You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
Sjo/istockphoto

The Coolest VW Vans Ever Made

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You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
Sjo/istockphoto

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Hippie van, VW bus, Kombi, Samba, Transporter, Vanagon, Eurovan … Volkswagen’s beloved vehicle has been known by many names around the world. For more than half a century, VW has been making passenger and cargo vans in a variety of shapes and sizes, including iconic pop-top campers and quirky four-wheel-drive versions. And although they haven’t been sold in the United States since 2003, that could be changing: March 9 is the announced debut of the Volkswagen electric microbus known as the I.D. Buzz. Ahead are some of the coolest models that Volkswagen has produced — plus a few that failed to materialize — since the first one rolled off the assembly line in 1950.

Related: The Evolution of the RV, From Covered Wagon to Winnebago

1950 Type 2
Wikimedia Commons

1950 Type 2

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 made: 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 mechanical and design changes over the years — until 1979. Production continued in Mexico until 1994 and in Brazil until 2013.


Related: Porsche 911, VW Beetle, and Other Iconic German Cars That Changed the Game

1951 Westfalia Camping Box
1951 Westfalia Camping Box by Norbert Schnitzler (CC BY-SA)

1951 Westfalia Camping Box

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 making conversions on a regular basis — and, no doubt, inspired plenty of creative DIY conversions as well.

1962 Volkswagen T1 Pick-Up
1962 Volkswagen T1 Pick-Up by Niels de Wit (CC BY)

1962 T1 Transporter

Volkswagen unveiled this two-passenger cargo model in 1962 to compete with U.S.-made cargo vehicles such as the Chevy Corvair Rampside and Ford Econoline. The original Transporter could haul about 2,200 pounds of cargo, 25% more than the standard VW van, and had a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, air-cooled engine that produced 42 base horsepower. Volkswagen continued to make the two-passenger Transporter into the early 1970s, but a tariff imposed in 1964 on German-made light trucks (which included the Transporter) slowly strangled  U.S. demand. Today, a restored late-’60s Transporter in good condition can sell for more than $25,000.


Related: RVs and Camper Vans With Style for Miles

1961 Volkswagen Bulli T1 Samba Classic Days
1961 Volkswagen Bulli T1 Samba Classic Days by Martin Vähning (CC BY-ND)

1963 T1 Samba (a.k.a. Sunroof Deluxe)

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 auction in 2018 for $121,000.

1968 Volkswagen Type 2 (T2) Hard-Top Westfalia "Cream" bus
Wikimedia Commons

1968 T2

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 United States until 1979, when it was replaced by the third-generation model, but it lived on in slightly modified form in Brazil until 2013.


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VW Transporter T2
tupungato/istockphoto

1970 Kombi GT 70

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, founded by a former Chrysler engineer, partnered in the late 1970s 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. The fire-engine-red prototype Kombi now lives at VW’s Stiftung AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg. 

1979 T3 Traveler Jet
Volkswagen

1979 T3 Traveler Jet

Volkswagen had big plans for its third-generation van, including going way upscale. The Traveler Jet prototype was built for cruising in style, with six leather captain’s chairs, built-in TV, heavy-duty air conditioner, unique bank of tinted, tiered side windows, and louvered rear windows. 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 United States 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.


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VW Transporter T2
horstgerlach/istockphoto

1979 Hybrid-Electric City Taxi

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.

86 Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro Weekender
86 Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro Weekender by Shelby L. Bell (CC BY)

1986 Vanagon Syncro

Introduced as a 1986 model and made for just seven years, only about 5,000 of these vehicles were sold in the United States. 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.


Related: Countries Where They Love RVs as Much as Americans Do

Volkswagen EuroVan Camper.
Volkswagen EuroVan Camper. by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA)

1995 T4 Eurovan Camper by Winnebago

Volkswagen introduced the fourth generation of its van, the T4 Transporter, in Europe in 1990. Two years later, it arrived in the United States 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.

2001 Microbus
Volkswagen

2001 Microbus

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 features such as 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.


Related: The Best, Worst, and Weirdest Minivans of All Time

2011 Bulli
Volkswagen

2011 Bulli

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 controller, 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.

2013 Kombi Last Edition
Volkswagen

2013 Kombi Last Edition

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 São Paulo.

2019 Westfalia Sven Hedin
Westfalia

2019 Westfalia Sven Hedin

Even though VW isn’t selling camper vans in the United States, they go on 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 more than $65,000. Fully loaded, expect to pay at least $20,000 more.


Related: Affordable Camper Alternatives for Escaping the Crowds

Type 20 VW Concept
Volkswagen

2019 Type 20 Concept

If the Type 20 looks familiar, there's a reason: Volkswagen engineers in Silicon Valley took a vintage 1962 Type 2 Microbus, stripped it bare, and rebuilt it from the ground up. Gone is the anemic four-cylinder, air-cooled engine that struggled to generate 50 horsepower. In its place is a battery-powered electric motor with a respectable 120 horsepower. Even cooler, the Type 20 has an on-board digital assistant that will let you unlock and operate the vehicle via voice command or facial recognition, as well as heads-up holographic displays on the windshield. VW doesn't have any plans to make the Type 20 yet; instead, it's a way to celebrate the expansion of a California research facility.

2022 I.D. Buzz
Volkswagen

2022 I.D. Buzz

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. 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. The Buzz is supposed to get up to 200 or 340 miles on a full charge, depending on the model chosen, with pricing rumored to be anywhere between $40,000 and $63,000.