Seeking more comfort for the next Le Mans Classic

| 3 Sep 2012

Since I became a father six and a half years ago, it has been a challenge for me to balance my passion for classics with the practicalities – and financial constraints – of family life. The sports cars have now long gone, and now seatbelts and number of doors have become more of a priority than horsepower and handling.

Accepting – or better yet embracing – that has helped to give my family an interest in or, at the very least, a tolerance for my hobby. It always thrills me to hear the kids plead to be dropped of at school in the Magnette, and taking the family to Italy in it this summer was among the highlights of my classic life.

It also planted the seed of a thought, which was watered and fertilised by a recent trip to Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ Oldtimer restoration facility (C&SC, July 2012). What if I could get the ultimate multi-purpose classic: a blend of style statement, daily driver, fun car, family wagon... and holiday home? The VW Camper, or ‘Bulli’, could be the perfect all-rounder.

If you don’t believe me, it’s worth seeking out The Bus, the brilliant but largely unsung documentary by Damon Ristau. I defy anyone to watch it and not to come away wanting a 23-window Samba ‘Splittie’ (below).

Unfortunately, a quick look at the auction results was all I needed to persuade me that this particular idea was a no-go. I tried shifting my gaze a little lower to the classic ‘Bay Window’ Type 2 (below), a car – well, the Americans call it a Beetle Station Wagon rather than a van – beloved by everyone from hippies to The Who’s Pete Townshend, but prices have gone bonkers in recent years. Even when a friend’s neighbour had an apparent bargain up for grabs, basically sound but with no MoT and needing some welding plus an interior refit, it turned out to have an asking price of "at least £3000".

Which leaves one option: the Youngtimer Type 25. Actually, it doesn’t feel like the third choice because it makes so much sense: more power, hopefully a bit more reliability and less tendency to catch fire, plus more space and comfort when you get to the campsite. And for the price of a very rough Bay – say around £6k – I should be able to get a smart ‘low-roof’ pop-top such as a Devon. I even think the wedgy design is looking rather retro-cool these days.

Sadly, the super-cool one-off Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2-engined version created in the Weissach technical centre is probably rather outside my price range, as are the desirable Westfalias and four-wheel-drive Syncros (above).

While in Germany for the Oldtimer press trip, we also got a tour of the factory that makes the current California, Volkswagen’s first camper made entirely in-house – and a pretty tasty bit of kit it is, too, with powered roof, superb build quality and a price-tag north of £43k. I sneakily asked if I could have a go, and recently took the family away in one for the weekend to see whether four people and a dog could cope with the space in a van that is still small enough to be a practical daily driver.

The verdict? Yes they can: it’s plenty roomy enough, and brilliantly versatile – and, electronic gizmos aside, it really isn’t too different in concept to the classic vans. Which leaves me with two questions: 1) is a Type 25 a classic? And, 2) could I actually live with one as a daily driver?

As if to answer the latter question, I’ve somehow found myself buying a cheap sports car as a runaround. But, with my wife’s encouragement, I’m treating it as a bit of a pyramid scheme: tidy the car up as we go along, then sell it in a year or two’s time in the hope of making enough cash for a downpayment on a Camper. Perhaps by then the bottom will have fallen out of the Bay market...