2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival: All Bulli, no bull

Published: 27 June 2023 Updated: 27 June 2023

► We visit the Busfest in a Grand California
► 6,000 vans in attendance
► A true celebration of Type 2 to Transporter

Part car show, part campsite, all Volkswagen. The 2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival attracted over 6,000 Bullis of all shapes and sizes, along with 80,000 guests all packed into Hannover’s Fairground exhibition centre for a full celebration of the iconic nameplate.

CAR was in attendance, of course. We’d driven over from Peterborough via the Eurotunnel in a Grand California 600, our home away from home for the weekend. Though a flat tyre and quite a lot of traffic had slowed us down, we arrived on Friday evening in high spirits and parked up in one of four gigantic camping areas, all stuffed to the gunnels with buses.

2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival - aerial shot

The draw for us was meant to be the European reveal of the long-wheelbase ID. Buzz, though in reality we were more excited to see the older vans in action. We’d seen plenty of ‘action’ on the way, with the 30-degree heat and the autobahn proving a little too much for some of the older, air-cooled machinery.

But nothing compares to seeing the sheer variety of vans, ranging from some of the very oldest T1 Type 2s right up to its modern equivalents – the ID. Buzz, T6.1 Transporter and California and T7 Multivan.

Our camping area was mostly on the hard standing in front of the exhibition centre, and it’d been crammed. Some vehicles were in neat rows, while others had clearly arrived together and created little communes, with wind-out awnings and camping chairs forming a convivial spot for a beer or a BBQ.

2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival - T2, T1, T5 campers

Even without the draw of the festival, we would have been thrilled to just spend a day among the vans – with all this variety, there’s something fantastic to see around every corner.

“The wonderful thing is there’s no competition,” a punter in an immaculate T2 camper remarks to me. “Everyone’s just happy to see all the buses, it doesn’t matter if they’re modded or original or restored.” He has a point – there’s no separation here like you might find at a traditional British provincial car show.

Instead, everyone’s rubbing shoulder to shoulder – ratted-out T2s next to immaculately-restored Samba buses next to brand new T6.1 Californias. Many of the older vans have had past life experience as commercial vehicles – we spot several fire engines, and a couple ex-Deustche Post vehicles. At the front of the festival grounds, a Type 2 ladder truck sits with steps extended, flying a flag high above proceedings.

There’s also shockingly little pretension. The lion’s share of these vehicles made their own way to the site, rather than being trailered in. They’re dusty and well-used and in some cases, clearly loved almost to destruction. It’s fabulous to see so many owners using their vehicles properly, instead of just pampering them and showing them off.

2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival - convoy arriving

One of the best things is that, because this is Germany, the festival site is spotless. On arrival everybody’s handed a bin bag and a recycling sack with a list of what rubbish goes where. Sure, the long-drop portaloos aren’t very fragrant, but the regular toilets and showers are cleaned out every couple of hours. And even within the main stage area, with dozens of food and drinks stalls, pfand (a refundable deposit on plastic plates and glasses) means that you don’t need to wade through a sea of Styrofoam. If ‘festival’ conjures up an image in your head of bulging bins, broken glass and literal crap everywhere, you can rethink.

Inside the festival hall, the vibe is Ray Mears meets autojumble. Stalls are selling the usual tat along with spare parts – you could come away with everything from a fuse to a front end – while other companies are showing off the latest camping gear or clever conversions.

Outside on the plaza, meanwhile, there’s food stalls and more structured fun. The main stage has a packed schedule, announcing prizes for everything from the best tattoo to the furthest travelled. There’s music, cookery demonstrations, and fitness classes every morning – led by surfers, of course. If VW knows anything, it knows what makes a good brand ambassador.

2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival - half-track Fox

It’s also here that you’ll find a large selection of VW’s ‘oldtimer’ fleet – the really special vans. We’re of course drawn straight to the half-track ‘Fox’ – with four axles, tracks on the rear, a violent orange paint job and just 33bhp to play with.

Rubbing shoulders with each other are two electric vans – the T2 electric, designed in 1970 as an early experiment in a battery-powered van, parked next to a gloriously-restored T1 Samba that’s been electrified much more recently.

There’s of course a full display of VW’s latest vans and campers, which attract plenty of attention. VW’s unique in that it builds not just the base vehicles, but also fits the camper conversion itself – every other manufacturer gets a third party to deal with this. From its dedicated facility in Hannover, the Caddy California, Grand California and the regular T6.1 California all spring, ready to be taken on adventures.

2023 Volkswagen Bus Festival - Grand California

While we’re pleased to have made the 700-mile trek in a Grand California – with its air-conditioning, automatic gearbox, comfortable driving position (and on-board ablutions) we can’t help feeling a little impostor syndrome around the rows and rows of older vans. Our grey Crafter doesn’t seem quite as much in the spirit of things as, say, the family of three laid in hammocks on the roof of their T6, or the four-year-old causing chaos in her electric ride-on splittie complete with trailer.

Clearly, for the next Volkswagen Bus Festival (pipped to be in five years time) we’ll have to do better. To the classifieds…

By Tom Wiltshire

Bauer Automotive staff writer; enjoys Peugeots, naturally-aspirated diesels, column shifts and steel wheels