An unconventional test of the VW California

Published: 05 August 2011

When my first child was all set for the big push back in August 2008, the due-date happily coincided with a long-term loan of a Volkswagen California – we had one in the office for months, so I knew it would definitely overlap with the birth. This was great news.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the California shares its basics with the regular VW Caravelle (people carrier) and Transporter (van) – the latter being the sort of thing you often see plumbers using, The California is also the modern-day campervan; you know, the old one gets people talking about splitties and surfing in Cornwall and spending too much cash on basket cases and so on.

You can still go on a surfing safari with the new one, but it’s actually the perfect pregnancy-mobile: comfy seats, a kitchen in the back, enough thrust to bomb down the motorway to the hospital, seats that fold and morph into a double bed in next to no time, and another double bed that pops out of the roof at the press of a button. Oh, and lots of windows too – unlike the plumbers’ conveyances.

Clearly, VW didn’t have childbirth in mind when it designed the California, but it could have done: there’s a bed and the facilities for mum to relax if she gets to hospital early and is told to go home (but doesn’t want to), or a bed – and I convinced VW this wouldn’t happen – for emergency labour during a motorway standstill, plus a bed for dad if the child’s born at some ungodly hour – that way he can sleep in the car park afterwards, then stride back in the hospital come visiting hours. Get home and you’ve got two double beds on the drive for visiting relatives – or a space to escape the din and get some shut-eye.

Rewind to 2008 and this all came together beautifully, and I slept in Huntingdon hospital’s car park once all was done and dusted at 2am. The only downside, weirdly for a family car, was that the rear seatbelts didn’t extend quite far enough to wrap around a rear-facing Recaro child seat when we came to depart as a family of three. I managed to bodge it and had the belt gripping the very bottom of the seat – plus we used an Isofix base to hold things in place – but it was an unfortunate and important black mark on an otherwise perfect experience.

In fact, the California was such a good companion that I couldn’t face the arrival of this year’s child without knowing I had one on hand. Luckily the California had been facelifted: it had a revised front end to bring it in line with the new Polo and Golf, slicker-looking door mirrors, day-running lights and a new bi-turbo TDI engine that was cleaner, more powerful and more refined than the previous range-topper: the five-cylinder 2.5-litre TDI.

Excellent, I had an excuse to borrow one. Problem was, this time we’d be dealing with a week-long loan, not a long-term loan. Worse, VW didn’t have any availability on the due-date, but could supply one a week later.  My wife was convinced the baby would be early, but I went ahead anyway.

The California arrived looking far slicker than the old car despite only minor revisions, and the interior looked just the same, although the press pack alerted me to some mild tweakage with new front seats and steering wheel and instruments. No problem with that, the California is brilliantly practical, save for the fact – important this – that there are only four seats where a Caravelle boasts seven. This time we also got a 4wd model. This comes only with the top-line 178bhp 2.0-litre diesel, and, at £46,620, is almost £3k more expensive than a two-wheel drive model. Unless you’re planning on parking up on those Cornish beaches at high tide, I’d stick with the lighter, cheaper, more fuel efficient 2wd.

First job was to pop the roof and play around in it with the youngest – brilliant, it’s an instant tent without the hassle of banging tent poles into the ground. ‘Daddy drove you home from the hospital in one of these,’ I said, while being jumped on ferociously. Second job was to check the seatbelts and, guess what, this time they did fit around that rear-facing child seat. Then I started to drive the California around and remembered how easy it is to put in a regular car-park space; how it offers more sleeping space than a small caravan without taking up all that room; how it doesn’t annoy your neighbours like, say, those ridiculous Winnebago things can.

By this time, baby number two was – to our surprise – already late, and didn’t start to make ‘let-me-out!’ noises until ten days after the due-date. She must have been waiting for the California.

Then, late one evening, it all started in a bit of rush, so we pounded down the A1, went straight into the maternity ward, and out popped baby number two by 4am. Both of us were worn out by then – yes, yes, even me – but the various bits of faffing afterwards left us at the mercy of shift switchover time. My wife fell asleep on her bed, I dozed in my chair as the summer sun flooded in.

What a relief to get out at 8am and walk straight over to the California. I knew it was shaping up to be a hot day, and I wanted a solid, ahem, two hours’ kip, so I worked out where the sun was going to be, and parked the California so it wouldn’t shine in through the ventilation flap (I’m becoming expert now, see?). Unfortunately this meant parking sideways over two parking spaces, but the car park was empty, I’d paid and displayed… what the hell.

Two hours later I peeked out to see a full car park and clambered down from the roof to see a large, sticky, yellow and black envelope on my windscreen. Inside was a letter that invited me to send £40 to an address. Curses! Still, two babies safely delivered, and both taken home in a car that would, I guarantee, form part of a very small dream garage alongside some kind of GT3 Porsche, an M3 CSL and an M3 GTS, a GT2 RS, a CLK 63 Black Series, Golf GTI, an M5 Touring and/or 535d, a Ford S-Max, a Ferrari 458 and a 430 Scuderia, a Mercedes S63 AMG… Surfing, holidays, race days, extra space for relatives and, yes, childbirth, the VW California is made for it all.

>> Got a California or original VW camper? Click ‘Add your comment’ below and let us know

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator