avatar Andrew Burgess October 7, 2021

Surfing and VW campervans: a brief history of an iconic duo

Take a trip down memory lane to 1950s and 60s California and discover the roots of the inescapable link between surf culture and Volkswagen campervans.

VW campervans conjure up a certain image. Ask anyone what things they associate with campervans and one of the top three answers will be surfing (along with freedom and fun, we’re sure you’ll agree).

Volkswagen campers flock to the beaches of Devon and Cornwall in the UK and Biarritz in France all year round. Virtually every car park by the shore will have several VW Transporters, most converted into campers. It’s like Ant and Dec, fish and chips, and beer and crisps – you can’t imagine one without the other.

But why?

Why have Volkswagen campervans always been the cool choice for surfers? Did surfers make them cool, or was it the other way around?

Let’s take a leisurely drive back through the history books.

The beginning of a beautiful relationship

This cool combination almost certainly originates from the west coast of the USA back in the 1950s and 1960s. The hard times during and immediately following the war had passed, and people were becoming more affluent. This is when surfing really caught the public’s imagination.

Surfing became particularly hot in California with its waves crashing in from the Pacific Ocean. It generated its own culture, fashion, music, and lifestyle. It was a perfect fit for the Volkswagen campervan of the time – the T1 ‘split-screen’ Transporter.

The T1 Transporter: where it all started

The VW T1 ‘split-screen’ Transporter is now an icon that’s always associated with being at the beach, and almost always with a surfboard. It’s also known as a Kombi, Bus, or sometimes a Westy for campers from the Westfalia company.

The original T1 was introduced in late 1949/early 1950s, and with the help of some memorable Volkswagen advertising was becoming popular all over the world. The T1 was produced for around 17 years, so there were plenty of used, more affordable models around for surfers to travel in, live in, and, more importantly, transport their surfboards (either inside or on top). Fashion brands such as O’Neil and Vans also originate from the surfing culture in this era.

In comparison with the VW T1, American cars from the 1950s and 1960s that were popular on the surfing scene were bigger and bulkier. For example, it was common to see estate cars sporting real or mock wood rear panels – the ‘woodie’ look.

The Volkswagen Transporter was obviously different and its unique style caught the imagination of surfing culture, especially as it also provided somewhere to sleep at the beach and, no doubt, keep some beers cold.

From the T1 to the T2 and T3

VW replaced the T1 with the ‘bay window’ T2 in 1967, and this updated model – which was sold in the US as well – continued to be popular for travellers and surfers.

And it’s the same story for the T3, introduced in 1979. The T3 was also available as a Synchro model with all-wheel drive. This was perfect for the beach or camping off-grid. These models still have a lot of fans and can still be seen being used on the west coast of the USA (and elsewhere).

Popular on both sides of the Atlantic

At the same time as the T1, T2 and T3 were growing in popularity in the USA, Europeans also fell in love with them. In fact, the history and growth of the VW campervan in Europe has remarkable similarities to the American success story.

As Europe became increasingly prosperous, more people were able to go on holiday. They enjoyed discovering the joy of travelling by campervan in search of the sun and the sea. Europeans may not have been into surfing as much as they were in the USA back then, but the VW campervan was certainly associated with going to the beach and having a good time.

A love that shows no sign of waning

Since then, surfing culture has crossed the Atlantic into Europe in a much bigger way. With the VW Transporter firmly established as the base for so many campervans, it’s not surprising that it’s still as popular with surfers now as it was on the west coast in the 1950s: it’s the perfect size to transport surfboards, and is a perfect match for the surfing way of life.

Although the VW T4, T5 and T6 were not sold in the USA, the connection between VW campers and surfing will forever be a natural fit.

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