Kings of the road

Alex van der Arend with his split screen VW campervan, at home in Dringhouses,York. Pictured with his wife Rebecca, seven-year-old son Leo and one-year-old daughter Lily.
Alex van der Arend with his split screen VW campervan, at home in Dringhouses,York. Pictured with his wife Rebecca, seven-year-old son Leo and one-year-old daughter Lily.
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It’s the cutest home on the road and a surprisingly good investment. No wonder so many of us are crazy about vintage VW campervans. Sharon Dale reports.

Property values took a tumble in the recession and those with money in bricks and mortar are still counting their losses.

But one home sweet home has outperformed every other asset – the VW campervan. It isn’t just super cute, it’s also a failsafe investment.

Shane Beardsley, co-organiser of the VW Festival at Harewood House, sold his Splitscreen camper in the darkest days of the recession. Its value had increased by 400 per cent in four years and there was no shortage of would-be buyers.

“They’ve always been popular but now even more so thanks to celebrities like Jamie Oliver who has one,” says Shane, who organises the festival with friend Paul Scott.

“Even a rotbox will cost you from £4,000 and a mint condition Splitscreen can be worth £50,000.”

The event, on August 16 to 18, celebrates all VW cars and vans and will see hundreds of “campers” converge on the stately home in Leeds. There will be everything from the prestigious and original Splitscreens, dating from 1950 to 1967, to Bay Window “hippy vans”, manufactured from 1967 to 1979, and the latest T25, T4 and T5.

There is a huge camaraderie among owners, many of whom belong to campervan clubs but there is also a little snobbery. Purists believe that too much customisation is vandalism, others sneer at vintage vans that have been lowered to make them easier to manoeuvre and they roll their eyes at Jamie’s souped-up Splitty that now boasts a Porsche engine, which is far quicker than the 50mph top speed of the original. The “T” versions are the least cool.

Around half the campers at Harewood will be left-hand drives as many British models died of damp weather, leaving buyers to import vehicles from sunnier climes, including America and Australia.

Not that rust and decrepitude matter much anymore. Virtually every single part of the vehicle is now faithfully reproduced by entrepreneurial enthusiasts, from panels to rock ‘n’ roll beds.

Those of us who smile every time we see one, say “hurrah”, for it means that the curvaceous, adorable VW campervan will never die.

Alex van der Arend, from York, has a pink and purple Splitscreen. He bought it 11 years ago for £4,000, spent £8,000 on it and it is now worth about £18,000.

“I got my first campervan with two other Dutch guys when we were travelling around Australia. It was fun and I met my wife there. She’s British and that’s how I ended up here. I really wanted another van and bought this one as a bit of wreck with no interior.

“I took it back to bare metal and restored it. Like a lot of people, I have lowered the suspension because otherwise it wobbles when it goes round corners and I put a reduction box on to give more torque. I also painted it pink and purple, which is a bit controversial because it’s not a traditional colour. Splitscreens were either red and blue or green and grey but I wanted mine to stand out.

“I’ve also cut a hole in the roof to put a pop-top on to give more room and I’ve got a tiny Portafold caravan from the 1970s that we tow behind. The vans have a lot of quirks. Changing gear is like steering in soup as the gearstick moves around. The little wing mirrors mean you can hardly see around you. They break down a lot but you get used to it.

“My wife calls her ‘Rosie’ and we go camping with our two kids in it and go to festivals like Camper Jam. It’s good fun driving one because everyone loves it. People give you the thumbs-up and you get people hanging out of their car on the motorway to take a picture of it on their mobile phone.

“The purists don’t like what I’ve done to the van. They think it’s sacrilege but I don’t care. I want it how I want it and that’s far from standard.”

Andy Davis, an RAC man from Hessle, bought his 1972 Westfalia Bay Window eight years ago. It was imported from California.

He says: “We already had a Beetle that I renovated and we decided to get a campervan. It was first owned by a US serviceman who bought it in Germany and took it back to America with him. I bought it from Kieft en Klok, a Dutch company specialising in vintage Volkswagens.

“I paid £6,000, spent £4,500 on it and it’s now worth £23,000, although the cost of renovating it doesn’t include my labour. It’s had a paint job and I rebuilt the engine and re-did the interior. My wife, Lizzie, who passed away two-and-a-half years ago, was my right-hand woman and she did all the upholstery.

“I’m a bit of a purist, although I have lowered the suspension because it looks better. It’s known as ‘being hit with a lowering stick’.

“I have travelled all over in it and sometimes I just take it for days out to meet up with family. It’s handy because I can cook something and make cups of tea.

“The gears are tricky. They’re in there somewhere but you’re never quite sure where and it isn’t built for speed. You can get up to 55mph and it only does 25 to the gallon, but going slow is part of the fun. You see so much more.

“There’s also a real buzz about owning one. When people see it, they smile and wave and that makes you feel happy.”

Iain Cooper, of York, owns a 1967 Splitscreen, which he nursed back to health after an accident at sea.

Iain, a civil engineer, says: “I bought it at the start of 2008 because I wanted a project and to learn some new skills.

“I bought it via a VW website from Montevideo in Uruguay but at some 
point during shipping it was destroyed 
and I couldn’t get any compensation because the cargo ship had stopped at 18 different ports and we couldn’t prove whose fault it was.

“It was devastating. It cost me £3,500 for the camper and I have spent a fortune on repairing it. I stopped counting when I got to £20,000 and that’s with doing most of the work myself. I volunteered to help out at a garage that specialises in VWs and in return I used his space and expertise. The parts came from all over the world. The roof is from South Africa.

“My partner, Rachael, is very supportive and I’ve got to know lots of other enthusiasts through the campervan club in York. It’s a really nice community.

“It’s a lifestyle not a vehicle. When we’re not using it, I spend most of my weekends underneath it. There’s always work to do on them and that becomes addictive. I’m building a bigger engine for it now. It even dictated the house we bought because we had to find a garage big enough for it.

“We started hiring it out for weddings to help cover the costs of keeping it on the road and looking smart.

“I’ve done about 25 weddings and they’re really enjoyable. Everyone wants to chat about the camper and sit in it. It makes them happy.

“The blood, sweat and tears spent 
in repairing it have definitely been 
worth it.”

The VW Festival is at Harewood August 16-18, www.vwfestival.co.uk

For more details about hiring Iain Cooper’s van, go to www.thebluecampervan.co.uk; wedding photos by Steve Parker, www.stevenericparker.com