How many enthusiasts does it take to restore a fleet of rust-riddled Volkswagen camper vans? Ask the Italians.
At the back of a hanger in the heart of Florence, two VW fans have dedicated their lives to restoring these iconic vans from the Swinging Sixties, importing them from South America before fixing them up and selling them.
Some are over 50 years old, but once they are patched up by Mauro Altamore and his mechanic Giacomo Nucci, they are expected to chug on for another half a century at least. “With good maintenance, these vans are indestructible. We have to overhaul a good part of the mechanics, but keep the original engines,” Nucci told AFP as he showed off a van that looked like it had rolled off an assembly line, despite its age.
From Ferrari to Fiat, Italy is a car-crazy country, but Nucci firmly believes there is nothing better than a VW camper. He’s been sprucing up these classic vans for collectors for over seven years, and these days, boasts an increasing number of businesses and advertising companies among his customers.
Fashion companies ask for “made to measure” vans for photo shoots or catalogs, he says pointing to a row of shiny red, blue and cream colored vans, as well as one with a slogan stamped on the side. Their distinctive VW hood ornaments—which enjoyed a period of fame as rapper pendants thanks to the Beastie Boys—glint like new.
Altamore, who came up with the idea for restoring the vans, says clients come not just from Italy but from all over Europe. Customers can be picky: one purist wants the rust on the bodywork kept, even down to craters that look like bullet holes. Another wants the original motor replaced with a Porsche engine. Inside the company’s office are dozens of ceramic models of the “Peace and Love” campers he has collected throughout the years.
His passion started in childhood when he used to collect models of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle, whose rear engine and axles were later used in the camper vans. When Altamore was 18, he set his heart on buying one but his father refused to pay for it, denouncing the little car as a gas guzzler. Instead, he got a camper. Now, Altamore has bought and restored so many of them he’s lost count.
About 10 years ago, while in Brazil working in the clothing import and export business, Altamore decided to switch his business focus to vans instead, fondly remembering his first client: “a famous biscuit manufacturer.” He eventually dedicated himself full time to the van business with Nucci’s help.
Restoration takes around six months and costs between $10,600 to $53,000, largely because picking up parts, which are out of production, is not always easy. But these vehicles, which remain hugely popular, can often command prices which are much higher, with a 1955 model going under the hammer in Germany for around $235,000 in November 2014.
Manufactured in Germany until 1979, and in Brazil until 2013, the classic campers continue to fascinate people well beyond the “free love” hippy generation and have become a symbol of freedom.
“You turn the key and off you go,” Altamore says with a grin. “The windshield opening says it all: It was like riding a motorbike. You would set off, stop where you want, you could even sleep inside. I reckon more than a few children have been born inside … and many have been conceived!”
—Relaxnews with additional reporting by the RealClearLife staff