Everyone wants a VW Camper, right? But if you’re new to the whole Camper scene, you’ll need some help when it comes to picking the one that’s right for you.
That’s where we come in…
What’s the best VW Camper?
That’s a question that gets asked a lot in these parts. And surprise, surprise – despite all our time spent in the field, literally, there’s no definitive answer. What’s right for one person is totally wrong for another – and even if you think you know what you want, chances are you’ll change your mind when you start looking.
Indeed, we often hear stories of people promising themselves to go modern with their next Camper, only to buy a lovely Split Screen Bus instead. Likewise, others set out to buy the quintessential bright orange Bay with flowery curtains and end up with a gun metal metallic Crafter. Like it or not, being an emotional purchase logic rarely has anything to do with our Camper buying decisions.
If you’re completely new to VW Transporters it would pay to hire one for a weekend and see how it goes. You’ll love it, of course, and rejoice in the freedom it grants you, but you’ll soon find out if you need to go newer and bigger or more characterful and classic.
While you’re busy arranging this, or begging a friend to lend you theirs to try, here’s what to ask yourself to help make the decision making a bit more scientific.
Old or new?
Our first question to you is are you are searching for nostalgia and charm in your camping experience, or are speed, comfort, practicality and – dare we say – reliability bigger priorities for you?
If you’re ready to embrace your inner hippy then one of the rear engined air-cooled Campers, such as a Split Screen or post-’67 Bay Window Buses would probably be best for you. But you’ll need to be sympathetic when it comes to precisely what it can and can’t do and keep on top of maintenance to ensure it gets you where you want to go.
Should you feel comfort and reliability are most important to you then consider a T5 or T6 with their front engine and more ‘car-like’ driving characteristics. Certainly, if you plan long-distance Continental trips with lots of motorway involved, this is the way to go.
As always, there’s a middle ground – the Type 25 (or T3) and T4 have an element of modernity but still look classic.
Top of the Pops?
Next, think about what you’ll want above your head. Tin-Tops, where the roof is fixed, is great if you want a ‘day van’, if there is only one of you (and you aren’t particularly tall) or if you have to deal with height restrictions such as a garage or a multi-level car park to store it or take it to work.
The evolution of the Tin-Top was brought about by Westfalia who first fitted an elevating fibreglass hatch in the middle of a Split Screen Bus roof. Whilst it was too small to sleep in, it offered much-needed headroom for cooking inside and getting dressed. The Bay Window (’68-’79) took this to the next level and a host of other conversion companies joined the party with their take on the elevating camper roof. Westfalia continued to be the ‘official’ VW option but conversions such as Devon, Dormobile, Danbury, and later Reimo and Autosleeper (for the Type 25 market) to name a few, gave options of single and double beds in the newly created roofspace.
The good thing about the Pop-Top is that the vehicle remains ‘normal height’ most of the time, so travelling through tight lanes or parking in town isn’t a major concern. The downside is they can get tatty with age and you’ll struggle to fit a roof rack with most.
The third option is the High-Top where campervans have had their roof skin removed and typically a large fibreglass hat put on top. The ‘hat’ is designed to create a permanent headspace and/or sleeping area for at least one, if not two people. What’s good? Well, finally standing up inside is something that can be done at any time and the additional roofspace creates a much comfier mezzanine level for extra beds. That said, practicality starts to become an issue when an extra metre is permanently added to the top of your vehicle. Not only will car parks (even flat ones with barriers) become trickier but the extra mass at the top of the vehicle won’t do your handling, fuel economy or experience with crosswinds any favours.
We should also mention that the older vans with fibreglass high tops, namely the Bay Windows and Type 25s will likely have, or have had water ingress issues over the years. If you are lucky this is just some water damage on the interior, if not the fibreglass roof could be sat on rotten roof gutters, and you’ll be in for a shocking repair bill.
More relevant with modern Vans, decide whether you want to buy a Panel Van and convert it yourself by adding your own kitchen and cupboards, buy a Camper that’s already been converted by an established conversion company – or get a professional bespoke build done. Lots will depend on how handy you are, and how sophisticated you want things to be. While it will cost more, the big benefit of going to a specialist is that you can tell them your exact requirements and leave them to work their magic, and the Van will be worth more when it’s done.
Another option is the most unusual and strays furthest away from the original shape of the VW Campervan. Retaining only the front cab section of the Volkswagen (and the chassis and engine in most cases) the Coachbuilt option is a caravan style body bolted onto the back. This gives the most practicality when it comes to using it as a camper, with the potential for a toilet/shower cubicle, multiple sleeping and social spaces and acres of headroom, all the time.
One of the first examples was built by Jurgens Autovilla in South Africa and used Bay Window Vans as the backbone. Type 25s were a more popular base vehicle with coachbuilders and Karmann created several ‘Gipsy’ examples. German firm Tischer also produced two versions with a standard and longer wheelbase, such as the XL-65.
The downsides of a Coachbuilt? As with the High-Top, a bigger vehicle takes up more room driving on the road and will be much trickier to manoeuvre in tight lanes and parking spaces. With extra wind resistance all around, you won’t be setting any lap records!
