No other vehicle in Europe has been used as often for a camper conversion as the VW Type II. When the manufacturer of a vehicle tries to present their image of an ideal expedition-camper, this has to happen at a high management level. "Wolfsburg" chose the Type II from their model line as a basis, which provides the best preparations for struggling through off-road conditions. Especially in combination with campers the 1.6l turbodiesel's lack of torque has often been the target of complaints. To improve on this problem VW relied on the support of Toni Schick, a specialized tuner for turbocharged engines. Ulrich Phillips - who has a reputation to be the light weight specialist for expedition campers - is responsible for the camper conversion, together with his company Special-Mobils. Finally, the part of projektzwo was to give the somewhat boring design of the VW Van a more prominent shape.
This expedition vehicle has a lot of 'fathers', but the most important step from a van to a camper is beeing done in Lauffen (Baden-Württemberg). That's where Special-Mobils boss Ulrich Phillpis has been converting off-road vehicles into campers custom-made for expeditions since 1982. Comparatively small vehicles mostly - from long wheel-base versions of the most popular 4x4 to e.g. a Steyr-Puch Pinzgauer. Most of the alternatives within this category have to struggle with a small pay-load capacity. If you guess that this would be different with the VW Type II T3 - referring to it's purpose as a load-carrying vehicle, you are likely to be disappointed. For the 16" 1.6l Turbodiesel 'panel' - which was used for the conversion - there are 675 kg of pay-load which passengers have to share with luggage, expedition-equipment - and all the camping-facilities.
Thus the way Ulrich Phillips has chosen is just a logical consequence. "By focusing on the substantial things and the use of high-tech materials we can reach a very low weight for our camping-facilities", he explaines the basic philosophy of his products.
The combination of extraordinary materials are significant for the interior of the Special-Mobils VW Type II T3. The furniture - reminicent of the charming ambiance of a sugeon's emergency room - is being manufactured of 3mm thick bi-material sandwich-panels, which consist of a 2½mm polyethylene basis, covered by aluminium sheet-metal on both sides. The panels are linked to each other with alu-profiles by glue and rivets. This combines a high rigidity with low weight. "A conventional ply-wood interior with a comparable mechanical resistence would have more than tripled the weight" the designer explains. All of the other facilities are designed for use under extreme conditions. In the kitchen on the opposite side of the sliding door we find a Katadyn water-purifier. You can choose between unfiltered water for general use or sterilized drinking-water from two independent spigots. They are supplied by 10 liter containers, which are stored in the cupboard. Ulrich Phillips prefers them to a fixed water tank, because they can be easily refilled from a river or fountain nearby and have the additional advantage that water storage may be varied precisely according to the possibilities of water supply. When traveling to a region where water is easily available, some of the water containers can stay at home and gain the travellers more storage space.
There is no propane intallation at all, because of of the lack of refilling stations away from tourist centers. The kitchen stove is run with alcohol instead. Frequent winter-travellers have to order the diesel heater as a VW options. Behind the kitchen you find a 12V compressor-operated fridge with a cooling accumulator, which is beeing charged while driving and keeps the food reserves cool through the night without taking electricity from the additional 63Ah battery.
To make standing upright possible within the car, Special-Mobils developed a pop-up roof made of sea-water resistent aluminium sheet-metal. In contrast to their competitors Special-Mobils cut open the whole roof, including the parts above the front seats and back up to the column where the hinges of the rear-door are fixed. This means cutting off the b-column and as a consquence the body looses rigidity. To compensate for this loss, reinforcements are welded on. In addition, the pop-up roof itself is used to help stabilize the vehicle. Ulrich explaines the problems which appear when the b-column is cut off... "We can not attach the roof too rigidly to the body, because some torsion must remain while driving off-road" The closed pop-up-roof lays on a special frame to which it is fixed by five flexible straps. If torsion of the whole body occures now, the roof will be able to follow that. This avoids tension and cracks in the sheet-metal. The roof may be loaded with 100kg when used off-road, but even without that recommended max. load on board, you need some muscles to pop the roof up. Once the roof is popped, a 200 x 120 cm bed is available. The rear bench can also be transformed into a 189 x 119 cm bed. The bench is beeing upholstered with 9cm material, but the matresses on the motor-compartment (4cm) and those up in the roof (5cm) are really not too comfortable for a tired globe-trotter's rest at night.
To pay for the substantial savings in weight, some compromise has to be accepted. Nevertheless Ulrich Phillips can quote numbers that offer proof of the success of his efforts. 100 kg for the whole interior including wall-trims, floor-panel, and bed, 40kg for the roof, another 40 kg for battery, fridge, water disinfection unit, and stove. After putting the van on a scale the results are amazing; 2.140 kg compared to a total homalogized weight of 2.500 kg. That means a poor remaining load capacity of 360kg - 50 kg less than the 'deluxe' 14" Westfalia Club Joker that has been subject to test some issues ago. Volkswagen quotes the weight of the 16" package as 60 kg more than the 14'' version, so the additional pounds have to be stolen from somewhere else. Whereas every single gram of the interior was beiing carefully considered, the motto for the exterior modifictions could have been 'big is beatiful'. Massive double-tube bumpers at the front and rear end, sand-plates, storage-boxes upon the roof, side-protection and enlarged wheels underneath let the Van look powerful but simpy make it fat.
What is more astonishing is the 1.6l Turbodiesel - to which Toni Schick from Eurasburg in Bavaria has added his sophisticated intercooling system. (Water is beeing used to cool down the air pre-compressed by the turbo, therefore a second radiator in the front and another water circuit is needed.) Factory standard power is increased from 51kw (70HP) up to 63kw (93HP) at 4500 Rpm, torque raises from 137 Nm to 177 Nm at identical 2500 Rpm - which means you gain by 30%. Al this does not only exist on paper but you can feel it on - and off - the road. Despite the numerous outside modifications, the 30x9.50 R 16 Mickey Thompson tires and the heavy weight it makes 127 km/h. Acceleration from 60 to 100 km/h in 4th gear is done within 23.4 sec - which means 12 seconds less than the Westie syncro needs with the factory 70HP engine. Driving in terrain gives you discrepant feelings: the massive bull-bars all around don't mind tough contact to the ground or rocks, but do make the approach even worse. The visco-drive same as front and rear diff-locks do not really help when a reduction-gear would be necessary, instead of the so called G-gear. Anyway, most of the km while traveling will be made on (more or less) maintained streets and there you benefit from the most important advantage of the Type II syncro: The four independently suspended wheels with a coil spring each, offer a driving-comfort that won't be found in any other off-road camper so far and keeps even worst road-conditions from being a torture for the passengers.
All in all this show-car from Wolfsburg seems to be a synthesis of the reliable VW Bus with a diesel-engine - not lacking of torque for the first time. The interior - beeing light-wight and off-road proof at the same time - fits well to that basis and helps to avoid storage and weight problems besides. A real pity that the exterior has been modified more than really necessary. But some 'makeup' is o.k. for a show-car - for the big tour it may be the same vehicle in the 'wall-flower' version.
Update: This vehicle was stolen from Rome, Italy on 9 April 2000 but thankfully it was successfully recovered by the owner. At his web site the owner gives some information about the theft, its consequences and the difficulties of returning the car from Italy to Germany. The web page also presents more information on the history of the car and the suppliers which have made the conversion.
Copyright © 1997-2013 Ron Lussier. All Rights Reserved.
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