The California Camper has been in production for 30+ years now and, whilst the base vehicles have changed dramatically over that time, the basic concept and internal layout of VWs 4-berth Camper has stood the test of time… After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! 

Westfalia is arguably the best known VW Camper conversion company in the world and has always been at the forefront of design and developments, right from the early days of the Split Screen Type 2 right upto the very latest electric concept VW Vans. In this feature we’ll be looking at the background behind the California conversion, which is sold via VW dealers across the globe – i.e. the ‘official VW’ conversion, if you like. And, just to clear up any confusion before we get too involved, Westfalia were responsible for the design and early development of the California model (which was launched in 1988) but when the Westfalia company was bought by DaimlerChrysler in 2001, VW decided to design and build and their own Campervan in-house (by VWCV Special Business Unit, a subsidiary of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles). And so, from 2003 onwards (i.e. T5 models), the California range became part of VW rather than a Westfalia-built conversion. Of course, Westfalia still produce a full range of Campers, including a number of VW-based models (such as the Kepler 1) and, to many VW fans, they’ll be regarded as being the ‘official’ VW Camper conversion firm!

OK, so that’s the confusion regarding Westfalia- and VW-built California’s cleared up, now we can look into the background and explore the history.

Bay Window Roots…

Back in the late 1970s, Westfalia were converting Bay Windows with what was known at the time as the Berlin conversion. If you saw one of these today, you’d see that it was essentially the forerunner to the modern California as the interior layout is very similar. We’re talking about a pop-top, captain’s seats up front, rock ’n’ roll bed in the rear and cabinets with a hob and sink opposite the sliding door and a tall wardrobe in the rear corner.

From Joker to California

Westfalia went on to develop the Joker conversion, which appeared in the Type 25 models (launched in 1979) and developed into the Club Joker and so on over the years. However Westfalia had also been working on a joint project with VW, aka the ‘California’, in the mid-’80s, which was a very similar concept to the Joker conversion. The first Type 25 California conversions were built at the Westfalia factory in Rheda-Wiedenbrück and were displayed at the Caravan Salon in Essen in ’88, where they caused quite a stir.

Incidentally, VW priced the California at DM 39,900, which was a full DM10k cheaper than the Westfalia Joker, hence it was little surprise that 5,000 units were ordered in the first year making the model an instant success. In fact, by the time the Type 25 model ended in 1990, more than 22,000 Cali’s had hit the roads.

The Type 25 California was available either in Pastel White or Marsala Red with mid-grey velour interior trim and white/pale-grey cabinets and featured the now familiar pop-top roof conversion with canvas sides or the tall, fibreglass fixed roof. However, there was also an Atlantic model launched in ’89, which was available with the optional 4wd system and featured an Eberspacher heater and double glazing as standard. Whilst the regular California could be spec’d with cold-weather equipment, it seems the Atlantic was the answer to those that considered the Cali to be a fair-weather Camper!

The pop-top Vans were an instant hit as they could be used as daily transport and would fit inside a standard garage (2080mm tall). With the roof up, there was a full-size double bed available, making a proper 4-berth Camper which, importantly, featured proper seat-belts on the rock ’n’ roll rear bench seat (something that many early conversions could not boast).

The alternative was the high-top California which, at 2610mm tall, was perhaps better suited to those looking to use it as a weekender rather than a daily. Both models have their merits and, more to the point, both are great family Camper Vans.

T4 time

Having joined the Camping game late with the Type 25 range (i.e. the California was only available in the last three years of production), VW wanted to hit the ground running with the launch of the new T4 range in 1990 hence Westfalia had been developing the interior and roof conversion alongside VWs design engineers.

The biggest difference was that, after 40 years of rear-engined VWs, the T4 was the first of the front-engined models, hence the interior needed to be shuffled around a little to accommodate. As the engine and dashboard pushed the front seats further back (in relative terms) than in the Type 25 range, the T4 model has slightly less space between the seats and the rear bed when Camping. However, the flip side to this is that there was now a lot more storage space in the rear, and Westfalia made the most of this by mounting the fresh water tank and leisure battery in the rear of the vehicle. 

There were some other minor updates such as the refrigerator, which was now powered by the leisure battery (or mains hook up) and could be controlled via an overhead LCD display in the front of the vehicle. The fridge was now a top-loader (rather than a door in the Type 25) and was moved to the rear of the cabinet area to provide more accessible space for storage etc. The twin hobs were also supplied with spirit burners (i.e. removing the need for a gas bottle) and the sink featured a tap with an extendable hose, which was fed by an electric water pump (with a waste tank mounted beneath the vehicle). There’s also thermopane windows in the rear (double glazing) and a whole host of options such as a rear shower attachment, a digitally-controlled seven-day Eberspacher heating system and a whole host of smaller goodies to make life easier when camping. 

In 1992 the California Coach was launched – this was essentially the same vehicle albeit with a panelled in window (i.e. not cut for/fitted with glass) on the driver’s side rear quarter, as not only was this a blind-spot for the driver, but it was also obscured by the internal wardrobe. There were other minor differences, and some considered this to be perhaps a ‘base model’, as there were no sliding windows in the door/centre, and the windows were fitted with regular, single-pane glass. Everything else was available to order as add-ons, of course, but this was VWs way of keeping the base-model cost as affordable as possible.

Incidentally, there were also two long wheelbase models with the Hightop conversion launched around this time – the California Club, which featured a kitchenette area in the rear of the Van, and the California Tour, which featured a similar ‘Berlin’ interior layout to the pop-top models.

Then, in 1994, Westfalia built 500 ‘Highway’ models to celebrate its 150th year in business, which were SWB Vans fitted with a streamlined Hightop i.e. no ‘lump’ over the cab as per the regular hightop models (incidentally, this compact roof design was later offered on the California Coach range).

While we’re on the topic of high top California’s, we should mention the LWB Exclusive model, which was launched in in ’95. This one featured a full wet room in the rear of the Van complete with WC and a proper shower!

Longnose love

A major revision of the entire T4 generation followed in 1996, which also affected the full California range. To distinguish them from the commercial vehicles in the Transporter range, all Caravelle, Multivan and California models were updated with what is better known as the ‘long-nose’ front end (revised bumpers, wings bonnet and lights etc). At the same time, the product range was reorganised and simplified a little. First up is the SWB California Coach, which could be ordered with a pop-top or either the streamlined ‘Compact’ Hightop (i.e. 2-berth) or the larger ‘alcove’ high top roof, which included a roof bed (i.e. 4-berth). In addition, the LWB California Exclusive (with wet room and kitchen) was also available to order.

There were a number of other special editions such as the California Biker (1995), the California Beach (1996), the California Advantage (1999), the California Event (2001) to mark the 50th anniversary of Volkswagen Campervans and – as a final edition – the California Freestyle (2002). Among the features supplied as standard were metallic paint, air conditioning, a bike rack and more sumptuous interior trim. Mention the ‘Freestyle’ model to California fans and they’ll immediately tell you that it’s the ultimate T4 Cali, not only because they were fully-loaded, but because they were available with the desirable 150hp 2.5TDi motor, making them a delight to drive!

By the time the T4 model had come to the end of the line (2003), VW had supplied almost 40k (pop-top and high top) T4 California Campers, many of which are still going strong today. By the way, if you’re wondering why you see so many of these on the Continent, yet rarely spot a T4 Cali in the UK, it’s simply because the model was not sold in the UK / was produced in LHD only (as it was deemed to be too costly to retool the entire interior to work with the sliding door on the ‘RHD’ side of the Van. We’ll cover this LHD/RHD quirk in further detail next time when we check out the T5 range next time…