Having travelled the world, Sarah and Rusty knew it was time to settle down – their compromise was to create a business in France around their beloved VW camper vans, as Annaliza Davis discovers
If you have the travel bug, it’s not always easy to stop moving. After many years on the road, Sarah Farnborough and Rusty Higgins put down strong roots in Brittany and have set up a business hiring out classic VW campers to holidaymakers.
The couple grew up in Yeovil, Somerset, and have always been more than ready to pack their bags for a new job, a new destination and new challenges, but when they felt the time had come to settle down, they jumped at an opportunity to move to the outskirts of the village of Louvigné-du-Désert, near Fougères, in the department of Ille-et-Vilaine.
“Like many people, I’d loved France as a teenager, and we knew that it suited our philosophy; we like the strong identity of French regions, the traditional two-hour lunch and lack of materialism,” says Sarah. “We had friends who had lived in Brittany for about six years but were returning to the UK and offered us the use of their house. It seemed like the sign we needed.”
The location was perfect for a number of reasons. “We loved continental Europe, especially France’s varied landscape and we didn’t want to be two days’ travel from our families,” says Sarah, who is 35. “France, especially rural France, is very friendly and very open. It might seem old-fashioned to some, but there’s less cynicism or competition here. People are more likely to talk to you about your wood-burner than ask what your house is worth. There’s time to chat at the checkout, you’re not permanently striving to update your car or television, and that kind of attitude suits us.”
They set up Freewheelin’ Classic Campers using the auto-entrepreneur business regime and have two VW camper vans, called Harry and Joan Mary, which they hire out to holidaymakers looking to explore the back roads and countryside of France in vintage style.
“Setting up a business in France isn’t anywhere near as complicated as it used to be since they introduced the auto-entrepreneur system, a simplified self-employed status,” explains Sarah. “As auto-entrepreneur stands for a sole trader, I set up the camper van hire business and Rusty set up a separate business for his mechanic work.
“The hardest part was sorting out the insurance: you need five vehicles to be insured as a business fleet here so we had to insure our campers under conventional domestic policies then add extra supplements for hiring them to other people.”
The couple enjoy working for themselves and have found that their natural motivation has reaped rewards in France.
“I suppose we’ve always had a self-employed mentality so it’s inevitable we would end up running our own business,” says Sarah. “It’s also vital to be motivated in France because you aren’t spoon-fed information, you have to go and chase it, but that suits me perfectly.”
The decision to hire out camper vans stemmed from a long-held passion for the VW camper and the freedom they offer when travelling and exploring a new place.
“Rusty and I have always loved VWs,” says Sarah. “They offer the freedom of camping, and are a step up from canvas, yet aren’t as restricted as large motorhomes. Above all, they’re adorable, especially to anyone fond of all things retro.
“Here in France there isn’t the cult following for VWs that there is in the UK but there’s still a great deal of affection for them. They have character and appeal so that a trip in a VW turns into a whole new experience.”
Sarah and 38-year-old Rusty’s customers are mostly from Australia, America and New Zealand, with a growing interest from France. One of their bookings for this coming season is a French woman with her own VW who has booked the other two camper vans so that she and her friends can head off in convoy for an unforgettable holiday.
The couple’s move to France followed many years on the open road as their own travels took them around Europe, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and to New Zealand.
‘When we met in 2002, I was working in marketing,’ explains Sarah, ‘but had arranged to go to India for three months to work and live with a family. Rusty and I had only been together for 10 weeks or so when I packed up and left!
“During our first weeks, we talked a lot about our hopes for the future. Rusty was a trained mechanic working for Volkswagen and I confessed that I loved the old VW campers; we used to dream about getting one and travelling around the world together.”
Despite this new relationship becoming serious, Sarah travelled to India as planned. On her return, Rusty greeted her at the airport and handed her a bag; inside was a set of keys for a camper van.
“And that was it, our first VW! Of course, most men give jewellery, but it was certainly the right kind of present for me. It was a non-runner, needed a lot of work and love, but then Rusty knew that it wouldn’t take much to get it back on the road. It’s still one of the best presents I’ve ever had.”
Born in 1974, this classic 1.6 litre tin-top was in desperate need of attention. Rusty worked on the mechanics and the bodywork, Sarah took charge of the interior, and they christened it Harry.
Reborn in 2004 in sky-blue and cream, Harry took his owners on the two-week trip they’d long imagined; travelling from Calais through eastern France into Switzerland, Geneva and Italy, right to Pisa.
“I think that was one of the best trips we’ve ever done. We only had two weeks but it was fantastic.”
After their trip, the couple moved to Cornwall, spending every spare minute on surf beaches and realising that the VW camper van has its own cult following, from the admiring glances of passers-by to greetings between drivers.
“There’s a huge affection for VWs,” says Sarah. “A VW camper is often referred to as a bus and owners are automatically part of a family. To complement Harry, we bought Joan Mary, a 1978 four-berth Westfalia [with a pop-up roof in which there’s additional sleeping space], which we painted in green and white. She’s ideal for young families.”
In 2007, Rusty was offered a job as a marine mechanic in the Cayman Islands meaning that they had to leave their beloved ‘bus’ behind. Leaving Harry in the care of friends, Sarah and Rusty spent two years in the Caymans, sipping cocktails and diving in Caribbean waters.
“It sounds strange, but as beautiful as it was, it wasn’t where we wanted to be long-term. We considered setting up a campsite to get a different lifestyle but the more we researched, the more we realised that with campsites you’re very restricted; not our cup of tea at all!
“We went travelling for eight months through France, Italy, Prague, Moscow and then on to New Zealand. It was there that we hired a motorhome and realised that this could be the way to go, hiring out vintage camper vans.”
Sarah’s schoolgirl French has blossomed since they arrived in France and the small community of Louvigné-du-Désert has warmly welcomed them into its midst.
“I go running along the old railway line maybe three times a week bumping into locals and creating connections, chatting about your dogs or whatever,” says Sarah.
“Our golden retriever, Rueben, has been a great help in making friends! We visit French neighbours for dinner, they come to us, and even everyday things like fetching supplies or sorting your insurance become opportunities for conversation. The great thing about France is that they do take the time to talk to you, they’re not always in this terrible hurry.”
And in terms of the business, they have plans to expand their fleet but want to remain small enough so they can manage everything themselves.
“It would be great to invest in a third van to offer more choice but we wouldn’t want a much bigger fleet than that as we want to personally handle the mechanics and the customer service,” says Sarah.
“We’ve tried our best to make it affordable, in the hope that couples and young families will be able to get the same enjoyment as we have. For us, this isn’t a business idea to make millions, we’re passionate about VWs and about travelling – our heart is in it 100% and our customers say that it shows in the little details and how we work. That’s another reason to stay small enough to be able to handle everything ourselves.
“Maybe further down the line, we’ll head further south to be nearer the surf. It’s about the only thing we miss. But that’s what brilliant about France. There’s always something new to discover, which is what convinces us that here’s where we might finally settle down.
“If you’re going to accept you need to grow up, what’s better than a life sharing your passion for VWs in a place that offers so much?” LF