Volkswagen might build the Transporter cargo van, but Frank Westland and his team at Ventje in the Netherlands are responsible for turning it into something special: a camper that lets you take your work or family off-grid for an extended weekend and still serve as your daily driver upon return. It’s “the only car you need,” according to the Ventje website.
That’s an interesting proposition at a time when flexible work arrangements implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have gone from temporary to permanent. As many as 38 percent of American workers are now able to work from home full time, according to a new McKinsey survey, with even more — 58 percent — able to work remotely at least part time.
As a full-time flex worker myself, I arranged a four-day trip in a Ventje (which roughly translates to “little guy” in Dutch) with my wife and dog to see just how adaptable this campervan really is. I drove it 600 miles (1,000km) on a mix of dusty dirt roads, the über-fast German autobahn, and the dense urban center of Amsterdam. I also brought my laptop and a Starlink RV internet kit along for the ride because I still had to show up for work — in Slack.
Afterward, I sat down with Westland and toured Ventje’s production lines to better understand how a company of 33 employees is able to create such a clever vehicle.
Westland and team deliver about one new Ventje each day, earning a loyal following in the process. A community event held in June playfully titled “Eventje” saw about 700 guests and 50 Ventje vans descend upon the company’s home in Culemborg, located an hour outside of Amsterdam. It’s here, in a sprawling facility outlined by dozens of empty VW Transporters, where the Ventje interior is manufactured and assembled to create a multifunctional home on wheels.
Ventje interiors convert from bedroom to office to kitchen to lounge and back again with surprising ease. Westland’s team accomplished this through some inventive engineering and computer-aided design, by assembling parts produced with CNC precision, and with the assistance of over 100 magnets to keep all those sustainable wooden surfaces aligned and locked into place.
“You have a lot of designers drawing up something beautiful that can’t be produced. Or engineers making something really cool that’s not very usable. For me, that combination is very important,” says Westland, who completed a combined education in design and engineering at the age of 21.
Ventje’s design was forged from Westland’s own travel experiences. It all started after he graduated and set off to explore New Zealand with a tent and small car. He returned to Europe after a year and learned that he couldn’t just pop up a tent wherever he parked. That led to thoughts of a van. Lacking any experience with campers, he was unencumbered by traditional thinking about layouts. So Westland began drafting his ideas in a sketchbook before cobbling together his first vehicle.
“I bought an old VW T4 and built a simple kitchen in the back with simple seating,” says Westland, who then headed to Spain with it for a month and a half. “I would stop somewhere and pop up the back and everybody would start looking. ‘Oh, that’s easy. You can just stand outside and cook.’ That’s when I first got the feeling that some people would like this layout and this way of traveling.”
More than a decade later and people still stop to marvel at the kitchen — now highly refined — any time I popped the tailgate on the Ventje T5 I was testing. At one point, I had a half-dozen strangers simultaneously asking me questions about the van while parked at a festival campground. I heard literal gasps when I slid open a hidden drawer to begin assembling Ventje’s flat-packed furniture set that uses the interior’s cushions to create plush outdoor seating, complete with a picnic table.
Westland’s team has developed a rather intricate foundation onto which everything is assembled inside the van. (I wasn’t able to photograph it out of Westland’s concern that others might copy it). This meticulous system avoids hinges that can break over time yet still holds the seat cushions securely while allowing them to be easily removed and reconfigured. The team even designed special rails inside the kitchen drawers so they can slide in both directions and still lock in place with the help of magnets. It’s a nice touch that gives you access to everything in the kitchen from both inside and outside the van.
My test van was one of the company’s rentals that came stocked with everything needed to cook meals from scratch. My wife and I mostly cooked while standing outside since the weather was great, with the open tailgate providing shade from the hot sun. Hidden magnets hold the large cutting board in place when chopping or opening the fridge upon which it rests, while other magnets hold a lighter (for the gas stove) and catch bottle caps sprung by the integrated opener. We only accessed the kitchen from inside the van when making simple breakfasts — it was nice to start the day slowly before rolling up the magnetized window coverings to reveal ourselves to the world.
The Ventje proved to be comfortable and capable as a mobile office. My van was fitted with a 180W solar panel that fed power to a 95Ah battery that also received charge from the VW’s alternator when driving. Each Ventje van has 4x USB charging points, 1x 12V socket, and 3x 230V European wall sockets conveniently placed around the interior. As a bonus, the large outdoor tabletop can be attached (magnetically) to the small interior foldout table for a more expansive workspace when you need to spread out papers or share the desk with your traveling partner(s).
My daily power needs consisted of running the van’s 26-liter fridge all day and night, a Starlink RV internet kit for a few hours, a 12V portable Nespresso coffee machine for about an hour, a portable fan and the van’s own ventilation system for about eight hours each night, and a water pump for a few minutes when washing dishes. (The kitchen is fitted with two propane burners instead of induction to help save on the wattage.) The van also had to keep a handful of USB devices topped up, including two sets of AirPods, two phones, and a MacBook. Although my MacBook can charge over USB-C I still needed to use the less efficient AC adapter since Ventjes are only equipped with 5V/2.1A USB-A jacks. Still, I was happy to find a pair within easy reach of the pop-top where I slept.
The power meter on my test Ventje never showed less than 68 percent (more on that later) remaining during my testing, but driving a few hours each day and parking in full sun certainly helped keep things charged.
“I never switch off anything,” says Westland, who drives his Ventje year-round. “Because I have the solar panel, my fridge is always running and everything is always switched on. I never run out of battery.”
