Best Surf Cars Ever

As a surfer, you are what you drive

| posted on September 19, 2013

It’s a proven fact that you surf better when you show up to the beach in a dialed-in surf rig. It’s also a fact that you will heinously ruin the interior of a normal sedan with wax, sand, and foul smells if you’re wedging boards and wetsuits in the back. You need a good surf car, so if you’re on the market for dedicated surf transport, here are the models you want. All can be had for less than $7,500.

Jay Nelson's ewok-village inspired setup

Jay Nelson’s ewok-village inspired setup. Photo:

Toyota Pickup (late 1980s – 1990s)

You Want This Because: Legendary reliability; economical; compact truck with plenty of space

If you’re fortunate enough to find a mid-1990s ‘Yota in decent shape, especially with the 4-cylinder motor and the 5-speed transmission, grab hold of the thing with both hands and never, ever let go. They get great gas mileage (mid 20s mpg), boast simple engines that are easy to repair, and parts are cheap. Throw a camper shell on the bed and you can do whatever the hell you want back there. The 4×4 models practically beg to be driven to Baja.

Cons: They look like surf cars, and may attract unwanted attention to your secret spot

We like two-story vans

We like two-story vans. Photo: Chris Mueller

Volkwagen Vanagon (early 1980s – 1990)

You Want This Because: Big as a studio apartment inside; the right one will outlive you.

Forget about the VW Bus. Too old, way too slow, and terrible to drive. The Vanagon has all kinds of “modern” amenities (power steering!) and enough oomph to coax it out onto the freeway. But the best part is that roomy interior. You can have a stove, a bed, a sink, a TV, a stereo, a ding repair shop, a tacqueria, or hold ballroom dance classes in there. You can also fit about 75 boards up to 9 feet long in the thing.

Cons: While a good one will run forever, bad ones will rip giant holes in your wallet. The really good Westfalia editions cost about a million dollars.

"This just in—surf camping Toyota Vans are rad. Back to you in the studio."

“This just in—surf camping Toyota Vans are rad. Back to you in the studio.” Photo: Fergus McIver

Toyota Van (1982 – 1990)

You Want This Because: The best parts of the Vanagon and the Toyota pickup in one stout little van.

In the Japanese market, the van was called the “Master Ace.” In Europe it was marketed as the “Toyota Space Cruiser.” Need to know any more? Well, in addition to all the badassery of being able to cram the quivers of you and five of your friends in the Toyota Van, all the weight in these things is concentrated up front with the engine, so, if you are feeling particularly reckless, you can bust an endo if you stop quickly enough. Also, they’re cheaper than Vanagons, and 4×4 versions of the Toyota Van can be had for around $5,000.

Cons: Nothing.

You'll just have to use your imagination to picture a Subaru wagon here

You’ll just have to use your imagination to picture a Subaru wagon here.

Subaru AWD Wagon (any year you want)

You Want This Because: You are practical and you want a (fingers-crossed) reliable wagon with AWD

Subarus are either plucky little champions, getting you wherever you need to go for hundreds of thousands of miles, or heart-wrenching nightmares of blown head gasket upon blown head gasket. But, they are just about the perfect car. The 6-cylinder turbo editions will get you to the beach in a hurry. The AWD can deliver you safely to Scorpion Bay. You can fit a few boards inside, or strap your sleds to the roof and sleep in the thing on surf/camp trips.

Cons: You know about the head gasket thing, right?

Livin' the dream. Photo: Cyrus Sutton

Livin’ the dream. Photo: Cyrus Sutton

Ford Econoline Van (mid 1960s – mid 2000s)

You Want This Because: So big, you could conceivably get lost inside one; virtually impossible to destroy

The Ford Econoline is like the B-52 of the car world; America’s been churning out these workhorses since the dawn of the Cold War. They grew bigger over the decades, but they never lost their charm. Weirdly, these things are widely available on the cheap, even though they run forever. You could live your whole life in an E-series van from the early 2000s and never feel cramped. Basically just rolling rectangles, the Econolines are blank canvases for your surf rig fantasies.

