Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia
Chris Hafner: The Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia doesn't have much to offer the enthusiast. Even the normal Vanagon was a slow, lumbering, ponderous, wheezing vehicle; only comparison to the original VW bus--a legend of slow motoring--would make the Vanagon look fast or agile. The Westfalia camper package, with added weight and higher center of gravity thanks to its tiny kitchen applicances and a pop-up sleeper tent roof, was even less athletic. The best thing that could be said about a Vanagon Westfalia on a twisty mountain road was that it was slightly racier than an RV.
What the Vanagon Westfalia offered was a dream. Like a turtle that moved slowly but carried its shelter on its back, the Westfalia's self-contained habitat offered the driver some real options. Heading down to the supermarket to grab some groceries? Fine, but if you feel like continuing your trip to, say, the Rocky Mountains, you've got a built-in camping spot. Why drop the kids off at school when you could just keep rolling up to the Yukon Territory to do a little fishing and hiking with the family?
Never mind the fact that you'll probably sleep uncomfortably in the claustrophobic sleeping space, have a difficult time cooking anything on the tiny stove, and if the weather traps you inside with a few people for any length of time, you'll develop a nearly lethal strain of cabin fever. The point is, with the Vanagon Westfalia, you can do these things.
I mean, how cool is it when your everyday transportation can double as an apartment? No other everyday vehicle carries as much potential for adventure--albeit slow, ponderous, relatively uncomfortable adventure--as the Westfalia line of Volkswagen camper vans.
Big Chris: Allow me to regale you with a brief rebuttal of our deluded leader's fondness for the Vanagon. The time was 1984 and I found myself, along with my family, trapped in my aunt's air-cooled 1980 Vanagon. It was at that tender age of 10 that my hatred for the Vanagon was cultivated, and then repeatedly reinforced in subsequent years. We were traveling up the mountain from Loveland to Estes Park in Colorado. For those unfamiliar with this drive, it's a road you want to test drive the Ariel Atom on--steep and endlessly winding. You should know that when I was younger, I was prone to car-induced motion sickness. Every time I was in the mountains until the age of 14, I would get car sick. The Vanagon was unable to induce my car sickness.
To call it a slow vehicle would insult the Amish horse carriages which lumber along with the bright orange triangles on the back. Three-toed sloths move so slowly that moss grows on their backs, and the Vanagon moves only slightly more quickly. The Vanagon was an inadequate design for flat land usage. How my aunt thought it was a good idea to load it to the hilt with her relatives and then attempt to wheeze our way up the mountain is beyond me.
We had to stop at every curio shop on the way up. Not because we wanted something, or needed to go to the bathroom, or because there was something there of interest--no, that would be too reasonable. We had to stop four times on what would otherwise be a one-hour trip to allow the POS air-cooled engine to cool down to generate enough horsepower to keep on going. I imagined at one point traffic was backed up behind us to Denver. The only advantage to a car this underpowered is that you always have a clear path in front of you. Three hours later we made it to our destination.
Years later this Vanagon met an untimely death with an engine fire that immolated the rear end as it once again chugged its way up to Estes State Park. Why couldn't it have died before being inflicted upon poor innocent me? Unfortunately, I wasn't along that day to revel in the glory of its death.
My secondary dislike for this vehicle stems from the fact that they are only slightly stronger than a balsa wood airplane. There is nothing to them (the earlier ones) to give you peace of mind that you'd survive an accident with anything larger than your average teenager on a bicycle. So when Chris wants to take you camping in a Vanagon, know that all the bears are looking at you like you are a Slim Jim in a cardboard canister on the store shelf.
Chris Hafner: You were in an air-cooled Vanagon? Ooh, ouch. Yes, those ran slower than molasses at the South Pole. The water-cooled Vanagon was excruciatingly slow, but the air-cooled Vanagons and VW Buses were among the slowest passenger cars ever made--like comparing a healthy but slow tortoise with a rotting animal carcass. Those vehicles established a level of slowness that wasn't simply sedate and conservative but was overtly unsafe. Has there ever been another vehicle as criminally underpowered?
I could be insultingly glib here by saying something like, "Well, we've established that the Vanagon isn't exactly a race car." It's definitely worse than that brush-off would indicate, but I think it's true that the Vanagon doesn't exactly inspire visions of opposite-lock adventures. There's not an expectation of speed here. At the same time, I think you're ignoring everything that makes the Vanagon special and wonderful--especially the Westfalia camper. After you and your family eventually struggled up to Estes Park, annoyed and hot under the collar, did you all unwind by singing campfire songs while popping a package of Jiffy-Pop on the Vanagon's delightful miniature stove top? I'm betting you did, and you enjoyed every minute of it. Admit it!
Even if you had been stranded at one of those curio shops, the Vanagon Westfalia makes everything okay. I am convinced there's no better converter of road-trip lemons to lemonade. The Ford Taurus traveler, confronted with an immobile vehicle and fading daylight, would be nearly frantic to find lodging and safety. He would be willing to pay any amount of money for a terrible room at a frightening roadside inn.
Not so in the Vanagon--the world is your campground. Say you were stranded in a curio shop parking lot, you pop the top, fire up some dinner, and hit that curio shop the moment it opens its doors the next morning. Take that, curio fans--if you want to beat Big Chris to the carved novelties, maybe you should get a Vanagon Westfalia too.
David Colborne: Has there been another vehicle as criminally underpowered? Yes--it was called the Renault Dauphine. Of course, that you can mention a Vanagon in the same space as the biggest waste of Marshall Plan funds imaginable does not bode well for its performance pedigree. ...
Mochi Mochi: What was the 0-60 time? My old Squareback's time was about 16 or 18 seconds.
Big Chris: I'm not sure the air-cooled Vanagon could hit 60 going downhill with a tail wind--a hurricane-forced tail wind. It would have a hard time hitting 60 falling off a cliff. It is a brick-shaped vehicle with only slightly more power than your neighbor kid's moped. VW should've offered The "Barney Rubble" option with holes in the floor boards to use your feet to push.
David Colborne: The Renault Dauphine could do 0-60 in a mind-blowing 32 seconds. The car was so bad, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 50 worst cars of all time. I still want one. :-)
Chris Hafner: Yeah, I want a Dauphine too. But of course we stray from the topic. If you're not comfortable loafing along in a stock Vanagon Westfalia singing 2,678 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to fill the time on what would otherwise be a one-hour drive, I'd investigate whether a Porsche or Subaru boxer engine might fit. Maybe an all-wheel-drive Vanagon Synchro with the Forester XT's torquey turbo four might be a slightly spicier dish?
Probably a bad idea, though--you wouldn't want to subject your happy campers to excessive G forces. There's nothing worse than making s'mores with fragmented chocolate bars and graham crackers.
There are lots of great Vanagon and Westfalia resources on the web. Westfalia.org is a great resource, and many of the advertisers on that site specialize in selling VW Westfalia fans of all vintages as well as Westfalia-specific accessories. The top image of the white Westfalia overlooking the Pacific Ocean is from Aloha Campers.com, which rents VW Westfalia campers to tourists in Hawaii--a fantastic concept that makes me want to visit Hawaii and cruise around it in a Westfalia as soon as possible.
The interior shot is from a personal page that describes the joys of living with a Westfalia--an interesting read. All of the other pictures come from RoadHaus.com, another dedicated Westfalia site. In order, the Vanagons were contributed by Paul Rogers, Jean-Guy Bernier, Heather McCauley, Brian Clifford, and Tom Kirk.
The video is "a genre criticism of contemporary car commercials," but it works just fine at illustrating the Vanagon Westfalia's innate charm. Interesting music choice.