30 years of California

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles celebrate 30 Years of the California


Hannover March 2018 – 30 years ago the first California came onto the market. It marked the start of a unique success story – the story of a camper van that became an icon. More than 157,500 units of the California have so far left the plants. Each one an all-rounder. Campers for life’s short and long journeys while at the same time vans for those adventures of daily life. Four generations have appeared so far. One important detail, though, persists through time as a common denominator: the pop-up roof. A tent of almost two metres in height. That’s all it takes for a California traveller to say: “Home is where we park our camper.”

Although the technology has sometimes evolved in a revolutionary manner from generation to generation, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has remained faithful to the engineering design DNA of the first California up to the present day. Part of this DNA is the general trait that the California makes extremely clever use of space on a relatively compact footprint that is practical for everyday driving. The perfectly conceived sophisticated details on board the camper van thus tend to resemble the features of a small sailing yacht more than those of a conventional, large motor caravan.

This perfection in detail has led to the evolution of an independent philosophy of travelling, in fact an attitude towards life – an appeal for freedom. While the owners of large motor caravans generally opt for maximum comfort and view their vehicle as their own home on wheels, California fans always focus on the greatest possible freedom. The freedom that allows them to master even the smallest routes, alleyways, camp sites and towns; the freedom to break camp from one minute to the next and head for the next destination; the freedom to use the vehicle invented for globetrotters as a van between journeys and hence as an all-round vehicle for daily transportation needs. The California from Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles makes all of these freedoms possible. And for three decades, this has made it a camper van with cult status.

Retrospective – Transporter as the best possible foundation

All California models are based on the Transporter, a.k.a the ‘Bulli’ or ‘microbus’ – a vehicle that has become a design icon and blueprint for all vans because not a millimetre of space is wasted. The generations of the Transporter from Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and hence also those of the California are classified from the T1 up to the present T6. The first mobile caravans with the genes of the Transporter were exclusively designed by third party suppliers. The best-known of them is the German second stage manufacturer Westfalia, whose product range included the ‘Joker’. Cooperation with Westfalia also produced the first two generations of the California: the T3 (1988 to 1990) and the T4 (1990 to 2003). In 2004, the market launch of the T5 followed, which was built until 2015, the year that saw the introduction of the current T6.

The California T3 had already made its debut towards the end of the life cycle of the third Transport generation. This is why it was only produced for three years. It successors, the T4 and T5, however, each enjoyed a long production period of more than a decade – a reflection of their success and fully developed features. The fact of the matter is that California models from all eras have never been treated as conventional used cars but have evolved into classics of their times – often over decades of family ownership. In Germany, the first California T3 models are just acquiring official historic status – as indicated by the “ennobling” letter H on the registration plate. There are good chances that the subsequent generations will also achieve this status one day. After all, in common with only a few special sports cars and convertibles, all California models enjoy cult status – across society. And this is something absolutely timeless.

California T3 – 1988 to 1990

The California's story begins in 1988 with a special model of mobile caravan based on the third Transporter generation. Jointly developed with Westfalia and also built there in the German town of Rheda-Wiedenbrück, this first California is unveiled at the Caravan Salon in Essen, that metropolis of the Ruhr region. It is the year in which Whitney Houston accompanies travellers all over the world with her song “One Moment in Time”, and George Michael releases one hit after another from his album “Faith”. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman deliver stellar performances in “Rain Man”.

Meanwhile, at the Caravan Salon, the new California T3 cannot deny, nor does it want to, that its concept exploits the proven layout for technology and equipment of the Westfalia Joker. The special model initially produced in a limited edition shows a number of visual differences, among them the large bumpers of the exclusive Multivan Carat from the Westfalia ‘Joker’ models. The California can be ordered in two colours “Pastel White” and “Marsala Red”. Seats and the rear bench are covered in light grey velours in a fine mesh pattern. With their white-grey and very cleanly designed kitchen unit adapted from the Joker, the interior designers demonstrate their awareness of style. Nevertheless, the new California leaves the plant with the usual insulated double glazing customary in the Joker. On the other hand, at a price of some DM 39,900 it costs roughly DM 10,000 less than the Westfalia model and, as a result, becomes an instant best seller. In its first year alone, Volkswagen sells 5,000 units of the California. As an alternative to the pop-up roof, it is also available with a high roof and large panoramic window. Those who opt for the pop-up roof spend the night lying on a 1,850 x 1,220 mm surface, gazing at the stars through the large front window of the bellows and a mosquito net; those who choose the high roof have a bed space of 1,940 x 1,160 mm at their disposal. While the high roof offers advantages in continuous rain and at low temperatures, the pop-up roof scores with the lower overall height of the California (2,080 compared with 2,610 mm), which thus fits into practically every personal garage and many public car parks. It was this advantage that later led Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles to offer the California ex works exclusively with a pop-up roof as from the T6 generation.

