Friday, 10 May 2013

Rhapsody in Rust

I found this old unpublished homage to V Dubs recently. I'm not even sure what media it was originally intended for but the sentiments expressed may still ring true for afficienados of original VW Campers and stir the same emotions.We're talking about the old air cooled rustbuckets here, which you could pick up for for relatively little and restore without breaking the bank.The modern VW Camper/Transporter is a totally different beast.With both water cooled petrol and diesel engines and costing a small fortune,the age of the '125 sheets' camper is well and truly in the past.

I took out all the seats and away I went
It's a right old banger and the chassis' bent .

It's got a great big peace sign across the back
And most of the windows have been painted black.
The windshield's cracked, it's a bugger to drive
It starts making smoke over thirty-five.

It's a psychedelic nightmare with a million leaks
It's home sweet home to some sweet arse freaks

Ian Dury

One of these days some young kid is going to write in and say; 'I've just passed my driving test and I'd like to know what's a good climbers car ?  Oh dear boy,do you really need to ask! For more than three decades there has really been only been one vehicle to chuck a sack in the back of and take off into them tha hills; a vehicle which has transcended mere transportation to become an icon of cool.The ubiquitous VW camper van. It doesn't matter whether your preference is for a 'splitty' , 'a bay' or a 'wedgie; the V Dub has become the vehicle of choice for climbers, surf bums and all cool creatures west of Bohemia.

My own attachment to VDubs goes back some years and remains worryingly undiminished. At the moment two red and white two-tone wagons sit outside;one a 69 bay, I'm thinking of exhibiting for the next Turner prize. This scrapyard thing, now all but stripped of its vital organs,has become a rusting, fading box of rare beauty.

Time and the elements have conspired to coat the bodywork with a scumbled patina while rust inexorably eats away at the extremities.Under the propped hood,in the empty engine compartment, an old sheep dog sleeps in the shade while up above, cats stretch out in the sun on the dented roof.

It came from a semi on Costa Geriatrica-Colwyn Bay-where I'd noticed it on my travels. Handing over 125 sheets,it was loaded on the back of a trailer I'd borrowed from a garage in Gweddelwern-the garage is no longer there; it literally blew up when it's cache of butane bottles went up like a nuclear device. The towing vehicle was a friend's Espace which saw it's clutch burned out tackling the 1-4 hills near home on the way back.

My current VW is a Wedgie which came from a windsurfing fiend a year ago.400 nicker sans MOT .I rather like the reflective rear window with the huge 'animal' logo and of course,the obligatory yin-yang sticker.

My home page shows a white wedgie marooned amongst a sea of Moroccan sand dunes under an indigo sky. It's a reflection of a dream I have.Driving down through France and Spain and then across to Morocco,down the coast to Mogodor where Hendrix and Joe Orton used to hang out in the sixties. Despite the fact that 'animal' hasn't been further than Aberdovey yet, who knows,it could happen? But then again, pigs might fly !

Anyone who drives an old camper has to expect to spend some time at the side of the road with the rear hood up. They have a habit of throwing the third cylinder and the Heath Robinson gear linkage often fails. I always carry wire and springs to effect running repairs. On a recent trip to Cornwall, I counted three old campers at various points broken down en-route. On a trip to the north west of Scotland,my starter motor went at Carlisle. The rest of the trip I had to effect the bump start which meant finding an incline I could park up on. On the way back, driving flat out on the Inverness by-pass, the rear nearside wheel bearing shattered causing the wheel to collapse and jam under the wheel arch.We careered across three lanes of fast moving traffic before coming to a stop. After applying some emergency treatment in the fortuitously sited lay-by we limped home to north Wales in 13 hours.My late friend Chas, drove back from Scotland to Wales with a totally knackered gearbox.Only able to engage 3rd, he kept an old flat iron propped up against the gearstick to stop it jumping out. Unable to do above 30, his journey home must have been even slower than ours.At least our crocked Combi could reach 40.


Then there was the time when my young friend Scott and I were on a climbing trip in the Lakes. We were parked up on one of the picnic sites next to Lake Coniston. Two o clock in the morning and with the smell of burning rubber and screeching tyres a trio of Cumbrian scallies circled our bus in their bangers, acting out a lakelandesque version of Fort Apache. My reaction was to run around in my underpants wielding a table leg shouting 'we've got a dog you know ! In hindsight,it sounds like a scene cut from Withnail and I.'

Did we have a dog...can't remember? If we did it must have been Tom, the first Labrador to climb a variant of 'Cyfwy Arete'. Scott slept through the whole thing. 

This addiction is becoming too much I've got three V Dubs which I've clocked on my travels, all sitting forlornly in someones drive. It's always the same " I'm sorry to bother you but I couldn't help but notice'.Then I'm driving home in a vehicle which bears more red oxide than original paint. It's not as if I haven't got enough to do. There's more to life than lying under a camper wearing a welding mask while sparks pour down like silver . One of these liberated machines was a blue bay which I only had for three weeks before a chance conversation down at the local tip saw a young hipster offer me a 300% mark up on the purchase price. Next time I saw him he told me 'well.. it was rotten as a pear underneath but I welded up and drove it to Frankfurt last week'. ( The Red Wedge was sold to a guy who drove it to Barcelona three days later).

The V Dub cognoscenti are invariably drawn from that category of humanity labelled 'likeable eccentrics'. One of these gentle souls was Mal, under whose tutelage I first took an engine out of a bus. Mal was a surprisingly sanguine character in the circumstances. Knowing that his toddler son had but a few months to live, he took off with him in his old bus on a caravanserai across southern Europe. 'We just wanted to give him a nice time before he died' he said in a remarkably calm, philosophical way. As we pulled the engine clear he remarked " you think you could manage it by the side of the road in the Dordogne?'
Hmmm...possibly, but,at the side of the road on the Kendal by-pass in the pouring rain...Possibly not.

Camper's are made for summer. In winter they gather green moss and blisters. The heaters are crook and the thought of heading north swaddled in warm clothes trying to de-ice a frozen windscreen with a gloved hand is too much.

But then spring comes; you turn the key and the throaty aircooled engine spins into life. Levellers on the scrap-yard stereo, the musty smell of winter clinging to the sleeping bags, red wine stains on the rammy curtains and a curiously sticky steering wheel? Leaving the narrow lanes of Wales behind,cresting Aston hill at Ewloe; the Cheshire Plain stretches out as far as the eye can see. Beeston Castle, Stanlow Oil Refinery, the ICI plant at Runcorn. Familiar North west landmarks hove into view.Within half an hour I will be leaving the 56 and joining the M6. Pedal to the metal and she growls up to an impressive juice slurping 65. Sheesh! Behind me the hills of front of me ... the north.

Words and images: John Appleby