You’ll hear people talking about their late-model motorhome, travel trailer, and other traditional categories at an RV show. But what would you do if you heard someone talking about their 1965 Westy Splitty Kombi SO34? The Class B motorhome, also known as a campervan, is a category that has had accordion-like popularity in the USA. Today’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge ProMaster chassis campervans can trace their origins to the beginning of the Vintage Era (1945-1970).
Join us as we travel through the history of campervans. We’ll explore how the #VanLife started, American societies changing opinion of the category through the decades, and how one van forever altered the RV industry.
It All Started With a Post-WWII German Utility Vehicle
In 1934, Porsche created a daughter brand in Germany, naming it the “people’s car.” Four years later, the Type 1 sedan became endorsed by the Third Reich. They used it as a general-purpose non-military vehicle throughout World War II. The original Beetle (the nickname of the Type 1) didn’t see much production since the allies bombed it a few years later.
Once the war was over, Volkswagen rebuilt and continued the production of the Type 1. Yet, with all the destruction and need to rebuild Germany, both individuals and companies needed a light utility vehicle; cargo needed moving, and groups of people had to travel together.
Dutch businessman Ben Pon sketched a small bus that could traverse the European streets. The light-duty utility vehicle could serve multiple purposes. The rectangular body could act as a small bus or enclosed cargo carrier. Pon also sketched a version where the back was open, making it a pickup truck. Pon used his connections to send his idea to Volkswagen’s engineering department.
The VW engineers evolved his idea, and in November 1949, the Type 2 Kombi Transporter began production. The French announced the Citroën H Van in 1947, but the German people preferred the smaller Kombi made with pride in the Fatherland.
Splitty VW Kombi
The original Kombi had a two-paneled windshield that would become known as the “Splitty.” The first passenger model had two rear bench seats, windows around the upper sidewalls, and a two-toned front cap. The cargo panel van had a windshield, front side, and rear windows. It came in a single color.
Six years later, new versions added additional windows and a sunroof to the passenger busses. One of the cargo styles realized Pon’s pickup idea, but both sides had gates.
The Splitty VW Kombi was a remarkable vehicle. Its small air-cooled rear rotary engine was fuel-efficient and tough. This purely mechanical vehicle can still turn some heads today, even when compared to today’s best-selling campervan chassis.
When you compare the Kombi to the Sprinter, today’s van can win a speed, towing, and hauling race. Yet, the Kombi is almost three times lighter and has about the same fuel efficiency as the Sprinter. It does this with half a liter less in the engine. We could imagine the conversation:
VW Kombi Splitty: “Hey Sprinter, you need to drop the turbo and enjoy the ride, man.”
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: “Get a car wash, Hippie.”
|1950s VW Kombi Splitty||2022 Mercedes Sprinter 2500|
|Engine||1.5L Flat 4 Diesel||2.0L Inline 4 Turbo Diesel|
|Horsepower @ Torque||44 @ 56 lb./ft.||161 @ 266 lb./ft.|
|Drivetrain||Rear Wheel Drive||Rear Wheel Drive|
|Unloaded Vehicle Weight||1,650 lbs.||4,696 lbs.|
|Fuel Efficiency (miles per gallon)||20 mpg combined||22 mpg combined|
|Top Speed (miles per hour)||68 mph||100 mph|
|Payload Capacity||2,205 lbs.||4,111 lbs.|
|Towing Capacity||2,000 lbs.||5,000 lbs.|
The Best-Worst Decision Volkswagen Ever Made
Two years after the Volkswagen Kombi hit the German streets, the company had a problem. The Type 2 was so popular – they couldn’t keep up with client orders. It wasn’t a materials issue like the RV backlog of the Remote Era (2020-2023). VW didn’t have the labor or facilities to keep up with the work orders. Volkswagen’s decision to contract third-party vendors was the best worst decision they ever made.
Companies like Danbury, Devon, Dormobile, Viking, and Westfalia (“Westy”), would receive unfinished Type 2s from VW at discounted rates. These third parties would complete the interiors as long as they met the basic scheme VW set. In other words, Devon could use different fabrics. Still, in a side-by-side comparison, the stitching patterns and the overall interior look had to have some connection to what Volkswagen produced.
The Birth of the Campervan
In 1951, a British Officer approached Westfalia with a special order. He wanted a “Camping Box” installed in a Kombi, allowing him to live in the vehicle. While stationed in Wiedenbrück, Germany, he wanted a vehicle that had living accommodations. The resulting Kombi had a double side door, a complete set of curtains, a sofa, a folding table, a roll-front cabinet, and a seat bench. The company loved it so much that they began offering the floor plan to their customers. Hence, the birth of the campervan!
For the rest of the 1950s, the VW Splitty Westy Campervan was such a hit in Germany; the other vendors soon created their versions. Today, we see this in modern RV companies like Thor Motor Coach, Forest River, and others buying stripped-out vans and finishing them with RV interiors.