Today, there is no longer a full explanation as to how the name ‘California' came about. What is known is that the name first applies only to the special model. In the autumn of 1989, a more luxurious version of the camper follows, which is called ‘Atlantic' (and unlike the California is also available with all-wheel drive). In the time that follows, the 'California' special model gradually becomes the new California camper van series.

In any case, the first California has an interior layout and roof design that have been retained in similar form through to the present day. At the front are individual swivel seats, at the rear a folding seat bench, which can be converted to a bed with an area of 1,880 x 1,200 mm. The driver’s side is completely taken up with the kitchen unit (centrally from the B pillar); this layout – known as ‘Berlin' – had already been invented with the T2. In the T3, this mobile kitchen comprises a refrigerator (which can operate on electricity or gas), a two-burner gas cooker and a stainless steel sink. There are additional cupboards towards the rear. The gas tank system, auxiliary heating, the 220-V connection, a separate battery for the living area as well as tanks for freshwater and wastewater ensure that more and more camper fans discover the qualities of the California for themselves. By the end of production (1990), some 22,000 mobile caravan enthusiasts had chosen one of the California T3 models with up to 82 kW/112 PS of power.

California T4 – 1990 to 2003

The changeover from T3 to T4 in August 1990 is tantamount to a technical revolution. For, after four decades of rear-wheel drive using flat four engines, Volkswagen's commercial vehicle specialists simply turned things around: they place the engine at the front and drive the front axle from there. This changes everything: the design, the chassis, the engines and the interior layout. After all, where the flat engine was taking up stowage space in the T3, there is now plenty of room. Admittedly, some of this space is occupied by the new semi-trailing arm rear suspension and the optional
all-wheel drive (‘syncro‘), but the rest can be fully assigned to the cargo space. At the front, however, the T4 becomes longer so as to create sufficient space for the in-line four-cylinder and five-cylinder engines as well as better crash properties.

The T4 also enters its second year of production as a California with pop-up roof. Like the California T3, it is produced at Westfalia. The advertising motifs for the market launch in 1990 feature the slogan: “Hotel California. Quiet location, comfortable furnishings, panoramic view guaranteed.” The Eagles had released “Hotel California” in 1976. And, even 15 years later, the song is still of course the perfect complement for the spirit on board a camper van that had undergone improvements in practically all aspects with the new generation. However, listening to the song itself now requires one of the CD players that are available since, because classics like “Hotel California” are swept off the radio stations in 1976 by the Scorpions with “Wind of Change”.

The ‘Berlin' layout continues to dominate the area behind the still swivelling driver and passenger seats – and this is good news for space utilisation: kitchen unit and cupboards on the driver’s side, i.e. opposite the sliding door. However, the compressor fridge operated by the auxiliary battery or an external power supply moves further to the rear, with its contents now being removed from the top and no longer via a door at the front. This provides for greater freedom of movement in the seating area. At the same time, the California evolves increasingly into a mobile caravan with high-tech comfort and safety details, including front airbags, electronic differential locks and, for the first time, also ESP and a radio navigation system. Optional features such as a rear shower add to the luxury. From the inside, the two travellers in the rear no longer view the outside world through scratch-sensitive insulated plastic windows but through thermopane windows as standard. The new California is also equipped with a pop-up roof as standard. And once again it remains under the 2.0-metre level so that it is still able to seek shelter in personal garages and public car parks. Available once again is a high-roof version, now with an alcove that projects forwards over the windscreen.

In 1992 the California becomes the California Coach. One of its distinguishing features – as a version with pop-up roof – is the rear window area on the driver’s side now finished in steel, as this is now the position for the cupboard inside. At the same time, two California models with extended wheelbase and high roof (with a type of alcove towards the front) also find their way into the range: the California Club (with sink and cooker at the rear as well as additional cupboards in the passenger’s side) and the California Tour with classic 'Berlin' interior layout (similar to the California Coach).

