Volkswagen Magazine

History

Living Legends.

At the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles restoration workshop, classic campervans from the 1960s and 70s are brought back to life. The key is in the detail, down to every last stitch. For a car mechanic, this is more than a job – just as a T1 or T2 is more than a mere automobile for its owners. A trip to the workshop.

Text Susanne Frömel
Photos Benjamin Pichelmann

You never forget your first VW campervan. Mine was grey, a lovingly maintained T2 with bright pink hub caps. The car belonged to Frank, the first guy I thought I wouldn’t be able to live without. Looking back now, I’m not sure whether this feeling was directed at him or his van. The man turned out to be an idiot but the vehicle remains a classic. 

The Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Oldtimer Workshop in Hanover restores VW campervans, like that old grey bus from back in the day. When they arrive at the workshop, rust has often eaten large holes in their side panels – evidence of a love that shows no signs of fading. In German, the campervan is known as the “Bulli”, though no one really knows why. Some say it’s an abbreviation of the words for bus and delivery van. Or maybe the engineers just thought that it looked a little bullish, with its flattish front and rounded rump.

Not even Gerolf Thienel can be 100 percent certain of the answer. Like in many other cases, the truth has long since been superimposed with myth and legend. A technical historian, Thienel curates the collection and works hand in hand with the workshop. Though it may sound simple, their mission is actually quite intricate: restoring “Bullis” to their original state. Extremely weather-worn in some cases, these old timers are brought to the workshop by their owners, in the hope that the team of mechanics will work their magic. This type of restoration job can easily end up costing as much as €100,000. At that price, every last detail will be just right, even the stitching on the seat cushions.

The campervan’s chic dashboard is sure to catch the eye.

»It’s always great to see that people care about more than just their vehicles’ technical qualities.«

Gerolf Thienel, exhibition curator

 A well-maintained T1 can fetch around €200,000 on the market. However, this makes Thienel’s job even trickier. He is always on the lookout for the most attractive models to add to the collection, but a lot of sellers are now fully aware of the fact that they have a very valuable prize parked in their garages.

“We make owners an expertly appraised offer,” explains Thienel. “Our prices are always realistic.” The restoration workshop has been hard at work for nearly three and a half years now, and Gerolf Thienel has been on board the whole time. The department has collected almost 90 specimens since 2008, some of which originate from vehicle dealerships, others from private owners. Thienel knows that he isn’t just buying a vehicle when he buys a Transporter; he is also buying a story. “It is a car that radiates trust and reliability,” he says. “It’s always great to see that people care about more than just their vehicles’ technical qualities.”

Every single part is given a thorough polish before being installed.

The T1, the T2 and maybe even the T3 are much more than just vehicles. It is wonderful to watch an inanimate object, something that we use in our day-to-day lives, suddenly take on a life of its own without any outside influence and continue to thrive for several decades. The VW campervan is an attitude to life that allows its owners to venture beyond their own horizons. This might be related to the original idea behind the vehicle’s design. The Transporter was designed as a practical, versatile vehicle for the post-war era. It wasn’t just meant for transporting large and heavy loads. The designers also hoped it would help larger groups of people to get away from it all – even if just for a relaxing weekend away camping.

If you were lucky enough to own a VW campervan, it gave you the freedom to go travelling with your friends. And let’s be honest, is there anything more enjoyable than that?

It can take up to one year to fully restore a campervan.

While not every single car has a spectacular history of its own, some still have very interesting stories to tell. Like the collection’s cherry blossom pink campervan that belongs to the rock star Pete Townshend of ‘The Who’. In 2005, Townshend and his wife had the van converted into a luxury camper. With 43 kW (58 hp) of engine power, the campervan features flower-design brocade upholstery on the seats and interior equipment that was state-of-the-art and ground-breaking for its time – in a T2, at least – including a gas hob and cupboards with plenty of space. Anyone who drives a campervan has long since learnt the fine art of packing light.

»Trade is still flourishing. People don’t seem to want to give up on their campervans.«

Daniela Sickora, Mechanic

The T1 and T2 were vehicles that thrived more on emotion than they did on technical performance. While the engines may be reliable, they are not particularly powerful. And once you hit 100 km/h, the cab starts to get noisy. The VW campervan is a vehicle born for cruising, for sitting back, relaxing, and watching the world go by, taking it all in. Maybe our enduring love for the campervan is, in fact, the ideal antidote for the travails of everyday life.

All of the work at the Volkswagen workshop in Hanover is, without exception, done by hand. Bodywork is still repaired using hammers and welding equipment, without any laser cutting in sight. However, this does mean that the repair process can take a while. If a vehicle is particularly run-down, it can take up to a year before it is completely ready. Some customers call every week to check up on their vehicles, asking for photos.

Sanding back parts has become a daily routine for apprentice Kimberly Pieper.
More experienced colleagues teach new recruits about the importance of detail.

When you’re dealing with a campervan, it is always a very personal affair. Gerolf Thienel admits that handing over the fully restored vehicle to its owner is always an emotional experience: “We’re not just giving them a car; it’s a whole lot more than that.” 

There was, for example, a customer who wanted exactly the same feeling driving his T1 as he would have had in 1961. This meant that the workshop fitted an original single-circuit brake system, along with diagonal tyres in their original condition. Daniela Sickora collects such spare parts in her warehouse. Box after box full of hub caps, headlights, ashtrays and bumpers. Many of the parts have been salvaged from original campervans, while others were sourced from factories in Brazil that until recently were still producing the T2. In South America, the campervan is still revered as the most practical vehicle when it comes to transporting both people and goods. “I search online for genuine parts from every corner of the globe,” the 24-year-old explains. “Trade is still flourishing. People don’t seem to want to give up on their campervans.”

Collectors’ exchanges send screws and engine blocks from continent to continent – and, of course, the workshop in Hanover is the first port of call for “Bulli” fans from all over the world.

Around 90 perfectly restored vehicles are on display at the exhibition.

One of the most beautiful models in the collection is a blue, white and turquoise Samba bus. The “Samba” model was a “limited edition design with exclusive equipment”. In German, this description produces the acronym “Samba”. The arched roof is surrounded by small windows and features a sunroof on top. The Samba is the ideal car for a day out, comfy and inviting, like a picnic basket on wheels. The collection’s saddest story is a T1 platform truck, only on loan because the owner didn’t want to sell.

Left outside exposed to the elements for decades, the loading platform first gathered a thick layer of leaves before wood was left stacked on top of the rusted panels, and only later did the owner finally notice the level of damage and feel sorry for the vehicle. Unfortunately, the decay had already progressed too far by this point. Sadly, the workshop in Hanover is unable to work miracles. The vehicle’s interior still smells of dampness and time gone by, and yet the car still manages to radiate a resilient confidence like only a true VW campervan can. The owner’s single request was particularly heart-warming. “Please don’t exhibit my vehicle next to an ambulance.” He didn’t want his T1 to look like it needed a doctor.

Many people see the campervan as their home on four wheels.

VW Campervan Workshop.

Whether it’s a full renovation or a simple touch-up – the team of 21 experts restores VW campers to their original state, in terms of both technology and appearance. Mechanics research the original condition of every single vehicle and put each individual component under the microscope. The specially equipped workshop is located right by the main Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles plant in Hanover.