By Peter Brown
On the hottest October day in history, what were you doing? Most sensible people in Brighton, myself included, headed straight to the beach to enjoy the unseasonally good weather.
If you were a dedicated Volkswagen camper van owner, however, there was only one place to be on Saturday October 1st this year: parked up on Madeira Drive with hundreds of your fellow enthusiasts as part of the annual Brighton Breeze rally.
Every year since 1997, an entire convoy of vintage VW vans has cruised down the A23 from London for the event. Organised by the Split Screen Van Club, the Breeze is a celebration of the pre-1967 VW vans known as ‘splitties’ due to the metal frame that runs down the centre of the windscreen.
‘Why do people get so excited by these ancient vans?’, you might ask. The answer has something to do with their legendary durability. Many of the vans in this year’s Breeze looked like they’d hardly been serviced since 1967, and one of the most popular stickers on sale at the merchandise stand read: “You May Pass Me, But You Won’t Outlast Me”.
Of course, nostalgia also has a lot to do with it. The classic VW camper is synonymous with 1970s family holidays and the number of small children running up and down Madeira Drive suggested that many of the new owners are keeping the tradition alive.
My own family owned a VW van, and we managed to squeeze all eight of us into it for camping trips to France. My dad finally sold it for next to nothing, convinced it was fit only for the scrap heap, only for the person who bought it to turn up a few months later showing off the fix-up job he’d done on it. That van ran proudly for many more years.
More recently, I spent a week driving around New Zealand in a splitty with my girlfriend and her VW enthusiast parents. The van was beautiful, if not well-suited to that country’s many steep mountain roads, and I can tell you that you learn a lot about your partner after spending seven days in a confined space with their mum and dad.
Back on Madeira Drive, the main reason for the splitties’ continuing popularity was obvious: they’re just so charming. Old-fashioned boxes on wheels they may be, but when you saw the love and attention some of these owners had put into restoring their vans, it was hard not to want to join their eccentric little subculture.
The writer Marcus Berkmann recently claimed that “enthusiasm is the essence of happiness”. Looking at the smiling faces of the VW owners at this year’s sun-drenched Breeze, I couldn’t disagree.