Finding out the story behind VW Kampers
On a frosty, sunny Friday morning I arrived at VW Kampers in Henfield, Sussex. Ian Harris, the founder of the company, was in the middle of detailing the interior of a gorgeous metallic blue and white T2. He was kind enough to show me round their impressive premises.
It was immediately clear that Ian is an absolute car nut and, as well as loving campers, has an impressive (and ever changing) collection of classic cars. Over the years these have included a Mk1 Golf GTi, a Type 3 Fastback, Ferarri 308, several Porsche 911s and many more. He has just finished the full restoration of his rare 1972 Viper Green Porsche 911S.
Over a coffee, I asked Ian how he got started in the industry. His first van was a 1979 Devon camper which he lived in for a year before fixing it up and selling. After making £3k profit he realised that there was some money to be made and started importing rust-free VW Campers from California. He had always dreamed of owning his own Split Screen bus but this was well out of his price range, so he continued buying, selling and restoring Bay Window vans in his spare time. 5 years later he had 11 vans in various states of repair at his dad’s home garage (while still working full-time at a motorbike company). Eventually, he was able to afford to buy his dream 1965 Split Window which he fully restored over a 7 year period and still owns to this day.
In 2009 he decided to take the plunge and leave full-time employment to pursue his passion. It all started in a cow shed with one employee and VW Kampers was born. Fast forward a few years and they had a built a brand new unit with workshop, in-house paint shop, upholstery and parts department run by 10 employees.
The current business consists of a modern VW camper conversion workshop called VW-T (www.vw-t.co.uk). Here, newer (and sometimes brand new) VW vans are gutted and fitted out with custom camper interiors to suit their owners every wish. This can include pop-top conversions with solar panels and the latest lithium battery technology.
The classic arm of the business called VW Kampers (www.vwkampers.co.uk) focuses purely on the servicing, restoration and sale of T2 Bay Window camper vans. A large proportion of these are actually later models imported from Brazil (where T2s were built until 2013). These include the ‘old school’ air-cooled 1.6 engines and the more modern water-cooled 1.4 Fox engines. VW Kampers is the largest T2 specialist in the UK and offers a full range of in-house services including vehicle inspections, full body resprays and touch-ups, bespoke upholstery, power steering installations and upgrades, pop-top roof conversions and all types of servicing and maintenance.
One of Ian’s favourite bus restoration projects was his 1978 Bay Window Helsinki Camper with Marino Yellow paintwork. This was featured in the Volks World Camper & Bus magazine. He still owns it (and has even rented it out on occasion). From completely customised vans with Subaru engine conversions to showroom condition air-cooled originals, Ian has done it all and his love for classic VW campers continues. His work has been featured in numerous magazines and the solid reputation of VW Kampers is well-deserved.
Another fairly new direction of the business which really interests me is the conversion of classic T2 campervans to fully electric power plants (www.electric-campers.com). These were developed in conjunction with Electric Classic Cars in Wales and combine Tesla batteries and motors mounted to the original gearbox and drivetrain, offering a massive increase in performance and reliability. While still being a fairly expensive option due to the cost of the batteries, this concept has attracted a huge amount of attention and interest. With the adoption of electric technology advancing quickly, this idea of updating classic vehicles with clean, modern power plants is something that can only grow in the future.
I’m very grateful to Ian for his willingness to share his story. It’s very inspiring to see how far his passion has taken him and the business he has built with his own two hands. If you ever want to head down to Cornwall in true retro style, you know who to call.