I am sitting in my ageing VW T4 California, sipping a beer and admiring a rather nice Hymer van opposite. “Why don’t we get one of those,” I ask my wife. A conversation starts as we pop open another hoppy IPA from the fridge: what is it about a small utility campervan that is so appealing? We wrote down our Top 10 quirky reasons why our next van will be another California.
- Wide-door: Pull up alongside that beach, with a nice off-shore breeze, and open that wide sliding door to hear the gentle folding waves and get the kettle on. It is like being outside, yet also inside. Not many larger vans open up to the outside; they feel like enclosed caravans.
- Den building: Do you remember building a den as a kid: chairs and blankets, and secret rooms to hide from the world and create an imaginary space. Tape together large cardboard boxes and cut open windows and doors – your secret lair. The van feels the same – it is cosy, warm and enveloping in the same way, with curtains drawn and reading lights switched on.
- TreeHouse: Likewise, the pop-up roof feels like a treehouse, something you climb into to get away from the world and listen to the owls at night or take that mid-afternoon nap to the soundtrack of a remote beach.
- Dining area: It is a small van, but the dining area is very comfortable. The ingenious convertible space beats the dedicated sections of a mid-sized van. With all the curtains open, you have a 270-degree view: try finding that in larger vans or any restaurants.
- Less is more: There is a temptation to carry more stuff with a larger van, and there is satisfaction in taking what you need for your trip. I use ‘thunderbird’ packs, with the gear stored in boxes that meet the mission requirements (walking, cycling, BBQ with friends). A smaller van forces you to be lighter and smarter like a backpacker focused on saving weight and bulk.
- Small and nimble: I followed a VW T6 California along the M6 for a few miles and noticed how small it was. Large SUVs are getting too big! My van will go where most cars will go (except very low car parks under 2m). This means you can get to more places and travel with confidence along narrows roads: which is where the adventures start after all. I can park it at home without the neighbours complaining too.
- Ferry fees: At less than 5m long, ferry fees are lower, and I like ferry travel on a bike and with the van. Likewise, some toll routes classify your vehicle as a car, and the fees are lower, something that is a serious consideration in Europe.
- Driving experience: OK, it is not quite a sports car, but I have no difficulty maintaining pace and overtaking with confidence – in a 20-year old T4. I imagine the later T5/T6’s are even better, but getting to your destination is as good as driving a normal car.
- Economy: Aerodynamics and low weight contribute to 30-35mpg, which is lower consumption than larger vehicles. Depreciation for my T4 is exceptional; it might even start appreciating. I paid £28k in 2001, which is £500 a year (although maintenance costs are likely to increase). It is a keeper.
- Utility: Lastly, the T4 is more than a camper. I have used it to move house twice (and to move my kids from flat to flat countless times); carry large loads for friends; transport motorbikes; transport garden waste to recycling; and many other varied uses, with seats in place or removed. Try doing that with a Hymer with a narrow door.
Many of you will have reached a similar conclusion, but what have I missed (apart from the usual sales speak and technical bits)? What is it that persuades you to buy a VW California or similar conversion?