Cons: Vans like this are always just one missed wash away from being super creepy.

  • spex

    you’ve missed a lot… and you’ve actually missed the best ones like the mercedes benz 308 or 208… the list is just way to short…

    • i can read

      one of the requirements was $7500 or less on the price tag.

    • Thisguy^

      Mercedes, ha! What are you made of money? MHe also didn’t mention the Concorde jet for good reason. “Get to France for the tide change!”

      • Eddie

        Rude answer for no reason there Thisguy. Spex is spot on an old Merc diesel wagon is cheap runs for ever and would be an excellent surf tourer with the little Merc fridge in the cargo area for super long trips I’ve had seven used Mercs so I do know.
        My ultimate would be a 1960s shaggin wagon made by GMH with a worked 179 or 187 six pot for highway blasting but if I had dosh it would be the baby Range Rover, with that you could surf on the moon!

    • Camy

      I guess you missed the part where the vans mentioned are under 7,500 bucks

    • gannysesh

      way to short what? it’s a way to short the readers of quality information?

  • Pacifico

    You missed the Eurovan. I drove one that I bought new in 2003 for 10 years. Mine was the V6 with 4 speed automatic. The only thing better would have been the turbo diesel with the 5 speed but they weren’t available in Cali.

  • famous warrior

    agree with the last guy, totally slack list – you must be a surfer ha! Don’t forget the vw t4. quintessential these days ay

  • vanman

    You guys should check out some of the surf vans from here in australia!!!

  • daddy gbd

    My son is a punk.

  • david

    my friend brad had a late 80s honda civic hatchback that he removed the front passenger seat from and installed a cot in its place stretching all the way to the back. he slept fine in it at 6’3″ 200 lbs. had a quiver too, as well as camping cookwear and other amenities. 35+ mpg.

  • twinfintravels

    Love vans. I’ve lived in one of each of these in various versions in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and now run in a Subaru wagon at home in California. Caught the Subaru bug in New Zealand. Also had a British Ford Escort which is like a mini truck with a shell. Not perfect but good enough for traveling solo in Europe with zero $$$.

  • George

    I literally can’t believe I just read mid 20s mpg described as economical! Is this normal in the US or have I missed something?

    • Delbazz

      MPGs are calculated much more liberally in Europe (read: unrealistically).

  • alincolnlocal

    Whoaaaaaaaa there ! Let’s not forget our classic surf buddy the DODGE VAN ! They run forever and a day and you could put that Ford inside or on top and still drive it up a mountain . Of course Mom’s 72 slant 6 Dart with Bay Standard racks did the job quite well . Next , the racks went on a 65 Comet Caliente Coupe . A few 60s VW vans . My father named one the screwmobile . Those are just a few of the East Coast – Long Beach , NY rigs . The 62 Falcon 2 door wagon ( $75 on time payments ) got me from SF to Santa Cruz in style . There was a 62 Chevy pickup with camper cap . The 1968 350 Yamaha that got me down the hill to Seaside Reef – girlfriend had to hold the board . In Puerto Rico it was a 73 Ford for $300 that we drove for 2 months and sold for $350 . Surf vehicles are an artform and a big part of many cherished memories and classic stories . Treat them right and they’ll do the same for you !

  • ed

    lame article

  • ScoobyDude

    haha. good stuff. i used to have an ’84 toyota tercel wagon 4wd. So that would be a mix of your #1 and # 4 (thereby better than the suburu..more reliable and cheaper over the long run).

  • tusa

    Where’s Pop Proctors Dodge panel truck?

  • bill

    the pictured vanagon will run about 45K….

  • Captain Haddock

    Mid 20mpg is great? Only in the states…..

  • IDSVilla

    In my personal experience I’ve discovered a Citroen c1 to be the perfect surf van, can fit two boards in there, room to keep them under the car and recline your seats to sleep and no one can argue that it’s a camper van so you can sleep in any car park that takes your fancy… Who needs space anyway what’s rock and roll about that?!
    P.s. little fistral car park Newquay is a personal favourite great views.

