30 Sept 2013

Ode to the Volkswagen Camper Van

VW has finally put its T2 Camper out to pasture, officially ending production of the final old school microbus. Surprisingly, this has Max Prince all warm and nostalgic.

The press release from Wolfsburg read simple as a bumper sticker: The Camper Van is dead. Long live the Camper Van.

Yes, the T2-gen Type 2 – the last classically styled Volkswagen live-in trim microbus – has finally bitten the dust, set to cease production in Brazil later this year. The axing of an old car rarely tugs at my heartstrings, and the Camper Van should lend little exception; it was introduced by VW in 1951, far before my time, and the last thing a sports car enthusiast should care about is a 29hp split-window panel van. But, while never a dream car, the Camper Van was the car of my dreams.

For years, my father tried lulling me to sleep with tales of insatiable teenage wanderlust and his travels in far-off lands – a hopelessly ineffective method, given the thrilling nature of his exploits. He hiked unperturbed South American mountain passes and explored rural Sri Lanka with an outlaw journalist. He crossed Vietnam on a ’59 BMW R60, was detained on suspicion of espionage at the Cambodian boarder, then moved to Zhujiajiao and lived with a local family, all simply for adventure’s sake. Of his many stories, though, I most enjoyed hearing of his journeys throughout Mexico in a liberty blue and ivory-paneled 1961 Volkswagen T1 Camper.

For Baby Boomers, the Camper was oft-used as a tool for running away – be it from social breakdown, an unjustifiable war, or merely the pangs of adulthood – but my father’s VW was always running towards something, an important distinction to recognize. He filled its windows with the world, vast and strange from the Newark slum of his youth, two best friends in tow. My father chose the Bus as much for its ubiquity as its utility; in Mexico, he told me, regardless of direction, you were never more than a stone’s throw from replacement parts for the 1.2-liter air-cooled boxer or four-speed manual transmission. Volkswagens had been assembled in Mexico since June of 1962 and, beginning in 1970, Type 2 vans rolled out of a 2-million-square-meter plant in suburban Puebla, 80 miles southeast of the capital. Any mechanic worth his salt (and most that weren’t) could tune-up a Volkswagen Bus while blindfolded, drunk, and distracted.

Following several days of quarter-tuning and fender-kicking in Morelos during the summer of 1972, my father finally relented and limped his Camper towards Cuernavaca’s outskirts to have it looked over. The town’s blacksmith – who was also its "vulcanizadora" (fixer of flats) – agreed to do the work. Once he’d finished, the engine idled flatly and revved without hesitation; my father laid down a few Pesos, shook the vulcanizadora’s hand, and trundled off into the mountains. No more than ten miles later, it became clear that, despite running smoothly, the VW was suffering from a decisive loss of horsepower – with only 29 to account for, you notice when a few stray from the stable. Whereas the van protested hills before, it would now simply quit on inclines. Prodding around the engine compartment, it quickly became apparent to my father that his uprated carb (a $100 option) was missing, and had been tidily replaced with a standard junkyard unit.

“I think you owe me a carburetor,” he said, once back at the garage.
“I do not know what you are speaking of, seƱor,” the mechanic replied, grinning, “I just made it run better.”

In the end, they negotiated a trade: the vulcanizadora could keep my father’s carburetor in exchange for a tune-up, seven gallons of Mexican gasoline, and a tin of sandwiches, crusts cut off.

He drove on, engine churning confidently, along red dirt roads since paved, through beach villages now resorts, accompanied by friends he seldom sees but speaks of often, with little to his name but the pink slip to a ‘61 Volkswagen Type 2 Camper.

Article by Max Prince

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