The Whitenoise festival is a special place for Hem and Karen.
They met here, somewhere in this field in Norfolk, in 2012, and return each year – barring Covid interruptions – to celebrate an anniversary of sorts among friends and fellow VW enthusiasts.
Hem, a veteran of the VW scene, was at the first Whitenoise in 2002, but it was Karen’s first visit when the pair locked eyes over a crowded autojumble.
“We like to come here,” says Hem, chatting at the Norfolk Showground next to his distinctive 1960 EZ Sundial splitscreen camper. “We like the event anyway, and the people who organise it are great. It’s one of the events that, if we could, we’d come every time just because it’s where we met.”
“We met on the Friday and then couldn’t find each other on the Saturday,” adds Karen, Hem joking “because I’d done a runner”.
He found me
“He isn’t that good on social media, but actually managed to find me on there, or stalked me anyway,” she laughs.
Not that Karen was a VW novice. Although she’d never owned one herself, she’d been attending shows with her Dub-owning friend, Helen, for years.
“It’s funny because after we’d met, we talked about the events we used to go to and it was ‘oh my god, I was there’,” she says, “and we said the amount of times we must have crossed each other’s paths and it was this event where we finally met.”
Suffolk-born Hem’s passion for VWs started in the late ‘80s when he would ride around in a neighbour’s 1972 Beetle.
“I was probably about 15 or 16 and it was great,” he says. “It was more fun because, you know what they’re like, they just break down and you all jump out, bump it, and off you go again.
“It was about the journey”
“He was an older guy, his name was Cuff, and about three of us used to jump in this car and go down to Cornwall. It was an adventure really, that’s what it was always about. We didn’t care if it broke down or if it took us a week to get somewhere – it was about the journey.”
His first VW was a 1969 Beetle, bought for £250.
“It had a twin carb Kadron motor in the back, it might have been a 1641cc – I was more interested in the engine than the car,” he says.
“I probably spent about a good two years getting this thing on the road, and then once I did I used it as a daily driver for quite some time. It was nothing special, I painted it in my shed. It was back in the day when people used to just get paint and just spray it all up.”
At the time, he was earning about £1.25 an hour working in the warehouse at Anglian Motor Parts, which came in handy when he needed the odd part for his Beetle, eventually sold because someone he knew “kept crazing me for it”.
Life on the drag strip
Next came a 1960, Californian import, left hand drive Bug, which went on to play a big role in Hem’s life on the drag strip.
“It went from a street car to a race car,” he says. “I went to Santa Pod when I was young to see the racing, sat on a hill and it was a dream, I was like ‘let’s get racing’.
“I wanted to learn more about VWs, and engines. In the end we built a lot of engines for other people. I started off with the VWDRC, then we went VW Pro, then about five or six of us started up a thing called Outlaw Flat Four, which is still going.
“It was just a case of how fast can we make a pushrod engine go?”
Pretty fast, as it turned out, and he raced the car that became known as the HemBug – which is still going today under new ownership – all over Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Work on the car’s engine included in-house port work on the cylinder head, three valve angle jobs, changing the strokes of the cranks, increasing the capacity, dialling in camshafts, altering the timing, with everything jotted down in a book, “to see if I was going forwards or backwards”, says Hem.
“I probably ended up having about two or three different engines for the car, so if one went wrong I could put another one in,” he adds.
“It all started from a small cc, it was ‘how fast can we get a 1500cc to go?’ Then ‘how fast can we get a 1600?’ We ended up with about a 2054cc. Nowadays people are trying to get out a 3-litre.
“It got so expensive I could not go on anymore, but some of my friends are still doing it and have got down into the 8s, trying to approach 7s for a quarter mile.
Good fun, but too expensive
“Our best times were getting down into the low 10s, and we probably could have approached a nine second run. It was good fun, but I just could not afford to keep going.”
By about 2008, the HemBug had to go, and attention switched to racing old British bikes, especially Triumphs.
“I was always into old British bikes, and my back got bad so I could not lift as much, and it seemed the ideal thing – these little Triumph engines are really small, you can lift them easily,” he says.
Over the years, Hem reckons he has owned a good 20 or so Beetles and campers, “but they’ve been things I’ve bought as projects to then sell to other people”.
“This was when they weren’t a lot of money, when a Beetle was £250, and one of these (a camper) was £1,500,” he says.