In 1994, a new high-roof version with normal wheelbase makes its debut: to mark Westfalia’s 150th jubilee, the California Highway is produced as a special model limited to 500 units – with a more aerodynamic high roof without alcove and customised equipment. After the “Highway” has sold out, its compact roof is then also offered for the “normal” California Coach. Incidentally, the Eagles report back in the same year and present one of the best live albums of all time with “Hell Freezes Over“, one highlight on which is a 7:12-minute version of “Hotel California“. Meanwhile, a new highlight in the camper van range from 1995 is the California Exclusive with high roof, long wheelbase and a wet room including WC and fold-away wash basin.

A major revision of the entire T4 generation follows in 1996, which also affects the full California range. To distinguish them from the commercial vehicles in the Transporter range, all Caravelle and California models also gain a modified, more elegant front section. At the same time, the product range is reorganised and becomes clearer as a result: from now on the California Coach is available with a short wheelbase and the classic pop-up roof (with roof bed) as well as two fixed high roofs in the versions Compact (without roof bed) and alcove (with roof bed). In addition, the top model remains the California Exclusive with long wheelbase including rear kitchen and wet room.

In parallel, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles presents upgraded special models year after year. A number of examples are the California Biker (1995), the California Beach (1996), the California Advantage (1999), the California Event (2001) to mark the 50th anniversary of Volkswagen camper vans and – as a final edition – California Freestyle (2002). Among the features supplied as standard are metallic paint finish, air conditioning system, tailgate carrier for four bicycles and an exclusively upgraded interior. Until the model changeover in 2003, a total of some 39,000 units of the California T4 with an output of up to 150 kW/204 PS leave the Westfalia production facilities in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. The majority of these camper vans are still rolling along the roads of the world today.

California T5 – 2004 to 2015

At the Auto Mobil International (AMI) in Leipzig in spring of 2003, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles presents the redeveloped fifth Transporter generation – or T5 for short. Like the T4, the T5 also has a front-mounted engine and front-wheel drive. As an option, the T5 is also available with the newly developed 4MOTION all-wheel drive system, in which drive torque is distributed variably between front and rear axle via an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch. 4MOTION thus replaces the syncro all-wheel drive, which used a less efficient system with a viscous coupling in the T4. Another striking feature is the longer front section that offers more interior space for a cockpit like that of a passenger car with a large infotainment system and improved crash safety. In May 2003, the first T5 models make their way to the dealerships. Volkswagen celebrates the world premiere of the new California in late summer at the Caravan Salon.

In the following year, the California T5 comes onto the market. It is initially offered in the two equipment versions of “Trendline” and “Comfortline”. Both equipment lines can be ordered with an electro-hydraulically operated pop-up roof (standard) and (as from 2005) with a high roof. The new California is now produced by Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles in Hannover for the first time. During this process, the base vehicles produced in the main plant (Hannover-Stöcken) are taken to a new dedicated production facility in the Hannover district of Limmer, where they are fully fitted out as camper vans.

The brochure for the third California also makes a direct reference to the Eagles’ global hit to whet appetites for the new model: “Welcome to the Hotel California.” This is followed directly by the positioning of the new generation: “Millions of kilometres. Countless sunrises and hours spent at idyllic locations all over the world – for decades so many people have been enjoying great experiences with the California on their travels. Experiences which, alongside many innovative ideas, have been providing input for the latest generation of the California. Our designers’ aim? Nothing less than the perfect camper van.” What nobody could have known at this time is that the success of the third generation would confirm the company’s aim of building the perfect camper van: with 54,000 units sold up until 2015, the California T5 becomes the most successful generation of this model series to date and at the same time evolves into the most successful camper van of its class on the global market.

The ingredients for this – in addition to new technologies for the drive system, safety, comfort and infotainment – come from the completely redeveloped camper van equipment. Outside and in, the new California is better thought through. On the outside, for instance, there is now an electro-hydraulically operated pop-up roof made of aluminium (rather than GFRP). Similarly constructed of lightweight but sturdy aluminium are the cupboards in the interior. Taking the tailgate as an example, here Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has integrated two camping chairs. Consequently, you can arrive, open the tailgate, undo the zip fastener, take out the chairs and you’re all set up. The matching table is located in the sliding door. These are the small yet clever details that have made the California the perfect travelling companion up to the present day.

Perfection also defines the interior: Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has completely redeveloped the interior fittings including the entire seating arrangements, the kitchen unit back in the typical California layout and the sleeping areas. Depending on selected equipment options, the California inspires with features such as a comfortable slatted bed frame on the 'first storey', various small interior lights, a reading lamp in the pop-up roof, blinds integrated into the A pillars of the windscreen, a new roof storage box at the rear, a folding and sliding table in the kitchen area and a now
42-litre cool box or a mini-safe deep down in the cupboard.

The new model also offers an optional infotainment system for the first time. It is not only a navigation system but also a DVD player, television, telephone and interface for integrating an Apple iPod. What today is taken for granted, represents a major step into the future in 2004. The optional reversing camera, which also transmits its images to the infotainment system display, has clear practical benefits. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has also redeveloped the “central control panel” in the roof console, which is used to monitor various parameters such as battery level and operating status of the cool box and to operate the pop-up roof and auxiliary heating. Rounding off the touring equipment on the exterior are a carrier for four bicycles (on the tailgate), various roof-rack systems, a rear tent (also suitable as a shower cabinet) and an awning.

Time and again, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles further enriches the California range with attractive special models. The first makes it debut in 2006: the California Sonora, named after a desert region. From the outside, the two-tone paint finish distinguishes the special model, while the roof always remains in Silver Metallic. Another identifying characteristic is the almost complete set of equipment and an exclusive, four-piece set of bags.

Even more individually equipped is the California NoLimit, which is initially presented as a design study. July 2007 sees the launch of the special series limited to 222 units. Never before has a California been so individually and luxuriously designed. Identifying features on the outside of the NoLimit are the special colour of “Campanella White”, protective trim strips in an elegant white with chrome accents, 18-inch alloy wheels (AZEV sport edition type “R”), bi-xenon headlights and smoked rear lights as well as privacy windows. Among the details setting the scene in the interior of the exclusive model are leather-Alcantara upholstery, carpets and Alcantara mattresses in “Date Brown” and a gleaming white paint finish for the cupboards throughout the kitchen unit. Also fitted as standard: a full complement of electronic equipment including navigation system, Apple iPod (30 GB), 10-inch multimedia player, telephone interface and leather multifunction steering wheel. An additional detail located on the passenger side is the individual serial number – 1 to 222 – of the respective “NoLimit” edition. Prices for the California NoLimit in Germany start at 69,996 euros.


Yet Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has all of its customers in view in 2007 and offers a new entry-level model at the other end of the range in the same year: the California Beach – optionally available with or without manually operated pop-up roof, but always without a kitchen unit (price in Germany: less than 31,000 euros). The wide spectrum – from the low-cost Beach to the top versions – strengthens the California in its role as a
class-neutral all-rounder respected in all social milieus. The success is measurable. In 2008, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles celebrates the 80,000th California since 1988. Also making its debut in 2008 is another California Biker special model – fitted of course with a bicycle carrier for the tailgate as standard. In May 2009, Volkswagen then presents the California Black Edition limited to 50 vehicles – finished in black on the outside with a large chrome package, fitted with 18-inch wheels and bi-xenon headlights and upgraded with leather-Alcantara and white cupboards in the interior, the California Black Edition positions itself as a soul-mate to the California NoLimit.

A major facelift follows in autumn 2009. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles unveils the update of the T5 to the international media in Rome. The design of the front section is a particularly striking exterior feature. On the drive side, all turbodiesel fuel-injection engines are converted from pump nozzle to a new four-cylinder common rail generation with up to 132 kW/180 PS. From now on, instead of an automatic transmission, a dual clutch gearbox (DSG) comes into operation, which can also be combined with 4MOTION
all-wheel drive. The new Side Assist additionally warns of vehicles in the blind spot. Interior innovations include new instruments, new radio and infotainment systems as well as new controls for the air conditioning. All of these details do of course also find their place in the California “Beach” (now with manually operated pop-up roof as standard) and “Comfortline” models that follow in 2010, which also have revamped seat covers and decor.

