Prior to the launch of the T5,  Westfalia had been responsible the producing the California range. However, the T5 was the first Cali built in-house at VW’s dedicated California facility in Hanover…

As explained in Part 1, VW decided to design and build and their own Camper conversions via the VWCV Special Business Unit (a subsidiary of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles) starting with the T5 range, which was launched in 2003. In fact, the decision to move the California construction away from Westfalia was made several years before, which had provided the designers and engineers with enough time to cover the development and manufacturing of the Camper-related parts and accessories prior to the release of the T5. However, whilst it was all-new and redesigned, the interior layout was essentially the same as the California had always been, albeit with a fresh modern look and feel to the fixtures and fittings.

Leipzig a go-go

It was at the Auto Mobil International (AMI) event in Leipzig, Germany that Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles first previewed the T5 range in the Spring of 2003, with the California making its debut later in the year at the Caravan Salon show. Consequently, the first oficial California Campers were delivered in 2004 in either Trendline or the more luxurious Comfortline configurations (which included the Multivan dashboard rather than the standard Transporter style in the Trendline model). Incidentally, both models were supplied with the all-new electro-hydraulically operated pop-top (the first time a power-lifting system had been used) and there was also a high-top model launched later in 2005.

The model was a success right from the off and the success of the third generation California confirmed the company’s aim of building the perfect Campervan: with 54,000 units sold up until 2015, the California T5 became the most successful generation of this model series to date and at the same time evolved into the most successful Campervan of its class on the global market.

The ingredients for this success – in addition to new technologies for the drive system (including the new 4Motion system), safety, comfort and infotainment – came from the completely redeveloped interior and Camping equipment. On the outside, for instance, there was the ‘power pop-top’, which was now made of aluminium rather the previous GRP construction. Similarly constructed of lightweight but sturdy aluminium were the interior cupboards, which also featured stylish sliding doors and modern finishes. And then there were the cleverly packaged camping chairs, which were stowed in a zipped bag fixed to the inside of the tailgate, plus the neat folding table, which was located within the sliding door trim panel. The designers had clearly taken note of the usage and requirements of owners as the ability to include two chairs and a table within the interior meant that owners no longer had to load these additional accessories when heading off for a weekend away (and they were always to hand should you decide to make an impromptu stop on a nice day!).

There were numerous options and accessories available for those looking to turn the basic Camping set-up into more of a Glamping experience, and owners were soon raving about upgrades such as the comfort on the slatted bed frame in the roof and the integrated blinds in the pillars (replacing popper-fixed curtains in the T4 range). The kitchen now featured dual gas-fuelled hobs with the gas bottle located in a sealed container in the bottom of the rear corner cupboard and the 42-litre cool box proved to be every bit as good as the legendary T4 chest fridge. With electronic controls in an overhead display unit and 240-volt hook up as well as a leisure-battery power system running the lighting and refrigerator etc, it was the most comprehensive and advanced system yet.

The new model also offered an optional infotainment system for the first time. This was not only a navigation system but also a DVD player, television, telephone and interface for an Apple iPod. OK, today we expect all of that (and more) as standard but back in 2004 this was all state of the art stuff.

Finally, there were some rear-mounted options including the ever-popular bike rack and even a rear tent, which could be used as a shower room). Add to that various roof rack and awning/shade options and you begin to understand why this latest California had been really well planned and executed right from the off.

Incidentally, the T5 California was now also available in RHD format and could be ordered in the UK via VW dealerships for the first time. However, we should point out that these were essentially LHD-spec vehicles (i.e. the same interior layout / with the sliding door on the offside of the vehicle) albeit fitted with a RHD dashboard and controls. This was simply because it did not make financial sense to redesign the entire interior to accomodate a nearside (i.e. UK/RHD-spec) sliding door layout just to suit the relatively small number of vehicles sold in the UK. However, this did present some minor issues for drivers of these RHD California models in as much as the offside sliding door resulted in passengers exiting into the path of traffic (rather than onto the kerbside pavement), plus there was also the issue of restricted vision when looking over your shoulder due to the large wardrobe/cabinet located on the left rear corner of the vehicle. This is why some UK Cali fans [myself included] find the original LHD layout easier to live with / preferable to the somewhat-compromised RHD format (especially if your plans include touring mainland Europe!)

The specials

Having launched various limited and special editions throughout the timeline of the T4 range, Volkswagen followed suit with the new T5 models. The first made its debut in 2006: the California Sonora, named after a South Western USA desert region.This was a high-spec model, which even included an exclusive four-piece set of bags for those that like to ‘pack-to-match’! It was supplied with a two-tone paint finish; the lower half being available in a range of colours to contrast with the metallic silver upper half.

