen-window pictures don’t work at all! So internet photos will be a stand in for our subject bus, but I will mostly use pictures from the 994 mile auction doppelganger where noted in the captions.
This view gives an idea of the van’s ample cabinetry. 120V plug with circuit breaker is below bench. Camper comes with a cord for hooking up to city power.
The main cabinet houses the sink and stove under a flip up lid that doubles as the backsplash. Inside the cabinet is the 7 gallon (26L) water tank for use with the electric pump. You can also hook the van up to city water and use the faucet under that pressure. Freestanding upholstered storage box secures between the front seats and can be moved around for seating, footrest, etc. Spare tire is behind the cover on the right side with the Westfalia sticker on it. Table is removable and it stores in the way-back behind the bench seat.
Propane tank fuels the stove.
Closeup of the stove and sink. Electric pump switch to left of the faucet, faucet knob to the right. Stove label reads, “It Is Not Safe To Use Cooking Appliances For Comfort Heating”. Notice they’re not forbidding it, just giving you a friendly warning. If the van blows up, it’s on you.
On the 76-79 Westfalias, the fridge is located in the shelf to the left of the bench seat. Earlier and later models had a larger upright fridge that was more user friendly. This is setup more like an electric cooler. In fact, the electric fridge was optional, standard was a non-powered cooler with a drainplug in the bottom.
The guts of the fridge and a small storage compartment are in the shelf next to the fridge.
Fridge and battery charger controls. The label to the left reads, “After converting the double bed into a bench please pull safety-belts out from between seat bench and back rest”. So polite!
Here is the bench seat converted into a double bed.
Double bed folded out inside pop top.
Inside pop top looking forward. Bed is folded back in storage position, giving plenty of headroom to stand inside van. Like a tent, the flap unzips to a screen and screen unzips for access to luggage rack, which doubles as a porch.
A benefit to moving all the cabinetry to the left side is to allow a swiveling front seat. It also reclines.
The Westfalia came with a removable table for the front. It doubles as a backsplash to put to the right of the stove so the driver seat doesn’t get splashed with grease. Owners manual advises to never use it while the vehicle is in motion. Quite a trick that would be with a manual transmission! It stores behind the driver seat.
Label below radio reads, “Drive only with pop-up top properly locked!” Less polite because that one’s really important.
Westfalias came with a removable screen for the back hatch. With the hatch open, doors closed with screened jalousie side windows open and pop top flap opened, there is great bug-free ventilation.
You can also close all the curtains for very cozy seclusion. Great place to spend an adventurous honeymoon! If you’re well past the honeymoon stage, you’ll note that Westfalia provides a cot which is installed above the front seats. It’s rated for children up to 90 pounds.
I mentioned that I have some personal history with these. During my formative years from about 7 to 16, my parents had a series of Westfalia camper vans which served as both family vacation-mobiles and daily drivers, just like the ad above says. The experience gave me both an appreciation and inherent dislike for these unique vehicles.
We started out with a 1968 model, which would have been about 10 years old when they got it. I was pretty young during that one’s time with us. The highlight that I remember distinctly was a trip to Colorado where we were driving through the mountains when the clutch went out. It was a bit harrowing but my dad managed to coast it into a town, where we were able to find a garage that could fix it. Of course they had to order the parts and we camped in their parking lot for a couple of nights.
We only had that one a couple of years, then my parents upgraded to a 1974 model. It was noticeably nicer, with more features and cloth seats instead of the 68’s vinyl. It was also an automatic. It was during this one’s tenure that I remember getting a real sense of just how slow it was compared to pretty much every other vehicle on the road. At least we had it during the era of the double nickel, otherwise the contrast would have been even more glaring.
On the highway, when I say it was slower than every other vehicle, that includes full size motorhomes, pickups pulling trailers and even most semi trucks. We made a couple more Colorado trips and there is nothing quite as embarrassing to a boy than getting passed on steep hills by semis, commercial buses, overladen stationwagons and maybe even a few bicycles. Perhaps my memory confabulated some of those, but you get the idea!
As I detailed earlier, VW bus engines had been upgraded significantly in the 70’s and had substantial power and torque increases (the opposite of American cars!). I remember my parents thought the 74 was faster than the 68, even with the auto. But we are still talking about a camper that adds about 400 lbs to the already 3,000lb van, plus luggage and supplies for a camping trip plus passengers, with the aerodynamics of a squared-off loaf of bread, all pushed along by an approx. 65hp air-cooled engine. That they go even as fast as they do is kind of a miracle.
The 74 was pretty reliable, as I recall, but we did get stranded in Amarillo, TX one summer when the fuel pump died. More parking lot camping. The van’s greatest hit, though, was on our trip to Mexico City. It made it there and back with no problems (thank God! I can’t imagine making that trip today).
When I was 15 and beginning to learn to drive, my parents had by this time once again upgraded, to a 1978 model. They got it at about 6 years old and pretty lightly used. It was a real creampuff and sported a 4 speed manual, as all VW buses should.
It’s my opinion that a VW van is the ideal vehicle to learn to drive on, because if you can drive that, you can drive anything. First there’s the driving position. You sit above the front wheels, which makes judging turns and distances significantly different (and more awkward) than normal. While you’re maneuvering, you also are steering without any power assistance. This is not a problem once you get a little speed, but at low speeds and especially stopped, there’s some grunting.
The biggest challenge, though, is shifting. The shifter is on the far opposite end of the vehicle from the transmission, of course, and it is about as imprecise as you might imagine that set up could be. It uses cables, but feels more like it uses rubber bands or maybe hydraulic lines filled with oatmeal. Just point the shifter in the general direction and hope you get it right, which you usually will, except for reverse, which takes a fair amount of practice before you can expect to get it on the first try. The clutch is none-too-precise, either, but I don’t remember having a lot of trouble with it. As you are learning to mush your way through shifting and merging with traffic, just remember to account for the leisurely acceleration. Relatively high torque (101 lbft @ 3000rpm) and low gearing (5.37:1 final drive) make the take off up to about 30 mph not unreasonable, but it falls off quickly as you approach highway speeds. If you make it to highway speeds, watch out for wind gusts. Some sailboats are less effective at catching the wind than a VW bus. For all these reasons and more, after driving a VW van, everything else feels easy.
Getting back to our original subject vehicle, this survivor is apparently pulling daily driver duties. Perhaps it’s being lived in, but there is a lot of miscellaneous stuff in it and the way-back is full of tools. It looks to be in pretty good condition, which makes it both a more valuable and harder-to-drive choice than
many virtually all of the alternatives for a used work truck.
If it’s being lived in, though, the VW Westfalia Campmobile is still a great choice. After spending much of my childhood in them, my opinion has long been that they are excellent vehicles to stay in wherever you like to go camping, but not such great vehicles to get there in. I will always be grateful for the many nights I spent dreaming in pop-tops and the challenging times I spent in the driver seat. I have a deep affection for plaid and I’m pretty sure where that came from.
1978 (or maybe 76, 77 or 79) Westfalia photographed in Houston, TX 2/13/20
Plenty of related reading here. Perfect for this special time of distance and isolation:
Cars Of A Lifetime: 1977 VW Type 2 Westfalia – Concrete In The Console Heath McClure – This is a really entertaining read, especially if you ever spent any time in a VW bus. Probably the funniest CC article I’ve read, at least to me.