Saturday, 9 August 2008

Chapter 2 - How Not to Purchase a VW Camper

Kath in the Peaks - honeymoon 1982

Part 1 - (Dis)organisation
 'The fact that one day this schoolboy dream eventually became a reality, was due almost entirely to one man’s lack of organisation and the quick thinking of another…..'

Few people are foolish enough to purchase their first serious car in the dark, and without having driven it! Yet this is exactly what myself and my partner did in 1981 when we invested what, for us, was a considerable sum of money in our first Kombi van. In fact it was a 1972 Camper van – known as the Type 2 or T2, converted by a company called “Devon”, with a cooker, sink, coolbox, and two bunk beds in the roof. It had a radio cassette player – a fact the owner was proud enough to record on our receipt – and came with the original instruction manual and service record. It cost £1500, a princely sum in 1981.

That the purchase was made in the dark, without a test drive, was due almost entirely to my impatience to own a VW camper…any VW camper, as well as a complete ignorance of all things mechanical. It could have cost us dear, but in fact was probably one the best decisions we’ve ever made. Responding to an ad in Loot – in the days when ads for air cooled VW’s in Loot ran in the hundreds – I had a brief telephone conversation with the owner, and heartened by the fact he was an expat Aussie on his way home, agreed that he would bring the van to our flat in Croydon for a viewing.

Not completeley unaware of our mechanical naivety, we had hatched a cunning plan. In the flat downstairs from us lived a driving instructor called Ron, and in our eyes, well, a driving instructor must know a thing or two about motors, surely! Ron had agreed, in what I retrospectively diagnosed as a furtive manner, to give our prospective purchase the once over, hence the need for the mountain to come to Mohammed. By day, Ron was a mild mannered driving instructor, but at night and at weekends he became Medallion Man, replete with shirt unbuttoned to the waist, a chest wig, and more gold jewellery than is healthy for the average adult to wear. He had only two records – one by Demis Roussos, and the other Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield - which he played continually, at volumes loud enough to be heard clearly in our upstairs flat (god, how I grew to loathe those records), but he was generous of nature, and had clearly taken pity on us and our state of mechanical virginity.

So there we stood, in the street, on an early spring evening in leafy Croydon, watching the time slide by, and waiting expectantly for the bus to arrive…..and waiting…..and waiting….'till night arrived with her purple legions' as Jim Morrison puts it, with still no sign of the van. Then in the distance, the (what was to become) familiar chunter of the air cooled engine announced its arrival. The owner apologised profusely for the lateness of arrival, got lost at Bexleyheath, terrible traffic etc etc, but he may as well have been talking Martian, because by this time I only had eyes – and ears – for the awesome vehicle in front of us. ‘It’s got blow back Dick” Ron’s voice rudely interrupted my reverie, “It’s blowing back.” Ron had astutely diagnosed an age old failing with VW vans – the heating to the cab is piped in through vents running from the engine, and sometimes as metal fails and pipes corrode, the proximity of this system to the exhaust vents results in an acrid – and potentially poisonous - cocktail of fumes swirling around the interior. My only previous experience of ‘blow back’ however involved illegal substances and unhygenic practices, and I brushed Ron’s protestations aside with a feeble, albeit determined, wave of my hand.

To say I wanted this vehicle would be an understatement, I was drooling with the kind of fanatic desire that only afflicts the truly deranged, and my partner, Katharine, who has a profound understanding of what drives me, gave the go-ahead. It was in fact her money financing this mad indulgence of mine, and she was entited to her one condition. This was that we see the van by daylight, which we duly did the following day. The sale was sealed, our friend Becki (of who more later) was enlisted to drive it home for us – neither of us had licences at the time - and in due homage to John Steinbeck, we named the vehicle ‘Charlie’ after the great author’s final book: ‘Travels with Charly’. We mis-spelt ‘Charly’ but what the heck, the idea was a good one.

Part 2 - Organisation
I, of course was the disorganised man in this story.
The quick thinking one had made a decision some 35 years earlier which was to have profound and far reaching effects, not only for Volkswagen the company, but also for millions of people who subsequently had what can only be described as irrational, but passionate love affairs with VW campervans. His name was Ivan Hirst, and he was a Major in the British army tasked just after the war with producing some cheap, easy to manufacture vehicles to transport army personnel around Germany. Since the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg came under British jurisdiction this seemed like an ideal place to start, and rather than start from scratch, Hirst decided to use the materials he had available.

Popular legend has it that since the Wolfsburg factory was in a badly bombed out state, all the machine tools necessary to make VW’s were seconds away from destruction (by the ignorant, unromantic Yanks of course), but that Major Hirst intervened, stopping the demolition crews at the very last minute, thereby single handedly saving the VW brand, including the campervans so loved by hippies, surfers and counter-culture revolutionaries everywhere. This story has to my knowledge not been verified, even so, seen only as an apocryphal tale it is still fantastic, and I for one, firmly believe it!

It is also slightly amazing that a vehicle now synonymous with peace, love and surfboards was inspired by one of the great monsters of the 20th Century – Adolf Hitler. In 1933, Hitler proposed a people's car that could carry 5 people, cruise up to 62mph, return 33mpg, and cost only 1000 Reich Marks. He enlisted car designer and manufacturer Ferdinand Porsche to come up with a vehicle that could be purchased for the equivalent of an average working mans yearly wage. It was as much an opportunity for Porsche to push his idea of a small car foward, as it was to help Hitler get a real people's car for the citizens of Germany, and in 1938 pre-production of what was to be known as the KdF Wagen began. With the onset of war this never progressed past prototype stage, although the factory at Wolfsburg produced many vehicles known as the Kubelwagen. The Kübelwagen was a simple looking military vehicle that used the same parts as the KdF Wagen, but had a flat-sided body, and increased ground clearance. It was basically Germany's jeep in WWII. Within a year of the end of the war, and with some revisions to Porsche’s original design for the KdFwagen, some 10,000 VW’s had been produced. The British renamed the factory Wolfsburg – the name of the local castle - and the company became Volkswagen. The rest, as they say, is history.

History courtesy of:

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