Even more individually equipped was the California NoLimit, which was launched in 2007 and limited to just 222 units. This baby truly had it all – externally it featured 18-in AZEV Sport R wheels, bi-xenon headlights/smoked tail lights, privacy-tint windows and white/chrome accents while the interior included leather/Alcantara upholstery, Alcantara mattresses in “Date Brown” and a gleaming white paint finish for the cupboards throughout the kitchen unit. Also fitted as standard: a full complement of electronic equipment including navigation system, Apple iPod (30 GB), 10-inch multimedia player, telephone interface and leather multifunction steering wheel. An additional detail located on the passenger side is the individual serial number – 1 to 222 – of the respective “NoLimit” edition. This level of luxury didn’t come cheap though… prices for the California NoLimit in Germany started at €69,996!

Fortunately, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles had all of its customers in mind hence, also launched in 2007, was a new entry-level model: the California Beach, which started at €31,000. This model included a manually operated pop-up roof and was supplied with a full-width seat/bed in the rear (i.e. without the kitchen equipment and cabinets). 

In 2008 the California Biker special model was launched – fitted of course with a bicycle carrier for the tailgate as standard – and in May 2009, Volkswagen presented the California Black Edition, which was limited to 50 vehicles only. Finished in black with a chrome package, the Black Edition was fitted with 18-inch wheels and bi-xenon headlights with leather/Alcantara and contrasting white cupboards inside.

Time for a facelift

A major facelift of the T5 range was announced to the media at an unveiling in Rome  in the autumn of 2009. As well as redesigned front end and cosmetic improvements, the turbo diesel engines were upgraded from the old ‘pump nozzle’ injection to a new four-cylinder common rail generation (offering up to 132 kW/180 PS). Also, the old automatic transmission was replaced by the dual clutch gearbox (DSG) system, which could also be combined with 4Motion all-wheel drive. In short, this was far more than an external facelift for the T5.1 and the mechanical upgrades were well-received by the press and public alike.

Getting back to the California timeline, 2012 saw the release of the California Edition, which could be ordered in either Candy White, Salsa Red or Reflex Silver and included a matt black  inner section of the pop-up roof and additional black body details. Like the “NoLimit” of 2007 and the “Black Edition” of 2009, the “Edition” of 2012 was also equipped with white kitchen and cupboard units and luxurious interior trim. 

2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the California, which was celebrated by the launch of the California Generation special model. In addition to the ‘Generation’ lettering on the rear and on the side sills (as well as the illuminated sill plates in the door shuts), the special model included refinements such as privacy windows, 17-in alloy wheels and grey leather/Alcantara upholstery. 

One year later, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles released a final exclusive model at the Caravan Salon – a California Comfortline in “Natural Grey” paint finish equipped with a 140 PS TDI motor and a 7-speed DSG transmission. Limited editions don’t come any more ‘limited’ than this, as only one vehicle was built (the 50,000th T5 California to come from Hanover!).

2015 – T6 time

In the summer of 2015, VW Commercial Vehicles presented the sixth generation of the Transporter (T6) and thus a new California, to boot. At the market launch in June, the Campervan was offered in three variants – “Beach”, “Coast” and “Ocean” – which were designed to cover the needs (and budgets) of the California customer base. The new model included a completely redesigned front end as well as some styling tweaks to the tailgate/rear end plus a whole new range of alloy wheels etc.

Perhaps more appealing to the Camper fans was the reintroduction of two-tone paint finishes, which harks back to the days of the iconic Split  and Bay Window Campers. Retro-styling doesn’t mean retro-materials, too (!) as the T6 Cali saw the introduction of a synthetic fabric in place of the tradition cotton pop-top bellows, which is not only more water-resistant but also harder-wearing, too.

On the inside, the complete redesign extended to the dash panel trim, which, could now match the colours of the exterior and/or bellows (as of 2016 the bellows are available in “Strawberry Red” or “Glacier Blue” in place of the standard “Alpine Grey” material). A total of six paint finishes were initially available for the accent on the dash panel: “Cherry Red”, “Anthracite Metallic”, “Bamboo Garden Green”, “Mojave Beige”, “Acapulco Blue” and “Black Glossy”. Add to that the new fabric and Alcantara-leather covers for the seats and sleeping areas as well as new decor schemes for the kitchen unit and cupboards (“Dark Wood” or  “White Wood”) and you begin to see just how refined this latest California range has become.

Setting the technological scene for the new California is a range of even more economical engines, new infotainment systems with smartphone integration (App Connect for Apple and Android) as well a whole host of assistance systems. In short, the latest T6 California is truly a state-of-the-art Camper!

That pretty much brings us up to speed regarding the history of the California range. And now for something completely different…