VW Transporter: Evolution of the Legend



I bought my left hand drive, 1968 VW camper for £100. When we picked it up, the vendor gave us a nod and a wink while he showed us the dodgy MOT. “Make sure you pump the brakes, lads,” he said brightly with a wave as we roared off down the road, happy as a couple of hippies on their way to Woodstock.

He wasn’t lying. In fact, what you had to do to stop the thing was to pump the brakes three times. On the third pump, the offside front drum brake locked up violently, causing the steering wheel to tug violently to the left (mercifuly, away from the oncoming English traffic.

Still, we didn’t mind. We initially bought the thing to transport our KX 250 motocrosser to and from the Thames-side wasteground we would ruin on summer nights and sunday mornings – but pretty soon we had sprayed the rusted blue coachwork with ridiculous colourful flowers, had patched up the gaping holes in floorpan and the sills and our group of friends were using it for weekend long jaunts in the discos that littered the Essex coast, where wave-your-hands-in-the air dancefloor debauchery would be followed by hilarious rides home down the A13, where we would try to judge the dual carriageway traffic signals at the constant thrum of fifty (the bus had a stopping distance roughly approximate to that of a supertanker fully loaded with Brent Crude.)

It was desperately dangerous and highly illegal, but that van’s personality remains burned into the consciousness of all of us that experienced the hard yards we accomplished in it.

And that’s why the VW van remains such an iconic steed. A vehicle originally desinged with European family utopia in mind has been re-imagined by three or four generations of road-happy riders – from card carrying hippies to Observer-reading families, taking in extreme sportsers, AA engineers, medics, rangers and rapscallions along the way.

It might be that the Split Screen classics will always be the most sought after, but the new generation of California campers and Sportline crewcabs are some of the most practical, reliable and desirable multi-use vehicles ever to be designed.

But the abiding memory of that old rust bucket remains its rock solid reliability. After one particularly rancid, snowbound winter back in the day, when the old warhorse had spent three months entombed in snow drifts and ice, I thought I’d step out to see if she would start. That beautiful March morning, just one turn of the key was enough to send the air-cooled engined coughing and wheezing into life. It sent a feeling of possibility shivering through me. And that’s why you love the VW Transporter.


11 Responses to “VW Transporter: Evolution of the Legend”

  1. John Brooks

    The VW T4 is a highly functional vehicle designsd for commercial use. I had one of those earlier rounded things and it was awful, a noisy air cooled bit of romantic nostalgia – crap – but they look stylish don’t they!

  2. Water cooled? Surely not? I thought all those early models were aircooled, like VW cars?

  3. Vanorak01

    Off to France – 13/08/2009 in my VW T25 – running VW’s since 1972 – Whole family transported/Holiday-ed/collected & dropped-off – NOTHING ELSE WILL DO!!

  4. Chris P

    We’ve been home one hour from a 10 day holiday in N. Devon in our 1971 bay-window VW Dormobile. We’ve had it ten years now and its the best vehicle we’ve ever had. It may not be the fastest (read it DEFINATELY isnt), or have the greatest acceleration, but its the BEST !!!! You have to have (or had) one to understand. Vanfest is next !!!!!

  5. We’ve had our 25 for 5 years, been to France, Belgium and Holland for hols over the last three years – this weekend we’re off to Wales for a fortnight – and you’re right nothing else will do…

  6. JeremyH

    I’m glad you are all enjoying your Transporters. I like mine to a point and it does go well. I have had a 2005 model T5 174 Window Van from new, which is very useful but I would stop short of praising reliability. It was generally OK up to around 3 years old and 70k miles, notwithstanding the respray of parts of the galvanised body due to bubbling and a few relatively minor items such as the gear cable circlips detatching at 175 miles from new because the German builder didn’t want to crack a fngernail by pushing it on properly! Result – no gear selcetion!!.. when climbing a steep hill near home!!! However, at just over three years old, between around 70k and 100k, there was a water pump, oil cooler, driveshaft, turbo and gearbox failure, all at separate and inconvenient times. I almost had VW on Speed-Dial. Apparently, all faults except the gearbox are not unusual. If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen?! It’s a myth; I run several Hondas dating from 1990 to 2008 and none of them have given aything like this sort of trouble. The most serious fault was a sticking rear brake cylinder caused by a seal being dislodged during a service. If only Honda made a van with a rmovable seats and 1 tonne payload, or VW made a Transporter with Honda reliability. On a more positive note, the VW is a lot better than the new ’03 Mercedes Vito 112 I had for a year before, which was so bad it went after 12 months because I couldn’t afford the lost time having faults fixed and I didn’t fancy the respray offered due to random rusting on the bodywork. 1700 miles travelled and 91 hours lost to have warranty work done in a year is not good, but Mercedes apparently thought it was acceptable!!. I did have Gerard Mann, the Mercedes dealer, on Speed-Dial at the time!

  7. As an owner of a ’68 Split and avid fan of everything VW I was enjoying reading the article. That was right up until you wrote the bit about the old rust buckets ‘water cooled’ engine firing into life. As ’68 was the change over year from Split Screen to Bay Window you could be talking about either however, neither were water cooled. Come on, If you are going to make something up for the sake of an article at least do the research.

  8. Dazzle 58

    had t 25s for at least 15 years, first one was normaly aspirated diesel ,had to follow anythingh that did 40 miles an hour as you couldnt overtake it ,then had an auto petrol 2.1 for a while , much better but a little juicy so got hold of a turbo diesel caravelle .best thing since sliced bread ,kids loved it ,have carried 8 and luggage on hols, take middle seats out and take rubbish to tip, and or go to vanfest for weekend and sleep to soak up the whole vw transporter thing!. keep on truckin!!!!!!!!!!