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.

26 Reader Comments

  • 1
    David Houston, TX February 11, 2015 at 14:59
    Some of our most treasured family memories are of camping in a '72 tintop (no poptop) in West Texas and New Mexico. The parallel slat windows were one of its best features, you could leave them open in the rain and never get wet, when driving the wind whooshed through the screens. Over the years it got reupholstered, new paint, engine top end rebuilt, stereo... for all I know it may still be running. Like she mentioned, it was SLOW - a headwind would reduce its top speed to 50-55, and mileage was never above 20 mpg at any speed. Too few ponies pushing the aerodynamic equivalent of a vertical sheet of plywood through the air.
  • 2
    Eric Shafor Lebanon, Ohio February 11, 2015 at 15:48
    One of the best ways we have of recapturing our youth and memories is with cars. Thank you Elaine for sharing your story.
  • 3
    Frank Cash Ft. Worth Texas February 11, 2015 at 16:05
    for roughing it I would agree take the VW. You can have just as much fun with more comfort in the full sizs RV and still be off the grid. actually more so. The VW has no on board generator
  • 4
    Cappy Stahlman Natchez, Mississippi February 11, 2015 at 16:26
    Great! Just purchased a 73 Classic Orange Westy. Is nice now, hope to fully restore it this summer!
  • 5
    Jason Indiana February 11, 2015 at 16:35
    I have a 1972 volkswagen camper by sportsmobile. I called Hagerty and was informed that you do not cover van's or campers.
  • 6
    WILLIAM BOSSA Portsmouth, VA February 11, 2015 at 17:26
    Awesome Story....Elaine. Safe Travels would like to hear more about your adventures. Regards Bill
  • 7
    Steve Chenault Ohio February 11, 2015 at 17:48
    I don't understand ? When we insure Our campmobile with Hagerty we were told we were Not Allowed to use it for camping and that Hagerty Does Not insure this type of use. So we had to promiss not to use it for that purpose. Steve
  • 8
    Russ Newington, CT February 11, 2015 at 19:00
    Welcome to the club, I also own a 1972 VW Westie, acquired thru TheSamba.com. We don't camp in it but enjoy the weekend cruises and meeting with people that all have some story related to the VW bus. As I tell everyone when we go for a drive, "Time for an Adventure in Slow Motion". We don't plan on breaking and speed records. It is a fun vehicle
  • 9
    Jim Gray United States February 11, 2015 at 19:19
    Larsson... I loved your story. Right up to the point of your Dad's passing. How wonderful he was able to see you with your 'Westy' and to take one last ride. Very cool. I too, grew up with Volkswagens and have many fond memories of camping and trips with my family. I currently own a few VW's and wish you safe and happy travels in yours... Best regards, Jim Gray Jim Gray Designs jimgraydesigns.com jim@jimgraydesigns.com 850-509-9473
  • 10
    Bob Masssachusetts February 11, 2015 at 19:33
    Great story! Did a lot of camping over the years, and always thought these Campmobiles were the coolest! Wonder if Elaine is looking for a partner for her campimg trips?
  • 11
    Ben Cavileer United States February 11, 2015 at 19:35
    Congrats, thats what the hobby is about. Memories and enjoying the great vintage cars. Best of luck, your Dad will be proud!
  • 12
    Dave Iowa February 11, 2015 at 19:46
    Saw one last summer for the first time at a car show near Luther, IA. Very imaginative for the time!
  • 13
    David Etter Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada February 11, 2015 at 20:29
    Elaine.. Three suggestions. First: Get the proper tires 185/14 R 8 ply rating. Second: Join the "Aircooled Interstate Rescue Squad" They also have a facebook page. Three: get a Cylinder head temperature gauge installed Lots of other important ideas byt start there. Good Luck! 78,84, 82 Westys. David Etter
  • 14
    Walt United States February 11, 2015 at 21:21
    Elaine, Sorry about your Dad and I'm glad he was able to ride in your '72 Westy. I've been searching for one myself. They are hard to find in as good a shape as yours. Good luck and enjoy. Walt
  • 15
    jay salser Garland, Texas February 11, 2015 at 22:40
    That 1970 Camper had a 1.6 liter engine. The 1.7 came in 1972 with the advent of the Type 4 powertrain. The 1.7 was radically different from the 1.6 (the 1.6 actually was the same as the Beetle engine). jay
  • 16
    Chris California February 12, 2015 at 01:43
    Nice! I have my Dad's 64 double door camper bus. Enjoy your's. A 72 is comfortable enough to drive all over. The 64 is rough ride, but I have a lot of fun with it. Cheers. I'm on the type2.com email list. Join in with the fun if you can.
  • 17
    LMK NYC February 12, 2015 at 06:19
    Great story. I had a 1969 VW camper when I was 19 years old in 1978. I have fond memories of it and the places it took me. Have fun Elaine .
  • 18
    Dave A Syracuse February 12, 2015 at 08:38
    I had a Westvalia for a number of years. It was our Mom bomb to haul the kids. Memorable episodes were wind induced 2+ lane changes going over the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Inducing over due wife's labor by driving my wife through the Jersey Pine Barrons. And the coup de gras - driving with a Coleman white gas heater in front with sleeping bags covering driver & passenger. We HAD to sell it when we moved to Syracuse where they have REAL winters. It NEVER got warm inside. Like driving a mobile duck blind.
  • 19
    James Holter Minnesota February 12, 2015 at 09:21
    My memory is my wife - two small children - two big labrador retreivers - pulling a small trailer with a canoe. Never better times. Oh - having to park on a incline to get it started. (Orange 1970)
  • 20
    Bill simmons Waterford va February 12, 2015 at 21:59
    I bought me Westy last year. A 1973 fully restored camper. The engine leaks oil but I love this car as it returns several memories of my childhood. This is a great story and commen to many Bus owners. Good luck on your journey hope to see you on the road some day
  • 21
    Paul Jenkins inc Princee Edward Island Canada February 12, 2015 at 10:25
    Having had several campers during my lifetime from a Wessie to a 45 footer Motorhome the Wessie was a front runner for sure
  • 22
    Chris K Northern Michigan February 13, 2015 at 09:08
    Great story and my first vehicle was a 1972 microbus as we called it, not a camper but a great VW.
  • 23
    Dave Phila PA February 13, 2015 at 09:51
    Nice Find! If Elaine wants some company this Spring on her camping trips, I can get the time off of work!
  • 24
    Cappy Stahlman Natchez, Mississippi February 15, 2015 at 21:08
    Great! Just purchased a 73 Classic Orange Westy. Is nice now, hope to fully restore it this summer!
  • 25
    Iris nr. Collingwood Canada February 16, 2015 at 02:23
    bought my 79 Westie in 1980, lots of fun had, No longer used for camping, although we have very fond memories.
  • 26
    Marty Duke Renton, WA September 1, 2015 at 12:49
    I just tried getting insurance, through Hagerty, for my 1972 VW camper , and was told they absolutely would not insure it if I ever used it for camping. it makes me wonder if she was mislead about their coverage.

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