September 11, 2008

Feature:
Across Canada in a ’66 VW Camper

Campground overlooking west Calgary.  Next stop:  Rocky Mountains.
Campground overlooking west Calgary. Next stop: Rocky Mountains. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Photo Gallery:
Across Canada in a ’66 VW Camper

Dedicated to the thousands of bugs across the country who died a quick but spectacularly messy death on the front of my Westy.

Aging male Boomers, like yours truly, are fond of purchasing really old vehicles that, when new, were the object of their teenage car lust. Now that their offspring are off to university and the house is paid off, these grey-haired men finally have the cash to buy the car they desired so passionately forty years ago.

For many Boomers, their dream car is a Detroit muscle car: Camaro, Chevelle, GTO, ‘Cuda, and the like. For others it’s a British sports car: MGB, TR4, Tiger, Healy, E-Type, DB5, and so forth. My particular lust however, was for a bus – or more accurately, a pre-1968, split window Volkswagen Westfalia camper van.

These camperized versions of the popular VW Kombi/Transporter/Microbus first appeared in the early ’50s with removeable “camping boxes” supplied by the German firm of Westfalia. Later versions were sold as fully camperized Westfalia vans at VW dealerships. There were many other aftermarket camper versions of VW bus as well, but Westfalia was arguably the most famous.

Author enjoying a hot coffee and a good book at a KOA campground in Northern Ontario.  Note the Westy\'s pop-up roof, 180-degree opening side doors, \
The Westy's previous owners, Jim and Jacquie Shields, owned the '66 Westy for 20 years.  It was an emotional send-off - they were holding back the tears as I pulled away from their home in Coldwater, Ontario.
I had ten days to make it across the country.
Author enjoying a hot coffee and a good book at a KOA campground in Northern Ontario. Note the Westy’s pop-up roof, 180-degree opening side doors (top); The Westy’s previous owners, Jim and Jacquie Shields, owned the ’66 Westy for 20 years. It was an emotional send-off – they were holding back the tears as I pulled away from their home in Coldwater, Ontario (middle); I had ten days to make it across the country (bottom). Click image to enlarge

I’d always admired the original split-window Westfalia for its unique design and versatile nature: just nine inches longer than a Volkswagen Beetle, the Westy included a folding bed, folding table, water tank, ice-box, clothes cupboards, vent windows with screens, 115 volt hookup, and a pop-up roof. Yet it was small enough and fuel-efficient enough to be used as a daily driver, and could fit inside most parking garages.

The best place to find an old V-dub for sale is TheSamba.com, a U.S. VW enthusiast site – but I quickly realized that properly restored Westys were going for over U.S.$30,000, and they were very hard to find – especially the ones with the front bucket seats and “walkthrough” feature that I wanted. Then, out of the blue, CanadianDriver Senior Editor Paul Williams, alerted me to an ad in Kijiji.ca for a 1966 Westfalia “walkthrough” for sale in Coldwater, Ontario.

Ontario is not the best place to find a well-preserved 42-year old Volkswagen, but after corresponding with the owner, Jim Shields, I found that he and his wife had only used it in the summer and had owned it for the past twenty years. It had a rebuilt 1600-cc motor and was in good running condition. After exchanging e-mails and numerous photos, I decided to buy it sight unseen for the full $12,000 asking price – if it passed an inspection by CanadianDriver Senior Editor Paul Williams, who kindly offered to drive to Coldwater from Ottawa to inspect it.

His verdict: “If you don’t buy it, I will!”.

Now the problem was how to get it back to my home in North Vancouver, B.C. and the obvious answer was to drive it. I’d never driven across the country before and it would be an adventure, I thought. If I could manage to average 90 to 100 km/h on the freeway, I could make it back in about seven days, I figured. I would do it on the cheap by staying at campgrounds along the way and cooking my own meals – after all, that’s the beauty of a Westfalia!

So I bought a one-way air ticket to Toronto, and met Jim, who had generously offered to pick me up, at Pearson airport. An affable chemical salesman in his fifties with a tee shirt that read, “Terrific Timeless Transporter”, Jim treated me with all the respect and authority that a father gives to his future son-in-law. After all, I was about to drive away with his baby.

After completing the necessary paperwork at an Ontario motor vehicle office, I obtained a ten-day temporary permit which was to be affixed to the right hand front window. But I had no license plates. “This might be trouble”, I thought.

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Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and editor of CanadianDriver. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

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