"Do you have the right kind of wife for it?” asked a 1960s commercial in America. “Will she let your daughter keep a pet snake in the backyard? And invite 13 people for dinner even though she has service for 12?”
The advert was for the Volkswagen Type 2 Kombi, or camper van, and the implication was clear – this was not just a vehicle, but something that defined you. Kombi owners could deal with pet snakes.
Type 2s went to Woodstock, took surfers up and down the Californian coast, and appeared on everything from Scooby-Doo to Bob Dylan album covers. Over time, they represented not just a hippie dream, but a form of freewheeling, countercultural California soul.
Yet the ultimate symbol of ’60s freedom has been overtaken by bureaucratic reality. Last December, the last ever Kombis were made in a Brazilian factory after 64 years of continuous production had made it the longest-running car model in history. Health and safety regulations no longer allow for a vehicle that can only travel at 100kph and on which you can’t install airbags or anti-lock brakes.
Ride the Pacific Highway up the Californian coast and you’ll still see plenty of them, however. Photographer Kwaku Alston has spent the past decade photographing Kombis around his home in Venice Beach, LA’s original hippie haven. “What I love about them is that each one has a story; it’s a little treasure,” he says. “There’s this whole cultural identity around the vans, but most of all they tell a story about the owner; it’s like they are characters themselves, whether they’re rusted-up or pristine.”
The Type 2 was created in post-WWII Germany, when Dutch VW importer Ben Pon visited the VW factory in Wolfsburg and saw they were transporting parts around the factory using the chassis of the VW Beatle, or Type 1. In April 1947, Pon made a doodle of what looked like a box built onto the Beatle – and two years later, at the Geneva Motor Show, the first VW Type 2 was unveiled. Since then, more than 10 million Kombis have been produced in various versions, and have been adapted to incorporate beds, pop-tops, kitchens, DJ booths, pop-up shops and even saunas.
Alston grew up in Philadelphia with VWs – his father had a Beatle and then his stepfather had a 1980s Wesfalia camper van, “even though I never gave it much thought at the time. Yet when I moved to Venice Beach to be a photographer, I suddenly started seeing vans everywhere. I’d come back from a day’s shoot and see them in my pictures. They became a kind of visual mantra – if I was having a bad day and questioning things, I’d see a van and it would be a reminder I was on the right path.”
Alston started taking photos of the vans, always from the side, and compiling a blog called Volkslivin, now home to hundreds of photos. It brought him into a community of people who simply love their vans. “It’s everyone, from 16 year olds to 60-year-old hippies; surfers to Hare Krishnas. One of my agents was born in a VW van – her parents just drove around following the Grateful Dead in the ’60s and ’70s. One of the people in these pictures is a snake charmer on Venice Beach; another is this guy who drives down to the beach every afternoon, sits on top of his van and watches the sun set. I also met this artist who was travelling across America in his van; he would just open the door at a random spot and paint what he saw.”
Alston is still hoping to buy his own van, but is he worried it will die out now that production has stopped? “You know, I think they can last. Modern cars are built to be disposable, and they’re run on computers. VW vans are totally mechanical. If you put the time in, you can make it run. People like that, you go slower in a van. It makes the journey an event – you’re more connected, it’s almost like a form of meditation.”
But the real reason they’ll survive is simple. “People love them – when owners talk about their Kombi, it’s like they’re talking about a family member. People don’t talk that way about most cars.”
Buy Kwaku Alston’s limited edition Kombi prints at his webshop
See the full story in the March issue of N by Norwegian on all Norwegian flights.
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