VW Camper Conversions? 17 Things to Consider Before You Choose

In RV livingby Christopher Schopf

VW campers were the quintessential van camper for many years.  These campers are beautiful to look at and offer a more unique campervan conversion than many of the newer models on the market.

They are spacious, retro, fun and perfect for the new age of living wild and free! Just be sure you do plenty of research on them first, as they’re not always a dream come true.

Are you considering getting a VW campervan?

If so, here are some things to consider before you choose.

VW Campers Have Different Roof Styles

Volkswagen camper vans have been around for over 50 years, and they’ve gone through a lot of changes over this time period.  Different models have been made, and different roof styles have come and gone.

The two most popular roof styles come in the form of Westfalia-style popup roofs and flat VW bus roofs.  Westfalia roofs extend up like a tent and offer an additional standing room and sleeping room while parked.  These roofs can then be closed for travel, which makes them easier to both drive and park.

VW bus roofs were relatively flat and did not offer a lot of headroom.  With a standard VW bus, you wouldn’t be able to stand inside your camper.

These days, you’ll also find hard-side high-top VW camper vans.  A hard-side VW top is essentially a tiny RV, and newer models will even offer separate kitchens, bathrooms, and dinette areas that don’t compete with the bed for space.

VW Offers Unique Slideouts

VW campervans are now offered in a model known as the Doubleback.  This van camper has a rear slideout that dramatically increases the cubic volume of the camper and gives owners the option to have a seating and sleeping area away from their standing and cooking areas.

The Doubleback also has a popup roof over the central area, as well. This is great because the combination of the slideout and the poptop quickly turns the small van into a large camper.

Other unique slideouts are also now available in many of the newer VW campers.  The Galeria ForFour Function VW camper has a slideout that comes down from the roof to add additional square footage to the sliding door area.  The additional slideout and roof module creates a van camper with two queen-size beds.

People looking for a VW Bus with a little more width will be pleased to know that you can also buy newer models with more traditional slideouts built into the sides.  These side slides can make the van feel more like a conventional RV inside.

You’re Going to Have to Talk to People

VW campers have a unique look to them, and they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who sees them.  This is especially true of the older VW campervans.  As a result, you’re going to get a lot of looks when you drive through town.  When you stop and park, you’re probably going to have people come up to you to talk about your campervan as well.

This fact can be really great for people who like to meet new people or who simply enjoy talking.  On the other hand, it can be a real disadvantage for people who do not like to socialize quite as much.

Stealth Camping Probably Won’t Be Possible

Another disadvantage of having a camper that draws attention is the fact that you probably won’t be able to stealth camp inside of your VW.  While a Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter may look like just another work van from outside, a VW Westfalia will not.  Also, just having the top popped open is going to alert everyone nearby that someone is indeed inside of the campervan.

This being said, you may not have to worry about the van not being very stealthy.  VW campers tend to be a little more well-respected than their cargo van counterparts.  As a result, people are less likely to want to call the police when you park on their street.  You may end up getting a knock on your window, but it may just be from someone who wants to talk with you about your campervan.

VW Campers Aren’t Very Big

VW campers were built so that people could navigate the narrow roads of Europe.  This can be great for people traveling in Europe, in older cities in the States, or through tight parking lots.  In fact, many people prefer small VW campers for this very reason.

However, this can be a real drawback for someone who is used to more space.  A typical camper built here in the United States is usually much larger than a VW camper.  This might make it harder to drive on narrow streets, but it makes it much easier to live in.  If you’re planning on full-timing in your campervan, this might be something you want to consider before buying a small campervan like a VW Bus or Vanagon.

Older Campers Could Be Underpowered

Older VW campers were built with four-cylinder engines, and they didn’t get a whole lot of horsepower.  In fact, according to jalpnik.com (see reference below), a Vanagon from the 90s only put out about 90 HP.  These vehicles weigh over 4,000 pounds, which means a 90 HP engine isn’t going to be able to get the vehicle moving very quickly.  This means you may have trouble getting onto highways.

