Choosing a van

On Choosing a Vehicle for Overlanding

by Andy

Apart from the obvious ‘Why can’t you just fly?’, one other question frequently asked of us is this: ‘Why on Earth take a VW camper van?’ Choosing a vehicle in which you are going to be spending six months of your life is not a decision to be taken lightly, especially when the vehicle is also going to be trusted with the task of taking you 30,000 miles over some of the most diverse landscapes in the World. Needless to say then, a great deal of thought was put into our decision, so in this article, I hope to explain the reasons behind our choice and something about VW camper vans in general.

Driving from London to Sydney is no mean achievement, so our main requirement was simply that our vehicle would be up to the challenge. Almost all of the teams who have attempted the London to Sydney route in the past have used Landrover Defenders, and with good reason. Landrover vehicles have proved themselves time and time again to be very dependable vehicles under tough conditions and well suited to a wide variety of overland expeditions.

So why look for something different? Well, apart from reliability and competence on demanding road conditions, we were looking for a vehicle that offered us two more things:

  • Respectable accommodation for the team
  • Ease of maintenance and repair, should things go wrong

And this all while keeping to a strict budget! A tall order, you might say, but in a VW camper van, we feel that we found a vehicle to meet our needs.

So, to start with, we needed a vehicle that would take us confidently take us over some petty testing road conditions. The VW Type 2 van (the type of van on which our camper is based) has a very robust suspension system which can take a significant amount of abuse. The ground clearance is good, reducing the risk of grounding the vehicle on rough road surfaces, and the Type 2 also offers a generous payload so that we can safely transport all our gear and equipment.

We also wanted to know that when the vehicle needed repairing, this could be done easily and relatively cheaply. VW Type 2s are equipped with air-cooled engines, and one of the advantages of air-cooled engines is that they are generally simpler than their water-cooled counterparts. They have no water pump, radiator or hoses and they are not surrounded by a water jacket which makes them much easier to work on, especially under less-than-ideal working conditions. Air cooling also removes the worry of the coolant freezing in cold weather, or boiling in the hot weather. Of course, air-cooled engines also have a number of disadvantages, but none that we felt were significant for our purposes.

VW’s air-cooled engines also demonstrate a reassuring pluckiness when it comes to soldiering on despite everything, even when many engines would have given up long ago. Squiffy’s original engine being an excellent example! The fact that I myself have a good deal of experience working with air-cooled VWs was also a deciding factor—I felt confident that I would be able to tackle most of the mechanical problems that we were likely to be facing on the road.

It’s also worth mentioning that VW Type 2 vans have a very pleasant driving position allowing you to sit nicely upright with the steering wheel resting comfortably under your hands. This, coupled with the excellent visibility, means that driver fatigue is less of a problem than with some other vehicles, which bodes well for long distance driving.

But what VW’s Type 2s are really most famous for are the numerous camper conversions which were available over the years. So in choosing a Type 2, we knew that we could find a vehicle to not only carry us safely over the difficult roads to Sydney, but offered us living space with as much comfort as could be expected from the inside of a van. In fact, we decided to go the whole hog and build Squiffy her very own custom interior! If you want to see how we did it, have a look in our diary.

Of course, with a sufficiently relaxed budget, it’s perfectly possible to turn a Landrover Defender (or indeed a lot of other vehicles) into a home on wheels, but for us the costs were just too high.

Over the years VW’s design of their vans was refined and improvements made to almost every aspect of the vehicle. Some changes were quite drastic; others more subtle. But in the last few years of their production (which ended in 1979), it would be fair to say that the vans’ design had reached its peak. They featured the strongest and most powerful engines, front disc brakes, and important safety features such as collapsible steering columns.

So Squiffy fitted our requirements perfectly, and although it couldn’t be said that she was in concourse condition, she did offer us a sound basis for our project. And come July, with our epic journey ahead of us, we’re confident we’re going to have just the vehicle for the job.