The Surfmobile Devotional. An Ode to the Venerable Volkswagen Vanagon Camper.
by Chris Dixon
The “Nautical Wheeler,” a Seafoam Green surfmobile I once built out for Jimmy Buffett. Photo: Chris Dixon.
In late 1996, a wayward Colorado ski bum puttered up in the parking lot of Surfer/ Snowboarder/ Bike and Powder magazines in Dana Point, California. Keith “Turtle” Carlsen, was driving a dusty 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Campmobile he had affectionately, and appropriately named The Cube, both for its shape and its lack of functioning heat. Little did I know that The Cube, and its owner, would change my life.
Keith “Turtle” Carlsen (right) in The Cube. I still have The Cube’s original gas can and coffee pot. Photo: Damian Riddle
Keith had skied all over the western U.S. and Canada in The Cube before landing in Dana Point and snowplowing his way into a Powder internship under editor Steve Casimiro (today a fellow Vanagon owner who runs Adventure Journal). Some fellow surfer staffers didn’t quite know what to make of this longhaired, parking lot-dwelling Coloradan telemarker, but Keith and I became fast friends. I’d show up every morning for my job as Surfer’s online editor in my boring but functional Suzuki Sidekick, to find the aspiring young journalist sitting in The Cube reading a book with the passenger seat swiveled around and his feet propped up on a cool VW-built utility box that held a porta-potti. The pop-top tent that covered his bed was raised, the stovetop was adorned with a steaming blue kettle and on an extendable table next to the front seat sat a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I quickly came to lust after Turtle’s rolling shell – and the self-contained convenience and freedom it seemed to promise.
Today, vans like The Cube occupy their own longstanding – and increasingly iconic – place in VW history. Conceived when crash testing and the simple march of progress necessitated something new, VW engineers abandoned the venerable Microbus for a curiously stylish, boxy successor to the beloved, breadloaf-shaped people hauler. The very first Vanagon rolled off a German assembly line back in 1979. It was known in Europe as the T25 or Type 25 Transporter, and eventually just the T3. (For a little history, the first Microbus was the Type 2, so named because it followed the Type 1, aka the Beetle.) For the American market, Volkswagen named the T3 “Vanagon” – a genius combination of “Van” and “Station Wagon.”
The above ad is surely blasphemy to the T2 purist.
The T3/Vanagon was still slow – it first ran an aircooled Microbus engine (a 67 horsepower version powered The Cube) before a marginally more powerful water-cooled replacement in 1983, followed by another 10hp boost in 1986. But the T3 was worlds more comfortable and much, much safer than the T2 (Safe as a modern airbag/ABS equipped car of today? No, but the T3’s bricklike construction put it beyond the crash test reach of even the highest rated vehicles from Mercedes and Volvo of the same model years). The Vanagon also boasted a tremendous amount of room (you could stuff a 12 foot surfboard inside) and was the last VW van that a typical garage mechanic could wrench on. The camper – built out by legendary German upfitter Westfalia – was affordable and flat-out badass. It could comfortably sleep four. It had a propane stove, a sink and a fridge, scads of storage space, and could double as a daily driver.
VW quickly realized that the Vanagon was building its own cachet – particularly among mountain folk and surfers, who saw the natural evolution of the Microbus in its clean, angular lines. A Vanagon was recruited by producers for the wildly popular TV show Magnum P.I. as the rolling base for Hawaii’s ficticious “Island Hopper Tours,” and in 1986, VW partnered with Hobie on a special edition “Hobie Cat” Vanagon, that came complete with a windsurfer.
In 1986, VW also introduced perhaps its greatest fetish object, the four-wheel-drive Syncro, a van upfitted by legendary Austrian manufacturer Steyr-Puch, and immortalized in this South African television ad.
The Cube Cleaned Up in Southern California. Photo: Chris Dixon
Fast forward two years after my initial sighting of The Cube. Keith Carlsen and I are now roommates, living in a San Clemente apartment. After a meteoric rise, Keith’s about to be named the youngest ever editor of Powder and he’s just bought a speedy Subaru to jet up to Mammoth Mountain. By summer of 1999, The Cube mostly sits forlornly in our driveway. Yet my days working in an office are fast dwindling. My on-again-off-again girlfriend’s working on a cruise ship that’s running between Manhattan and Bermuda, and I’m looking for an excuse to bail to the East Coast to see her, meet some editors and chase hurricane swells. I pay Turtle $1700 for his shell, load a quiver of boards and crawl east in the Cube. Before long, I’ve logged some editor time, landed a few assignments, and surfed some incredible waves out on Montauk, Long Island. One of those editors also introduces me to a part-time Montauk local named Jimmy Buffett. When I roll up to his place in The Cube, I’m gobsmacked when the Son of a Son of a Sailor offers to hire me to travel with him for a year and blog about the experience. I’m not sure, but I think The Cube had something to do with it.
Eventually, I convince that cruise ship girl (who is today my wife), to move down to Florida with me for my gig with Buffett. On a long, breakdown-heavy camping trek down the East Coast, we write our ode to The Cube.
“Cube House” – Set to the tune of The Commodores (she’s a) “Brick House”
Ow, it’s our Cube……house.
It’s not so mighty, the engine might fall out.
Ow, it’s our Cube……house.
Surfboards are stacked bikes on the back y’all better just stand back.
breakin’ down breakin’ down down. breakin’ down breakin’ down down.
Ya it’s our Cube……house.
It’s the home the mobile home, built like a Vanagon.
breakin’ down breakin’ down down. breakin’ down breakin’ down down.
Inside the Cube you can cook, poop or shower
But it’s only got 67 horsepower
Got a couple o’ beds – not one but two
Pull up the backseat, you got yourself a loo.
A bug graveyard on the grill displayed
Better memorize the number for AAA.
Inherited the van from Carlsen each time it breaks down, we shout, “Fahrvegnugen!”
Ya it’s our cube……house.
It’s the home the mobile home Built like a Vanagon.
Breakin’ down breakin’ down down.
Breakin’ down breakin’ down down. breakin’ down breakin’ down down.
A couple of years after Quinn and I tied the knot, I located the ultimate Vanagon and heck, to me, the ultimate vehicle, period. Foxy Brown was a 1986 four-wheel-drive Syncro Westfalia camper. The Cube went to a good home, though the last I heard, it had blown up its fifth engine after 300,000 miles.
“Foxy Brown.” Photo: Chris Dixon
Soon, Foxy Brown led to a van that was even cooler. Pound Puppy was a Syncro Westy with an Adventurewagen high top that you could stand up in all the time. My wife and I traveled around America in it.
Halfway through our adventure, we again stopped off in Montauk to see JB. When Jimmy saw Pound Puppy, he asked me to find a Syncro for him and build it out (that’s Jimmy standing in front of his Vanagon, mid-restoration). The end result was a Syncro almost too beautiful for words.
Jimmy’s “Nautical Wheeler”
Down in the Keys. Photo: Chris Dixon
And then damned if it wasn’t torched in a garage fire a few years back.
Rust in Pieces.
I’ve now owned five Vanagons. The once and future family surfmobile is Jean Claude Damn Van, a beautiful, pastel white 1991 Westy that was probably one of the last Vanagons to roll off the Westfalia assembly line. If you can work on a car and a house, it’s a tough vehicle to beat as a journalist’s tool and getaway camper for our small brood. If you don’t know a nut from a bolt, you can always drop in a Subaru, VW Turbo or Ford engine, which my brother Watts did to his own Adventurewagen.
Below is a smattering of photos from a near decade of married #VanLife.
We found our dog Frieda on a road trip, appropriately enough, in Pound Puppy. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
Camped out with our friends the Meekins, at Edisto Beach State Park. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
Lulu Behind the Wheel of Foxy Brown. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
Glenn Vanzig. My brother Watts’ Ford powered Adventurewagen. Photo: Watts Dixon.
The Perp. My sister Jeanie’s 1985 Westy. Photo: Chris Dixon
Like Father Like Daughter. Photos: Quinn Dixon
Mom and Fritz Ready for an Edisto Beach hike. Photo: Chris Dixon
My wife made a Westy birthday cake for the Meekins. Mmmm, Oreo Tires. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
VW Thugs. Gang Life with the Meekins and Tomlinsons. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
Jean Claude Damn Van
Up in the roof.
The four above photos: Bobby Altman
Fritz Waxes up in the Shadow of Jean Claude. Photo: Chris Dixon
Jean Claude. Heading for the Florida Keys. Photo: Quinn Dixon.
The Abominable Snow Van. Folly Beach Christmas Parade. Photo: Quinn Dixon
If you want to buy your own – and then build it out yourself, you’d do well to have a start at TheSamba.
And Mike Kansa’s site: Westfalias for Sale…
And a look at Foster Huntington’s Home is Where You Park It.
Here are a few other pieces I’ve written through the years.
The Greatest Car Ever Built.
The New York Times: