Thursday, September 1, 2011

History: The Westy

Volkswagen has produced its fair share of iconic automobiles in its long and illustrious history. The Beetle was as important as the Model T, as it was mass produced at a cheap price, giving all middle income families the ability to own a vehicle. The Golf GTi ignited the hot hatch craze, dumping a high performance engine and suspension package into a small hatchback, nearly killing off the sports car as it allowed people to carry a fair amount of cargo and passengers in a fun to drive car. The VW Bus was the truly original mini-van, allowing large families to transport vast quantities of screaming and vomiting children over large distances. However, one of VW’s greatest accomplishments did not get produced in the tens of millions of units, but was a niche special edition of the Bus. That vehicle was the Volkswagen Westfalia.

The Westfalia was a special breed of vehicle that filled a small niche market that in reality, no one else really made any effort to fill - that of a camper van daily driver.

The story of the Westfalia starts at the end of World War Two, when the British were in charge of the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. At that time a Dutch VW importer named Ben Pon noticed that VW Type-1 (Beetle) chassis and running gear were being used to power make shift trolleys. After much napkin designing in 1947, he had come up with a van version of the Type-1, a design perfected by Heinz Nordhoff when he took over as CEO of Volkswagen. Dubbed the Type-2, the van bodied vehicle with Beetle running gear was put into production in 1950. Due to its trolley inspired beginnings, it became known as the VW Bus.

At this time, a company known as Westfalia-Werke, based in the Westphalia region of Germany, was busy designing and building trailer hitches and specialty trailers. The two companies got together to design a specialty version of the Type-2 that could double as camping accommodations. Only one short year later, the Volkswagen Westfalia was born, with Volkswagen sending Type-2 bodies to Westfalia for camperized outfitting, and the resulting campervan being available at local VW showrooms.

Standard Equipment for the early 11-window Bus Westaflia Campers included electrical hookups, curtains, screened Jalousie Windows, laminated folding table, birch plywood interior panels, ice box or cold-box, and laminated cabinetry. Some models even came equipped with a sink as standard equipment. Optional was a side tent, side awnings, camping stove, child sleeping cot, camping equipment, and portable chemical toilet, to name a few. In this first generation, Westfalia built a total of 1000 campervan units between 1951 and 1958.Then in 1962 the iconic fiberglass pop-up top was added that extended the main portion of the roof upwards and provided additional standing room inside.

As the years progressed, so did the amenities, features, and styling of the Westfalia. The second generation of the vehicles had lightweight marine plywood, cupboards, gas stoves, and a picnic-table style seating that could fold into a bed. As the costs continued to increase for all the new features and options, VW came out with second vehicle option, the “Weekender,” which was equipped with the Westfalia’s campervan interior, but did not offer the pop-top roof. During the 60’s the versatilities of the Westfalia made it a favourite of the hippy and surf cultures, allowing these nomadic peoples to wander the country and coasts in search of better things, giving them the ability to live out of the vehicles that transported them.

In 1979, the third generation of the van came along, this time dubbed the Vanagon. This new boxy designed body still came in both Weekender and Westfalia models, only now, customers had the option of get a Syncro variant, giving the Westfalia 4WD capability. Manufactured from 1985 to 1992, this opened up the range of the Westfalia as many owners equipped Syncros with slight suspension lifts and all-terrain tires allowing the Syncro to be able to reach well out into the wilderness.

However, the Westy we all know and love here in Canada would undergo massive changes in its fourth generation. Now dubbed the Eurovan with another ground up redesign in 1990, a VR6 engine was now mounted in the front. Around this same time, Westfalia would be bought out by DaimlerChrysler. As DaimlerChrysler is a Volkswagen competitor, this spelled the end of the Volkswagen-Westfalia partnership. To try and save the Volkswagen Campervan, VW turned to Winnebago to try to reproduce the Westfalia in the Eurovan.

They did a good job offering the popular pop-top roof with a bed, two fold-out tables, numerous cupboards and drawers for food and clothing, a two-burner propane stove, stainless-steel sink with electric faucet, 12,000 BTU forced-air furnace with thermostat, and a fridge that ran on propane, battery power, or external current. There was also a 45-litre fresh water tank with a rear-mounted spray nozzle, a 30-litre ‘grey’ water tank with a standard flushing outlet, a 22-litre propane tank, and an auxiliary 130 amp battery with auxiliary charger.

As good as the Winnebago version was, the writing was already on the wall at Volkswagon as the Eurovan would go the way of the Dodo in 2003. It ended an era that saw the Westfalia hold a monopoly over a small but passionate market. With the exception of a few short lived special camper editions produced by other automakers, no one else built an affordable, proper daily driving camper van that could be purchased from your local showroom. And unfortunately, since the Westies demise, there has yet been another vehicle step up to take its place.

Today if you want a camper van, you must either make massive and expensive alterations to a commercial van or purchase one of very few high-end custom built campervans from RV builders that rarely run less the $100,000. As a result, the Westy lives on as a symbol of affordable get-away transportation. As their numbers dwindle, the cost of a well used Westfalia easily tops over $10,000 for an un-restored model, while fully restored Syncro versions can run as high as $100,000. Its proof positive that not only was the Westfalia the only vehicle that answered this niche market, it was also an outstanding product that we miss dearly.

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