The term ‘icon’ is all too often banded about, but when it comes to Volkswagen and camper vans, it’s entirely justified. This summer, one of those icons celebrates its 25th birthday, the California Camper.
Volkswagen and camper vans go hand in hand. Ever since the iconic Type 1 hit the road in the 1950s, VW has been the default choice for the cool camper.
The 70s and 80s were a boom time for the camper van industry, allowing families to holiday when and where they like. Air travel remained too expensive for many and a camper van meant freedom to explore not only the British Isles but also Western Europe and beyond.
The T2 and T3 quickly became established thanks to the continuing success of companies such as Westfalia, with their Joker and the famous Devon conversion, but it was in the summer of 1988 that the California arrived. Volkswagen took the work that Westfalia had done so successfully with the T3 Joker, working with the company to refine it, making it more affordable in the process.
Like previous VW campers, the California retained the iconic ‘pop top’ roof, allowing the space required for families to holiday without taking up an enlarged footprint on the road.
The T4 arrived in 1990 and for the first time, had its engine at the front, rather than the back. This freed up extra space inside, making the California even more popular than before. It was quickly accepted into the VW fraternity and found massive popularity in the surfer community. Here was a van that combined all that was cool about campers but also offered modern drivability and comfort.
In 2001, Volkswagen’s long-term camper collaborator, Westfalia, was bought out by DaimlerChrysler, so the partnership ended. Since then, all Californias have been built in-house by Volkswagen. The current California, the T5, arrived in 2003 and brought with it all the modern creature comforts you could imagine.
Compared to those early designs, the list of kit is staggering. It can sleep up to four adults in comfort. The front seats rotate through 180 degrees, while there are two chairs that neatly fold out and stored in the tailgate.
Today, the California’s options list includes satellite navigation, climate control, parking sensors, rain sensing wipers and an electric sliding side door. It’s powered by a choice of two 2.0-litre TDI engines, with either 178 or 138bhp power outputs, which are a far cry from the 70bhp diesel engine the VWs of the 1980s made do with.
The T5 was facelifted in 2009 with two models forming the range; starting with the California Beach priced at £35,360 and the California at £44,360.
The Beach is intended as more of a day van, while the California boasts a hob, a sink and a refrigerator. They hold their value, too – even a ten-year-old California will cost you in excess of £20,000.
Volkswagen have been careful to maintain the California’s surfer image, so much so that the company’s own publicity shots for the car feature a T5, parked on the sand, complete with a hunky chap carrying a surfboard.
With 25 years of success already behind it and an army of fans across Europe, the popularity of the California is set to continue for a long time to come.