Hotel California: Autocar’s least-epic drive in a VW Camper

There’s a variant of Autocar feature we call the ‘epic drive’, where we make a fuss of a particular vehicle by taking it on an extended outing to a significant location. This was supposed to be one of those features. But it’s not, clearly, because this is 2020, the year in which nothing has gone as planned.

We had been plotting an epic drive to celebrate the Volkswagen Transporter. Yes, a van – but one worthy of celebration. The Type 2 entered production in 1950, VW’s cunningly named second vehicle after the Type 1 (the Beetle), in van, minibus and camper form. This was no case of ‘difficult second album’: the T2 was an instant success, playing a key role in VW’s growth from producer of a single affordable hatchback into one of the world’s largest car giants. It has also displayed incredible longevity, with around 13 million sold over an unbroken 70-year production run that sets a record for a commercial vehicle. During that time, the Beetle has gone out of production, been revived as a retro homage and gone out of production again.

Not that the Transporter (the Type 2 name was retired for the fourth-generation T4; the first three generations have confusingly been retconned as T1, T2 and T3) hasn’t changed. As well as being offered in countless variants, garnering enough official names and nicknames to fill the word count for this feature (a small sample includes Camper, Bus, Bulli, Microbus, Caravelle, California, Kombi and Samba), it had been reinvented across six generations. The latest T6.1 models are scarcely comparable to a 1950 T2, but there is a direct continuity.

Worthy of celebration, then. So our plan was to mark seven decades of the VW Transporter with an epic road trip in the latest T6.1 California camper. Having ruled out a ‘summer of love’ road trip in California as being too cliché (Autocar writers are taught to avoid clichés like, erm, oh, you know), we settled on en epic drive to Wolfsburg.

We would detour to the VW factory in Hanover, where various generations of Transporter have been built since 1956. From there, we would head on to VW’s hometown, where production of the Type 2 began in 1950, to line up the California with an original T2 and the ID Buzz concept that previews its electric successor. Along the way, we would camp, eat and sleep in the California, with all that entailed. Ideas were refined, logistics discussed and arrangements made and then… the closest we could get to an epic drive was a trip to the supermarket. Sigh.

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Transporter T5 2003-2015 An evolutionary exterior design, with a focus on improving utility and practicality. The various wheelbase, powertrains and body types meant the T5 was available in more than 100 different combinations.

Transporter T6 2015-present Using the same platform as its predecessor, the current Transporter (which received a heavy facelift in 2019) features a range of new, cleaner engines, greater interior tech and a host of driver assistance systems.