The difference is, once Volkswagen realized they were losing money from the campervan market, they tried bringing it back in-house. Unfortunately, the demand was too great, and Westfalia led the pack. VW designed a campervan interior and competed against its vendors.
VW Kombis in the USA
The Westy SO34 and SO42 were the first Type 2 campervans in the United States. Westfalia’s SO34 came in the Splitty VW Bus. The vehicle had multifunctional furniture and grey plastic surfaces.
The SO42, seen in both versions of the VW Bay (Bay refers to the single glass windshield version), had insulation. Advancements included an icebox, water tank, wardrobe with mirror, and other features. Towards the end of the American production, the pop-up roof became a standard feature giving more room in the kitchenette.
In the mid-1960s, Volkswagen’s Type 1 and 2 were the best-selling vehicles in the United States. Detroit’s Big 3 (Chrysler, Ford, and GM) were having a hard time competing against these small fuel-efficient vehicles in the age of the muscle car. So after lobbying and international political events, President Lyndon Johnson imposed the “Chicken Tax/Tariff,” which increased import prices on several items. One of which included foreign vehicles to help American automakers.
By 1979, Westfalia and Volkswagen had pulled out of the American market. VW shut down the German factory that produced the Kombi Type 2 retooling for the next evolution of the van sold only in Europe. The Type 2 Late Bay Kombi would stay in production in Brazil until 2013, but Westfalia would focus on the European campervan market.
You can still find collectors out there that have restored the various Kombi campervans on the road today. There are also some for sale that needs some TLC. Parts still exist, and you can find tradeshows in your area. Learn about how VW built them, the differences between each year, and other things if you want to restore one of these campervans.
Riding in Style With Conversion Vans
In the Modern Era (2008-Present), the term “van conversion” has two different meanings. The new understanding relates to taking a cargo van to a specialty van conversion company. Once there, the van gets added features making it a self-contained RV, turning it into a Class B motorhome with a sleeping space, kitchen, bathroom, dining/work area, and other features.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the original meaning of a conversion van was a full-size van with additional features that made long rides more comfortable. Such features included:
- Full carpeting that had more of a residential feel
- Insulated sidewalls that had speakers and other amenities
- Second-row captain chairs
- A third-row bench that converted into a bed
- Overall plush seating
- Additional entertainment features like a TV, VCR, rear radio with headphone jacks
- Electric kitchen features
You could spend a night or two in these converted vans, but there’s only so much you could do in them. Without plumbing and other necessities, you’d need to keep a weather eye for a rest area and dining opportunities along your journey.
Even though these were the last years of the Kombi Splitty, the American vans had some interest in the campervan community. When the traditional RV lifestyle picked up again in the Classic Era (1971-1989), that’s when the mentality changed for campervans.
After the 1973 OPEC gas crisis, the RV community had a new list of requirements:
- More space
- Avoid gas-guzzling V8s if possible
Today’s conversion vans are used as mobile offices, limousine alternatives, and more. The plush leather interiors, multi-speaker surround sound systems, and built-in internet network allow everyone inside to experience the best theatre quality experience.
Whether they’re watching a mounted LED TV or using a tablet, all seven passengers (not including the driver) can sit comfortably, take care of business, and even enjoy a beverage or two.
Sportsmobile’s Long Memory
One of the companies that remember this time the best is Sportsmobile. In 1961, they started as Sportswagons in El Paso, Texas. Curtis and Charles Borskey were the Westfalia of the United States. As they expanded around the country, they changed their brand name to Sportsmobile a few years later. They kept the campervan floorplans alive but also built conversion vans from base model Kombis.
Once the 1961 Ford Econoline hit the production lines, Sportsmobile adjusted current and made new floorplans for the American Van Revolution. By 1964, Chevy’s Greenbrier (a.k.a. Corvan) and Dodge’s A-Vans were ready to compete against their US and German competition.
When you look at Sportsmobile’s history, you’ll walk through a virtual museum of campervans and conversion vans from 1961 to today. The 1970s brought on the pop-top Penthouse in the VW Kombi. It also gives you a glimpse into the California surfing craze of the shag carpet Surfer built on the Dodge B-Van.
The 1970s brought on their Town & Country Pleasure Wagon Campervans when avocado green complimented harvest gold plaid upholstery and dark walnut cabinetry. The 1980s toned down the decor but continued with the pop-top, roof expansion cap, and other technological marvels as they developed.
Roadtrek Hangs its Shingle
Canadian Jac Hanemaayer had a dream of designing an RV in 1974. Working with Home & Park Vehicles, he combined the features of a large Class A motorhome into an easy-to-drive full-size van. By 1980, the iconic sweeping roofline and lowered, three-section floor plan became a standard-issue feature with their campervans. Hanemaayer now owned the company and renamed it Roadtrek.
Roadtrek did well in the 1980s and 90s. You’d see one or two pass you by on the road, but Class A and Class C motorhome sales were running circles around them. Still, you’d live a fully self-contained RV life in them with a convertible bed, wet bath, kitchenette, and other features.
