Volkswagen’s Once (And Future?) Microbus, And The Apple Connection – The ‘Book Mystique

The longest vehicle model production run in automobile history will end in December when the last ever Type 2 Transporter Kombi microbus rolls off the line at Volkswagen Brazil’s Sao Bernardo do Campo works, where it has been built since 1957. The last holdout Brazilian Kombi is a casualty of new auto-safety standards requiring front airbags and antilock braking systems on all new cars sold in the country beginning in January.

The VW Microbus has special significance for Apple aficionados, since as legend has it, in 1975 Steve Jobs sold the one he owned at the time, and Steve Wozniak likewise his Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator, in order to raise the $1,300 they needed to set up Apple Computer’s first production line. So in a way a VW Microbus was instrumental in the genesis of the company that eventually gave us the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and iPod, and Apple’s rise to become one of the world’s richest corporate entities.

The rear engine Volkswagen van actually dates back 63 years to 1950, when the company pioneered the pioneered the cargo and passenger minivan category with its Type 2 Transporter, based on the VW Type 1 sedan — the iconic “Beetle.” According to Wikipedia, the Type 2 design concept is credited to Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon, who drew the first sketches in 1947. Germans called VW’s van the Bulli (there was a twenty-three-window, top-of-the-line version with a fabric sunroof officially called the Samba), while to North Americans it was the VW Microbus. Some 6.2 million were sold over the years in an array of variants, including passenger and cargo vans and two-door standard and four-door crew cab pickup truck Transporter versions. The Type 2 van was built in three generational families — the classic split-windshield T1 of 1950 – ’67; the T2, nicknamed “Breadloaf,” from 1968 – ’79 (the one still produced in Brazil); and the T3 or “Vanagon” from 1979 – ’92 (in South Africa until 2002). Rear engine VW vans were last sold in North America in 1979, but Type 2 production of the continued in Argentina until 1986, and in Mexico until 1996.

The Type 2s were initially powered by 1.2-litre air-cooled flat four-cylinder engines producing only 28bhp. The engine displacement was gradually bumped up to 1.3 1.5, and 1.6 litres, and the air-cooled mills were ultimately replaced by water-cooled 68bhp 1.4-litre engines in 2005.

The VW Microbus became an iconic fixture in North American culture in the ’60s, ’70s. and ’80s, most notably perhaps as the vehicle identified with the hippie movement, both as a countercultural statement (being the antithesis of American cars of the day) but also for practical reasons — its capacity to carry a large number of people and their stuff. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie drove a red T1 that figured prominently in his 1969 film “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and the eponymous 1967 18 1/2 minute song the movie derived from. Other pop-cultural references abound.

There was the legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach “Think Small” advertising theme from the late ’50s ’60s (rated number one in Advertising Age’s Top 100 Advertising Campaigns) in print advertisements. The Australian rock band Men at Works signature 1983 Land Down Under hit tune and video opens with the protagonists travelling the hippie trail through the Outback “in a fried-out Kombi.” A a light blue VW Type 2 Microbus appears in Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film Back to the Future driven by Libyan terrorists in pursuit of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who escapes in Doc Browns DeLorean time machine. A family of misfits travels in a yellow Microbus in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine. The Dharma Collective’s fleet of Type 2 Microbuses, with their frontal Volkswagen logo replaced with a DHARMA emblem of the same size played a continuing supporting role across time warps in the ABC television series Lost that aired from 2004 to 2010, and the rock musician castaway Charlie’s band Drive Shaft also travels in a VW van in flashbacks. There have been countless other cameo appearances in films and TV shows.

The VW Transporter and passenger Kombi (Kombinationskraftwagen, “combined-use vehicle”) were also popular with tradespeople and families for their commodious seating and carrying capacity, and with camping enthusiasts in its Westfalia and other camper conversion guises. They’ve also been used as mobile kiosks, ambulances and even hearses. A friend of mine back in the ’60s for a time operated a bootleg liquor delivery service out of one. North American sales peaked at about 70,000 units a year in the 1970s.

As practical and beloved as they were, the original VW vans had many shortcomings. The flat front offered minimal protection for the driver and front-seat passenger from injury or worse in head-on collisions. It was almost unbelievably gutless and handled poorly, indeed dangerously by reasonable standards in strong crosswinds, due to rear weight bias and swing axle rear suspension. VW Vans were actually banned from some bridges in the US during windy conditions. The early air-cooled models also had a dismaying tendency to catch fire. Two operated by people I knew did. Despite a top speed of about 55 miles per hour and acceleration at the rate of continental drift, the low-geared VW van delivered mediocre fuel mileage, and it was as cold as charity in the winter. One of my friends used to drive with a catalytic camp heater on the floor of his, and I recall a road trip in an ice storm holding my hand over the passenger-side defroster vent so the anaemic lukewarm zephyr of air from the pathetic heater could clear a few centimeters of icing from the windshield bottom while the driver peered out hunched down over the, flat, bus-type steering wheel to see where we were going, sort of.

In commemoration of the momentous passing of the VW Kombi, Volkswagen do Brasil has announced the Kombi Last Edition, a special commemorative series of 600 units featuring special two-tone white and blue body paint, luxury internal finishing and signature design elements from many versions made in Brazil since 1957 including whitewall tires, distinctive blue fabric curtains in the side and rear windows and curtain fasteners bearing the Kombi logo, white hubcaps and tinted rear windows.

