How It All Started, or Catching the VW Bug.

Ask almost anyone with a VW Westfalia camper and they’ll tell you it’s kind of an affliction, not a bad one (unless you count the financial implictions), but an affliction nonetheless. Once you open the door and see all the carefully arranged cabinetry, once you’ve popped up the top and folded down the bed, once you’ve woken up to your own personal corner of the world shining in through the windows you can’t get it out of your system. Some more mechanically-minded may fall for the put-put-put of the underpowered but determined boxer engine that sits in the back and can propel the van to speeds of up to 100 kiliometers an hour-half that if you happen to be going up hill. A very very few fall for the utilitarian bread box shape of the Vanagon. We fell for the potential for adventure and the ability to make our home wherever we wanted on the road.

For us it started with a dream of road tripping around British Columbia in the summer before I started a new teaching position at the high school I had graduated from almost 25 years earlier.  It seemed like the perfect way to explore the left coast: in the original hippy van. Amanda managed to talk me out of buying one, so instead we contacted an outfit out of Victoria BC that rented VW campers.

I’d love to say that this was the perfect start of a beautiful relationship and that following that trip my equally smitten wife insisted that we just had to get a van like the one we rented. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our excitement about a van that could carry and sleep the five of us, with a stove and a sink and a fridge to keep us fed was quickly tarnished by the announcement from the renter that the fridge, like most Westfalia fridges, didn’t work.  Neither did the gas gauge, which we discovered when the van sputtered to a stop while disembarking from the ferry on to Salt Spring Island. Still, the van, with the two of us and our three kids limped up and down and over a great deal of the British Columbia landscape, from the winding roads of the Sunshine Coast, to the mountainous passes of the Kootenays and Rockies, the dear little blue box managed to keep going until, despite our topping up the oil regularly, it totally gave up the ghost on our return to Salt Spring Island. At least it managed to deposit us on the doorstep of our dear friends there.

While this may have managed to convince Amanda that it would be wise to have nothing more to do with this iteration of the iconic German transporter, her sister’s wedding in Whistler a few years later planted the seeds for another VW adventure. “Why spend all that money on airfare,” I argued, “when we could buy a used VW camper and drive from Toronto to Whistler in Teutonic style, avoid the usurious cost of hotel rooms, restaurants and rental cars and show our now four children the beauty and magnitude of the country. Having learned our lesson about earlier model Vanagons we would do our research. Just barely resisting the the siren song of the four wheel drive Syncro version of the camper, I somehow managed to convince Amanda of the merits of the much more modern Eurovan – the last model Westfalia made, a 1994 blue green wonder nicknamed the GVA or Green Van of Awesomeness. It had a miraculous five cylinder Audi powerplant, much more sensibly mounted in the front, an engine that barely blinked at mountainous grades.

The GVA had been owned by a mechanical engineer who had cared for it meticulously and whose children were devastated  at his selling it, as ours were when three years and a new transmission later we sold it to a young couple just starting their own VW camper story.  The GVA had gotten us to BC and back for Amanda’s sister’s wedding with barely a complaint, but when we decided to take it to Florida for a winter vacation, it, having seen the sunny climes of the Sunshine State, decided to protest going back to snowy Canada by giving up any responsibilty for moving-forward or back- and demanding a new and very expensive transmission.  As any VW camper owner will tell you, the van gets what it wants. It wanted to spend the winter in Florida and get an expensive makeover and that is exactly what it got. I flew down to Florida and drove it back to Toronto on my own, reflecting on the 3 months and thousands of dollars it had taken to get our mobile cottage back on the road, and trying to convince myself that it had been a worthwhile investment. These are the most obvious signs of late stage Vanagonitis, and by this point the conditions is almost always terminal.

At this point all it took was the idea of another west coast road trip with Amanda’s family to sow the seeds of the next stage of the affliction. This time a tighter timeline would not allow us to drive to BC and back, so the most obvious thing to do of course was to sell our dear GVA and fly out to Vancouver to buy the most outrageous of all VW camper dreams- the four-wheel drive Syncro model, a model even the most dire hard VW enthusiasts warn against for the extreme propensity they induce in their owners to spend silly amounts of cash to keep them maintained and cared for.

That was five years and countless mechanic’s bills ago. But our White Van of Awesomeness is the envy of all wherever we go. It carried us back from the West Coast in style with barely a hiccup, and with constant care and expensive attention it has gotten us back and forth to the east coast several times and around Newfoundland where it climbed an ATV track to the top of the Table mountains.

Life in the salt rich winter’s of the east has accelerated the spread of rust, though it is still barely noticeable and a new paint job makes her gleam.  After more than 350,000 kilometer’s her tired engine’s demand for oil started to get out of hand and passing emissions tests required Olympic level fiddling, and so we decided to have a new engine installed before embarking on our 3 month trip around the US. It can still only barely manage 120 kilometers an hour but at least we don’t have to fill up with oil every other fuel stop.

Still, there are always things that need attention on a vehicle this age.  Yesterday morning saw me wedged under the front end of the van for an hour or so in the Whole Foods parking lot outside New Orleans trying to improvise a CV boot with rags and zip ties. It should hold out til we get to Phoenix next week where we have already lined up a mechanic to take care of this minor repair.  And where ever we go fellow VW camper owners wave out their windows to us and stop if they see us pulled over by the side of the road to see if we need help. Just like other terminal and rare illnesses, VW attachment syndrome creates a community of sympathetic sufferers who know what it’s like and can share the joys and the sorrows and the siren song of the open road.

Fellow Westfalia owners Geoff and Christie stop to help us try to get our van going again after breaking down in the middle of nowhere Maine.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Melina says:

    This is a great post, Lucas!


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