Adventures in obsession

Campervan Crazy

Travels with my bus: A tribute to the VW camper and the people who drive them

By David And Cee Eccles

Kyle Cathie Ltd., 2006

176 pages, $34.95



Reviewed by Vivian Moreau

We’ve all been stuck behind them at one time or another. With its rounded roof and distinctively audible rear engine it’s invariably the first in a long line of summer traffic slowed to a crawl by its leadership. It’s the VW Campervan, the bane of those behind it in a hurry.

But for others it’s a vehicle like no other. A high body that can go places even Land Rovers can’t negotiate and an air-cooled engine (phased out in 1992) that has no problem with 35 degrees Celsius, it’s been equated with freedom since its inception in post-war Germany.

Authors David and Cee Eccles bought their first Campervan, a 1967 Canterbury Pitt conversion, in 1975. In their mid-20s, the couple wanted a vehicle to take on a 19-month trip through the Middle East and into India. As they tell in one of the many owner essays in this book the Campervan more than adequately stood up to the trip: motoring on through 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Turkey and convoying with other VW owners through Afghanistan as they learned to put moistened tea towels on fuel lines to cool down “Momo.”

That Campervan owners feel compelled to name their vehicles is just one fact you’ll learn from David Eccles, an English teacher and editor of Volkswagen Camper and Commercial, a British magazine devoted to the VW bus. Other facts included are that it was designed by a Dutch motor importer after touring the VW factory in Wolfsburg in 1947. Beginning with the “Splitty,” the model with the distinctive split front window “often described as ‘the van with a face’ because of its v-shaped front panel,” through introduction of the Bay (“one-piece curved front screen”), there have been five designs in total, including the Transporter, the Vanagon and the T5.

Its original purpose as a family caravan morphed into a symbol of restless freedom and adventure in 1960s America after it starred with Arlo Guthrie in the seminal film Alice’s Restaurant . Today it’s still in the movies, in an earlier rendition as a fixture in this year’s Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine , but it’s become a pricey, state-of-the-art-laden getaway vehicle for the trendy urban family.

In 14 chapters that range from attempts to explain the dedication the bus inspires to highlighting both the practical and exotic transformations owners put the vehicles through — it’s all explained in personal narratives from several dozen owners Eccles has come across in his 32-year obsession.

Yes, it’s a coffee book, but one with enough techi-driven information to satisfy the mechanically inclined but also enough intelligent observations to interest the thoughtful armchair traveller. A 60,000-mile trip through Central and South America and Africa by a bi-racial American couple who become used to being stopped by police pulls you in to their dust-laden personal journey. As does the continual sense of camaraderie the bus induces, so much so that some couples fall in love with each other within their common affection for the intrepid vehicle. Although not so chef Jamie Oliver who pronounced his restored 1959 Samba “a pain in the arse” after a breakdown-filled filming trip to Italy in 2005.

Campervan Crazy may not be everyone’s first choice for a bedside read but it’s likely you have a friend or relative whose eyes will light up with that specific look of rapture exclusive to those who have been bit by the bigger Bug, the VW Campervan.

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