Camper vs Dor­mo­bile – VW and Bed­ford go head-to-head

As the sea­son opens, Eng­land pre­pares to meet Ger­many again in friendly ri­valry on the camp­ing field. But which is bet­ter – the Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile or the VW camper?

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - Thanks to Mark and Michelle Dou­glas for the use of their Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile, ‘Betty’.

The idea of a ve­hi­cle that can be used both as a form of trans­port and a hol­i­day home on wheels is noth­ing new. But you don’t have to spend a small for­tune on a sparkling, white-box, mod­ern mo­torhome to en­joy life on the road. In­deed, for many, the clas­sic way is still the best.

With so-called ‘stay-cations’ prov­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, a com­pact, mo­bile hol­i­day home has got a lot go­ing for it – just pack your van and go where and when the feel­ing takes you. If you’re feel­ing a bit more ad­ven­tur­ous load­ing your camper­van on to the ferry or Euro­tun­nel opens up all man­ner of ex­cit­ing op­tions.

Men­tion the phrase camper van and many will im­me­di­ately think of the Volk­swa­gen va­ri­ety. The best known Bri­tish equiv­a­lent is the Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile, a happy-faced, van-based con­ver­sion that is guar­an­teed to raise a nos­tal­gic smile for those who grew up with the ubiq­ui­tous light com­mer­cial de­liv­ery vans in the 1950s and ‘60s.

There is a vast, en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ing for the Volk­swa­gen camper, with seem­ingly no two ve­hi­cles be­ing iden­ti­cal. And the fact that there are far fewer Bed­ford CAs out there gives them a rar­ity fac­tor that al­ways at­tracts in­ter­est wher­ever they go.


When you in­spect some of the splen­did VW camper con­ver­sions it’s hard to be be­lieve it all be­gan with a sim­ple Plat­ten­wa­gen tug that moved parts around the com­pany’s Wolfs­burg works. Sketches of it made by a vis­it­ing Dutch busi­ness­man, Ben Pon, were de­vel­oped into a multi-pur­pose panel van. The van was called the Trans­porter and this be­came VW’s Type 2, be­cause what we now know as the Bee­tle was Type 1.

The first Trans­porter vans had a front splitwind­screen win­dow and this was of­fi­cially called the T1 (the ‘T’ stand­ing for Trans­porter) by Volk­swa­gen and un­of­fi­cially the ‘split­tie’ by fans. Power was pro­vided by a flat-four, air-cooled en­gine fit­ted at the rear.

Ger­man coach­builder West­falia launched the idea of the VW camper in the early 1950s with a camp­ing box that could be fit­ted in a Type 2 at week­ends and then re­moved when the ve­hi­cle was re­turned to work­ing mode. Bri­tish com­pa­nies – in­clud­ing Dor­mo­bile – were quick to get in on the VW camper con­ver­sion busi­ness.

The first-gen­er­a­tion Type 2s were pro­duced be­tween 1950 and 1967 – when a new ver­sion ap­peared, the T2. These mod­els be­came known as ‘bays’ as a re­sult of the large, sin­gle-piece panoramic cab front win­dow.

Al­most 2.5 mil­lion T2s were pro­duced dur­ing the model’s 12-year pro­duc­tion run, com­pared to the 1.8 mil­lion T1s built dur­ing a 17-year pro­duc­tion span. The ve­hi­cle used in our com­par­i­son is a T2 pro­duced in Au­gust 1972 and there­fore a ‘late bay’ ex­am­ple (pre-’72 T2s be­ing known as ‘early bays’ or ‘low­lights’ due to the po­si­tion of the in­di­ca­tors).

As is the case with many VWs, this one be­gan life as a panel van, which at some point dur­ing its life was con­verted not by an of­fi­cially ap­proved com­pany but by an in­di­vid­ual, who cut win­dows into the pan­els. As a re­sult, the in­te­rior fix­tures are dif­fer­ent to those you’ll find in a pro­fes­sion­ally con­verted van.

Only in re­cent years has our T2 be­come a proper camper with the fit­ting of a rock & roll bed, in­te­rior pan­els, a full-length head­lin­ing (orig­i­nally fit­ted just in the cab), floor­ing and curtains.

An­other re­cent im­prove­ment was the fit­ting of a re­con­di­tioned back end that has greatly in­creased its ef­fi­ciency. As a re­sult, it can hap­pily cruise at 60mph on a run, though get­ting there takes pa­tience and fuel econ­omy is not great. A fire sup­pres­sion unit is also fit­ted in the en­gine bay.


Fa­mous for its red-and-white-striped, hinged, lift­ing roof canopy, the Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile is a pop­u­lar Bri­tish 1960s-era camper based on a van.

The pug-nosed Bed­ford CA vans, built by Bed­ford in Lu­ton be­tween 1952 and 1969, have slid­ing cab doors and dou­ble open­ing doors at the back. Just like the Volk­swa­gens, the early ones have a two-piece front wind­screen that gave way to a one-piece curved glass screen. The CA fea­tures a lon­gi­tu­di­nal front en­gine, in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion and rear-wheel drive.

Some trav­el­ling busi­ness­men recog­nised that they could sleep in the back of their spa­cious van when work­ing away from home. In a sim­i­lar vein the vans were pushed into fam­ily use at week­ends for pic­nics, sea­side trips and camp­ing hol­i­days.

Such cre­ative di­ver­sity came to the at­ten­tion of Martin-Wal­ter, a com­pany based in Folke­stone, Kent, that took this con­cept to a much higher level.

In the 1950s, ear­lier con­ver­sions of CA vans pro­duced a UK ver­sion of the mi­cro-bus with ad­di­tional side win­dows and seats in the back. At the time, Pur­chase Tax was paid on cars but not on vans. The tax­man stated that the the CA with ex­tra win­dows and seats was in ef­fect an es­tate car and should there­fore be li­able for Pur­chase Tax payable on the re­tail price.

To get round this, the Martin-Wal­ter com­pany ne­go­ti­ated an agree­ment where the con­verted vans could be sold minus Pur­chase Tax with the pro­vi­sion that they pro­vided fa­cil­i­ties for cook­ing and wash­ing, plus stor­age of clothes. So the idea of their camper van range came to pass, though the com­pany al­ways re­ferred to them sim­ply as ‘car­a­vans’ in their ad­verts and brochures.

The first Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile ap­peared in 1957, com­plete with a gas stove, a sink and cup­boards. Our 1965 Bed­ford CA Dor­mo­bile fea­tured here has been in the same fam­ily own­er­ship for many years and has re­cently un­der­gone a ma­jor en­gine re­fur­bish­ment.

A com­fort­able cruis­ing speed for this Dor­mo­bile is 55mph, and it has trav­elled ex­ten­sively at home and in main­land Europe with fresh ad­ven­tures planned for the months ahead. In­vited to at­tend a Volk­swa­gen camper event in Ram­sey, Cam­bridgeshire, the Bed­ford came away with the Show ‘n’ Shine prize!

cab lay­out is sim­ple and func­tional with its ‘three on the tree’ gear­lever. BED­FORD CA DOR­MO­BILE

The en­gine is ac­ces­si­ble via the bon­net for rou­tine checks plus a cowl­ing in the cab. stylish Dor­mo­bile lines dis­guise the fact its ori­gins are of a light com­mer­cial van. a fire sup­pres­sion unit is an es­sen­tial item for a rear en­gined, air-cooled ve­hi­cle. BEd­FORd Ca dOR­MO­BiLE vOLK­SWa­GEN T2 CaMPER

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.