Lumbering down the highway, today’s recreational vehicles (RVs) seem to convey life off the grid. But, with all their amenities -- including two bathrooms in some of the larger ones -- they seem to be more about taking it all with you than getting away from it all.

That’s how Elaine Larsson and Lesley Fowks see it, at least. The two women, who live just a few miles apart from each other in northern New Jersey, have never met. Yet, they share a distinct bond in their love of a much simpler form of camping in vintage VW vans that attract attention and elicit smiles wherever they go.

Larsson recently bought a 1972 Volkswagen Campmobile that’s a near twin to the one her family took on six-week excursions in the 1970s. Fowks is a kindred spirit who has been enjoying camping in a 1977 version of the iconic vehicle for about 10 years.

Many might recall the Volkswagen van as a symbol of the 1960s counterculture, and some still refer to it as a “hippie bus,” though perhaps with more affection than 45 years ago. The Campmobile was a factory-contracted camper conversion by a German company, Westfalia. Owners call them “Westys.”



Lesley Fowks treks to New Jersey campsites in her VW Campmobile, these days with her sister, Lauren Fowks. She keeps it packed with camping supplies to leave on short notice.
Lesley Fowks treks to New Jersey campsites in her VW Campmobile, these days with her sister, Lauren Fowks. She keeps it packed with camping supplies to leave on short notice.

The VW Campmobile was more of a mobile campsite than a mini RV, a more secure and comfortable device for rusticating than a tent. The pop-top roof provides stand-up room inside and also offers a fold-down double bed. A rear bench-style seat folds into a bed for two. A small canvas cot could be suspended over the front seats as a child’s bed.

The tight living quarters include a sink with running water from a small onboard tank and a 120-volt connection for campsites that provide electricity. Some had the optional propane cooktop. One could conceivably bring a TV or a laptop, but such devices would be an affront to the Campmobile’s back-to-nature vibe. It’s the simple, slow-down lifestyle the unique VW offers that Larsson and Fowks prize.

How the VW camper came into each of these women’s lives reflects something deeply personal for each.

Treasured Family Memories for $10 a Night

Larsson, who lives in Hillsdale, N.J., grew up in Jersey City, a big, gritty waterfront town where her father was a police officer for 27 years. The youngest of five children, she recalls that the family could not afford vacations beyond a few days at a lake or day trips to the Jersey Shore. She fondly remembers the day in 1972 that her father purchased a used 1970 VW Campmobile.



Elaine Larsson fondly remembers the day in 1972 that her father purchased a used 1970 Volkswagen Campmobile. “That was our passport to freedom,” she says. Her father’s six weeks of vacation time became camping expeditions allover the country.
Elaine Larsson fondly remembers the day in 1972 that her father purchased a used 1970 VW Campmobile. 'That was our passport to freedom,' she says. Her father’s six weeks of vacation time became camping expeditions allover the country.

“That was our passport to freedom,” she says.

Her father’s six weeks of vacation time became camping expeditions to Florida, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and to Fort Ticonderoga, the Adirondack Mountains and Niagara Falls in upstate New York. On most trips, it was Larsson, her parents and an older brother.

“We would not have been able to do any of that if we weren’t camping for 10 dollars a night,” she says.

One summer trip took the family to San Diego to pick up a brother who was getting out of the Navy. From there, the family drove and camped throughout California and Canada.



Elaine Larsson and her mother, on a 1973 camping trip.
Elaine Larsson and her mother, on a 1973 camping trip.

With just 67 horsepower from a small air-cooled four-cylinder engine, the VW Campmobile was a slowpoke, especially on hills.

“It was slow, but we never thought about that as kids,” Larsson says.

When Larsson’s family moved to Florida in 1977, they took the camper. Her father sold it in 1990, and in later years, she tried in vain to find it. She began looking for another, but VW buses and campers in very good condition are not common.

This past spring, Larsson found a 1972 Campmobile advertised on a VW classifieds website called The Samba. Amazingly, it was just in the next town, River Vale, and it was in outstanding condition. Unfortunately, the owner had already sold it to a buyer in the United Kingdom and was awaiting payment before shipping. When the deal fell through a week later, Larsson bought it.



Elaine Larsson recently bought a 1972 Volkswagen Campmobile that’s a near twin to the one her family took on camping excursions in the 1970s.
Elaine Larsson recently bought a 1972 Volkswagen Campmobile that’s a near twin to the one her family took on camping excursions in the 1970s. 

So far, Larsson has only practice-camped in a driveway with her boyfriend, Burton Hall, to make sure they’d know what to expect when they head out next spring. But she may have already made her best memory in it. Her father rode in the camper when he visited in June. He passed away the next month.

Larsson plans to keep her Campmobile for the rest of her life.

One Boy’s Dream Car Becomes a Family Fun Machine

Fowks grew up in a camping family, though using tents, not a van. Her VW Campmobile, which she calls a luxury by comparison, came to her in a serendipitous way -- and was found even closer to home.

When her son Ian Brady, now 25, was a boy, he spotted a run-down 1977 VW camper parked in the side yard of a house around the block from their Ridgewood home. The house was a bit of a mystery, known in the neighborhood as the “tree house” because of its park-like property.

By the time he was 12, Ian had developed a crush on the camper, despite its sad condition. The rims were rusted, the tires flat. Rust spots scarred the once bright yellow body. The owner, James Rose, had died in 1991, the same year Fowks’ family moved into the area. One of the country’s most influential landscape architects, Rose designed his home and its grounds in 1953. He crisscrossed America in the jaunty camper throughout the 1980s to lecture at universities.



Lesley Fowks and her 1977 Volkswagen Campmobile. “Even though it’s a lot of work to drive, it’s an instant stress reliever,” she says. (Photo: Jim Koscs)
Lesley Fowks and her 1977 Volkswagen Campmobile. 'Even though it’s a lot of work to drive, it’s an instant stress reliever,' she says. 

Ian was more interested in family camping trips than in the vehicle’s history, however. “He wanted me to buy the camper,” says Fowks. She inquired at the house, where she met Dean Cardasis, director of the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design, which had preserved the home and opened it to the public. The camper was not for sale, but Ian didn’t take that as a final word.

Cardasis, who is also a graduate program director at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, recalls Ian’s determination to get the camper. “He impressed me with his passion for that van,” Cardasis remembers. “We made the deal for him to work in trade for it.”

In exchange for working after school keeping the Rose property tidy, Ian could get the camper at the end of the school year. In his off time, he cleaned the VW.

“He spent hours with Windex and mildew remover, and used steel wool for the rust spots,” said his mother. All of the original camping equipment remained intact.

Ian kept his end of the bargain, and the camper became his and his mother’s. She had a VW specialist shop make it roadworthy, covered the body’s rust spots with flower magnets and took Ian and his younger sister, Jesse, camping in northwestern New Jersey.

Later work included a rebuilt engine, body repairs and a repaint. With her children grown, Fowks now treks to New Jersey campsites with her sister, Lauren Fowks.

“We’re always the only VW camper there,” she says. “People flash the peace sign and start conversations.”

Fowks relishes the camper’s slow pace.

“Even though it’s a lot of work to drive, it’s an instant stress reliever,” she says. There are no gadgets, not even a radio.”