Once on the highway, you might find lane changes to be difficult, as you probably won’t be able to overtake other drivers on the road very well.  On top of this, you won’t be able to reach high speeds, so don’t expect to be able to drive faster than 60 miles an hour.

On the plus side, you’ll get decent gas mileage for an older van.  Also, most people aren’t going to expect you to be able to drive quickly, so at least you won’t have to deal with tailgaters for long as they’ll probably just opt to go around you.

Older VWs Don’t Handle Well

In addition to a lack of power, you’ll also find that older VWs don’t handle very well.  While it might seem fun on the surface to drive a vintage vehicle, it’s often much more difficult than people think.  This is especially true for younger drivers who have never had the pleasure of driving a vehicle that doesn’t have power steering or power brakes.  Vehicle technology has advanced significantly over the years, so when you hop behind the wheel of an older van, you’ll instantly notice how clumsy they are to drive.

On the flip side, newer VW campers are often technological marvels.  These vehicles will have stability control, traction control, and every other modern convenience you can think of to make driving across the country easier than it has ever been before.

Pricing Can Be Prohibitive

Whether you’re buying an older VW camper or a newer VW camper, expect to pay a lot of money.  Hop on eBay, and you’ll notice that restored VW Buses from the 70s can easily sell for over $70,000.00.  Even beat up VW Buses from the 80s will still sell for almost $20,000.00.  Buy one of these, and you may have to shell out another $10,000.00 or $20,000.00 just to get it back into shape.

Newer VW campers are even costlier.  More recent campervan models will sell anywhere from $70,000.00 to over six figures.  Additionally, you may have to have one shipped from overseas, which could drive the price up much further.  Comparatively, you can get a brand new Class C motorhome in the United States for around $50,000.00.  Used ones can go for less than $10,000.00, and they won’t be nearly as old.

Resale Values Remain High

The advantage of the high cost of the VW camper is that resale values tend to remain very high.  In fact, you may find that your old VW camper actually appreciates in value each year.  This is especially true if you maintain it well.

Many people often buy campers just to go on a year-long adventure.  When their adventure is over, they end up having to sell their camper at a loss.  I’ve often added the number up on these kinds of endeavors and come to the realization that these people could have saved money by simply renting hotel rooms all year.  With an older VW, you wouldn’t have this problem.  You could buy a VW Bus, live in it for a year, and then sell it for just as much as you paid for it the year before.

VWs Can Be Difficult to Maintain

Unfortunately, VW is often difficult to maintain.  This tends to be true whether the VW is a camper or just a small sedan.  The main reason for this is that Volkswagon tends to over-engineer their vehicles.  This makes them run much better when they’re in top form, but it can make them very difficult to work on outside of a factory or dealership.  Even experienced mechanics will often send VW users to a dealership rather than work on them themselves.

Additionally, you may find it hard to find replacement parts for your VW.  This is true for newer VWs being driven in the United States, and it’s especially true for older VWs.  What this all means is that you should be prepared to have to change your travel plans at a moment’s notice.  One small breakdown, and you could end up stuck somewhere for weeks while you wait for a replacement part to arrive in the mail.

Older VWs Won’t Be As Safe

While many people dream of cruising around the country in a vintage VW camper, they often fail to see the real downsides of doing so. In addition to the handling issues and maintenance issues we talked about earlier, there will also be many safety issues to consider as well.

An older VW camper isn’t going to have airbags, engineered seats, and modern seatbelts.  These devices all work extremely well in newer vehicles, and they’ve saved a lot of lives in recent years.  When you’re in your vintage camper, you won’t get to experience any of these life-saving vehicle improvements.

Also, older VWs tend to rust very easily.  A rusty frame is not going to protect you from collisions the way a solid vehicle will.  In fact, even a small fender bender could end up destroying what’s left of your old rusted out VW body.

VWs Can Be Purchased New But Are Harder to Get in The States

In most cases, you’ll be better off buying a new VW versus an older VW.  Unfortunately, people in the U.S. might have trouble doing so.  VW camper vans are tough to find here in the states.  This is partly due to punitive taxes on foreign vehicles, and partly due to the low demand for smaller campers here in the U.S.  Ironically, VW produces a great small VW camper named the Grand California, which isn’t for sale in this country.

If you want to get a VW camper that isn’t over 20 years old here in the United States, you might want to go with a Eurovan that was built in the early 2000s.  These vans are still new enough to have modern drivetrains, but they’re old enough that you won’t too much for them.  You can usually find these vans selling for between $20,000.00 and $30,000.00.  They might not have the classic look of an old Vanagon, but they’re still unique compared to typical U.S. campers, and you’ll have the option of picking up one with a stock pop-top roof.

You Can Build Your Own Van Out

If you can’t find a new VW campervan and you can’t find an older VW campervan in good condition, you might want to consider building one out yourself.  Some people buy old VW campers that don’t run any longer, and they switch the motors out with Subaru engines.  These engines are easier to find parts for and easier to maintain, and they tend to offer up a lot more horsepower.

Ideally, you’ll find one that needs work inside as well.  This way, you could completely redo the interior to look like new.  Canvas can easily be replaced on the pop-top, and a simple set of gas struts should get the lift system working again.

If you’re interested in doing something like this, you might want to put up an ad on Craigslist.  Some people have old campervans that they just don’t know what to do with anymore.  These people might be willing to let you tow their old van away for just a few hundred dollars.

In the end, you’ll still end up spending a lot of time and money making the van run like new again, but at least you’ll have a modern engine and a brand new interior to go with the retro look the exterior has to offer.

Bathroom Options Are Limited

One thought to keep in mind is that older VW campervans did not have bathrooms in them.  In fact, many of the newer campervans do not have bathrooms either.  You may be able to get one with a portable toilet inside of it, but it’s doubtful you’ll find one with a shower.  This means that even if you do go traveling with a VW camper, you may still end up spending money on hotels or on truck stop showers.

VW Camper Communities Abound

One fantastic advantage that VW campers have over all of the rest is the VW campervan community.  You’ll find that this community consists of many enthusiast websites, many traveling groups, and even yearly rallies.  When you buy a VW campervan, you’re also buying into a lifestyle that you just won’t find anywhere else.

You Can Easily Rent Vintage VWs

You can also rent a vintage VW out for a week or two.  Many people spend tens of thousands of dollars on their campers, only to find that they only use them once or twice a year.  If you think you might be one of these people, why not save yourself the time, money, and frustration, and just rent a camper out each year?  This way, you’ll get a unique experience each year, and you won’t have to worry about maintaining or storing a camper when you’re not using it.

During the winter, some of these companies will let you rent out an old Vanagon with a high top for as little as $1,000.00 for the entire week.  If the van breaks down during this time, roadside assistance will come to your rescue.

What I like about this strategy is that you could rent a different vintage VW campervan out each year.  This would give you the chance to see whether or not you’d enjoy owning one and if you did decide to buy one eventually, you’d know just what to look for.

Vintage VW Bugs Offer Up A Unique VW Camper Conversion

One other option that many people might not know about is the VW Beetle camper.  This camper was known as the Volkswagen Super Bugger.  It is by far the smallest camper I’ve ever seen, and it is definitely a rarity.  However, if you’re looking for a micro camper, it might be a great option to pursue.

This camper does not have a bathroom, but surprisingly, they managed to fit a kitchen and a dinette that turns into a bed inside the back of the Super Bugger.  These campers will have many of the same pros and cons of the larger Vanagon but in a much smaller package.

Final Thoughts

VW campers are great small campers with both plusses and minuses to consider.  Take your time before you make your purchase, and you’re sure to make the right decision for you!

References:

Why the Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Lives up to the Hype – Jalopnik.com

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