The Ode: Volkswagen microbus (1950–2013)

‘Type 2’ putted along for 63 years

 
(Patrick Harbron/Everett Collection/Canadian Press)
(Patrick Harbron/Everett Collection/Canadian Press)

Born to Volkswagen in 1950, the Type 2 (also known as the Microbus, Campervan, Transporter, hippie van and many other names both official and otherwise) was a chronically underpowered yet highly versatile van configured variously as a commercial delivery vehicle, pickup truck, crew cab, passenger van and—most memorably— a camper. Its 63-year run saw more than six million produced. This longevity reflected its economy, reliability and spaciousness—but above all its unique bread-loaf profile, which struck an emotional bond with the public.

In 1947, Ben Pon, a Dutch importer of Volkswagens, sketched an all-purpose van based on what was then VW’s only model—the Beetle, or Type 1. Two years later, CEO Heinz Nordhoff endorsed it as the company’s carefully considered second model. First produced commercially in Wolfsburg, Germany, early T2s borrowed much from the Beetle—right down to the rear-engine design and 24-horsepower air-cooled engine. But, in other respects the T2 was anything but derivative: it was among the first vehicles in which the driver sat ahead of the front axle, a means of maximizing interior space. Meeting postwar needs in a way no existing vehicle could, the T2 proved an instant hit in Germany.

First exported to North America in the early ’50s, the T2 quickly won over liberal American middle-class families. Its Spartan design and economy provided a glove-like fit for mounting anticonsumerist sentiment during the ’60s: many bohemians adopted T2s for transportation, procreation, habitation and artistic expression. The model’s popularity dwindled along with the hippie lifestyle, while Germany’s rising currency eroded its cost competitiveness. Production in Hanover ceased in 1979. Successor VW models such as the Vanagon followed, but these were trounced by American minivans introduced during the 1980s.

The T2 endured longer in Latin America. The last holdout was Brazil, where it was built in São Bernardo do Campo and sold as the Kombi. But the T2’s forward driving position proved its downfall: front-seat passengers fared poorly in head-on collisions. Incoming Brazilian safety regulations prompted Volkswagen to cease production at the end of this year.

VW celebrated the T2’s remarkable run with 600 pricey “Last Edition” Kombis featuring a powder-blue-and-white colour scheme, whitewall tires and fabric curtains. Since the turn of the century, the German manufacturer has unveiled several T2-inspired concept vehicles to capitalize on nostalgia—a feat previously accomplished with the reinvented Beetle. But this is the first to reach production.

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