For more than 60 years, Volkswagen has allowed some very clever and talented engineers to transform its basic bus or van into its iconic Camper. For many, the VW van and its better outfitted Camper sibling evoke a wave of nostalgia from hippies and peace signs to wholesome family trips in those halcyon days when people actually had time to vacation as a family and Route 66 beckoned millions to the promised land: California.
In das vaterland, the name “California” must evoke the very spirit of the outdoors, adventure and freedom. Think camping in the Yosemite Valley or surfing on Malibu Beach. The Germans must really love it here because, for the past few years, the VW Camper has carried the proud name California. And in typical VW form, the California Camper is not available in California or any other of these United States.
Volkswagen hasn’t sold the Camper in the US since the 2003 model year. The Touareg SUV replaced the Camper in 2004. Ugh.
Since then, a cottage industry has sprung up around buying, selling, restoring and loving these rare manatees. VW’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn, says VW is looking to fill niches in the US market; but so far, the braintrust in Wolfsburg and it’s American minions don’t think Americans will buy enough California campers to justify the cost of certifying and importing them to the US.
There is also the obstacle of the high price. For example, in the UK, a new California starts at £40,000. At current exchange rates, that’s around $60,000; but my experience is that when comparing UK and US car prices, pounds often equal dollars.
But here’s some evidence of US supply and demand. Recently, a nice 2002 Eurovan full Camper with only 56,000 miles was listed on Poptopheaven.com (located in Yucipa, CA) for $39,700. The fully-loaded price of a new 2002 Eurovan camper was $42,000. And that price wasn’t an anomaly. I’ve always had a secret desire for a German bed on wheels so I’ve followed these prices for years. They are hard to find, particularly in good condition, and even examples 20 years old sell for as much or more than their original sticker price. So there is definitely a niche market for this German Swiss Army Knife of campers.
Unfortunately, instead of selling a US version of either the Caravelle (the current name for the VW van) or the California in the US market, VW went with the cheap, rebadge option of partnering with Chrysler to turn a Town & Country minivan into the moribund Routan. Through November 2010, despite heavy subsidies and expensive marketing campaigns, VW sold only 14, 714 units. I guarantee that if VW sold its own product in the US, sales of the Caravelle van alone would easily exceed that number.
I mean does anyone want a VW badge on a Chrysler-built vehicle? We know how well the shot-gun marriage of Daimler Benz and Chrysler went. There was a very unhappy divorce. Is there any reason to believe VW would fare any better? No.
I thought I’d torture myself by checking out the California on VW’s UK website. Here are some marketing highlights and pictures.