Over the years, I’ve owned a fair few classic cars. It all started (as it often seems to) with a Beetle, engine in bits on the back seat, that I bought unseen as an optimistic 19-year-old. Then there were the dark years, when I sank all of my money into rotten Alfas. The less said about that the better. Then there was a Jaguar, a Triumph Herald, a Porsche 944—you get the idea—but of all the classics I’ve owned, the one I thought was least likely to end up in a world- class concours was a scruffy non-running Volkswagen camper that I bought on a whim.
It all started four years ago when I saw a ramshackle VW Bay Window camper on our local garage forecourt, and I was drawn in by its tractor beam. She was a non-runner, the interior was unattached and thrown in the back, and horsehair was poking out of the driver’s seat, which the previous owner had tried to keep in one piece with a flowery aftermarket seat cover. I instantly fell in love, sold my daily driver to pay for it, and never looked back.
I quickly realised that Bessie (as she was named by our then 2-year-old son) was a bit special. An original SO69 Westfalia Campmobile with a bench front seat, almost all of her Westy interior was present and in pretty good condition. Also, the engine problem turned out to be nothing more than an electrical gremlin that was fixed with new leads and plugs
For the next few years, Bessie sat on our driveway, full of buckets, spades, and bodyboards. Most weekends in the summer she’d make the short trip to the beach, and in the winter she hunkered down under a cover. She went a bit crispy round the edges, but we kept her on the road.
Then, one rainy January afternoon earlier this year, I happened to be having a coffee with my pal Gary Axon, who helps Goodwood find cars for its events. He asked me about the camper, and I told him that she was quite rare. “What condition is she in?” he asked. “Not bad,” I lied. “What are you doing at the beginning of July?” he asked.
Before I knew it, I’d been given an invite to take part in the Cartier Style et Luxe Concours d’Elegance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Described on their website as “the finest concours d’elegance in the world, where the most beautiful cars are presented in exceptional condition,” it was obvious I had my work cut out. I rang my mate, bodywork guru Martin Buckrell. “It’s not too bad,” I lied again. Unfortunately, Martin knows me, so he didn’t believe a word I said. “Bring it down and let me have a look,” he said.
So, during the first week of April, Bessie arrived at Martin’s workshop. I’d stripped most of what I could: lights, interior, badges, and other trim. Martin sucked his teeth and wandered around the van, rubbing his brow and muttering to himself. I heard quite a bit of swearing, but a few minutes later he agreed to give it a go.
Over the next few weeks, the full extent of the work became clear as he took the paint and about an inch of filler off the vehicle. Almost every panel had been damaged in the past and repaired, including a significant thump on the front right nose panel. The bottom of both front arches and offside rear arches were rotten, as was the rear valence and both doors. I ordered the replacement parts, bought a couple of solid doors on eBay, and fed Martin a constant flow of new panels
With a few weeks to go, all seemed to be going smoothly. By a superhuman effort, Martin was on course to finish by mid-June, and all was looking rosy… but then I bought a Westfalia Essen trailer on eBay. It was one of those “Ooh, that’ll look nice” moments when you just can’t help but bid. The next thing I knew I was the proud owner of a trailer, despite the fact I didn’t have a tow bar. A few clicks later, and that problem was solved too. All I had to do was restore that in time too.
Actually, all went well. The trailer was in pretty good condition and just needed painting, new tires, and a coat of lacquer.
Martin finished Bessie’s paint on time (after spending a total of 378 hours working on her), and the van looked amazing in its original Pearl White with nice new seals and great panel gaps. The next day she was back in my driveway; I now had 10 days to get her ready. Plenty of time—or so I thought. A quick phone call to the Hagerty office increased the insured value of the van just in case, and I was off.
I started the process of putting her back together, but everything took ages. Wiring connectors came off in my hand, screw holes didn’t line up, and door seals needed to be trimmed and re-glued, then trimmed and re-glued again.
Then came the wheels. At some point in her life, Bessie had been fitted with Late Bay hubs to give her front disc brakes. All good so far, but I wanted the look of the original 5x205 steel wheels, so I bought adaptor plates. The seller assured me they would fit with standard bolts. They didn’t. Then I tried to test fit the new hubcaps I’d bought, and two of the clips on my new wheels broke off.
At this point, with just days to go, I decided I needed help. I remembered meeting a guy named Simon, who specialized in Volkswagens. Simon, who lived not far from me, was my knight in shining armour. He fitted the wheels (cutting the bolts down a fraction so they didn’t foul), then replaced the duff hubcap clips. Then he told me the hubcaps were the wrong ones, and I had to make a quick dash to a parts supplier in the next town to collect a new set.
On the Tuesday of Festival of Speed week, I went to collect the bus. Driving home, a hubcap fell off, then on my drive later that night, another. The sprung steel clips on my new wheels were anything but.
Simon came to the rescue again. On the way to Goodwood I drove in to his workshop, and he quickly removed each of the wheels, riveted new clips, replaced the wheels, and fitted the hubcaps. Proudly, I drove the last few miles to Goodwood, where I parked Bessie alongside an amazing collection of Zagatos, Bentleys, and the most stunning Voisins.
The weekend is still a bit of a blur, actually, like a dream that you wake up from and wonder if it was real. We were invited to the ball where we found ourselves partying in the same room as Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, and Sir Jackie Stewart. The Cartier team was amazing, especially the group of enthusiasts who carefully cleaned our vehicles every few hours.
For me, the best thing about the weekend was standing by Bessie and listening to people talk about her. For some she brought back memories of their own campers, for others she was something they just enjoyed looking at. She brought joy, which is exactly what Volkswagen Type 2s do best.
And she was great to look at, even if I do say so myself. The Pearl White looked stunning in the sunshine, and all the other colours—from the check curtains to the wood panel interior—suddenly made sense. I’d decked her out with a few props from 1970, including some period magazines and toys, which the judges—led by the Queen’s nephew, the Earl of Snowdon (AKA designer David Linley)—seemed to appreciate.
Bessie didn’t win a concours prize; that honour went to a lovely blue Split-Screen single cab. After being a bit upset initially, I quickly came to terms with it. A win would have caused us to think long and hard about how she was used in the future, whether trips to the beach were really the best thing for her, and whether living on the drive under a tarpaulin was appropriate for a concours winner. As it is, we have fantastic memories of a great weekend, and Bessie is full of camping gear ready to go off and fulfil her original purpose nearly 50 years after she was built.
There aren’t many vehicles that can say that, and there aren’t many who can claim to have had a Royal visit. Bessie has always been a bit special.