  • stu

    westies dont cost millions of dollars shit i see great ones on craigslist every week for under 10 grand from like the 70s 80s are around 20 grand which isnt bad for buying like a moving house

  • Dixie Normiss
  • Wep

    VW Caddy van! Best!

  • Nic

    Hey, more models would be great! Thnaks.

  • kook king

    windstars rule

  • Jo Roper

    4runner, Subaru, Tacoma, Pilot, Mercedes Vans…C’mon surfermag

  • Carlos Ríos

    Seriously? you are really far away from the Best Ever surfing car…
    VW – Sedan since the 60’s to now a days

  • Leo

    Honda Accord Wagon. I recommend the 93-94 year. 4 cyl. 30 mpg. Every bit as reliable as Yotas can hold anything under 9’0″. smooth ride.
    Cons: easy to steal. Rear Windshield window doesn’t roll down. Honda STOPPED making new ones. hard to find old ones. Don’t F*ing steal mine.

  • DM

    lol thats it?? this list is as a bad as some horrible sat night sex



  • Scott Taylor

    For me, you can’t beat a classic VW camper as a surf car/van.

    • Brian Tissot

      Yep, they were the best ever!

  • PacerRacer

    My surf buggy of choice is my 1979 AMC Pacer Wagon. They came from the factory with a roof rack that begged to have a 70s-era surfboard mounted upon it, and the extra width inside gives you plenty of room to move around and, by folding the rear seat down, you can seat 3.

    Of course, best of all, it has a campy retro style all its own, and you’ll see countless people pointing and commenting as you drive past.

  • warz.

    I have my first surf car still a 1947 Dodge 2door sedan, and for long surf trips it’s a ford van.

  • Karl Hungus

    Toyota 4Runner!
    Which is basically a Toyota Tacoma pickup…
    which you covered first…
    So, nevermind.

  • John

    The best surf vehicles have 35 inch tires or bigger. Get about 10 miles to the gallon and were made in the USA. None of those stupid cars named have 4 wheel drive or tires big enough to get you down the beach unless you surf in a concrete jungle

  • Gidget

    Had Toyota van like the one in the pick died on me not fixable cause the only motor that fits in it.Is known to heat up useless motor. but fantastic van small but still so much space with the sun roof.

  • Joe Mickey

    Had one of them… but better… customized the interior… stored stuff out of site under the sleeping… built the inside effecient and light boat style

  • KB


  • Chelsea

    I grew up traveling through Central America with my mom in a Westfalia camper van. Memories…The pop-up top is pretty awesome, and roomy!

  • Sean Gram

    Sprinter. Can get used ones for 10-20k

  • WestCoast
  • Marc
  • John

    Yall didnt even ask to see my surf car. It whoops all of these besides the pop top.

  • Rich Clark

    No Land Rover Defender? Oh my.

  • the jury

    Nothing in SURF -SUV land, can touch the PRICE or ENGINE
    of the Nissan Xterra. 2000- 2005 models under 7K.
    Rugged and very reliable -a work horse that will tow. 2000 -2005 models are cheap to buy and the most for your buck.
    Great engine that will last….and last and last….
    Very sturdy rack system up top and that plastic bin for all your wet stuff. OH yeah forgot to mention one little thing,
    ” it’s a mule and will climb through …. any terrain.”

  • Eddie

    Like most boguns you don’t know how cheap old mercs are because you can’t see passed the badge not only cheap but can be super reliable too if looked after I think I wouod know as I’ve owned seven and I’m not rich hVing been unemployed for over fifteen years! I agree with the spex, an old Merc diesel wagon would be an awesome surf tourer. You can even get a little Merc fridge that plugs in the cargo area!

  • Junebug

    1990’s model buick roadmaster station wagon. U can slide a 10 footer plus a bunch of shorties in this beast. Rides like a limo.

  • Carter Allen

    Volvo 240 or V70 wagons!

  • Jurunjulo Rodriguez

    the Econoline van makes you look like a rapist .