For a while there, we thought we had a stalker. Everywhere we went during our Vancouver Island vacation last summer, we’d see this psychedelically painted old Chevy Astro that somebody had converted into a crude, cheap camper van.
Then we realized it wasn’t always the same van. There were lots of different ones, rented by tourists on a shoestring from a company called Wicked Campers. We discovered that similar companies rent converted Dodge Caravan minivans.
As owner of a 1995 Volkswagen Eurovan Camper, I’m programmed to notice that kind of thing. Other frequent sightings on the West Coast were small right-hand-drive Mitsubishi Delicas and Toyota Estimas – Japanese domestic-market imitations of the Volkswagen camper concept. These JDM novelties can legally be imported to Canada – and clearly, many have been – when they are more than 15 years old.
And of course, there were all the VW Westies. The seminal Westfalia camper version of the Volkswagen bus dates back to the 1960s, and has developed a cult following that has kept many of them on the road for decades.
Among the bus’s many official titles and unofficial nicknames around the world (Kombi, Volksie-Bus, Microbus) was “Hippie Wagon,” a nod to its association with the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
So strong was that connection that, in 2002, a masters student at the University of Texas made made it the subject of his thesis, “From Hitler to Hippies: The Volkswagen Bus in America.” David Dyer Burnett wrote, “In the late sixties in America and beyond, rebellious and nomadic youth adopted the buses because they were cheap, functional, and distinctive. Its practicality and its fashionable image reinforced one another and thus closely intertwined Volkswagen buses with the modern culture of bohemian travel.”
Half a century later, that culture is having a renaissance, enabled by the digital age that allows anyone with a laptop to work on the road.
“Nomadic entrepreneurs,” Chris Mahony, president of industry association GoRVing Canada, calls some of them. The movement has its own hashtag, #vanlife, which Mahony says “has over three million Instagram and Twitter posts from what we can tell. It’s a significant social movement.”
Why are many people suddenly hitting the road? “For some, it’s about living minimally,” Mahony says. “For others, it’s a response to the housing crisis, and about reducing the cost of living. For others, it’s just a means to an end; their posts are less about the van and more about starry skies and campfires.”
And the movement isn’t just confined to old VW Westfalias or home-built “Class B” conversions of used Chevy Express or Mercedes Sprinter vans. It’s also buoying sales of new RVs. “When the RV industry was coming out of a tough period last year, Class Bs were up 63 per cent,” Mahony says. The industry is feeding that growth with simpler, smaller, entry-level Class B models priced about 40 per-cent below the industry’s traditional $100,000-plus products.
There are even smaller road options. Steve Schank, a former VW camper owner, builds the tiny Recon Campers – complete with pop-up roofs reminiscent of the original VW Westfalias – based on the tiny four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Nissan NV200 cargo van. The Recon will be sold through Nissan dealers.
“We were just dirtbags,” Schank laughs when recalling his old VW-camper days. “We were just looking for a place to sleep so we could enjoy the outdoors. Instead of fancy stuff, I wanted to spend my money on experiences and adventures. Now it’s become a millennial thing and it’s huge.”
The minimalist Recon and other modern equivalents – an internet search turns up companies that do camper conversions or DIY kits for the Ford Transit Connect and Ram Promaster City – are a far cry from stereotypical rolling-palace RVs the size of tour buses, often with an Escalade or a Hummer in tow for use as a local “runabout” when the RV is set up in camp.
The little ones can also function as daily drivers for camper-van vacationers who aren’t living their lives on the road: “This is just like a car,” Schank says. “You go in and buy it and get a loan through Nissan, you insure it through your normal insurance company and you park it in your garage. So, it kinda takes all the hassles out of RV ownership for boomers who don’t want their grandparents’ big old diesel pushers.”
Meanwhile, the surviving Volkswagens soldier on. They have a devoted following, and a cottage industry of parts suppliers and repair specialists catering to them. But almost by definition, that means they’re not exactly the no-brainer option. The newest of the classic rear-engined Vanagons are getting on for three decades old; and even their 1990s successor, based on the front-wheel-drive Eurovan (which, incidentally, Schank says is disdained by the Vanagon purists) hasn’t been sold new in North America since 2003.
The story of GoWesty, a specialist in California, illustrates both the appeal and the limitations of the classic VWs. GoWesty used to do a brisk trade in restoring and re-selling VW campers, at prices ranging from US$50,000 to over US$100,000 (for the rare AWD Syncro versions).
But as “donor” vehicles got scarcer and older, and their rebuild needs got greater, the firm recently terminated the restoration and resale side of the business. “It simply makes more sense for us to focus our efforts on the greater good for the greater number,” says a note on gowesty.com. So, while continuing to supply stock replacement parts, the firm has a team of engineers working on new products to modernize or upgrade the old VWs.
Another thing you will find on gowesty.com is links to 30 or so blogs by millennials living their lives on the road in their VW campers – some solo, some as couples, others with kids and dogs in tow. With titles such as A Girl and Her Van or Live. Travel. Play, many feature stunning imagery and plenty of mindfulness as they document their nomadic lifestyles.
One blog that calls itself Where’s my Office Now says: “Follow Corey and Emily as they blend an adventurous nomadic lifestyle with a traditional 9-5 business career in their 1987 Westy.”
That rather says it all.