Every time I’ve been to Tyler Hamersma’s house, there is a different hodge-podge of cars in the driveway. Hamersma can’t abide idle hands, so to keep busy and make a few extra bucks on the side, he buys, fixes, and flips VWs, Audis, and BMWs. But the constant amidst this flux of German metal is Charlotte, his 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia.
Hamersma didn’t have much interest in vans to start, but when a friend bought one and showed him how much fun they could be, what started as an itch became a full-blown obsession. But it’s a labor of love, to be sure. Charlotte holds a special place in Hamersma’s heart because of the many adventures he’s taken in the van with his wife, Liz, and dog, Herman.
“Charlotte is a member of our family,” Hamersma says. “I’ve always been a sports car guy, always had fast cars. But it’s funny, the van is 83 horsepower and 83 square feet (of living space), but it’s one of the most fun cars I own because of that. It’s just different.”
Other people notice that, too. No matter where Hamersma goes with his van, onlookers young and old smile and wave, excited by the teal-colored Vanagon that’s often carrying a paddle board or camping gear.
“All generations see it as something special, like it has all the allure of a Ferrari but appeals to a much more diverse group of people,” Hamersma says. “The van is our ultimate getaway vehicle because it’s pre-packed. We don’t have to deal with tent poles or with staying dry, it’s just pop up the top and we’re camping. Because it’s so easy, it’s that much more appealing to get out and go.”
In between adventures, there’s always lots of repair work and tasteful upgrades to be done to the old van. Whether it’s new wood flooring for the interior or just basic maintenance, Hamersma is happy to put in the work. He’s long been fascinated by taking things apart and putting them back together, so Charlotte is more or less a rolling adventure-mobile, whether it’s out in the world or in his garage.
“When I hydrolocked the motor on my go-kart when I was eight years old, I decided it was time to take it apart and see if I could fix it,” Hamersma says. “And I remember that feeling when I fired it up and it worked. It’s part of my life—I find my solace in the garage.”
Becoming a Vanagon expert, however, was not an overnight endeavor. It’s taken a long time for Hamersma to get as comfortable as he is with working on his van.
“After six of them, I’ve realized this one is the one that’ll stay around. I’ve put so much work into it, and not just from the condition it was in when I pulled it out of the woods in northern Michigan. I’ve spent so much time in it with my wife, and traveling around with our dog, that for her and I it’s now just romantic to get in and drive.”
Through the vanning community Tyler and wife have also made tons of friends, whether they’re out on another trip or letting wayward travelers park in their driveway for the night. It’s a lot of work to keep the Vanagon healthy and running, but the world it’s opened up has been worth every effort.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever truly be done working on it, but I also don’t want to be,” Hamersma says. “I like having little tasks to do and things to complete, and I fear that if I do ever finish it, then it’ll be time for the next thing.”
Something tells me it’ll be a long, long time before that day comes. Because as long as Hamersma has his van, his family, and the open road, his world will be in perfect order.