BBC Autos

Car Tribes

For Westfalia owners, freedom rides on four wheels

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“They are a freedom machine.”

Bernie Steininger, a well-tanned retiree with a laid-back mien, is showing off his white 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon. It is a Westfalia, a pop-top box that is neither recreational vehicle nor minivan. Not a speck of rust is to be seen on Steininger’s example, but the rear windows are covered with stickers, one of which simply declares, “Road Trip!”

From the Pacific Northwest region of North America down through the Baja Peninsula, these white-topped, squared-off machines are spirit animals of the open highway. They might be spotted crawling up mountain passes or nestled in a valley beside a murmuring creek. One well-used example might sit alone beside a desolate Oregon beach at sunset, or a few might huddle around a campfire in a California redwood grove.

They are certainly not fast. They are not especially luxurious. If the quickest route is desired, a traveller would be better served by a turbodiesel Audi or a plane ticket. However, for the nomadic members of the Westfalia tribe, the journey is not realised by reaching the destination, but by living moment to moment in this humble box.

Originally, that box was shaped like a loaf and powered by a air-cooled 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that made more racket than actual horsepower. Sketched out roughly in the late 1940s by Dutch VW importer Ben Pon, the early VW Type 2 took the inexpensive durability that would make the Beetle such a hit, and added a larger cabin.

The first camper-spec Type 2, known as the Camperbox, was built for a British officer serving in postwar West Germany. Westfalia, an independent coachbuilder specialising in tent-trailers and conversions, was then subcontracted by Volkswagen to officially supply a “camperised” version of the Type 2. Production began in 1951, and as the cheap, efficient VW Beetle began gaining a foothold in North America, its Microbus cousin soon followed.

From the clouds of marijuana smoke rising from Jeff Spicoli's red and yellow van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to the billowing smokescreen emitted by a cartoon version in an episode of Futurama, the early VW camper van would become a counter-culture icon. For baby-boomers, these machines provoke a wave of nostalgia, given many travelled in them with their families and friends in the ’60s and ’70s. As that cohort approaches retirement age, the demand for these early buses is driving prices through the pop-up roof, particularly for the rarer split-window versions.

“They are maintenance-intensive,” Andrew Walls, owner of a 1973 and a 1979 VW camper, warns. “A lot of people like the idea of having one, but they're not really daily drivers.” As the fleet ages, the older VW campers seem to get used for shorter trips. Although there are always exceptions, the air-cooled Type 2 campers are most often weekend cars.

Not so with the Vanagons. While they do not have the same cachet as their ’60s and ’70s relations, these later models have generated a self-contained, self-sustaining culture on their own. Larger, slightly more powerful and more comfortable than its ancestor, the Vanagon Westfalia was built to go the distance – and it frequently does.

Steininger has quadrupled the original mileage on his second-hand 1984 Westfalia in a little over a decade, putting in nearly 200,000 miles behind the wheel, almost always off the main highway. “The bond you form with these vehicles is like nothing I've ever seen,” he says. He tried to sell his Westfalia once, with thoughts of travel through Europe, but turned down a cash-toting buyer when the emotional tug proved too stubborn.

For one Vancouver-based couple, a Westfalia was both a travelling companion and a sliding door into a whole new kind of adventure. The pair, who insisted on only being identified by their initials N and J, met through a camping meet for Westfalia owners. They agreed to travel down the coast to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and spent two and a half months roaming freely through America. They were married in June 2014, one year after their first meeting, and are on the cusp of another road trip, this one three months – though the destination is secondary. “We'll follow our hearts I guess,” says J, who previously solo'd from Vancouver to Newfoundland in his bus, “Westy”.

The naming is no isolated incident. All Westfalia owners seem to name their vehicles. N's old van, “Gizmo”, met an ignominious fate in a collision with a UPS truck (N notes the VW performed surprisingly well in the head-on impact) and she and J now share a 1988 version, which they named “Hobbes”. Though the couple recently moved to a new luxury condominium in the heart of Vancouver, N suggests home has four wheels. “I just can't wait to get back into that van,” she says. “It changed my life.”

Steininger is of the same mind. “It's the philosophy that smaller is better, and it's better going slower with less stuff,” he says. Indeed, when compared to a modern RV's furnishings, the Westfalia's simple sink, stove, fridge and folding bed are all rather rudimentary. That unassuming quality, however, is an advantage for stealth camping. A weary traveller, caught short between campsites, can simply find a quiet side street, pull the rear curtains and bed down for the night.

As far as on-the-road reliability, the communal spirit surrounding Westfalias means that a van will always stop to help a stricken comrade. J refers to this as “twenty-four hour, seven-days-a-week roadside assistance.” Further, owners maintain and update a cross-continent list of reputable dealers, focusing on those who specialise in repairing Westfalias. Once, Steininger's '84 broke down in Mexico, and parts were found in a defunct van being used as a children's playhouse in a backyard – the sort of karmic goodwill that seems to follow these vans wherever they go.

However, even with a conscientious and passionate owners' group, the number of Westfalias is fixed, and the demand exceeds supply. Private outfits such as GoWesty, based on the central California coast, offer completely restored and updated Westfalias at eye-watering prices: a recently retrofitted 1991 model sold for just under $75,000. Even well-used Westfalias command higher-than-expected prices, and there are expensive aftermarket conversions to replace the lowly sub-100hp 1.9-litre Wasserboxer engines with Subaru flat-fours.

What a buyer gets is something that cannot be replicated, plus access to a club that is not exclusive so much as wildly inclusive. Owner groups such as Wet Westies and Club Kombi arrange get-togethers both well-orchestrated and spontaneous, and even non-VW owners are welcome. “We call them SOBs,” jokes Walls, “Some Other Bus.”

These meets draw free spirits who wander the land aimlessly, and those who use their Westfalias as the family escape pod. Every van is different, and each has its own story, as do their owners. There are workhorses and showpieces, shiny-sided Eurovans and knobbly-tired all-wheel-drive Syncros. It's a campfire sing-a-long for a chorus of characters, and the song they know best is Wanderin’ Star.

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The bond you form with these vehicles is like nothing I've ever seen.