By Stuart Grant
With a consistent climate, decent road infrastructure, wide open expanses and a wide variety of scenery and activities at every corner of the land, we South Africans love nothing better than taking in an outdoor holiday getaway. And there’s no better way of appreciating it to the fullest than hitting a campsite. Memories are made, and many of these will at some time or other involve some sort of Jurgens home away from home. Let’s adds another Jurgens moment to the list with a look at a Volkswagen T2 Kombi-based Jurgens Auto-Villa.
Until today I had never set foot in an Auto-Villa, but still the holiday on wheels has burnt its way into the grey matter.
There was the one time as kids when we camped in a caravan park on the South Coastinthe most rudimentary tent ever seen. Of course it rained solidly for three days and our tent was anything but waterproof. Alongside us was an older couple in an Auto-Villa. How we longed for the waterproof lid they had! And then there was the coolest part of it all, which we spotted while doing the dishes in the communal sink: the couple had Jurgens-branded crockry in the soap suds.
My second memory is of sitting behind an early air-cooled version as it gently trundled up the solid white-lined Long Tom Pass without a care in the world. While it seemed a touch frustrating at this pace (I was in a 1980s hot hatch), it did strike me that it must be cool to take your home with you wherever you go and stop in a different place each evening.
With a Jurgens encounter at every holiday, the memories would fill these pages and more in no time, but I’ll leave the nostalgia here with a final recollection. To the caravan fans out there it might be a sad, sacrilegious one but to an impressionable 10-year-old it was fantastic. It was a Friday night. My family packed a cooler box and blankets and headed for Sturrock Park oval track for some good old-fashioned banger racing. While the V8 sprint cars and hot rods were their usual spectacular selves, the real cap on the awesome night was a caravan race. Old banger cars each hooked up a caravan and when the flag dropped set off in a tightly contested race, where from the outside it looked like the purpose was to destroy your fellow competitor’s caravan while also leading the race. It lasted maybe 10 furious laps and the win went the way of a busted-up station wagon towing what the commentator said was a Jurgens – but in reality all that remained was an axle with an A-frame, with the caravan bodywork strewn around the dirt track.
One last one: the other day I was in a coffee shop where the door was covered with hundreds of photographic slides. And, you guessed it, a large number of these featured unknown families’ vacation shots, complete with a T2 and T3 VW Auto-Villa. No matter where you go in SA you are sure to find a Jurgens of some sort, but interestingly the Jurgens story has a Dutch beginning to it.
So let’s go back to Holland in 1938 when Geert Jurgens, a truck and coach builder, built his own caravan. A 1950 move for the family to Johannesburg, South Africa saw him initially working at a local truck body-building outfit, but within two years he’d branched out on his own (with able help of his two sons, Dirk and Rieks) and started his own factory. Growth was rapid and a year later the staff had increased to 25 and the first SA caravan made by Jurgens was completed. Caravan building was still not the staple for Jurgens though, with the focus on truck and van bodies such as bread delivery units and even the odd mobile library.
But as the craze of caravanning swept through the land in the mid-1950s, so the operation reacted by adding caravan, trailer and motorhome manufacture to the repertoire. With more work than ever space became an issue, and by 1963 Jurgens had moved into a larger factory in Kempton Park. 1964 saw the addition of the crown to the Jurgens logo, which led to the ‘King of the Great Outdoors’ tagline. During ʼ67, the firm added a canvas side tent to the menu and churned out its 10 000th caravan, which is why no real holiday was complete without seeing at least one Valiant pulling a ‘sleepwa’.
Growth continued into the 1970s with in the region of 3 000 caravans rolling out the works in 1972, but for us motoring types the real excitement came in 1973 with the announcement of the first mass-production Jurgens compact motorhome – the Auto-Villa. We weren’t the only fans though, with Karmann of Germany applying to produce the vehicle under licence.
The Auto-Villa craze took off both here at home and globally, perhaps aided by the fuel crisis that saw caravan sales drop as buyers stopped buying the thirsty large-capacity cars needed to pull them. Whatever the case, ʼ74 was an exciting year with the delivery of the first Auto-Villas to clients. While companies had produced a number of Kombi-based campervans over the years, the Jurgens took its caravan-building expertise and applied them to cut-down Volkswagen T2 panel van rear section. The results saw the Auto-Villa outclass the others in terms of space – it had standing room, a kitchenette (with sink, gas fridge and two-plate stove), wall-to-wall carpets, beds (double or two single configurations) and even a sectioned-off area that could house a portable toilet or shower.
