This year, the iconic camper van turns 30. So what better way to celebrate this milestone of freedom and the open road than with a trip around the breathtaking state that gave the Volkswagen California its name?
The Golden State. A destination that evokes sun-dappled images of freedom and the open road, all carried along on a refreshing Pacific breeze, rhythmic ocean waves and stunning scenery.
It’s this spirit of openness and adventure that inspired the original Volkswagen California, 30 years ago. Today’s California benefits from every one of those 30 years of innovation, giving you a camper van that’s packed full of technology, yet remains true to the original’s raison d’etre: freedom and adventure.
To celebrate 30 years of California dreaming, we took the latest generation camper van back to its roots, for a road trip across the Golden State.
After the 10-hour flight, we arrived blinking in the LA sun to find our new California Ocean waiting for us.
Feeling the blast of the California heat, we immediately got familiar with the Climatic air conditioning. A sensor compares the interior climate with your pre-set temperature and uses optimal air distribution to even things out. So however hot it got outside, we stayed nice and cool inside. There’s also a heating system to keep you warm after the sun goes down or on chilly early mornings at the beach.
When you’re exploring, you need a reliable and entertaining guide. Thankfully, the California was more than up to the task with its impressive entertainment and technology options as we cruised in the early evening sun through Santa Monica, towards Malibu. The clear and easy-to-follow navigation system meant it was always easy to find our way, and there’s nothing more exhilarating than soundtracking a drive along the Pacific Highway with your favourite music thanks to the California’s eight integrated, high-quality speakers.
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At the heart of every feature of the new California is a thirst for freedom. It’s this promise of unhindered exploration that’s entranced owners for more than 30 years. That ability to go anywhere, unrestrained by the smallest alleyways, the tightest coastal roads, the most out-of-the-way campsites. Nowhere is off limits.
This chance to take the legendary California on a road trip across the land that gave it its name was such a fantastic opportunity. That, plus the striking red finish and sparkling, dished chrome wheels of our California Ocean, put more than a little spring in our step. After getting acquainted with the California, we continued on our California adventure toward Venice Beach to meet camper van enthusiast Martin.
Martin is a living embodiment of the surfer lifestyle. Based at the iconic and gorgeous Venice Beach, he's been offering surf lessons for the last eight years—with the Volkswagen T2 as his vehicle of choice. Every day, he parks his fleet of T2’s on the seafront and uses them to pull in customers, drawn by the freedom and surf lifestyle instantly conjured by the sight of the colourful vans.
Martin started his business with just one T2 camper van that served as both his new-business strategy and his home. Now he’s progressed to being a fleet owner, a business owner and a home owner. That's the freedom you get from a Volkswagen camper van.
My VW Bus is my life. And I love it. For 10 years. My home is the world. And Los Angeles is the most beautiful place.Martin.
The first California burst onto the open road 30 years ago, marking the beginning of a unique success story. The camper van that became an icon. Since then, more than 157,500 Californias have been roaming the open road, helping you seek out adventure at every turn and navigate the adventures of daily life. Since then, the California has gone from strength to strength, with the 1988 California being awarded ‘classic’ status.
While the technology has kept pace with everything you need to fuel your adventures, the California has retained its original design and engineering DNA.
The Volkswagen roof bellow has remained a constant, as has the ingenious use of space, yet you still get a van that’s compact enough to use for everyday driving. And it’s packed with technology, hidden surprises and all finished with levels of sophistication you’d normally find on a yacht.
The 2018 California is based on the latest Transporter, and benefits from all the latest advancements, including a car-like cab and class-leading refinement, driver assistance and safety systems.
Leaving Martin and his idyllic surf lifestyle behind, we headed for our overnight stop. After a long flight and an invigorating introduction to California coastal driving, it was time to relax. This gave us the perfect opportunity to get familiar with the California’s camping features.
This was where the California really came into its own. Tucked beneath a side unit in the kitchen is a two-burner gas hob, a sink with running water, a fridge and bags of storage. After scrambling inside, we discovered a fully fitted kitchen unit alongside a sliding rear bench. Beach models do away with the cooking facilities, but retain the Volkswagen roof bellow and space for four weary travellers to get a good night’s rest. The experience of cooking a light dinner before raising the electric pop-up roof and winding out the built-in awning for a simple, yet glorious, dinner with a sea view was the quintessential road-trip experience.
Followed by the chance to relax and drink in a lazy California evening, watching the golden sunset dip below the Pacific Ocean. When it was time to call it a night, we headed up to the surprisingly spacious top bed. Located in the rising roof, this is definitely the penthouse suite.
The bed sits on a slatted bed base and offers great views of the fantastic coastal scenery thanks to three zip-up windows. It’s a special feeling to be lying in bed at night, watching the moon shimmering on the ocean and in the morning, waking to the glorious sun, offering another full day of adventure. The downstairs also had another double, more traditional camper van, giving you the space to sleep up to four people.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of flying along the Pacific Coast Highway in a California. The sense of freedom is something all of us dream of in our quieter moments.
Taking the California through the soaring Los Padros National Forest, we got a chance to experience true go-anywhere-freedom thanks to 4MOTION All Wheel Drive. You get superior traction, optimum handling and responsive steering to give you control in all conditions—from desert terrain to snow-covered mountains. All within a day’s driving in the Golden State.
With such glorious vistas rolling out in front of you, the last thing you need are distractions. The optional 7-speed dual clutch gearbox DSG gives you fully automatic gear changes that you’ll barely notice. So you can concentrate on exploring what’s in front of you. And on those longer drives, just set the cruise control and relax into the warm embrace of the open road.
One reason California makes such a great road trip destination is that it has it all—rugged coastline, beautiful beaches, scorching deserts. And of course, thrumming cities. So it made sense to see how the California fared in a more urban setting. Where better than Mulholland Drive and downtown Hollywood to see if the California was truly A-list? Bustling downtown Hollywood was the perfect place to test the California’s Driver Assistance Systems.
On the freeway towards Hollywood, we got to experience the Adaptive Cruise Control. By automatically matching speed with the vehicle in front and maintaining your chosen distance, you get complete peace of mind on major roads. But once we hit downtown tinseltown, the Side Scan technology took centre stage. This helps eliminate blindspots by giving you a warning signal in the driver’s wing mirror if there’s a vehicle you can’t see.
It was tough saying goodbye to our California. After a few days on the open road of the Golden Coast, it had become our home and our source of freedom. Although the California was born with the rolling coastal roads in mind, it’s very easy to see how it will be equally at home at a muddy festival campsite in the UK, exploring the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales or simply for the adventure of daily family life. Wherever your journey takes you, the California can be by your side.
Over the last 30 years, the California has gradually evolved into an icon that embodies the spirit of the open road. Each model has advanced camper van engineering, giving each generation of adventurer more freedom to explore.
California T3: 1988
The rear-engine generation.
California T4: 1990
Welcome to the front-engine world.
California T5: 2004
The best-selling camper van to date.
California T6: 2015
The most technologically advanced model yet.