A Cult-Favorite Van Was Stolen in San Francisco, Highlighting the Car’s Unique Ownership Risk

VW’s iconoclastic Vanagon Westfalia vans are synonymous with van life… but they’re also targets for car theft, especially in San Francisco.

Volkswagen’s Vanagon Westfalia camper vans were built from the early 1950s to 2003 in small production runs. Even though the beloved camper van model — a modality of transportation that’s become interchangeable with wanderlust — was sold for decades, only about 100,000 examples found their way into the American car market. (To put that figure into perspective, over 133,000 Honda Civics were made and sold in the United States just last year alone.)

Since going out of production 20 years ago, the popularity of VW’s Westfalia camper vans, also known as “Westies,” has exploded into a zenith of car fandom reserved for a just few automobiles. Pristine examples of these nonconformist mini-buses-on-wheels, primarily those with refurbished original kitchenettes and well-cared-for folding camper rooftops, can go for as much as $69,000; Westies more commonly for sale these days come onto the market needing a lot of TLC, but can still fetch well over $18,000 for cars that literally can’t even start.

The adage they just don’t make them like they used to wholeheartedly applies to Westies. (Yes, Mercedes and Dodge Sprinter van conversations are by no means alien sights around the Bay Area, they don’t have the same nostalgic spirit as Westies.) Coupling their ubiquitous charm and general popularity, it’s little wonder why this literal decades-old van is often subjected to cars, especially here in the SF Bay Area.

One such example of the cult-favorite van was recently stolen in SF’s Lower Nob Hill on the 1100 block of Sutter Street.

“Our van was stolen,” reads a now-deleted Instagram post by Laura Stepping ([at]mrsrobinsonsf) on Monday, June 26th, calling for anyone with information on the car to please contact them. “if you see a brown Vanagon [with] license plate SID, please call me or DM asap.”

Stepping’s plight to find her stolen Westie is an all too common occurrence for owners of the cherished van model. A quick scan through Reddit shows dozens of call-to-actions in regards to finding stolen Westies since 2020— nearly all of which are along the Pacific Northwest, particularly in the SF Bay Area and greater Seattle region. 

Aside from their inherent desirability, Westies are quite easy to steal, according to online forums like The Samba.

The steering racks on these vans are easily removable; the windows located on the passenger and driver’s side doors offer quick access to the door handles; a lot of model years, mainly those built in the earlier years, didn’t include anti-lock brakes, which makes them quite towable; nearly all Westies ever produced have no anti-theft measures — i.e. alarm system, locking steering column, active immobilizers, etc. — when they left the factory. 

Oh… and compounding those aforenoted ownership risks, Westies have a reputation as “stealth camping” vehicles… which means those looking to either steal or break into a car know these vans are likely filled with valuables.

It’s fucked up we can’t have nice things without balling up into a mound of woven anxieties because people are assholes. But, thankfully, some good fortune came Stepping’s way — and her beloved Westfalia was found in SF’s Panhandle Wednesday, June 28th, with a busted-out window.

“We found her,” reads an Instagram story update, sharing that the car was temporarily taken to SFPD’s impound lot after being reported stolen.

With 44,888 cars reported stolen in San Francisco over the past 9 years, it’s good to know that one of them was returned home — one that will elicit and support bouts of wanderlust for many years to come.

Feature image: Courtesy of Junkyard Mob

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