x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Flower power trumped horsepower

Certain journeys demand to be made in certain vehicles, hence the intrinsic relationship between the VW Transporter and coastal travelling.

Everyone from hippies to families enjoyed camping in the versatile Volkswagen Transporter.
Everyone from hippies to families enjoyed camping in the versatile Volkswagen Transporter.

There are some journeys for which any form of automotive transport will suffice; a tour round the ring-road for example, or an afternoon pootle to the in-laws. But other trips can only be undertaken in a particular car; a cherished steed that will eat up the miles in style and keep the drivers and passengers cosseted inside the street credibility they so ardently desire. It would be unthinkable, nay unfathomable, to drive to the beach when Atlantic rollers are pounding the sand in anything other than a VW Transporter. No one is quite sure why this slow, cumbersome, air-cooled freighter became the surfers' spiritual companion, but it is as essential a part of their kit as a waxed board or beaded jewelry.

Lets take a closer inspection to see if there are any clues. Well, It certainly has room for the surfboards; but so does a Leyland Sherpa, and only a postman would be caught dead driving one of those. It can seat six in comfort; but so can a Mitsubishi Space Wagon, and they have never ventured more than 15 kilometres from a suburb. The answer to the Volkswagen van's popularity cannot be found in logic or What Car? specification columns. No, It lies somewhere in its kooky charm; it's huge, hippy VW ensign; it's availability in two-toned loveliness. For decades, bronzed, long-haired, loose-limbed teenagers have crammed into its spartan interior and lumbered to the nearest coast in search of sun, sea, surf and the best days of their lives. The fact that some of the vans have ended up conked out and overheated on a motorway's hard shoulder is besides the point. For anyone who has been thus transported has lived the dream, even if they've endured the odd roadside nightmare.

In the 1960s, the Camper became a symbol of the freedom of a younger generation who never knew the hardships of war or the austerity of rationing. They traded the sombre attire and starched victorian morals of their parents for bright, lurid clothing and a sensual desire to experience the world. And they could do this in a Camper, preferably a vibrant yellow one crammed with other young people likewise intent on discovering the world, themselves and each other. There was no need for room reservations and the overbearing formality of dining rooms. Everyone could sleep in the van for free and eat and drink whatever they chose to bring.

From 1950 to 1979, it was as sought-after a style icon as a Corvette, Ferrari or Jaguar. In spite of its fragile reliability, the Arian technocrats at Volkswagen would have been wise to reflect on that old adage; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. For when, in 1979, they introduced their much improved, higher-powered, ergonomically superior third-generation model, they only succeeded in demoting what was regarded as one of the most virulent cultural icons of the preceding decades to a plumber's workhorse or a builder's truck. In the fickle world of motoring, style and technical progress does not necessarily inspire devotion. A legend cannot be made; it must first be born.

tbrooks@thenational.ae