5 February 2015

Ask the Woman Who Owns One: Elaine Larsson and Her 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia Campmobile

If you’ve ever thought of “going off the grid,” don’t think for a minute that cruising the country in a full-on RV with granite countertops, built-in flat screen TVs and WiFi could ever qualify. To do it right, there’s really only one vehicle for the job, the Volkswagen camper.

Elaine Larsson of Hillsdale, N.J. isn’t planning on bidding adieu to civilization, but she is mapping out camping plans for the spring with her recently acquired 1972 VW camper. The proper name is Campmobile, and it was a factory-contracted camper conversion by a German company, Westfalia. You’ll hear owners call them “Westys.”

Buying the vintage camper was no whim. Larsson had for many years been combing classifieds and then the Internet for a particular VW Campmobile, the 1970 model that her family took on three-week camping journeys in the 1970s. She grew up in Jersey City, N.J., the youngest of five children. The family could not afford to go away on vacations beyond a few days at a lake or daytrips to the Jersey Shore.

That changed in 1972, when her father, a police officer, bought a used 1970 VW Campmobile. Her dad was able to accrue six weeks of vacation time, and the family would spend it on the road.

“That was our passport to freedom,” says Larsson about the camper.

On most trips, the crew included Larsson, her parents and one older brother. The Campmobile took the group to destinations as close as the Adirondack Mountains in New York and as far-flung as Florida and even the West Coast. On one trip, the family picked up another of her brothers in San Diego and headed throughout California and Canada.

“We would not have been able to do any of that if we weren’t camping for 10 dollars a night,” Larsson says.

Getting there took time, as the camper, with its 1.7-liter air-cooled flat four making 67-horsepower, could struggle to maintain 60 mph on the highway. Hills were always a challenge.

“It was slow, but we never thought about that as kids,” she says.

This jaunty VW is more of a mobile campsite than a mini RV. It’s more secure and comfortable than a tent, but as Larsson recalls from a trip through Colorado to visit two other brothers, not much warmer.

“It was summer, but it was in the mountains. We woke up freezing,” she recalls.

Accommodations made the most of the boxy body’s space. A rear bench-style seat folds into a bed for two. A table folds out for dining. The highlight, and the feature that seems to get the most attention today, is the pop-top roof that provides stand-up room inside and also offers another bed. The camping equipment, which varied over the model years, also included a small canvas cot to be suspended over the front seats.

“That was my bed until my feet started sticking through the window,” Larsson says.

The Campmobile included a 120v connection for use at campsites that provided electrical hookup. A functional sink used water from a small onboard tank, and you could get an optional fridge compartment and propane cooktop.

Larsson’s family moved to Florida in 1977 and took the Campmobile. It became their headquarters for daytrips to the beach, where they towed a small sailboat. Her dad sold the VW in 1990. Unable to locate it to repurchase years later, she looked for another but wanted one in finished condition, not a fixer.

This past spring, while visiting North Carolina, she found one on The Samba, the VW classifieds website named for the earlier 23- or 21-window version of the VW bus. After all her searching, the one she found was back home, just one town over from her in River Vale, N.J. It was in outstanding condition, too. It was also sold, the owner told her, to a man in the U.K. He was just waiting for final payment before shipping.

When she returned home, Larsson met the seller, who let her test-drive the camper anyway. It was white, just like her family’s Campmobile. A week later, there was good news; the buyer had reneged. Larsson didn’t hesitate to swoop in and pick it up.

Even before she begins her new camping adventures, Larsson may have already made her best memory in the Campmobile. Last June, her father visited from Florida and rode in the iconic VW. He passed away the next month.

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