ON THE ROAD
When you own and drive a camper van, life becomes about enjoying driving it and the journey: how quickly you’ll arrive at your destination is less important. When you’re guiding the big steering wheel of a Volkswagen camper or a Bedford CA Dormobile you feel like King of the Road, surveying your kingdom from your lofty vantage point and exchanging waves with fellow owners.
Boy racers will want to get by as soon as possible. Let them go – you have no option but to go at your own pace. Acceleration on both models is gradual (‘glacial’ is maybe a little unkind) but once you obtain and maintain cruising speed, you get a sense of well-being that no other vehicle can offer.
There’s an art to driving either of these, which is mastered only through practice. Steering, changing gears, braking and manouevring with a long, tall van call for wholly different techniques than in more modern cars. Find yourself a quiet piece of road and keep driving up and down it, reversing, doing three-point turns and thoroughly getting to know the quirks of these character vehicles before you set off on your first big adventure. If another road user gets impatient, pull over and let them pass.
An unavoidable, mechanical fact is that the Volkswagen’s engine is at the back and so there’s a lengthy linkage to enable you to change gears. The traditional gearstick on a VW camper is generally vague and takes some mastering – finding reverse is particularly challenging. On our test camper, that big old stick has been replaced by a gear shifter with a shorter, more positive throw that results in smoother operation. Gear ratios are generous, so there’s no rush to change up.
The 1965 Bedford CA Dormobile is fitted with just three gears that are selected using a ‘three on the tree’ gearlever that protrudes from the lefthand side of the driving wheel. Again, there’s a real knack to using this: starting in first, you have to develop a ‘magic flick’ to change up and down the gears. Not long after you’re on the move, flick the lever and up to second. Then, when all’s going well, up to third and that’s your lot! Third is the gear of choice for driving through town, down country lanes and on the motorway. Some of the later models did offer a fourth-gear option.
In the Bedford the engine is at the front, which not only gives it a distinctive layout and look, but also a very different driving style - and sound! In the VW, with the engine at the back it can get whippy to drive on a windy day.
Both seating formats are quite comfortable and upright, but the VW T2 has an appreciably bigger bay-window-style screen that gives a panoramic view of the road ahead.