The blue and white splitscreen camper had been all but abandoned, parked nose-first in a lean-to shed and so filthy you could barely see out of it.
Off the road for several years, the VW didn’t exactly scream “buy me” when young physics student Chris Pollard pitched up to cast his eye over it in the late autumn of 1976.
But buy it he did, cobbling together the then not inconsiderable sum of £100 for his first car – his first significant purchase of any kind – at the age of 22.
Fast forward 43 years, and Chris and the “splittie” are still together, the unrestored camper having been taxed and tested and in regular use without a break since the day he bought it.
In that time it’s served as removal van, party bus, holiday home, European tourer, and daily driver, and will soon be pressed into action as a temporary home while Chris has a new house built in Suffolk.
“Full of character and charisma”
And despite unsolicited offer after unsolicited offer, not once has its owner been tempted to sell a vehicle he describes as “full of character and charisma”.
“I’ve never thought seriously about selling it,” he says, manoeuvring the camper into position for photographs on the plot of land where building on his new home will soon start.
“People often walk up to me and say ‘how much do you want for it?’ I say ‘it’s not for sale’ and they say ‘if you were to sell it how much would you take?’ I don’t name a price, I don’t engage with it.
“There’s a queue of people who have left me their number and said ‘if you ever want to get rid of it give me a call’.”
They will be waiting a long time for that call, as Chris, now 65, says he’ll keep hold of the van for as long as he can still drive it.
“It’s too useful, too characterful and there’s too much of my DNA in it to get rid of it now,” he explains. “I don’t keep it because I’m sentimental, although I do feel very attached to it; I keep it because it’s practical, and it makes me feel good.
“I do sometimes go out and sit in it and think ‘this was the first substantial thing I ever bought’.
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“It needs to be driven”
“I know one day I won’t be able to drive it any more and at that time I will sell it. It would be churlish to hang on to it, because it needs to be driven. But while I can still use it I will keep it.”
Having cut his driving teeth in his mum’s 1959 Mini while still at school in Surrey, a car he rebuilt using parts from an old Austin 1100 rotting away in a neighbour’s garden, Chris was without transport while studying for a degree in physics at Imperial College, London.
After graduating, he began a PhD in medical physics, working on what became known as the CAT scanner, before funding for the research dried up.
A short spell working for a software company ended when a PhD place came up back at Imperial College in the Solid State Physics Department, and it was there, in the autumn of 1976, that Chris’s VW journey began.
“I was sharing an office in the physics department with a man called Richard, and he came up to me and said that a friend of his had a VW van he didn’t want, and was I interested?” says Chris, who decided to take a look and headed to the owner’s home in Colindale, North London.
One of the last splitscreens
The VW in question was one of the last splitscreens built, so late it was fitted with a 12V electrical system destined for its bay-window successor, rather than the 6V fitted to splitscreens since their introduction in 1950.
It had been imported as an unregistered van in 1967 from VW’s Transporter factory in Hanover to J P White’s (later Devon Conversions) in Sidmouth, and then bought as a newly-converted camper van.
“The owner in Colindale bought it new, and with two young daughters the family used to go all over Europe in it,” says Chris.
“But children being children they grew up, and once they got too big – they were not big vans – they stopped using it in the early 1970s, drove it into a lean-to and left it.”
It was there that Chris first set eyes on the camper, filthy but largely free of rust and unmolested by rats or mice.
Undeterred by the layers of dirt built up over years of inactivity, Chris agreed to buy the van for £100 – “not a trivial amount at the time” – coming back with a battery and a can of petrol.
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“It was amazing”
“I put the battery in and the fuel in, checked it had oil in, stuck the key in and it churned over, then coughed and choked,” he says. “There was lots of smoke, but it started running and got smoother and smoother the longer it was going. It was amazing.
“From there I drove it down to the VW dealer in Colindale to get an MoT and it only failed on a couple of brake pipes, with an advisory on the rear brakes.
“I’ve not changed the back brakes since I bought it so they can’t have been that low! It then took me most of a day to clean it inside and out.
“I became suddenly very popular because I could move people’s flats and, being a student, people were moving all the time.”
Not surprisingly, there were one or two teething troubles with a vehicle that had lain dormant for several years, not least its stubborn refusal to stay in fourth gear.
