Neil Haughey blames it all on the Beastie Boys.
Back in the ‘80s, band member Mike D took to hanging a VW logo from a thick metal chain around his neck, sparking a wave of thefts from frustrated motorists.
The craze hit its peak on the band’s tour of the UK in 1987, when there were even calls to have the boys deported.
Neil, who runs the Whitenoise VW festival with his wife Lucy, was an impressionable 16 at the time, and credits the Beasties with sparking his interest in Wolfsburg’s finest.
“I wanted one from then really, and probably a mark 1 Golf,” he says, chatting in the garden of his home on the edge of Norwich.
He did go on to own more than one Golf but, for nearly 20 years, Neil has been an air-cooled devotee, his love of camper vans more of a lifestyle choice than anything to do with ‘80s rap rockers.
For the past two decades, campers have carried Neil and Lucy, plus daughters Niamh and Erin, all over the UK on holidays and to festivals, not always without a hitch.
“It’s a lifestyle thing really, plus I suppose they are the coolest camper out there,” he says. “Certainly the split screen and bay window are design classics, and you still get kids waving and giving you a thumbs up.
“We love the sea; whenever we go anywhere we always head for somewhere either by the sea or by a river, because we’ve got a couple of paddleboards.
“I don’t think I’d ever buy anything else.”
On the drive is a 1971 Bay Westfalia camper from San Diego, called Mrs Butterworth, which has been in the family for 10 years.
At $9,000, it was a little more expensive than the couple’s first camper, a 1978 Devon Bay called Elvie, bought for just £400 back in 2001 as an upgrade from camping in a tent.
Neil, who was born in Coventry and moved to north Norfolk with his family aged 12, had wanted to buy a camper in his late teens, but was dissuaded by his father.
“I think it was about £700 and I was a few hundred pounds short,” he remembers. “I said to my dad ‘will you lend me the money?’ and he said ‘what the hell do you want one of them for?’ so he didn’t lend it to me…”
A couple of Fiat 131 Supermirafioris, an AlfaSud and a Fiat 124S – only sold recently – followed instead before a series of Golfs, in which he would attend the Bug Jam festival at Santa Pod in Northamptonshire.
It was there, in his mark 3 Golf more than 20 years ago, that he seriously started to think again about getting his hands on a camper.
“You could pick up a split screen for about £6,000 then, a nice one as well, and early bays for about £3,000, completely done up,” he says.
“But at the time I couldn’t have two vehicles, and I needed the one to be reliable as I was driving to and from London with my tools, building recording studios.”
It was only after marrying Lucy in 2000 that his long-held ambition came to fruition, the couple buying Elvie as something of a project, two weeks after daughter Niamh was born.
“It was MoTd and on the road,” says Neil, but that’s as far as the good news went.
British Rail paint
“It didn’t appear that bad, but that’s the problem – they rot from the inside out at sill level. It had been painted some kind of British Rail yellow – I think it actually was a British Rail paint, kind of thick, probably had loads of lead in it!”
A local garage was tasked with bringing the ‘78 Devon up to scratch, but the whole thing took much longer than Neil had anticipated.
“It took about two and half years,” he says, and required a replacement right hand drive sliding door, new front panel, inner and outer wings all round, and a fair amount of chassis welding.
While he was waiting for the long restoration to be finished, Neil owned a couple of campers as stopgaps: one disaster and one that was no more than “all right”.
First the disaster, a 1974 twin sliding door Bay, and a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of buying an old vehicle, VW camper or not.
“I bought it off an independent garage, then took it to a friend of mine to get a couple of things done to it and there were chalk marks underneath the chassis,” he remembers.
“I had an MoT certificate, so I went to the garage where it was done and he was like ‘I don’t understand, I’ve chalked all those things on there where it failed’.
The old switcheroo
“The guy obviously had another orange and white camper and had swapped the number plates, and probably VIN plates, on to that to get the pass.
“There was silicon holding bits together under the wheel arch, the seatbelt was so rotten that if you’d had a minor bump it would have just flown straight out. It was horrendous.
“I think it still goes on – you can cover up anything and make it look all right for a while. He just gave me my money back – I probably had it a month.”
A more successful purchase was a 1990 T25, but Neil found it hard to love.
“Although it was a 2.1 injection, I never liked it,” he says. “You still had the same problems – they still break down, they’re still old, but haven’t got any character.
“It broke down on the way to Brighton Breeze because of rust in the petrol tank. I managed to clean it out, and we got there.”
The T25 lasted 18 months, and then Elvie was finally ready to hit the road, Neil, Lucy and a young Niamh heading to La Rochelle on the west coast of France in 2005.
“We must have done a couple of thousand miles in two weeks, and had no problems,” he says. “We’ve had a few breakdowns, but not on that journey.”
After nearly a decade of service, Elvie was once again in need of major surgery, the MoT revealing rot in all the usual places.
“They took the front beam off and there was rust everywhere, plus the inner and outer sills again,” says Neil, 49.