In the late summer of 2012, Volkswagen presents another exclusive version of the camper van at the Caravan Salon, which has long since relocated to Düsseldorf: the California Edition with a matt black inner section of the
pop-up roof and additional black body details. The California Edition can be ordered in the exterior colours of “Candy White”, “Salsa Red” and “Reflex Silver”. Like the “NoLimit” of 2007 and the “Black Edition” of 2009, the “Edition” of 2012 is also equipped inside with kitchen and cupboard elements completely in white – a particularly luxurious interior version. The year 2013, marking the 25th anniversary, sees the appearance of the California Generation special model. In addition to the ‘Generation’ lettering at the rear and on the side sills as well as the illuminated sill plates in the doorways, the special model includes refinements such as privacy windows, 17-inch alloy wheels and grey leather-Alcantara upholstery. Just one year later, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles shows another exclusive model at the Caravan Salon. Production run: one unit. Reason: the California Comfortline in “Natural Grey” paint finish – equipped with a 140 PS TDI and a 7-speed DSG – is the 50,000th California based on the T5 to come from Hannover.

California T6 – since 2015

In the summer of 2015, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles presents the sixth generation of the Transporter and thus a new California as well. At the market launch in June, the camper van is available in the three equipment lines of “Beach”, “Coast” and “Ocean”. External characteristics are a completely redesigned front section, which with its distinctive unit of radiator grille and LED headlights (depending on installed equipment) transports the design DNA of the California into the modern era. Nothing less applies to the revamped rear with its LED rear lights (also dependent upon installed equipment). Also new are the line-up of wheel designs and the spectrum of colours. Another novelty is the reintroduction of two-tone paint finishes for the first time in decades – in tribute to the T1. In addition, instead of cotton, the bellows are now made of synthetic fabric which is both more water-resistant and tougher.

On the inside, the complete redesign extends to the dash panel. Depending on the version, the cross-panel in the cockpit is also individualised to match the colours of the exterior and bellows. A total of six paint finishes are available for the accent on the dash panel: “Cherry Red”, “Anthracite Metallic”, “Bamboo Garden Green”, “Mojave Beige”, “Acapulco Blue” and “Black Glossy”. New floors in wood look, new fabric and Alcantara-leather covers for the seats and sleeping areas as well as new decor schemes for the kitchen unit and cupboards in “Dark Wood” and “White Wood”) further round off the interior perfectly. This perfection also extends to the fine detail of the California T6: improvements have been added, for example, to the guides of the window blinds and sliding doors; a magnetic flashlight in the base of the front passenger’s seat is charged in situ during the journey and doubles as a nightlight.

Setting the technological scene for the new California is a range of even more economical engines, new infotainment systems with smartphone integration via app (App Connect for Apple and Android) as well a whole host of assistance systems. The latter include the Front Assist area monitoring system together with City Emergency Braking, the Automatic Post-Collision Braking System to prevent secondary collisions, the Driver Alert System, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Hill Descent Assist (for 4MOTION), the automatic main beam control ight Assist and the lane change system Side Assist.

As a further new feature starting in 2016, the bellows of the pop-up roof can be ordered in red (“Strawberry Red”) and blue (“Glacier Blue”) as an alternative to grey (“Alpine Grey”). In 2017, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles also introduces further new developments to the iconic camper van. New on board now is the optional “Camper interior light concept”. The exclusive “Ocean” equipment version additionally includes ambient lighting (around the kitchen block) lighting in the wardrobe and lower cupboard as well as LED lighting for the tailgate and the bedroom inside the pop-up roof. In addition to this, extra storage compartments, new towel rails and a glass work surface now split into three rather than two sections (suitable for use as an additional draining board when using the sink) over the fridge, gas cooker and sink improve the utility of the kitchen designed carefully down to the finest detail. The continual optimisation of the California, now on offer in its fourth generation, is reflected in its sales figures: in 2017, the California T6 sets a new sales record with 15,155 new vehicles delivered. To date, sales of the latest generation California total 37,000. As already mentioned, this makes 157,500 units since the premiere of the first California T3. Yet there is one thing that these figures signify above all else: a tremendous number of summers spent in a spirit of happiness and freedom.

Disclaimer by Volkswagen

  • Volkswagen Group Ireland Limited (“VWGI”) believes the specifications and pricing on this website to be accurate and correct at the date of publication. Specifications, pricing, standard equipment, options, fabrics and colours are subject to change without notice by VWGI. Please note some features may be unavailable when your vehicle is built. Some vehicles are pictured with options that may be available at extra cost or may not be available on some models. Ask your authorised Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Retailer about availability of options and verify that the vehicle you ordered includes the equipment you ordered. Prices exclude the maximum delivery charge of €950. Models shown are for illustrative purposes only.  Recommended on The Road Price (ROTR) is a guideline only.  The actual price is agreed with the Retailer. We therefore invite you to consult your Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Retailer for further details.

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