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?
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.
VOLKSWAGEN T2 CAMPER
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.
BEDFORD CA DORMOBILE
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