Few vehicles are as iconic as the Volkswagen California and with the introduction of the T6, prices of used T5s mean that ownership of a nearly-new model is more accessible than ever. Here’s how to buy a used T5 VW camper van with confidence, thanks to our expert advice.
It may be the name of a popular 1960s song, but ‘California Dreaming’ is also what many wannabe VW camper van owners do on a regular basis. The California had initially seen the light of day on Volkswagen’s T3, then converted by Westfalia Coachworks.
Coinciding with the launch of the VW T5 in 2003, the manufacturer announced that it was bringing the conversions in-house; but it wasn’t until 2005 when we first saw right-hand drive examples in Blighty.
The old maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ could well have been coined to describe the longevity of the VW camper van layout: a run of kitchen furniture down one side with a rock-n-roll double seat/bed towards the rear. Swivelling cab seats add to the seating compliment.
The layout was designed to make the most efficient use of space when the Volkswagen had a rear-mounted engine. It remains popular because it offers so much uncluttered floor space, important in a conversion of modest dimensions.
Although the original VW California models offered a choice of roof type, this generation was stuck with a no-option, rear-hinged elevating one with fabric sides. Fair do’s, because it also offers oodles of standing room on site. At under 2m high when retracted, the VW T5 California will squeeze into many multi-storey car parks and will suffer less wind resistance on the road.
Nearly all included VW’s BlueMotion Technology (BMT). This consists of four main features: cruise control (later, adaptive), low-rolling-resistance tyres, regenerative braking and a start/stop engine.
Power units at launch ranged from a 1.9-litre 85bhp TD to a 2.5-litre 174bhp TD, all at Euro 4. Transmission was a five- or six-speed manual or a six-speed ASG robotised automatic gearbox.
In 2009, the 2.0-litre Euro 5 engine was first fitted with either a six-speed manual ’box or the legendary super-smooth, seven-speed, dual-clutch DSG robotised automatic. Its 4Motion was an extra-cost all-wheel drive system.
T5 VW Californias could be ordered in many shades and had an options list as long as a python. Be aware that there is a cheaper version called the VW California Beach which is really a minibus with seven seats, two beds and an elevating-roof. It isn’t really a camper van, but can be fitted with extra cost kitchen and storage modules.
- Volkswagen California on SWB VW Transporter T5
- Base vehicle built and converted in Germany between 2005 and 2015
- Elevating-roof camper on the Caravelle/Multivan five-door people carrier
- Overall length: 4.892m (16’ 6”)
What to look for
A full main dealer or commercial-vehicle specialist service history is essential. Some were available to VW staff as company vehicles; these may well have higher mileages than owner-driver leisure vehicles.
It’s in a class of its own with special mouldings for a totally integrated look. Some find the bed suffers from transverse ridges, so try before you buy. The main snag is that VW didn’t hand the conversion for UK users, so a distracted parent could discharge the children into the road on the school run. Parallel parking is made diffcult by the wardrobe blocking over-the-shoulder nearside rearward sight lines. It beggars belief on something sold as safe and child-friendly.
- Iconic, design-led camper van
- Street and campsite cred plus a feel-good factor
- Magic carpet ride
- Strong residuals
- Conversion not handed for the UK
- There’s no high-top option
What to pay
The current new starting price is knocking on the door of £50,000, so buttons won’t buy a used T5. When browsing the used VW camper vans for sale pages, look for examples with sensible mileages. One that looked a bargain was a 2010 (60 reg), 140bhp, 59 ,000-mile, FMDSH, fully loaded, immaculate-looking example, for £32,750.
The cheapest decent one we’ve seen recently was a 2006 140bhp auto for sale privately at £20,000. The catch: 164,000 miles recorded.
We like the 2010-onwards DSG model in metallic brown with razor-cut, colour coordinated alloys. It’s pure eye candy!
Other options? There are too many to mention! The UK’s most popular are Auto-Sleepers‘ Trooper, Bilbo’s Komba/Celex and the Devon Moonraker.
T5 VW Californias could be ordered in many shades and had an options list as long as a python