Still, if you’re planning to sit in the wilds under cloudy skies for several days, then it’s good to know that there’s enough storage space inside a Ventje to pack one of those giant batteries with portable solar panels and still have ample room for all your extra clothes, linens, and toiletries. I brought along a Jackery Explorer 2000 Pro that I never needed. By sheer coincidence, it was exactly the right height to fit under one of the rear seats, and its 200W folding solar panel could be laid flat on the floor under the table to perfectly fill the space between benches.
Ventje vans can theoretically sleep four people: two above in the pop-top and two below when the seating is arranged into a bed. But the narrow 120cm x 200cm (47 x 80 inches) pop-top bed might be uncomfortable to share if you’re traveling in warm climates where skin-on-skin contact must be avoided at all costs. The lower bed is a bit roomier, measuring 140cm at its widest point but is still akin to sharing a double bed. My wife and I ended up sleeping separately on the two very warm nights we had the van. That’s not ideal for intimacy, but it did provide a bit of privacy, which is a luxury when camping. The dog slept in the space below the lower bed and didn’t complain.
I live in the city, so it’s a real privilege to wake up on a Monday morning in the forest. From my remote base, I could easily pursue passions like trail running or mountain biking before returning to the van to start work. In that way, the Ventje T5 I was testing allowed me to maximize the value of my own flexible work arrangement.
Overall, the interior layout was super functional and clearly developed by a team of experienced campers. The design was locked a few years ago, with only minor tweaks in the time since to make things more accessible and comfortable. The biggest recent change is that Ventje’s Transporters can now legally carry up to five passengers thanks to the addition of two seat belts in the rear.
My test Ventje handled every road I threw at it. On uneven dirt roads, the custom interior didn’t rattle or squeak on the way to off-grid campsites. Everything remained stable on the German autobahn, even at speeds above 140km/h (87mph), and the van proved nimble enough to be parallel parked (on the first attempt!) in the dense city center of Amsterdam. Is a camper built atop the VW Transporter platform the best car for all those situations? No, of course not — but no single car is. Ventje’s “the only car you need” pitch might be rooted in compromise, but there is some truth to it — especially for working families who dream of off-grid adventure but can’t afford (or want) more than one vehicle.
The obvious downside to this nomadic existence is the current spike in fuel costs, especially in Europe, where prices were hovering around $8 per gallon during my test drive. Over four days, my fuel total came to $198 (€190) in a modified VW T5 Transporter that averaged 24.7mpg. That’s only slightly below the EPA average of 25.4mpg for US cars, which is either impressive for a European camper or a condemnation of America’s oversized vehicles.
- One oddity I noticed is that the battery’s display regularly showed 100 percent despite being partially depleted from overnight usage. It was only when the 12V Nespresso machine was plugged in and active that I saw the percentage drop. Even then, you get a worst-case estimate before the display reports the actual battery capacity remaining, according to Westland. For example, the day I saw the battery drop to 68 percent, it showed 91 percent a few minutes later, which was apparently the correct reading.
- There’s no pass-through from the front to the rear of the van. That means stopping to get out and open the side door should you need any snacks while driving.
- Ventje staff gave me a 10-minute walkthrough before driving away. Good thing because I doubt I would have discovered every possible configuration and feature otherwise.
- The van’s interior didn’t rattle at all while driving. We only heard some plastic cups (I think) knocking around occasionally since they were poorly stored in the drawers of our rental.
- There are so many surprising little touches everywhere: an emergency toilet that fits between the seats (we did not test this); magnetic privacy curtains that can be put in place and removed fairly quickly; an integrated wine rack and shoe rack; pockets of storage everywhere including a large recess to house all the linens during the day; and easy access to the van’s lights, AC inverter, ventilation, and heater from a central console that’s conveniently located in the main sitting (and sleeping) area.
- There’s easy access to fresh water, brown wastewater, trash, and gas bottles for quick servicing.
- The 10 liter fresh- and brown-water tanks are just enough for about three days of frugal usage for two people and a dog — but only if you’re carrying your own drinking water separately.
I really enjoyed my time with the Ventje van. But, as a full-time flex worker with a car service subscription, any camper I buy will be dedicated to supporting three adults and a dog parked off-grid for more than a week at a time — especially when fuel prices are high. So Ventje’s vans aren’t for me.
That’s fine with Westland. His bigger concern is that people in the market for a camper don’t even know that his vans exist. “We worked so long on the design, spent so much time and effort to get everything just right that it feels like a waste if somebody hasn’t seen it,” says the Ventje founder. “When I’m traveling, I have so many people come up to me and say ‘Oh shit. I just bought this thing here.’ It sounds like bragging, but it’s really what happens.”
If you want to buy a Ventje, you’ll have to wait about seven months for the delivery of your customized VW Transporter T5, T6, or T6.1, with tax-inclusive prices ranging from €50,000 ($50,000) for a used T5 to €99,000 ($99,000) for a new T6.1. Depending upon options and country of purchase, that makes Ventje’s campers a bit cheaper than VW’s own California camper series. Ventje’s target markets are the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany currently, but it’s also worked with customers abroad who want to import Ventjes into countries like the US.
As to the future, Ventje’s looking to expand to new platforms. Volkswagen just started production of the all-electric ID Buzz but has yet to make a campervan version despite its microbus origins. It does make a bare-bones cargo van, though. “I’d really like to make a Ventje of that one,” says Westland, who thinks he could have a version ready in about two years.
“We already ordered a couple and are working on the design.”
All Photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge