My Family and Other Vehicles

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My Family and Other Vehicles

News Article

By: Anna Melville-James

Date: April 8, 2006

Source: Melville-James, Anna. Guardian Unlimited. "My Family and Other Vehicles." 〈,,1748639,00.html〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).

About the Author: Anna Melville-James is a freelance writer specializing in travel, the environment, and family life. Her work has appeared in numerous British publications.


The automobile has played a central role in the development of modern American life. Fueled by cheap petroleum and inspired by an enormously profitable auto industry, Americans are known throughout the world for their dependence on, and their love for, their family cars. With most families now owning multiple cars, suburban homes often devote a substantial portion of their floor space to storing automobiles.

Given their love of cars and driving, as well as the expense of buying airplane tickets for several children, many Americans choose to drive on their summer vacations. The advent of oversized family vehicles with air conditioning and in-car video players in the 1990s made lengthy trips even less daunting to undertake, but long before cross-country travel was comfortable, numerous families loaded up and left home seeking adventure.

Americans, despite their claimed love of leisure, actually take far less vacation time than citizens in most other advanced nations. In 2005, the World Tourism Organization reported that the average American takes only thirteen vacation days per year, far behind workers in Canada (twenty-six), Japan (twenty-five) and Germany (thirty-five). Despite this and other differences, a handful of American and European vacationers share a common passion: their love of the Volkswagen Tent Camper.

Ferdinand Porsche's name is synonymous with expensive performance cars. But in 1931, the German car designer's thoughts were on a different kind of automobile, one that could be mass-produced and afforded by virtually everyone. While the major German automakers were not interested in such a project, Porsche's ideas soon gained the attention of Adolf Hitler, whose dream of a "people's car" led him to fund Porsche's work. The result was the Volkswagen Beetle. Production was set to start just as World War II began and the factory was quickly converted for wartime use, which included military vehicles built on a VW chassis.

Following the war, the British found themselves in possession of the VW factory; unsure what else to do, they began assembling vehicles from leftover parts. The British converted some Beetles to truck-like carriers in order to move parts around the factory, and a foreign customer suggested they create a simple cargo van. In the years that followed, that van evolved into more than ninety different customized designs, including delivery wagons, ice cream trucks, fire engines, and beer haulers. The utilitarian vehicles were prized mainly for their reliability.

Along the way, Volkswagen designed a rudimentary camper van, with a pop-up roof, a sink, and a primitive stove. Like the other vans it was little more than a box on wheels, but it soon found a home in the United States, whose car-crazed residents purchased more than 150,000 of the camper vans in the years leading up to 1963. Despite some minor refinements, the camper van, also known as the VW Type 2, remained spartan and functional throughout its lifetime. The vehicle's low cost and ease of maintenance made it a hit and more than five million were eventually produced.


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Because of their somewhat unconventional appearance, as well as their ability to transport and house numerous people inexpensively, the VW camper became exceptionally popular with the flower children of the 1960s. Painted in psychedelic colors and decorated with oversized flowers and peace symbols, VW campers became the transportation of choice for hippies traveling the country.

The Volkswagen Type 2 remained in production until 1979, when the decades-old design was replaced with a more up-to-date model bearing little resemblance to the original. Although VW campers have not been produced for more than two decades, many of them remain in service—some updated and lavishly furnished—and numerous fan clubs around the world meet to swap stories and trade parts. Several agencies also rent VW campers so anyone can experience the rugged thrill of driving one of these legendary vehicles.

During the 1990s, Volkswagen engineers created a concept car that resembled the Volkswagen Beetle. Intended only for exhibition at the Detroit Auto Show, the car created such a furor that the company decided to produce a new Beetle. The model appeared in dealerships in 1997 and was an instant hit. A similar future appears possible for the venerable VW van. After showing a concept van, VW announced in early 2006 that it would begin production of a new van based on a Chrysler platform. Given the new van's stately appointments and high price, it appears unlikely to attract the same type of buyers as the original.



Eccles, David. VW Camper—The Inside Story: A Guide to VW Camping Conversions and Interiors 1951–2005. Rams-bury, Wiltshire, U.K.: Crowood Press, 2005.

Mintz, Steven. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Seume, Keith. VW Beetle: A Comprehensive Illustrated History of the World's Most Popular Car. Osceola, Wisc.: Motor-books International, 1997.


Brooke, Jill. "Fun for the Entire Family, But Not All at Once." New York Times 155 (2006): 2.

Sansone, Arrica. "You Can Afford a Family Vacation." Good Housekeeping 242 (2006): 136-142.

Taras, Jeffrey. "A Magic Bus for a Weekend or for a Long Strange Trip." New York Times 144 (1995): 11.

Web sites

British Broadcasting Company. "A Brief History of the VW Type II Bus." 〈〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).

Westminster College. "VW History." 〈〉 (accessed July 21, 2006).