“You’d put it in fourth, put your foot on the accelerator and it’d jump out,” remembers Chris. “So I rigged up a system to keep it in fourth by hooking a piece of bungee over the seat belt anchor and the other end over the gear knob to keep it in place. It was primitive but effective.”
Home is wherever the camper is
What the VW gave Chris most of all was freedom. Freedom to escape the hustle and bustle of London at weekends, and freedom to go to student parties and not have to worry about getting home because, well, home is wherever the camper is.
“I’d go to parties in it, stagger out, collapse into the van and go to sleep,” says Chris. “At the time, I had a girlfriend who was a trainee nursery nurse and she would go off work at 5.30pm on a Friday, I’d pick her up, head out of London down the M3 and go to Dorset.
“If we were lucky with the traffic, we’d get there just in time for last orders and have a pint before closing, and spend the weekend on the Dorset coast around Dorchester. It was ever so cheap and we had a lovely time.”
In the summer, the couple would take more extended trips to Devon and Cornwall, pitch up at a campsite and often squeeze into a corner even if the site was technically full.
As well as a daily driver in and around London – where the van’s big steel bumpers ensured other drivers gave it a wide berth – Chris also used the VW to transport his fellow PhD students on annual trips to the Lake District – in the middle of winter.
“The guys in the research group were very keen climbers and we all piled in and took the van on expeditions to the Lake District just after Christmas,” he says.
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“The doors had frozen shut”
“There was almost always a lot of snow in those days, and I’d sleep in the van, get up in the morning and have to kick the door out to break the ice seal when the doors had frozen shut.
“There was a huge dump of snow once and when we got back no-one could see where the van was. Some of the others had tents and all you could see were these mounds of snow in the field, and they’d have to burrow to get into the tents.”
After leaving Imperial College in 1980, Chris decided a permanent career in academia wasn’t for him and got a job working in research for BT at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich.
The camper came with him, bringing his life’s possessions from London in one trip.
By the time he moved into the house he is only now moving out of nearly 40 years later, an MG Midget “fun car” had joined the camper, but the VW remained Chris’s main transport until the late 1980s.
During that time, Chris took the splittie to France with a girlfriend for a jaunt around Brittany and Normandy, averting a gearbox catastrophe with what became known as “the novel solution”.
“The novel solution”
Chris takes up the story: “One day in Normandy the gearbox linkage failed. I never knew what gear I was going to be in – I could change from fourth to third and end up in first. It all got pretty exciting.
“When the gearbox mounting that was supporting the gearbox broke, the linkage came completely out of alignment, and I had to improvise. I got under the van and jacked up the gearbox back to its correct height.
“There’s a u-shaped cross member that goes under the gearbox, and there was a gap of a couple of inches between that and the gearbox itself.
“I grabbed an old novel, cut it in half with a breadknife and lodged it in the gap, securing it with a self-tapping screw. It worked so well it was under there for a couple of years before I eventually replaced the gearbox.
“It was certainly an interesting day, underneath the car trying to get the gearbox to line up with a small circle of French tourists trying to figure out what I was doing.”
On another trip to France, a stone broke the driver’s side windscreen somewhere in the middle of Normandy, leaving Chris coasting to a halt near “a classic little French garage”.
“The windscreens are not easy to come by at the best of times,” he says. “I wandered over and said ‘have you got a windscreen for one of these?’ He said ‘oui’ and went out the back and got one. I was amazed – I thought I was going to have to get one of those plastic temporary things. It’s still in there now.”
The VW has soldiered on
Other than those mishaps on foreign soil, the VW has soldiered on without much more than routine maintenance for more than four decades since Chris rescued it from that open lean-to.
“While I wouldn’t like to bet on it, it’s probably the most original unrestored splitscreen in the country,” he says.
True, the paintwork has undergone one respray, and the seats in the rear have been re-covered, but the rest is pretty much as it came out of the factory as an unconverted commercial vehicle.
“It has been painted because the paint was flaking off it, and I replaced the upholstery on the rear seats because the sun had caused the covers in the back to turn to autumn leaves and crumble,” he says.