Located in Saskatchewan, Canada, Merv Rumpel wanted more out of the RV industry than his Glennwood Trailer dealership. So after 18 years of selling all of the other categories, he used his back lot building as a production shop for the first 10 Class B motorhomes. Once built, he sold them under his new brand, Pleasure-Way, in 1986.
By 1988, he was shipping his campervans to Alberta and Manitoba RV dealerships. As the brand became more popular, his 1,000th Pleasure-Way van left the production shop in 1994. Rumpel’s vans used the Dodge chassis, but in 2002, they switched to the Ford E-Series when Dodge stopped producing their American-style vans. Two years later, Pleasure-Way would return to Dodge using one of the most important motorhome chassis the RV industry has ever seen.
The Industry Changing Sprinter Van
In the RV industry, a select number of chassis have changed motorhome design. They’ve benefited floorplans, added strength, and opened the drivable RV sector to possibilities never seen before (in no specific order):
- Dodge M-series Chassis
- The Osh Kosh/Freightliner RV Chassis
- Ford F-53 Chassis
- Ford E-Series
- Chevrolet G and Express Series
- Toyota Hilux Chassis
- Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Series
When Mercedes-Benz merged with Daimler-Chrysler, one of their intentions was to introduce their Sprinter van to North America. The biggest hurdle was convincing this part of the world that Mercedes had more to offer than luxury-level cars and SUVs.
To everybody else, Mercedes-Benz is the General Motors of the world. They make vehicles of all shapes and sizes for virtually every economic level. So the solution was to sell the Sprinter under the cloak of one of Chrysler’s best-selling brands.
From 2003-2008, Mercedes sold the Sprinter under the Dodge brand, giving U.S. and Canadian customers the idea that this European-styled van was a rugged workhorse full of potential. Instead of the wide wheelbase, rectangular American-style van the public had known for decades, the Sprinter uses a narrower wheelbase with a rectangular shape.
The Sprinter allowed users to stand upright, had similar capabilities as the American-style V6, but came in a 2.7L inline 5 with 154 horsepower @ 243 lb./ft. torque. North America saw this fuel-efficient van perform well against the American-style competition for the next five years.
The Big 4 RV manufacturers (Forest River, REV Group, Thor Ind., and Winnebago Ind.), Roadtrek, and Pleasure-Way switched out their van chassis to the Sprinter.
Mercedes-Benz did everything to infuse the Sprinter into every aspect of American life, to convince consumers that the Euro-style van is better than the classic American-style van. Of course, they also made sure to sell the public on the idea that the Sprinter was the best one.
When Mercedes-Benz sold Daimler-Chrysler to Fiat in 2009, the Sprinter was in the hearts and minds of North America. So Mercedes took its van back. The company placed its logo on the front hood and continued selling the Sprinter under its authentic brand.
The Effects of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in the US
In 2002, Ford found out what Mercedes-Benz would do so they brought their European van, the Transit (that dates back to 1965 in Europe), to the US game. Fiat also imported their Ducato European van to America. Fiat exchanged the chassis and engine for Chrysler components to calibrate it to American standards and called it the ProMaster (the ProMaster City comes from Turkey).
Today, the popularity of the European-style van chassis has expanded into different sectors of the RV categories. We see it in the subcategory B+ and the small-chassis Class C. You’ll find Class B touring coaches like the 2022 Airstream Atlas, which has a starting price of $276,106. On the other end, you can build a DIY stealth campervan that barely reaches $30,000.
Why Are Sprinter Campervans So Popular?
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Campervan’s popularity resides in its versatility. The van has the right specs, whether you have the 2.0L inline 4-cylinder gas engine, older 2.7L inline 5, or the 3.0L V6 diesel. You’ll have plenty of horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency to cruise the highways.
Inside the motorcoach, the floor-to-ceiling height allows most people to stand straight. The structural components like the shell, frame, and floor come from the factory with a builder’s mindset. It doesn’t take much to connect insulation, interior walls, and other components to them.
Sprinters are easy to drive and don’t take much practice to adapt. In addition, all Mercedes-Benz vehicles have a high mileage oil change requirement, so depending on how much you travel, one oil change a year may keep you going.
As time progressed, Mercedes expanded its licensing for Sprinter servicing. You’ll probably never find a locally owned repair shop in a small town that’s licensed to work on your van, but the nearest big city probably has a shop that can do the work.
What Does the Future Hold for the Campervan?
Before all of the controversy, Camping World and Lordstown had a plan to revolutionize the RV industry even further. Using a Lordstown EV truck chassis, they would use the Class B motorhome as a model to create the first Class E motorhome. It would be the first all-electric drivable RV.
One battery bank would power the automotive and coach sections. Unfortunately, those plans are on hold, but they aren’t the only ones with the idea. Other companies are also trying their hand at the concept too.
We can say that the first all-electric motorhome is more than likely going to be a campervan or something similar to it. The EV technology is still in its toddler years, so who knows what the future will hold.