“The MoT cost us about £3,500, including a load of welding and you’ve got to respray the whole bottom half. I just thought ‘that’s it’, it was one of those where you’d be constantly chasing around after rust.
“When I sold it I felt sick for weeks, and my plan from that point on was to get a left hand drive one from a dry state.”
As luck would have it, Lucy’s brother lives in Santa Monica, just west of Los Angeles, so the family headed off for a combined holiday and Dub-hunting mission in the autumn of 2010.
Neil scoured thesamba.com in advance, picking out likely candidates within an 80-mile radius of Santa Monica.
“I thought there were a lot of cheap busses over there, but some of them were in quite dodgy areas of LA – you’d go in and probably wouldn’t come out again,” he laughs, putting a 1971 Westfalia Bay in Carlsbad, San Diego on his watch list.
“As well as being the year I was born, I always wanted a ‘71 because they’re the last of the wraparound bumper and the low light. It’s the only ones that have modern technology like servo assisted brakes, but the looks of a split screen.
The best one to have
“The ‘71 Bay is the best one to have. People would argue and say a ‘68 is because it’s the earliest, but it’s not always the best, not when you want to drive it!”
Neil headed to Carlsbad, where there were two campers for sale.
“I was looking at possibly buying two, one for me and one to sell,” he says. “This was the better one, and I paid $9,000 for it. The other one was $6,000 but a mother and daughter had just taken it out for a drive and bought it, so I missed that one.”
It took the best part of four months to get the bus shipped over to the UK, as Neil struggled to extract the title documents from the seller.
“He had moved back to New York and was probably getting himself sorted,” he says. “I kept chasing him and in the end I reminded him that it’s illegal to sell a vehicle without a title, and if he didn’t sort it out he’d have to give me my money back. It was sorted within a week or two and was in the port on the 5th or 6th of January 2011.”
This time, there were no rusty horrors, and Mrs Butterworth was immediately pressed into service.
Paradise racing engine
In the engine bay was a nearly-new unit developed by California-based Paradise Motorsports (then known as VW Paradise), which specialises in VW racing engines.
“It was a really quick engine, but they don’t last a particularly long time,” says Neil. “It was on its way to blowing up a couple of years ago.”
Replacing the engine was not without its troubles, the first attempt resulting in an unscheduled day-trip to a lay-by the M4.
“I had a guy build me an engine two years ago and, after running it in, we drove to Bristol Volksfest,” he recalls. “The engine blew up about 35 miles away on the M4 and we were stuck in this temporary lay-by for about six hours with these lorries thundering past us.
“He had to give me my money back on that as well, so I had to get a guy locally to build me another one, which has been fine.”
The current unit is a standard 1600cc bored out to 1776cc with an Engle W90 cam, twin Weber 40 carbs, and a 1303 gearbox. With a caravan to tow, every bit of extra power helps…
As well as the modified engine, the Bay is on drop spindles at the front, custom gas shocks, with anti-sway bars front and rear. The interior is largely as it was, bar a rear seat re-cover, while the fibreglass roof and sides from the gutter down have been resprayed.
Also sprayed to match is the MKP Smutti campingvogn, an eye-catching Danish caravan from the ‘60s or ‘70s bought about four years ago as a restoration project.
“I was looking for something and I spotted it on eBay,” says Neil. “Everyone had Eriba Pucks, but I think they are a little bit twee.
“Lucy didn’t want me to buy it. I showed it to her and she said ‘it’s horrible’. But I said it looks like a camper, it’s the same sort of curvy shape. It needed a bit of doing up, and she loves it now. “We sleep in that when we go camping and Erin sleeps in the camper.”
The diminutive caravan is little more than a bedroom on wheels, though it does have a small cooker, fridge and a wardrobe.
And, when hooked up to the camper, the combination attracts plenty of attention.
“You get someone flying past you, and then the next thing you go into another village and they’re standing on the side of the road filming you as you come past,” says Neil. “That happened when we went down to Leiston this weekend. It’s such an unusual caravan and a lot of people don’t know what it is.”
We’re talking in the shadow of another MKP caravan in Neil’s back garden, a larger, and earlier, Grand V that’s been gutted for an interior refit before a respray.
“The idea is to put either a gas or diesel heater in it and go a little bit more off grid and later in the season, October or November,” he says.
When completed, it could replace its Smutti little brother, while the camper may also be off to pastures new.
“It’s too big to tow behind the camper, so that might go,” says Neil. “I might start investigating a Karmann Ghia. I’ve always wanted one, but I can’t get that past Lucy as well as the camper, and I’m running out of drive space!”
While Neil and Lucy have been enjoying – or enduring at times – their own VW adventures, almost from the start they’ve also been putting on the Whitenoise festival for East Anglian Volkswagen enthusiasts previously starved of a local show.
“We began because we used to go to Bug Jam, which was the nearest show and that’s in Northampton,” says Neil. “There were no shows around here at all, nothing.”
