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posted on March 29th, 2019

Sleeps four!

Ah, spring. The sun is out, the days are getting longer, and the temperatures are rising. For Turo host Shane S., this means camping season. And he’s got the best piece of camping gear out there: a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia, our car of the month for March 2019.

The Volkswagen van has long been an automotive icon, but thanks to the internet and the #vanlife movement, the campervan has become a more essential part of the outdoorsy identity than ever before, the definitive marker of an adventurous lifestyle. It carries the dreamy aura of endless possibility, but also offers such tangible freedom that it’s no wonder it’s such a hit with the wanderlust crowd. Behind the idyllic Instagram posts is a hard-working, practical, and humble vehicle that happens to be the ultimate camping tool — it’s a house on wheels, after all.

The VW Microbus/Type 2/Transporter/Vanagon (it’s had a lot of names) is the best-selling van of all time, in part because it was designed as a simple panel van that could be converted for different uses. This 1987 model is a Westfalia, which has the pop-up roof and is the most sought-after version of the Vanagon today. It’s the version most suited to camping — it has ample and efficient storage space, the rear bench folds down into a bed, and there’s another bed that stores up in the Westfalia roof.

Shane purchased this Vanagon back in 2013, and spent the first couple years of ownership having the engine rebuilt, installing a new cooling system, suspension system, all new seals, and brakes. He’s had the body completely repainted and added aftermarket bumpers from Vanagon supplier GoWesty. It was a lot of work, but the results are well worth it — it really is in great shape.

Shane and his wife are avid road trippers, and they have this Westy set up perfectly for camping. It has a sink, propane stove, and electrical hookup, but Shane also has an aftermarket cooler (available as an Extra!) that works much better than the stock fridge. To make the Westfalia self-sufficient off-grid, he’s installed an auxiliary battery with extra outlets, and has solar panels that plug right into the battery.

Shane and his van are based in glorious Malibu, California, but they’ve gone all over the American West (as far north as Vancouver Island) without mechanical problems. Old VW vans are known to break down now and again, but Shane has overhauled all the major systems, maintains it meticulously, and is happy to report that “at this point it’s incredibly reliable.” Even though he has other cars, he uses this as his daily driver. “It’s just a lot more fun to drive,” he says.

The rear-mounted 2.1L wasserboxer engine pushes out around 90 horsepower, and with that brick shape and four-speed manual transmission, acceleration is rather anemic. Top speed likely depends on the grade of the road and the steering is splashy. But this van is closer to a guest house than a sports car, and in the end it’s really all about the journey, not how fast you get to the destination.

A majority of Shane’s guests so far have been people considering buying a Vanagon of their own — there’s really nowhere else to test drive a 30-year-old campervan. And it’s been five stars and smiles all around. “I might be stereotyping, but people who are looking for that lifestyle have this very chill and accommodating mentality,” says Shane. “It’s been fun to share the van with them.”

Of course the Westfalia is ideal for weekend camping trips up the coast, to the mountains, or in the desert (avoid the desert in summer, as the van has no AC). But Shane gave a nice tip for a leisurely Saturday or Sunday: take it to one of the many places around Malibu where you can parallel park against the beach, open up the doors, and set up a grill. Relaxation achieved.

There may not be a better get-as-far-away-from-here-as-possible vehicle; the VW Westfalia positively radiates the carefree romanticism of life on the road. It was built purely to facilitate adventures, create memories, and happily trundle down highways. Hit up Shane if you want a taste of the vanlife in an excellent example of the classic Westfalia.

Steven is an avid car guy and content specialist at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.