Before building any Auto-Villas, Jurgens were met with scepticism by Volkswagen technicians so the company took the plunge on its own, buying half a dozen VW Microbus panel vans at full-blown retail price from a dealership. These were taken apart, leaving only the engine, floorpan and cab section and then the rear caravan-type added, with careful attention put into chassis strengthening and the changing of shock absorbers to double-acting load-adjuster units also built here in SA. VW’s Type 2 Kombi was the chosen platform not only because of the natural tendency towards a camper but also because of the spares supply and dealership backing throughout the land, where these vehicles would be travelling. And in keeping it for the people, the aim laid out was to deliver a comfortable and luxurious vehicle that was nimble enough for town driving, didn’t need a heavy-duty licence and would cover the miles while being relatively light on fuel.
The first of the six purchased vehicles became the prototype shown to Volkswagen SA’s decision makers who passed on the report to Germany, who in turn agreed to make custom chassis for Jurgens’ requirements. VWSA then carried out a 20 000km test in South West Africa (Namibia) where after the official stamp of approval was given by Volkswagen.
Within a year the production units rolled out the Kempton factory and our favourite holiday home became a reality. Tests at the time concluded that the Auto-Villa was compact (only slightly longer than a VW Beetle) and easy to manoeuvre but did move around a bit in the wind (though not much more than a regular Kombi). Reports suggest fuel consumption on the open road measured in at just under 12 litres per 100km on the open road and that the 1795cc air-cooled engine would power the house to a top speed of 100km/h.
But what really had the tongues wagging was the clever interior packaging, space and fixtures. Inside the living area anyone under 1.88 metres could stand upright, rubber-backed carpets were fitted and woodgrain Formica surfaces abounded on the kitchen counters, dinette table, cupboards and ¾ wardrobe (which included a mirror on the door). There was a 102-litre gas fridge and two-burner stove with grill and glass-door oven. Inside a wall-mounted cabinet the awesome branded crockery for six was well packaged in a polystyrene box to prevent damage while on the drive. Best of all was a hidden kitchen sink that slid out from a cabinet drawer.
The dining table did duty as the base of the double bed and should the whole family be along for the camp out, a folding single bed and hammock could be ticked on the options list. Interior lighting was provided by means of fluorescent tubes.
The automatic version sold at R5 500 while the manual was popular at R5 200, and because over 100 units sold in year one, demand soon outstripped supply. Continuous improvements meant that a few changes occurred over the years with the most notable being the position and shape of the side door – initially set forward and featuring squared edges but from 1975 further back and with more rounded corners. Minor interior changes, like the replacement of the drawer fitted sink with a counter top unit, occurred too but the real improvement was the release of the Luton extension in ’76. This saw an extension of the ‘house’ part over the VW’s cab, which meant the kids didn’t have to sleep in a hammock anymore. The Luton was further modified in 1977 when the extension was reshaped with a lower profile for better aerodynamics, made possible by cutting into the Kombi’s driving cab. From there on, until the swap-over to the Type 3 (T3) Microbus and the move to the more powerful 2000L Microbus underpinnings in 1979, the Auto-Villa remained all but untouched in basic design. With this new 1970cc air-cooled engine the performance improved to see the Auto-Villa reach a top speed of 112km/h but it was happier cruising at 80km/h where it returned 12 litres per 100km – there wouldn’t have been enough juice in the regular tank size to really adventure. A set of twin 56-litre tanks were fitted either side the engine and gave a range of 900km or so. At just over R9 000 the Auto-Villa was not the cheapest form of motoring but then again it wasn’t just a vehicle, it was also a cheap house.
The last T2 Auto-Villa gave way to the T3 in 1982, but sadly this model didn’t live up to its predecessor in the sales department as competitors launched equally innovative designs. This, perhaps coupled with the resignation of Rieks Jurgens, saw Jurgens lose market share dramatically and a partnership was needed. The Terexco Group came on board (VW was no longer the chosen Auto-Villa platform; Bedford trucks took over) but couldn’t steady the ship and by 1989 ownership moved on to Michael Delport’s Decagon Group, ending the Jurgens family’s involvement in the company. Operating from a new factory in Ga-Rankuwa, the Jurgens brand started rebuilding itself by developing new models and re-establishing a decent dealer network. Slowly but surely the firm recovered to a 40% market share and by 1994 purchased competitors CI Caravans. With the release of the first mass-production off-road caravan in 1998, Jurgens again led the innovation race and sales soared. With Jurgens (now Jurgens Ci) back at the top of the pile once again, Delport figured he’d achieved what he wanted to do and sold the operation to the Imperial Group in 2008. In more recent years, Jurgens returned to Volkswagen derived Auto-Villas with the new front-engine Kombi models but to most of us the Auto-Villas we came to know and love are the versions with the engines in the back. Sure, they might slow you down on the mountain passes but there’s no denying they hold a soft spot as a special bit of South African motoring heritage. And who wouldn’t be slow carrying the bed, stove and kitchen sink across this awesome country?