From its first year in 2002, with up to 40 campers in the car park at Wroxham Football Club, the festival has focused on family entertainment and music almost as much as the vehicles.
“It has always been as much about coming and having a good time, so there’s always been a music side of it, even when it was just me and few others DJing,” says Neil.
“In the first year, it was just two or three stalls with a load of autojumble. We put it on just for something to happen here really – we never saw it as anything other than getting a load of people together and having a bit of a party, and somewhere obviously to meet like-minded people.”
They quickly realised that if you put on a good show, people will come, and the following year about 1,000 people attended over a gloriously hot weekend at a new venue in Marlingford, east of Norwich.
It was to give them their first, but by no means last, taste of organisers’ stress.
“Unfortunately one of the DJs ended up bringing along with them people who stayed up partying all night, and we wanted to try to throw or drag them off but you can’t really do that, so from that point on we always had some security,” he says.
“It was a good weekend and I think everyone enjoyed themselves, but we didn’t sleep much at all.”
A small report in the Eastern Daily Press headlined Whitenoise? More like night noise added to the sense that keeping the peace was important.
“People seem freaked out by the name Whitenoise,” says Neil. “But it’s named after what it’s like to drive an air-cooled vehicle – all this white noise going on and you just keep turning the stereo up until you can’t actually talk to each other.”
Whitenoise decamped to North Walsham Rugby Club, and up to 3,000 visitors for two years, then a wet and windy weekend at Thorpe Marriott, north of Norwich, and an even wetter weekend at Wolterton Hall in north Norfolk in 2008.
“It was really wet, muddy, and everyone struggled to get out,” says Neil, with a grimace. “We had to get a tractor in to tow people out.
“When I talk to people now, they remember that fondly, but when we were shoveling 10 tons of aggregate into gateways when it was hammering down with rain, that’s how I remember it…
“We just thought ‘that’s enough, we’re not earning any money and just getting a load of grief’.”
After a year off, however, they were back in business in 2010, holding the event at Fritton Lake for two years, the Royal Norfolk Showground for another two, and then Euston Park near Thetford for a five-year stretch before returning to the showground for 2019.
In 2020, they had hoped the festival would be bigger than ever, with Judge Jules booked to appear with a live ten-piece band, along with Europe’s number one Beastie Boys tribute band Beast Decoys – a nod to how it all began.
However, along with everything else, this summer’s festival was cancelled because of Covid-19, causing Neil and Lucy plenty of lockdown headaches.
“It’s a level of bands that was easily the most money we’d ever spent on a headline and unfortunately, Covid came along,” says Neil.
“We have lost quite a lot of money, promoting it and on VAT because we’ve not gone over the threshold, but we’ve managed to transfer a lot of stuff over.
“All the caterers have stuck with us, some of the traders asked for their money back, and about 12-15 per cent of people who bought tickets have asked for a refund.
Back for 2021
“You have to dust yourself down and try to put it to bed, and we will definitely put it on next year.”
As well as the car shows, the music and the autojumbles, there is live graffiti, collaborative art, roller skating, fire sculptures and pottery workshops, plus an inclusive feel to the whole weekend from August 19 to 22.
“We don’t want it to be some sort of anorak fest,” says Neil. “We have a couple of categories for rods and customs to incorporate American vehicles as well, plus one or two trophies for pre ‘89 classics, which could be anything, because I like a lot of older stuff as well, not just VWs.
“Some of these Renaults and Peugeots, the Estafette and J7, and the old Ford Econolines – you’ve got to admire them for what they are.
“We also get emails from people who have come to Whitenoise and they’ve since bought a camper. It’s always been about it being inclusive, though we did introduce an area for air-cooled camping only. Some people can get a bit uppity if they’re parked next to a Vauxhall!”
Merging of the “scenes”
Neil has noticed a steady shift in the cars and campers attending VW shows over the years, away from air-cooled towards more modern vehicles like the T4 and T5, and a merging of the two previously separate scenes.
“When we went to Bug Jam in ‘96 in my Golf, I parked next to these guys who were all air-cooled and they were like ‘what are you doing here?’ he says.
“It was very separate, but it is very much one now. The shows used to be mainly air-cooled, but it’s now a lot more modern.
“We went to Vanfest about three years ago, and there were so few air-cooled there. I don’t know if people are just shutting them away.
“I don’t want the scene to be just T4s and T5s – it could lose a little. I understand it can be their everyday driver, but it is a bit concerning.”
After a difficult summer, Neil is just looking forward to welcoming both air and water-cooled VWs back to Whitenoise in 2021, along with anyone else who just has an interest in the cars, the music, or the art.
It’s been a roller coaster ride, but has become an extended family that Neil and Lucy wouldn’t be without.
“Some of the same people have been coming for years,” he says. “Some of them help out now, and we’ve seen their kids grow up and they’ve now got their own cars and are coming on their own with friends.”
Niamh herself has grown up with Whitenoise and, with her own mark 5 Golf, is carrying on the family tradition.