Life on the open road is a dream any self-respecting petrol head thinks about at least once a year. That epic road trip in a poster car, carving up ribbons of mountain tarmac, roaring through tunnels over and over again, soaking in the sounds of the exhaust reverberating off the walls as you hold on tight, bathing in motoring nirvana. All sounds good doesn’t it?[Not a valid template]
Now add in a wife and two kids that want to come along for the journey. Out goes the poster car and in comes something far more useful and, dare I say it, less sexy.
It was that desire to go on road trips and explore Europe during the oppressive summer months in the Middle East that lead me to contact the only man I could ever trust; Ben Lewis. Ben is based in the UK and is the proprietor of Evil Ben’s. As hoped, he stepped up to assist in creating something I’d wanted for years – an early (1968) Volkswagen Type 2 Westfalia. That early pre-intercooled 911 Turbo just wouldn’t cut it with the family onboard.
Surprisingly, following the first call to Ben to discuss the project, the exact car we needed reared its head within 5kms of the Evil Bens workshop in the south-west of England. It was a very early, rock solid (if a little ratty-looking) Westfalia. The plan we originally hatched required a car with natural patina on the outside, which removed any worries and stress of two young boys scratching it or bashing into it with their bikes. It was a perfect match.
Many an hour was then spent on the phone to Ben working through the ins and outs of the van. I had five simple requests. 1) It needed to be capable of sitting on the floor when parked. 2) It had to be able to cruise while still slammed and not be an absolute nightmare to drive. 3) Everything must work. 4) The underside needed to be a complete contrast to the outside. So all shiny and new. 5) It needed to be reliable enough to not worry about it.
With time massively against us, Ben assured me that all was in check and #ProjectWesty would be ready for its maiden voyage by early August. Game on then. With a couple of visual detail changes here and there happening as the clock ticked down, the time frame seemed to be getting tighter and tighter. Requests 1 and 2 had been causing a bit of stress as getting an early bay window van down to the floor comfortably required a lot of custom work. Ben had to have a full on head scratch as many of the companies around Europe and the UK just weren’t coming up with the goods. But a chance meeting with a gentleman during a European trip meant Ben was travelling back to Cornwall with a front suspension set-up and the rest was down to him. I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say, there was a tonne of work needed on the chassis.
Ben effectively dropped the body over the chassis, meaning the wheel arches needed to be tubbed, the chassis rails notched for clearance and the full drive train was raised up 2″ to get the required look. As you can see by the pictures, the van certainly sits low. Not low enough mind you, so this coming summer will see a raft of changes to have it properly touching the floor.
As I arrived in the UK, the van was spread all over the Evil Ben’s workshop and looking miles away from being finished. Not to worry, as Ben is extremely anal when it comes to this kind of build. Ben’s right hand man, Paul, was all-hands-on-deck detailing and replacing literally every aspect of the bus. The build document they kindly pulled together is testament to the level of work they undertook. Washers, nuts, bolts, brakes, suspension, everything. Every little item you could think of doing was done and more. As I sat in the Midlands with baited breath considering a complete cancellation of the trip, the call came through. The Bay was ready!
Plans were made and the long trip down to Cornwall to collect the van was arranged. Due to the time constraints I’d put Ben and Paul under though, a proper shakedown hadn’t been undertaken. However, the six-plus hour drive back home that evening would be used as a test period. Not wanting to be left high and dry in Europe with an untested and effectively brand new van, we all agreed that hanging around England might be the best bet. If something did go wrong, we would only ever be a phone-call and over night camp away from being recovered and fixed.
That decision was initially frustrating, yet one that quickly became quite interesting. Having spent most of my life not actually living in the UK, the fear of becoming stranded across the channel mean we now instead had a great chance to explore our home country and let my boys get a vibe for a land they had yet to truly experience. With all sorts of camp-sites, places of historical relevance and stunning natural beauty on our doorstep, the added comfort of not getting stuck somewhere unknown and having to struggle through language barriers with a heavily modified van meant we could truly revel in the experience.
With its first seven-hour voyage completed with no issues whatsoever (a testament to the stellar work by Evil Ben’s) we loaded in all the camping gear, food, toys, music and children into the van and hit the road. With no strict plans and no time scale to be concerned with we came up with a route that would take us straight down the middle of the UK to the south coast, and then along said coast all the way through Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and South Wales, until we either got bored, ran out of money and or struggled with the weather – this is England after all, not a country well known for its beautiful summers and consistent weather.
Away from the new and fresh city of Dubai, it was surprising to see and feel the reaction to the bus, from people waving and taking pics of us on the road, to coming over and chatting to us at service stations. The van was a magnet for attention. Everyone that came over had a travel story to regale and converse with us about. The overriding aspect of air-cooled Volkswagen ownership is the stories people have; how the cars have touched people’s live in so many ways. This was an aspect I had in the back of my mind all along. With my children being brought up in Dubai, I had to ensure there was a sense of reality brought to them and the bus was that tool.
Having never camped in a van before, the boys were immediately getting stuck in. The sense of adventure was huge and, at every given opportunity, they shot out of the bus and disappeared into the countryside. You wouldn’t believe the excitement across their faces as they came steaming back to the van to tell stories of wild horses, new friends, rivers and beautiful views. The travel aspect of the trip was made up of short-haul road elements and choice camp-sites. With a relatively small amount of land to play with, we wanted to make the most of it and with areas of natural beauty – such as The New Forest in Dorset, the Jurassic coast in Devon and the countryside surrounding southern most tip of the UK – finding places all the time to stop and set up camp was not an issue.
The van performed faultlessly in the grand scheme of things and even taught a few lessons along the way. Who’d have thought letting the air out of the system and setting up camp in The New Forest would almost start a forest fire? Giving the drivetrain a chance to cool down prior to laying frame became a note to consider going forward. Every camp site we pulled into brought new friends, fresh discussions and a steady stream of faces coming through our sliding doors. Everyone had questions about the van, stories about their vans and an openness and humanity we had never ever considered when setting out on the journey.
But what of those niggles? Well, considering the work that went into the bus and the complete lack of shake down testing, we got away very lightly. The speedo packed up. No great shakes seeing as speeding wasn’t ever going to be a priority during the journey. We then had a throttle cable snap, a starter motor fail and a minor oil leak. All these were rectified in super quick time by good friend Nick, who reacted like a man possessed to drive out and sort the van out. Again, an aspect of old VW ownership that money just cannot buy.
So, with the better part of three weeks of travel under our belt, and the luck of the draw when it came to the English weather, reports started rolling in of a change for the worse. Two days holed up on the most stunning of camp-sites overlooking the gorgeous town of St Ives, watching the rain pound down, started to make our excitement wane. Could we really continue to play with Nintendo DSs and read magazines waiting for the weather to break? Or should we drop the roof and head home? The latter was the call. The flexibility of driving and living in our tent meant we could just fuel up and hit the road again.
Which of course is exactly what we did. Plans for this coming summer are now in full swing and, with a slight tweak to the visuals of the bus, many more miles, this time in Europe, will be had. Bring on the summer.