THE VOLKSWAGEN WESTFALIA camper van has been a symbol for the freedom of the open road and exploration since it was first introduced in the 60’s when the split window microbus had a pop-top installed in the middle of the van.
This simple modification was undoubtedly added so hippies following The Dead could easily stand up to change back into their dirty bajas after a quick skinny dip and a doobie in a roadside spring.
These vans have been through a slow but predictable evolution since those early days, but there has always been a nod to the generation of hippies that made them the icons that they are. Like those that drove them back in those days, the buses were unreliable and quirky, but they were also simple and charming .
There’s something about these vans that makes you think you could actually shrug off your responsibilities and live on the road. This feeling has been the main draw for me. I have owned three “Westys” and this is my love story.
When I was growing up, there was a guy down the street from me that owned a baby diarrhea brown 1980 Westy. While cruising around on my Mongoose, I would often confess to the other neighborhood kids about how much I loved this guy’s van. They used to laugh and say things like “No thanks, I’ll take a Countach or a 911.”
Just like them, I had supercar posters on my wall. But I was constantly curious about the life that this 40 something bachelor had built around his van. I jealously watched from a few doors down every summer Friday as he loaded it up with expensive outdoor gear and a hot yoga instructor way before yoga was cool. I convinced myself that someday I would be just like this guy.
Fast forward to when I was 16. I approached my idol to see if he’d be willing to sell his weekend machine (which had developed some significant rust by this time).
He said yes, but for $5000. $5000 seemed like a TON of money for a van that was made during the Carter administration. I had $2000 saved up from my paper route and summer job, so my dream would have to wait. (Probably a good thing –a 16yr old boy with a van with a built in futon would probably also quickly have a pregnant girlfriend.)
After buying a 1993 Eurovan with a tin top and a manual transmission as a consolation, I finally bought my first Westfalia for $3500. It was a rusty 1986 model with mismatched tires and brown velour interior. It was amazing, and I got to work right away making it my own.
It became a bit of an obsession. I wanted to take what was already an incredible vehicle and make it even better. I spent an entire summer honing my new love of carpentry and completely customized the van’s interior.
My best friend, my brother, and I took the bus we affectionately named “The Turd” on a football pilgrimage hitting up games at two of the country’s hallowed stadiums, Notre Dame and Lambeau Field. We made it halfway across the country and back always wondering when it would break down.
It finally did break down while going through a toll booth during rush hour in Chicago. We had to push it to the side of the road while enraged working stiffs on their way to boring status meetings honked and jeered. Luckily, the battery cable had just popped off so we were on the road in no time.
After learning that stopping to pee all the time was a real problem, I installed a urinal. This led to unwanted window washings for unsuspecting tailgaters, but was a godsend on cold nights when sleeping in the van.
So many awesome memories with my group of friends revolved around that bus. To this day, whenever we get together the times we shared together on the road in the bus always come up as the fondest of memories.
After many more camping and road trip adventures, I sold the bus to its next faithful steward for $8500. Not a bad profit for a 20 year old bus with an unknown amount of miles.
What once was the perfect road trip vehicle for my buddies and I has become the best family vehicle of all time.
I purchased a 1990 Vanagon Westfalia Multivan (one of the rarest configurations) in great condition for what some would think was a crazy amount of money right after my son was born. It had been way too long since I had owned a bus and as a new father, I was overcome by the desire to get out there and explore New England with my family.
When the summer weather looks nice, we load up the van with all the things you need to bring a little one on the road and head out. Sure, the Westy is an awesome road trip vehicle, but it’s also amazing for just doing things around town. The thing is HUGE! You could easily fit an entire neighborhood’s weekend costco run into it.
You don’t have to be going on a camping trip to take full advantage of the Westy. Nothing beats the Westy for day trips. It has a fold down table so when your kid’s head starts spinning like the girl in the exorcist for lack of food, you can pull over, pop the table, open up the fridge and enjoy a comfortable lunch instead of having an apple sauce pack smashed into your car seat. The floor itself is gigantic and flat, so changing a diaper is incredibly easy and you can do it in complete peace.
It’s also amazing for events where there will be multiple families around. Every year, we go to the balloon festival in Stowe. Our bus ends up being home base for a bunch of families who want to go to the festival, but are dreading chasing their kids around in a crowd. We park in a field, bring our own food and drinks and the balloons fly right over us. We even have a chemical toilet in the van so the ladies can use it in privacy.
As before, I’ve been a little obsessed with modifying the van by making improvements that make it even better than it was when it was made 25 years ago. We’ve added a deep cycle marine battery system so we can have power when we need it without draining the battery that starts the van. We’ve also added USB ports throughout the van for charging devices, a 12volt fridge/freezer so we always have fresh food on hand, and dimmable LED lighting throughout the cabin so we have just the right amount of light when we need it.
This bus is so much more than a means of transportation. It creates smiles wherever it goes. I do almost all of the work on it myself and I’ve learned so much by keeping it going.
I think it’s going to serve me well as a way to teach my son about basic auto maintenance and the value of getting your hands dirty and learning how things work.
The bus is 25 years old, so it’s not as reliable as it could be, although it has yet to leave us really stranded. The bus is extremely underpowered by modern standards. How does 90 horsepower in a 5000lb vehicle sound? That was 90 horsepower when it was new, I can only imagine we’re working with about a whopping 75 now.
This lack of propulsion means that in many cases you’re almost forced to take the secondary roads if you want to actually keep up with traffic. What some would find annoying has turned out to be one of the best things about the van. The license plate even says SLOLANE.
When you’re in the bus, you’re not getting anywhere in a hurry, so your state of mind changes. It’s refreshing to take your time and appreciate the journey as you cruise through all the little New England towns that were passed by when they built the interstate.
If you want to experience what it’s like to own a Volkswagen Westfalia, there are a few outfits that rent these wonderful vehicles. California Campers, Dragonfly Vans, Wicked Westys, & VWsurfari all rent vans. Some of these providers will rent for a little as one day.
However, I would highly suggest trying a van out for at least a long weekend if you’re really interested in a Westfalia. Driving one around with the family is a really smart move to consider before dropping some serious coin on a van in great condition.
One advantage to owning a van with a “cult” following is that there are no shortage of other Volkswagen fanatics out there who are more than happy to help out. The online community scene for classic Busses, Vanagons and Eurovans (the Vanagon’s younger front-engine sibling) is huge.
The people involved in the community are plentiful and super helpful. You can get advice on anything from how to find the right van for you to how to do a complete engine conversion. There are also a ton of really great ideas and how-to tips for how to accessorize your van for your specific needs. I turn to The Samba every time I head out the garage to tinker with my van.
I’m looking forward to years and years of adventures with my family in our bus. Every time we use it, even if it’s just for a trip to the grocery store, it gets us thinking about where we should go next.
My wife and I find ourselves researching cool spots where we could take a day trip or break away for a weekend. For me, this is bus is so much better than a Lamborghini. Anyone with enough money can buy a fancy car, but because this bus is something I can enjoy with my whole family, it’s more than transportation.
It inspires us to do more things, go more places, and take our time while we do it.
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