The internal side, door and cargo panels come with special vinyl upholstery, and and are finished with decorative stitching. The seats have sides in Atlanta Blue with a matching two-tone centre (blue and white). The cabin and luggage area floors are fitted with carpet and dilour Basalto inserts, the same material that covers the spare tire, The instrument cluster incorporates a special serigraph treatment and keeps the traditional Kombi design of speedometer at the center and fuel gauge on the right, and the MP3 sound system has red LEDs and features auxiliary and USB ports. The transmission is a four-speed manual.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

The upper section of the front grille, headlights and indicator rims are painted the body colour, front indicator lights feature white crystal lenses, and decals on the side of the vehicle decals read: “56 anos – Kombi Last Edition.” Each Kombi Last Edition unit will also be fitted with a numbered identification plaque on the dashboard, and be provided with a special certificate of authenticity.

I guess the ’60s really are now officially over. Volkswagen still makes more modern vans in Europe, the Caddy, Touran, Sharan and larger Caravelle, but none of them have had crossover cultural impact of the Type 2. In North America VW tried marketing a badge-engineered version of the fifth-generation Chrysler RT minivan platform called the Volkswagen Routan, with revised styling, content features, and suspension tuning, but built alongside Chrysler and Dodge branded minivans at Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant as from 2008-2012, but it sold sluggishly, and according to Wikipedia despite having a production contract that ran through 2014, in January, 2013, Volkswagen announced there would be no 2013 model, but left open the possibility that development may resume with a potential 2014 model. However Chrysler’s being acquired by major European VW competitor Fiat may have influenced suspension and possible termination of the arrangement as well.

At the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, Volkswagen displayed the Volkswagen Crossblue Concept SUV, which may replace the slow selling Routan in 2015.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

The 2013 CrossBlue SUV concept is a hybrid, powered by a TDI Clean Diesel engine and two electric motors to produce 305 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, while still getting an energy parsimonious 2.7 L/100 km in electric mode.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

With its spacious interior and three rows of flexible seating, the CrossBlue can arguably serve as a minivan surrogate, at least for the sort of use most owners will give it.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

However, for pure carrying capacity, it’s tough to beat a van form factor. As Road & Track magazine’s Peter Egan once observed, with a van, you just open the door and start throwing your stuff in until there’s no more stuff; then you close the door and drive away.

At the 2011 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen unveiled its Bulli Microbus Concept vehicle, reinterpreting the compact original form factor of the Type 2, only with 21st-Century engineering — still spacious like it was in 1950, and as charming as ever, with clean styling that also recalls the original more than 60 years ago. The Bulli van concept incorporates Apple iPad controls and is fitted with six seats — which, in a nod to the Type 2’s extensive camper van heritage, fold down and convert to flat sleeping accommodation for two grown-ups at the pull of a few levers.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

The Bulli concept has infotainment control via the iPad. A removable iPad in the center stack serves as a multifunctional touchscreen. Along with Internet-based iPad applications and the media center, it also handles control of such functions as Bluetooth hands-free telephone and a navigation system. Integrated right on the iPad mount are controls for the climate control system and the centrally-located hazard warning switch.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

The concept’s sound system produced by legendary guitar and amplifier manufacturer Fender.. At Woodstock in 1969, Jimi Hendrix played The Star-Spangled Banner on a Fender Stratocaster guitar.

The company notes that thanks to advanced drive technologies, the Bulli concept’s full EV version is a “zero emissions vehicle.” The Bulli’s electric motor outputs 85 kW of power and an impressive 199 lb.-ft of torque. As is characteristic of electric drive, its maximum forces are generated from standstill. The silent motor is supplied with energy from a lithium-ion battery with a maximum storage capacity of 40 kWh. This electrifying combination enables driving ranges of up to 186.4 miles, excellent in the full EV context and far exceeding the currently available Nissan Leaf EV’s c.100-mile range between recharges. When the Bulli’s battery is charged at an electric refuelling station specially designed for electric vehicles, the charging process takes less than one hour.

Photo Courtesy Volkswagen

The electric Bulli accelerates from 0 to 62 mph in 11.5 seconds according to Volkswagen, and its top speed is 87 mph (electronically limited), ho-hum performance by today’s automotive standards, but exceeding the capabilities of the original VW Type 2 Microbus, and offering enough range and driving performance to make this EV not only ideal for short distances; but with a projected range of 186 miles, also for most commuters and recreational activities, and with zero tailpipe emissions (for that matter no tailpipe at all).

However the Bulli, if it enters production, wouldn’t be available only in EV form. Volkswagen says the design can also be powered by the company’s gas and diesel direct injection engines as alternative drives, noting that with today’s technologies, engines with 1.0 or 1.4 liter displacement are both fuel efficient and amply powerful, ideal for anyone who wants to cover maximum distances with minimal fuel consumption. Alternate power options for the Bulli are projected to include 1.4-liter turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder gasoline engines of122 and 140 hp respectively; a 110-hp, 1.6-liter turbo-diesel; and a full hybrid variant, all equipped with seven-speed, dual clutch, computer-controlled self-shifting transmissions.

There have been conflicting rumors as to whether the Bulli concept actually is destined for eventual production, or whether VW will continue to concentrate on SUVs like the CrossBlue. However, intriguingly a VW concept vehicle Web page refers to the the Bulli as “one bus worth waiting for,” affirming that it gives a nostalgic wink to the classic Volkswagen microbus, 60 years after its original debut, but at the same time is an unmistakable example of Volkswagen’s commitment to innovation, with its electric powertrain and completely interactive driver interface, integrating an iPad touchscreen. VW also notes that the Bulli has a more compact footprint than any of its predecessors, being 11 inches shorter than the original Type 2, while still offering comparable interior space, three rows of seats, and more cargo, leg, and head room. Inspired by the past, but “fully loaded for the future.”

That sounds at least encouraging as to future production prospects. R.I.P. VW Microbus? Hopefully not for long.

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