Coachbuilt Campervans had a much higher purchase price and as such are a less common sight and more expensive than the other options.
With the least amount of the original vehicle left, spare parts for the camping conversion will need to be sourced from the company who originally did the work. The ‘caravan’ part of the body is often made with a wooden frame and this can suffer from rot over time, which could mean a costly strip down for a workshop to repair it.
The Big Rigs
Generally only sold as a high-end conversion or with a Coachbuilt body, the VW LT and more recently the VW Crafter offers a huge jump up in living space if you can handle their size – both on the road and parking them somewhere safe.
The LT models first appeared in 1975 and remained largely the same aesthetically (big and square) until 1996 when the 2D body style took over, which was basically a re-badged Mercedes Sprinter (with a VW engine). This ran until 2005, after which the VW LT was replaced by the Crafter, which also shares its shape with the Mercedes delivery van.
Due to their increased living space and relatively cheap entry price, these are also popular as DIY ‘panel van’ conversions, often favoured by ‘van-lifers’ – people who have chosen to live off-grid in their vehicles to avoid ever-rising house prices.
VW LT campervan parts can be tricky to come by, especially for the first generation models.
RHD or LHD?
If you live in the UK and only plan to travel here then RHD is the obvious choice for the newer Campervan options. If you are leaning towards a classic, then less rusty LHD imports – especially if they originate from the US – make more sense. You will soon get used to driving on the wrong side, and should you decide to tour Europe or further afield in the future you’ll be ready!
Which VW Campervan can I afford?
So, you’ve seen the styles and the base vehicles that each VW Campervan is built around. Maybe you are closer to making a choice, or perhaps the purchase prices will influence the final decision for you? With money in mind, here are a few price points to help narrow things down even further.
Can I get a VW Campervan for less than £5000?
Yes… You could buy a VW Type 25 or VW T4 for less than £5000. What will you get? Probably a DIY conversion ‘day van’ either a Tin-Top or a High-Top. A Bay Window project or even a T5 panel van ‘blank canvas’ could be possible on a £5,000 budget too.
Should I buy a project?
You could save money, or buy a vehicle beyond your initial price point by purchasing a project Van – but beware as classic Buses rust, and restoration costs will quickly spiral. Especially if you’re starting with a UK Van.
Moreover, it may have lots of parts missing, so it could become more costly in the long run. Ask yourself, are you looking for a Camper to use straight away? A quick project in reality, is never a quick project!
On the plus side, a project offers you the chance to personalise the vehicle to your tastes, as you build it. Whether that is deciding on paint for the outside, the colour of the campervan fittings and trim inside, or even choosing new wheels it will truly be yours when you are done.
Stock or modified?
Whatever the era, Transporters that have been sympathetically lowered look more pleasing, visually, but if you pick something that’s so low it’s digging up daisies you’ll be compromising on practicality as a Camper. Additionally, Vans that are too far removed from the factory spec will usually be more difficult to resell – unless the owner’s kept all the original bits which can be swapped back on and not gone too mental with paint colours. Unless you want a show Bus, subtlety is probably the way to go.
What can I buy for £10k?
Your options are much wider with £10,000 in your pocket. You’ll still be choosing between a Type 25, a T4 and a T5, but you can now afford to buy ‘an official conversion’ in the older Vans at least. The occasional roadworthy Bay Window will fall into your budget too if you are set on owning something much older.
What can I buy for £15k?
Along with all those previously mentioned you’ve now entered ‘Coachbuilt’ territory, namely T4 and Type 25. Bay Window buses are definitely on the cards with £15k to hand and you could even grab a Split Screen project or a Brazilian ‘Fleetline’ import with your hard-earned. (The Fleetline was produced in Brazil until the mid-seventies, using a Split Screen body but a mixture of ‘leftover’ running gear components from Beetle and Bus.)
How much could I spend on a VW Campervan?
You could spend over £100k if you really wanted to, but you don’t have to. The older the Bus the more expensive it is, likewise the newer the Bus the more expensive it is. If you have your heart set on an original German-built Split Screen you’ll be needing £20k plus and if you want a brand new T6.1 you could spend £50k pretty easily – just on the Van – and another £30-£40k on the camper conversion.
If you are shopping online, stay safe. Sadly there are scammers out there to catch out the less cautious Campervan shopper. If it looks too cheap, or the account has no feedback, or the description isn’t really compelling (genuine adverts tend to have a story attached, or a list of works carried out) it is probably a scam.
Hopefully this guide has given you some idea of what model best suits your requirements and budget. Next step is to do some more in-depth research with our various buying guides (see Further Reading boxout). Meanwhile, here’s to the start of your VW Campervan journey.
Words Andy Gregory / Heritage Parts Centre / Camper&Bus
Photos Lee Milner / Heritage Parts Centre / Paul Knight / Volkswagen
If you really want an in-depth insight into what Bus to buy, check out our back issues…
Split Screen Bus Buying Guide : Aug 2020 issue
Bay Window Bus Buying Guide : April 2021 issue
T25 Model guide : Feb 2021 issue
T4 Buying Guide : Sept 2020 issue
First T5 : Sept 2020 issue