It’s been announced that production of the Volkswagen camper van is coming to an end. For Ben Milne, a sliding door has been shut on his childhood memories.
The VW camper has become an icon of hippiedom – in the Pixar film Cars, the VW is a 1960s throwback, all tie-dye and CND symbols – but for me it’s the car of my childhood. My parents (teachers, not remotely counter-cultural) bought ours in 1972 – we were a family of seven, and it was a sensible car for large families.
The back seats were essentially hollow wooden boxes, topped by free-standing foam-filled cushions (no seatbelts, obviously). You could move the seats around in any number of permutations, or replace one of them with a cooker – not much use for heavy cooking unless you wanted to fill the car with smoke, but pretty good for boiling a kettle. At night you could rearrange the seats into one big bed.
It fostered a sense of adventure as well. In 1975 we set out on our first foreign holiday – trailing a caravan, driving all the way from East Yorkshire to northern Spain.
The hollow box seats were filled up with enough tinned stew and Vesta curries to withstand a nuclear winter, let alone two weeks on the Costa Brava. The plan was that on the way back, with the food all eaten, the boxes would take the duty-free booze and fags. Actually, we got sick of the tinned stuff within the first couple of days, and found that the food on the Continent was actually quite good (who knew?). I have no idea what happened to all those tins.
There was a distinctive plastic smell from the cushions which – if I’m honest – wasn’t the most pleasant in the world. Combine this with the complete lack of windows in the back, and my Dad lighting up in the front (it was the 70s and passive smoking hadn’t been invented yet), and my chief memory of that long journey is staring out at a French field and trying not to throw up.
But for all that, the camper van had a character which modern people carriers just don’t and I still miss it. It wasn’t just a car, it was almost an extension of our home.