you’ve come a long way, baby
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The legend goes like this: In 1946, a Dutch auto importer named Ben Pon visited the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, where he saw some plattenwagens — modified flatbeds with small driver’s cabs — being driven around the factory. Inspired, he sketched what would, after considerable development, become the Type 2, which first went into production in March 1950. Two models were produced: the Kombi and the Commercial. Just under 10,000 vehicles rolled off the line in Wolfsburg the first year. A few years later, the first Kombis arrived in the U.S. The Type 2 body would continue to be built in Germany — with numerous mechanical and design changes over the years — until 1979. Production continued in Mexico until 1994 and in Brazil until 2013.
German auto-conversion company Westfalia has been in business since the 1840s, well before the first horseless carriages appeared. They’re synonymous today with Volkswagen campers, but back in 1951 the idea of a VW Kombi that you could live in was unheard of. Westfalia built the first “Camping Box” (as they would become known) at the request of a British military officer. The converted van had a sofa bed, a folding dining table, and even matching window curtains. It was such a hit that the company soon started producing conversions on a regular basis — and, no doubt, inspired plenty of creative DIY conversions as well.
The Samba model first appeared in Germany in 1951, distinguished by the eight oblong windows that ring its roofline, twin pivot doors on one side instead of a single sliding passenger door, two-tone paint, and a fold-back canvas sunroof. The Sunroof Deluxe was the flagship model, with 23 windows total and a distinctive two-panel windshield with panes that could be opened outward. This model was discontinued when VW introduced the second-generation bus in 1967, and today it’s one of the most sought-after by collectors. A 1967 T1 that appeared in “That ’70s Show” sold at auctionin 2018 for $121,000.
By the mid-’60s, the Volkswagen bus was becoming synonymous with freewheeling young Baby Boomers. For the 1968 model year, VW introduced the second-generation microbus, known as the T2. The funky two-pane windshield was gone, the body was more substantial, and it had a slightly more powerful engine (though at 47 bhp, it was still a turtle on the highway). Over the years, Volkswagen made numerous mechanical and safety upgrades, including an optional three-speed automatic transmission on 1973 models and electronic fuel injection in 1975. VW sold the T2 model in the U.S. until 1979, when it was replaced by the third-generation model, but it lived on in slightly modified form in Brazil until 2013.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, several auto companies were experimenting with turbine engines, which promised big power in a small package. Michigan-based Williams Research Corp., founded by a former Chrysler engineer, was one of those companies, and in the late 1970s, it partnered with Volkswagen to develop turbine-powered vehicles. The resulting prototype, a 1970 Kombi retrofitted with a 75-bhp turbine engine, was never produced for sale, and the auto industry gradually lost interest in turbines. Thefire-engine-red prototype Kombi now lives at VW’s Stiftung AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg.
Volkswagen had big plans for its third-generation van, including going way upscale. The Traveler Jet prototype, with its six leather captain’s chairs, built-in TV, heavy-duty air conditioner, and unique bank of tinted, tiered side windows and louvered rear windows, was built for cruising in style. Although this concept vehicle was a one-off, it anticipated the multiple configurations available on the third-generation model, known as the Vanagon in the U.S. and Caravelle in Europe, including the top-of-the-line Wolfsburg Edition Westfalia camper. Like the turbine-powered Kombi, the Traveler Jet prototype can be seen today at the Stiftung AutoMuseum.
This model never made it off the drawing board and may well have been forgotten if it weren’t for an enterprising Jalopnik writer with a penchant for collecting obscure car books. Designs for the vehicle, based on the second-generation T2 van, were published in 1979 in “The Complete Book of Electric Vehicles.” The planned vehicle’s estimated mileage (20 mpg) wasn’t exactly impressive. But if it had been produced, it would have preceded the Toyota Prius — the first mass-produced hybrid — by nearly two decades.
First introduced as a 1986 model and produced for just seven years, only about 5,000 of these vehicles were sold in the U.S. With four-wheel drive, 16-inch ground clearance, and a Westfalia pop-top camper option, these vehicles were designed for serious off-the-grid camping. But they were heavy (about 4,000 pounds), slow (the horizontal four-cylinder engine produced just 90 bhp), and expensive (about $18,000 in 1986 or more than $40,000 today). Despite these drawbacks, the Syncro developed a dedicated following during its short life. Today, a Syncro in good condition can sell for as much as $35,000.
Volkswagen introduced the fourth generation of its van, the T4 Transporter, in Europe in 1990. Two years later, it arrived in the U.S. as the Eurovan. The new model was bigger and more luxurious than previous generations. With a five-cylinder engine under the hood — the Eurovan was VW’s first front-engine model — it was also more powerful. But the vehicle sold poorly in the U.S. and vanished from showrooms after just one model year. Two years later, VW quietly reintroduced a camper conversion model by Winnebago with the familiar pop-top roof. In 1997, the camper got VW’s VR6 six-cylinder engine, and the regular version of the Eurovan returned to showrooms in 1999. But the magic was gone. In 2003, Volkswagen ended Eurovan production worldwide.
In 2001, two years before VW killed the T4, it unveiled the Microbus concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, hoping to piggyback on the success of the retro New Beetle, which had been introduced just a few years before. Despite the sleek design and futuristic features like a back-up camera, this V-6-powered concept car never saw the light of day — not unlike some other concept cars we wish we could drive. Instead, Volkswagen punted and began selling re-badged Chrysler minivans as the VW Routan in 2008.
A decade after VW unveiled its Microbus concept vehicle, it returned to the auto show circuit promising to revive the microbus. But instead of using a gas or hybrid engine, the Bulli was designed to be an electric vehicle. The concept vehicle was a sleek attention-getter with a massive moonroof that stretched almost the entire length of the roofline, an iPad-based control pad, and front and rear bench seats that could fold flat for impromptu car camping. Unfortunately, this prototype didn’t make it off the drawing board, either.
Volkswagen began building the Type 2 Kombi in Brazil in 1957 and kept on doing so until 2013, when new vehicle-safety regulations finally killed it. To commemorate the end of this iconic vehicle line, VW built 600 special-edition Kombis. Like the original Type 2s, these vans had striped vinyl upholstery, bench seating, side- and rear-window fabric curtains, and a retro-inspired instrument panel with a big speedometer front and center. Each vehicle also had a commemorative production plaque on the dashboard, individually numbered, and a certificate of authenticity from the factory in Sao Paulo.
Even though VW isn’t selling camper vans in the U.S. at present, they’re still being manufactured in Europe. Westfalia churns out several aftermarket camper conversions based on the Volkswagen Crafter commercial panel van. Top of the line is the Sven Hedin model, powered by a turbodiesel six-cylinder engine. It has a full kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and a clever rear traverse bed with underbed cargo space and a footwell that pops out of the side of the van to accommodate tall sleepers. Additional features include lots of cubbies, bins, and recessed LED lighting throughout the cabin. The base price, before options, is about $68,000. Fully loaded, expect to pay at least $20,000 more.
In the fall of 2017, Volkswagen announced it was reviving the concept of an electric microbus, and once again VW fans went wild with anticipation. The boxy exterior, with its big VW logo and trunk up front, call to mind the Kombis of old, while its high-tech interior is designed for the day when autonomous vehicles are a reality. (VW says 2025…maybe). The four captain’s chairs and rear bench seat can be configured in a variety of positions for everything from a family trip to the park to a weekend camping getaway for two. Slated for production in 2022, the Buzz is supposed to get 300 miles on a full charge, but no price has been announced yet.