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Das Auto, that's history

publication date: Oct 25, 2013
 | 
author/source: Robin Wager

by Robin Wager                               

Volkswagen caused a bit of a stir recently with the announcement that production of the famous ´Camper Van´was to end.

But that statement hides a lot of history. VW camper conversions are, of course, still very much current, and will continue to be available. What will reach the end of the road around Christmas, with a special limited edition in Brazil, is the Type 2, the original VW commercial vehicle.

The original concept is officially attributed to Dutch entrepreneur Ben Pon, the first official VW importer, who began distributing Beetles in the Netherlands in 1947.

 


During lunch at the Wolfsburg factory, Pon is said to have doodled on a paper napkin his idea of a van body on the Beetle floorpan. However, it was dynamic VW boss Heinz Nordhoff who played the major role in bringing the van idea to reality.

So it was that the already legendary Beetle (Type 1 in factory-speak), was followed by a split-windscreen new van - logically dubbed Type 2 and known simply as the Transporter – which debuted at the Geneva Salon in 1950.

Only five years after the war, with factory funds almost non-existent, the newcomer had to make do with the Beetle´s air-cooled engine and transmission – rear-mounted, of course. With all of 25 bhp on tap, reduction gears in the rear hubs were necessary to give any vestige of forward motion!

VW pushed the advantages of the model´s Beetle-style configuration  over the competition of the time, most of which was front-engined. Their van´s forward-control design meant the payload was placed between the axles, rather than mostly over the rear one, while the floorpan/chassis allowed side loading doors that made life easier when tightly parked in city streets.

As panel van sales took off, the Transporter range saw spin-offs including an eight-seater minibus, a pick-up and a post office van.

The 8-seater ´Kombi´ spawned a better-equipped model with roof windows (or optional full-length sunroof), chrome trim and light-coloured interior materials. Retailing at more than the Beetle Convertible, it would soon become known as the Microbus. 

Robin Wager

Became a VW enthusiast after a 4000-miles-in-two-weeks tour of Scandinavia co-driving a friend´s Beetle in the 1960s.

Subsequently owned half a dozen of them (getting to know every nut and bolt) followed by a VW Type 3, a Passat, four Polos, four Audis and a Corrado G60 among other makes, before transferring allegiance to BMW in recent years.

Contributed to VW enthusiast magazine while qualifying as a chartered accountant, later joining the staff as assistant editor. After five years with Haynes Publishing as editor/editorial director, ended up owning and publishing the monthly VW Motoring following the death of the editor. Guild member from 1978. Acted as Western Group treasurer for some 14 years. Freelanced after selling the magazine, before retiring in 2008.

It was the German coachbuilding firm Westfalia (a tow-hitch maker that had expanded into travel trailers) who produced a trial run of 50 Kombis kitted out with a caravan-style interior. First exhibited at the ´52 Frankfurt Show, this was developed into the ´Camping Box´with removable furniture, and met with such success that within four years the company was turning out a fully converted T2 that would have been recognisable to us as a ´camper van´.

A couple of years later VW gave its official recognition to the converter, and before long Westfalia campers were being sold through VW showrooms and included in company sales literature.  

The LHD campers not being imported to the UK, it was left to enterprising independent converters to supply the British market. Here too the vehicle caught the post-war imagination, and now well known names like Danbury, Devon and Dormobile all became established.

With all its models of the time, VW was already pursuing the constantly maintained policy of gradual and detailed development, backed by efficient marketing. The Type 2 soon gained a rear window and rear bumper, power being uprated to 30 bhp and then 42 bhp, giving a top speed of 65 mph and allowing the rated payload to be increased from 750kg to a full tonne. As sales boomed, VW factories were established in emerging markets such as Africa, Mexico and Brazil, creating new demand and jobs.

In 1967 the ‘Split’ was replaced by the second generation Transporter with one-piece windscreen. Quickly dubbed the ´Bay Window´ model, a major feature was the abandonment of the separate floorpan/chassis for a monocoque body.

By 1979 the T2 was looking tired and a restyled third generation was hurriedly launched, still using the air-cooled engine but with more sophisticated suspension. It was not until 1982 that this Transporter was announced with a water-cooled engine – not, though, a unit from the newer Golf/Passat cars, but a water-cooled adaptation of the air-cooled boxer motor known as the Wasserboxer. 

This, and a later badly underpowered diesel model, kept the Type 2 struggling on until 1990 when, for Europe at least, the original rear-engined concept was axed for the all-new, front-engined fourth generation Transporter.

New and old campers

 

Over its first 40 years the Type 2 had become a symbol of freedom and recreation to millions, particularly in the USA where it was firmly a part of the beach and surfing scene as well as the vehicle of choice for the hippy fraternity.

Through all the changes the original version had continued in Brazil where it had been made since 1957 – and indeed is still alive and well today, albeit with various mods and tweaks that VW do Brasil always appeared free to make for local markets. It currently uses the 1.4 litre engine similar to that of the Polo.

Which brings us back to that press release: the demise of the T2 has finally been brought about by new safety regulations from next year, mandating that every vehicle in Brazil must have airbags and anti-lock braking systems. Hence the final limited edition: a special run of just 600 units featuring a numbered identification plaque on the dashboard, two-tone paint and exclusive design features.

Volkswagen claims the Kombi is the longest-produced model in automotive history – unless, of course, you know differently! It certainly became an icon that will be with us, as well as keeping the repairers and restorers in business around the world, for a long time to come!

Niche vehicle, nice office for this VW PR dept publicity shot in 2010
Pressed into service: The VW PR Department was assembled in 2010 (above) with a Camper to illustrate their entry in the SMMT Press & PR Guide  

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Robin Wager                                                                                                                                           

Robin Wager


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