Monday, 21 April 2014

Tales from a VW camper van

In the summer of 1992, I did what had to be done. I needed a vehicle, but wanted something fun, something that characterised the person I was at that time. It was an easy choice – I bought a 1971 (K registration) Type 2 Volkswagen Transporter, hereby referred to as ‘VW camper’. It was orange and white, and while not perfect – they rarely are – it was in decent nick and certainly good enough to go to festivals in[1].

Not my camper, but it looked almost exactly like this...
Initially, Wayne and I owned 50% each though I eventually bought his share. We loved it, and it summed up who we were; it was bright, quirky and full of character. It was even the same age as us. The first thing we did was fit a stereo! It was now ready for our first Glastonbury.

Driving an old VW camper is not easy to begin with, it’s like learning to drive all over again. For starters, in addition to all the other rules of the road, VW camper drivers must also learn to acknowledge fellow VW camper drivers as they pass. Not to do so is considered the height of bad manners. It was also handy to get to know other camper owners. The first one I knew of was local punk Big Al, but it wasn’t long before I swapped camper stories with numerous other owners I inevitably encountered.

It was a great vehicle for getting you noticed and it instantly raised my cool status to previously unknown heights! Despite this and my love of the vehicle, it had plenty of downsides. It was expensive to run and maintain. My local garage hadn’t a clue what to do with it; on one occasion the mechanic asked me where the engine was! The gearbox on it was a bitch – first gear was to be avoided whenever possible as it was so difficult to find. Sometimes though you had to use it; the bloody thing didn’t do hills at all well and any decent incline would result in changing down to first and crawling up, a steadily increasing tailback forming behind us. Oh, and it had a leaky roof too!

It also made me a target. I had at least two stereos stolen from it, but thieving scumbags were the least of my worries. The biggest bastards of all were Devon & Cornwall Police. One of my aunts always maintained that our local police force was nothing more than “hangers for the spare uniforms”, and she wasn’t far wrong. The one thing they did do was pester people like me with long hair and a camper van; I was considered subversive. I was stopped for no good reason by police on several occasions. I’d often see them snooping around my van at night when it was parked up, even on private property. They seemed obsessed. Yet when I reported the theft of my stereos, the stock reply was: “I’m sorry sir, but there’s not a lot we can do.” Criminal behaviour? Not interested. Long-haired VW camper drivers innocently going about their day-to-day business? Seek them out, they’re a threat to civilised society. 

I’ve never had a criminal record, never been arrested, cautioned or so much as spoken to by a copper about my behaviour. My disdain for the police stems from their attitude and utter contempt towards certain groups of people like myself during this time. Twenty-plus years on, my opinion remains unchanged; I wouldn’t trust a police officer any more than I would trust the smack dealers on the estate up the road. 

There were plenty of positive tales to tell as well though. I was able to help out some friends in a band called Electric Orange who had landed a support slot with Back to the Planet, only for their van to break down before they left town! They called on me in desperation; I was only to happy to save the day. I (or rather the van) was also the saviour one night in Exeter. A party of about 13 of us travelled down in two vans to see Pop Will Eat Itself at the Uni. As was the post-gig ritual, a quick journey into the city centre was made to catch KFC before they closed. I made it, but the driver of the other van took a wrong turn and ended up in front of a police car. He was pulled over, breathalysed and arrested – he was over the limit. His six passengers were stranded, unless they legged it to KFC and caught me before I left.  They did. This meant in addition to myself and my five passengers, I now had another six people to squeeze into my old van.

The journey home was hilarious, but my poor old camper had never worked so hard. The worst part is that ‘home’ (Torrington) was on a hill. My vintage camper, laden with a dozen bodies in varying states of inebriation, was tested to its limit. I cranked it into first and gave it everything. It was a long, slow crawl but we made it without anyone having to get out and walk up! Another triumph.

Sadly, within 18 months of buying it, my camper fell into disuse through lack of funds. I had no money to tax or insure it. I eventually sold it for less than it was worth; I felt sad. For all the grief that knackered old van had given me, I was gutted when I finally had to get rid of it. I loved it and loathed it in equal measures, but even to this day I can’t help but raise a smile whenever I think about it.


[1] As already noted in my Reading Festival posts here and here.
[2] Chosen more for the band’s name than anything else. While I never took skinheads bowling, I certainly took a number of punks to gigs…

1 comment:

  1. I happen to work for the bastards as D&C Robster, careful now....SWC :-)