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VW camper van mechanical problems - Learn to read the humorous warning signs!

The classic VW Type 1 camper van is such an iconic and unique vehicle, I think it deserves to have its own road signs! So I decided to design some - assisted by my able and talented five year old daughter Adele - and these are the results. You don't need to know these to pass your driving test, but many of the issues are real and need to be taken into account if you're thinking of buying a VW camper van.

Sign 1: Warning: VW Split Screen camper van ahead Now what could be more appealing than a Type 1 camper with its endearing 'face' like a wise old owl, those funny bug-like 'eyes', the groovy split windscreen that looks like a plane? Though attractive on the surface, every Type 1 VW camper has a 'history' and can conceal problems underneath, as we discovered during our 6 month ownership of one in 1996. Oh Ye Who Covet The VW Split Screen Camper Van: Admire But Beware!

Sign 2: Parking space with a slope for VW camper van

Every car park should have some sloping bays for vans who, through no fault of their own, are having battery or starter motor problems. After turning the key on our 1963 Split Screen camper, we often heard the dull crunch of metal scraping against metal rather than the healthy sound of the air-cooled engine starting up. When parking we had to find a slope wherever possible - difficult in Holland, easier in the Lake District. Luckily we didn't visit Switzerland, where by law you have to turn off the engine whilst waiting at traffic lights!

Sign 3: VW classic bus and camper van van meet ahead

One of the most startling things about attending classic van shows and rallies such as Vanfest, held annually in September, is the sight of scores of vans of various types and colours, all lined up in a VW classic camper van traffic jam. It could be enough to cause a distraction, hence the sign, which should be put up on all roads leading to the van rally. Highways Agency take note!

Vintage split screen vans lined up at Vanfest 05

Sign 4: VW split screen bus and camper vans only

For some people, only the classic van will do. Not for them the new-fangled post-1967 bay or any of the later variants. It's got to be a splitty and that's that! That's how I felt prior to purchasing my 1963 two-tone split screen camper van, but after my experiences with it, I now prefer the bay and in the future, who knows I might even consider a post 79 Moonraker or Autosleeper. They seem to be getting more and more attractive as the years progress.

Sign 5: Beware: Ford ahead

This worded warning sign alerts VW camper van drivers they may encounter vehicles ahead that could arouse feelings of disdain or distress, with consequent loss of driving concentration. The sign could for instance be sited near the entrance to some non-VW dealership selling second-hand motorhomes or campers. Variants of the sign might include 'Datsun', 'Toyota', 'Bedford' and other marques considered less than desirable by dedicated VDubbers.

Ford W-registered Duetto LD Autosleeper - For illustrative purposes only

Sign 6: Risk of VW camper van falling into water

Older style VW vans, even the late Type 2 models from Brazil, don't have a particularly effective handbrake. On ours it seemed to pull further and further up every time I tugged on it until eventually the cable came off. When parking, the only solution is of course to leave the van in first gear. On quaysides, this is absolutely essential, although, if your van is amphibious it may be less of a problem.

Sign 7: Please try to STOP if you can WHOAHH!

If you're used to the hypersensitive brakes on modern cars it may come as a shock to experience the brakes on a classic VW camper van. As you get a feel of the pedal you will learn a new meaning of the word 'travel'. That's not from A to B - you probably won't be doing much of that - but the amount of 'travel' from the 'fully out' position to the 'fully jammed down hard against the metal for dear life' position. Whether or not this action has the effect of reducing the forward motion of the vehicle depends to a large extent on how much brake fluid - if any - you have in your system. Driving on the motorway through north Holland in August 1996, the brakes on our 63 Split gradually went from normal to nothing in the space of a couple of hours.

Sign 8: Beware of collision with vehicle in front

This sign follows on from the previous 'WHOAHH!' sign, and assuming your brakes are as ineffectual as ours were, this could be the outcome - a nasty collision with a vehicle - worst of all an HGV - in front. The solution? Keep a generous distance between you and the vehicle in front, or alternatively, have your brakes serviced. Best of all, fit a set of disc brakes, available in kit form from Germany.

Sign 9: Take care driving in fog or mist in your split screen van

This sign was created in Photoshop CS by 5 year old Adele, who gave it the title 'camper van mist'. Those 6 volt flashlight bulbs won't exactly penetrate the fog. And rear fog lights were something only dreamt about in the foggy fifties. I was once caught in fog in my Beetle in northern France, and ran low on petrol. We were on the Route Nationale and the petrol station was closed till morning. We had to sleep shoulders on the rear bench seat, legs dangling out over the front seats. That was the time I first got the idea of a getting a VW camper.

Sign 10: Beware of rocks falling onto your VW bus of camper

This sign was also created by Adele with a little help from me. In 30 years of driving I have seen the 'falling rocks' sign countless times, but never yet experienced any falling rocks, landslides, avalanches or meteor showers whilst driving. If and when it ever happens, I hope I'm not in a Type 1 VW camper van as I wouldn't want the bodywork to get scratched or dented!

Sign 11: Beware of large hoofed and antlered creature jumping into the path of your Type 1 VW camper van

That's another sign I've seen many times, the one of the deer jumping gracefully into the air. But despite travels the length and breadth of the UK and other countries, I have never come across a real jumping deer. For film maker Elliott Bristow, it was another story. Driving along a US Interstate highway in the early 70s, a fully grown male buck jumped over the fence and straight into the front of his van. Neither the buck nor the van lived to tell the tale, but fortunately Elliott was unhurt, and did. Read more in VW camper van ghost story.

Elliott Bristow with split screen bus written off after collision with buck on interstate highway 1970

Sign 12: Beware of VW camper van oil leak

Why does it always happen on motorways? The M1 is not a good place to experience a catastrophic oil leak, but that's what happened on our first attempt to drive to the continent in the 1963 split screen van. After stopping at Newport Pagnell services, I noticed drops appearing from the underside of the engine. Gradually the trickle turned into a flood, which left a very large stain on the tarmac. The van was transported back home on the back of a breakdown lorry courtesy of the VW heritage insurance policy. Soon I had a reconditioned engine fitted. It never leaked again while I had it.

Sign 13: End of VW Camper Van

This sign, similar to the 'End of motorway' sign, is a blue information sign informing you that your VW van experience is about to come to an end. Maybe you've decided to sell the van because of the astronomical cost of the repairs. Maybe it's riddled with rust, failed its MOT test and is only fit for the crusher. Another possibility is that your rental period is up and you have to take the van - hopefully still in good mechanical order and undamaged - back to the VW rental company. Parting can be difficult but all things have to come to an end.

There is no reason why your VW split screen camper van experience should not be happy and trouble-free if the van has been carefully restored and maintained by good mechanics and bodywork specialists.

Before parting with any money, find out all you can about the various types of van and the issues surrounding classic vehicle restoration and maintenance.

Wishing you happy safe and breakdown-free VW motoring!

Message received:


Your fascinating roadsigns remind me of an incident in 1957.

I parked my Camper on the quay at Caernarfon and went to visit the castle.

On my return some joker had parked his Renault behind me so I was trapped between scrap iron and sea.

A fisherman came up and said, "You'll want to speak to the driver - there he is" pointing to a rubber dinghy going out to sea and just about to disappear from view behind the wall.

My passenger had an urgent appointment.

To minimise damage I fetched a hessian sack and inserted it between my bumper and his, then reversed, pushing his vehicle crosswise across the street.

This did not entirely block the road but I have often wondered how he got on when he returned. Very versatile these VWs!


Brilliant story! Thanks very much for telling it to me!

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-06-06

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