“It’s had the odd spot of welding here and there – one sill was done in the ‘80s and the other probably needs doing now – but all the panels are original, the cooker is the 1967 original, and it’s got the original wheels, which I had blasted and stove enamelled.
“It’s only original once”
“Very few are still as original as mine. It’s a bit scruffy inside, but I would rather have it like that because it’s only original once. Anything I do to it will take away from its originality.”
The van’s longevity and originality are even more remarkable given that it’s been driven in all weathers for the past 40-plus years.
“It isn’t a trailer queen and it’s not only driven on dry Sunday afternoons,” says Chris, who admits to using it less in the winter these days because of its “pretty useless” heater.
“It steams up and ices up in the winter, which is not a lot of fun!” he adds.
Chris left BT in 1987 and got a job at a consultancy in Cambridge, taking on his dad’s Audi 80 to commute to and from Suffolk, leaving the VW free for shopping trips, car shows and days out at the beach.
“It’s my own beach hut on wheels and it’s got a cooker to make a cup of tea,” laughs Chris.
And that’s how the van has served its owner for most of the past 43 years, a mobile time capsule with a unique character that raises smiles wherever it goes.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. When Chris first bought the VW it was merely an old camper, and it would be a while before it shifted from utilitarian to “cool”.
“I think people laughed at them a bit back in the ‘70s,” he says. “When I bought mine the splitscreen had only been out of production for about eight years and it wasn’t a fashion icon like they have become now.
“There was always quite a lot of camaraderie between splitscreen drivers, but cars weren’t considered ‘cool’ back then – they were just cars.
“As the years went on you saw fewer and fewer, until the mid 1980s and then they started getting more popular. Now you can’t move around the coast in the shops there for teapots, placemats and cards with splitscreens on them. Which is kind of nice.”
The camper is a regular visitor to the Festival of Classic & Sports Cars at Helmingham Hall, near Debenham in Suffolk, where it attracts larger crowds than far more exotic vehicles.
“They have a special car park for classics,” he says. “It’s not part of a display, but the most interesting stuff is often parked there. You just park in the next slot, and you could be parked next to anything at all.
“Once I was parked next to a Ferrari and everybody was clustering around the VW. He was getting quite snotty about it. He’d got his box of polishing cloths out and polished his car to within an inch of its life, but no-one was paying attention and everyone was looking at my slightly oily van.
“A number of people come up to me and say ‘gosh, that’s nice, we had one when I was a kid’, or ‘my uncle had one’ etc. I like it when people come up with a reminiscence about it.
“Kids love it”
“Kids love it. Families wander up and down, and parents ask me ‘can he or she sit in it?’ There must be lots of people with kids aged five to nine who have pictures of their kids with huge grins on their faces sitting at the wheel.”
Chris, who worked for satellite TV company BSB after leaving the consultancy in Cambridge, is no different to those kids, still getting the same feelgood factor out of owning the camper as he did in his early 20s.
Despite owning, and restoring, a host of other classics over the years, the VW is the only one that’s truly captured his heart.
“I’m not nostalgic, I don’t keep ticket stubs or trinkets to remind me of things, but the VW is different,” he says.
“I don’t give it a name, it’s not him or her, it’s just the van. But it holds a lot of very happy memories from a period in my life when I was enormously optimistic and positive.
“It hasn’t consumed a great deal of my work, like the cars I’ve restored. The relationship is different. As part of the house move I’ve sold many of the cars, an Austin-Healey 3000, an MGA, and an MG Midget, and I thought it would be more painful. It turns out it was the restoration I liked, not the driving. The VW is the opposite, I really like driving it.
“So my attachment is not based on the pain of restoration or the difficulty of sourcing parts. It comes from the use, experiences and memories.”
Bargain of the century
And there are plenty more memories to be made before the camper moves on to a new, carefully selected, owner, who could just bag the bargain of the century.
“I’ll probably give it away, or ask £100 for it, which would be rather symmetrical,” says Chris, a qualified glider pilot.
“I would feel that just selling it would betray it a bit. I feel like its custodian, so I would not sell it to somebody who would slam it or put a Porsche engine in it, only someone who would keep it as original as is possible.”
There’s no point in getting your applications in any time soon though, because the story of Chris and his camper has a fair few chapters left to be told…