“So much money”
“Obviously I can’t do it now, because they’re too expensive. That’s the crazy thing, that’s why it’s come to a bit of an end really. We were only talking to a couple of guys the other day up here, a bit younger than us, and they really want to get into it but they can’t because it’s all so much money.”
One of those campers was a 1957 palm green, sand green splittie that was blue when Hem bought it.
“I started taking the paint off and realised the original colour was underneath, so I spent about the next three months taking all the paint off,” he says.
“I got it back all to its original paint, then put a picture on the internet and this guy contacted me and basically said ‘I’ve got a 56, a 58, and a 59 palm green, and I’m trying to collect all the years, will you sell it to me?’
“I was like ‘it’s not really for sale’ and he said ‘this is what I’m offering’. It was such a good offer, I had to let him have it and that’s how I came to have this one.”
“This one” is the 1960 matt grey splitscreen that serves as Hem and Karen’s sleeping quarters at festivals such as this.
Originally exported to Houston, USA, as a panel van, the camper was converted to an EZ Sundial before making its way to the UK.
Hem picked it up from Lonestar VW near Norwich, with no engine or gearbox.
Boot sale engine
“I put a gearbox in it and went to buy an engine,” says Hem. “I went to a car boot sale, funnily enough, and got an engine there for £100. It was a 1300 twin port, and I took it home, rebuilt it and it’s been in there all the time I’ve owned the bus.
“The original engine would have been a 30hp 1192cc, and I’ve gathered all the bits up for that in the shed, but just haven’t put it in there yet.
“I’ve had to do a couple of little bits – points, condensers, all the normal wear and tear stuff, fan belts and all that. I keep up on the servicing work.”
When he bought the bus, it was painted matt black with a red stripe around the middle, “it looked a bit like the A-Team van if I’m honest”, says Hem.
“There’s probably about 75 per cent of the original dove blue underneath, it’s just that I didn’t want to go down that route again and then someone contacts me again and goes ‘can I buy it off you?’
“I’d just painted the frame of a Norton 650SS grey, and I had a load of the paint left, so I just got a sponge and dobbed it on there.
“I used to do bodywork and paint for several years, really you’d think I’d know better but with my stuff I really just cut a corner. I didn’t want it too good, you get too scared to use them then, you know?”
The 1960 camper was on the crossover between styles, retaining some features from late ‘50s vehicles.
“It’s got the earlier small back window, the bigger hinges on the doors, but has the later fisheye lights rather than the bullet lights,” says Hem, 45 and now working as a precision engineer.
The couple travel all over the country in the camper, which has no interior for a reason.
“I put my racing motorbikes in the back and all my tools and everything, with this tent,” he says, standing beneath the large canvas for now partially erected as a kind of lean-to.
“We’ve done thousands and miles in it.”
And they’ve mostly been trouble-free, as Hem takes breaking down almost as a personal affront.
“I don’t like things breaking down because if they break down that means I’ve done something wrong, and I’m quite up on the mechanics side, so no, we don’t break down,” he says.
“But to be honest with you, if it did break down it wouldn’t bother me too much. I think that’s a big part of it, as long as it’s not fatal like you’ve got a conrod coming through your case or something like that.
Stop and help
“A general fix on the side of the road is fine. I’m one of those people if I see someone broken down I like to stop and see if I can help, and that’s another big part of the scene, that everyone gets on, everyone helps each other. If I see a VW broken down, still today I’d stop and help.”
That’s not to say they haven’t been stranded by the side of the road themselves.
“What does happen is we run out of fuel a lot, or we used to, because I’ve got no fuel gauge,” says Hem. “We’ll be going along and there’s this little tell-tale popopopop, ‘yep, we’ve run out of fuel again’.”
“That happened twice in one weekend,” adds Karen, but recording the mileage when filling up has mostly put a stop to it.
“We know how far we can get on £30 or £20, so we’ve learned from our mistakes,” says Hem, who now also carries a reserve can of fuel.
Camper for life
So is this now a camper for life?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “Some things in life you’ve got to keep and if I ever sold it I don’t think I could ever get it back, because they’re too much money.
“I always wanted to get a splitscreen, even back in the day, because when we were going down to Run to the Sun down at Newquay, it was just awesome. All the old surf boys would turn up with their surfboards on the roof, hanging out of doors. I must admit I always think in the early ‘90s the VW scene was just brilliant. Sometimes you wish you could go back in time, you know.”
For now, Whitenoise will do just fine – an annual pilgrimage that takes Hem and Karen back to their personal happy place.