Many people ask me ” what is it like to drive a retro vw camper ” and my simple answer if that there is no better way than to jump behind the wheel yourself and find out! They are never going to be performance cars, and lack the luxuries that have become the norm for modern cars …you know…electric windows, power steering, central locking …that kind of stuff…. but isn’t that all part of the charm?
All those things can be retro fitted if you really want – in fact, one of our campers has had central locking fitted on her front two doors (woo hoo!) and we posted this article in the past about assisted steering.
Speedy Gonzales? Hardley….
In our experience, we have found each camper we have driven to be a different experience. They all have their own quirks and driving style – which is all part of the charm and character of these iconic vehicles. One thing is for sure, you will certainly get a smile with every mile! You can’ help it, pootling along at a top speed of 50-55 mph and taking in all the views from your high up sitting position, behind a huge “bus” wheel and a big bay window.
They say that “life is a journey, not a destination” – and this certainly rings true when driving a camper – it is about enjoying the journey, relaxing and taking it all in. If you are in a hurry, then a campervan is probably not your vehicle of choice.
Steering – have you got the power?
Driving along in the slow lane will mean that lots of traffic will overtake you (as people turn back to admire your beautiful set of wheels). Passing cars and trucks can lead to crosswinds that will pull the campervan about. Don’t be alarmed – this is a trait of having all the vehicle weight at the back (where the engine sits). Simply steer your camper back on course (a little like you might steer a boat) … simples!
With the absence of power steering, it is important to remember that the vehicle needs to move as you turn the wheel – otherwise you are going to come back looking like Rambo, with big shoulders and biceps from all that steering! There are no rear sensors (Ha ha – what a luxury that would be!) so use all the mirrors and take it easy when reversing into that parking spot (especially if you are getting used to the size of the vehicle). I have been known to take the campers on the school run, and had many Mums watching me parallel park between a couple of Chelsea tractors… no sweat!
Useful tip – a campervan is actually shorter and thinner than a Landrover… remember, there is no bonnet at the front. When I started driving campers, I was forever parking, leaving too much room at the front … takes some getting used to!
Gear selecting– just relax!
With these older vehicles, finding the gears can take a little practice and really differs between campers. At Buttercup Bus VW Campers, our vehicles are manual, and come with 4 gears and a reverse. We have fitted our campers with EMPI gear shifters so it is a little easier than the original “stirring soup” scenario… after you have been driving for 10 minutes, you will soon get the hang of it. As experienced dub drivers ourselves, we find that the gears change pretty well – you just need to relax. As part of your checkout, we will go through each gear under instruction with you. We would recommend that you take a little drive round the block to practice before setting off on your journey.
A handbreak on the dashboard…
Our campers have had their front breaks overhauled – however, stopping can take a little longer than you will be accustomed in a modern car, so leave plenty of stopping distance . The handbreak is operated by a large leaver on the dash. (When I switch between a modern car and the camper, I am forever fishing around by my seat looking for the handbreak!). When getting used to how tight to pull the leaver, we recommend that hirers always leave the campervan parked in first gear and with the wheels turned towards the pavement. Always best to play it safe!
Come one old girl – get up the hill!
One of my favourite places to take the campervan is Farthing Downs in Surrey. There is an amazing view of London on a clear day, and sometimes you can park right on the grass for picnics. Getting to this wonderful viewpoint involves driving up a big hill. The campers are real troopers and just keep going (their brand new 1.6 aircooled engines will play a big part there) – however… to give them a helping hand, keep the gears low, and the revs high. The campers will probably stall if you try to get up there with the revs too low.
Nothing beats driving an original, 1970s VW Camper. You feel like you are part of a special club, with people waving and flashing lights and tooting. Whilst on your adventures, complete strangers will really want to stop and talk to you, have a nosey in the van, and share stories of their own road trips. Get practicing too, because there is a special VW wave reserved especially for vintage drivers… Come on… join the club!!!