Call it the Transporter, Microbus, Kombi, Bus, Camper or Microbus, it’s hardly an accident that Volkswagen chose this week to pull the covers off the production version of the all-electric ID.Buzz, which takes its design cues from the old Microbus, formally known as the Volkswagen Type 2.
After all, 72 years ago this week, in 1950, the Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter entered production and within two decades would earn the alias “hippie bus,” becoming the automotive transport of choice during the Summer of Love.
Certainly Volkswagen is happy to attach such cultural connotations to its new electrified van, one that should have more success than the 2009-2014 Volkswagen Routan, which was little more than a gussied-up Chrysler minivan.
Yet whatever popularity Volkswagen will see from the new ID.Buzz, it will come from a vehicle with fairly unremarkable beginning.
A bombed-out relic
Given that the Volkswagen Group is now one of the world’s largest automakers, second only to Toyota, it’s hard to imagine how little they mattered when the war ended. The company’s beginning starts with a vehicle even more beloved than the Microbus: the Beetle.
The story of the Volkswagen Beetle’s creation is well known. Developed by Ferdinand Porsche and debuting as the Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or Strength Through Joy Car, at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show, the platform was used during the war to build the Jeep-like Kubelwagen.
After the war, the Wolfsburg plant ended up in the British-occupied zone. Partial production resumed in 1946, with many of the cars going to British forces. But the British army didn’t want to be in charge of automobile manufacturing, and offered the plant for free to many of the world’s automakers, including Ford Motor Co.
“I don’t think what we’re being offered here is worth a dime,” said Ernest Breech, chairman of the board at Ford, which ended up declining the offer.
A car with ties to Hitler held little appeal, but the Wolfsburg continued to build Beetles, reaching 1,000 vehicles per month by March 1946. Production remained at that level through 1948 due to a lack raw materials and components.
More than a year later, Volkswagen secured its first export deal when Automobielhandel in Amersfoort becomes an authorized Volkswagen importer for the Netherlands run by Ben Pons and his brother. Remarkably, they sold 56 Volkswagens in 1947, which surged to 4,000 units the following year.
European demand for Volkswagen rose, and the company grew thanks to Heinz Nordhoff, a Detroit-trained executive and former Opel director, who was put in charge of the Wolfsburg factory in early 1948 by the British.
But the company quickly saw its product portfolio grow beyond the Type 1, thanks to VW’s Dutch importer, Ben Pons.
A humble sketch begets a new vehicle
Pons previously visited the Wolfsburg plant as a matter of business. There, he saw the company’s work trucks: simple and utilitarian. They were built using the Beetle’s rear-engine chassis. Why couldn’t these simple work trucks become a new model? Seeing a market opportunity, Pons sketched his idea, showed it to Volkswagen executives, who liked the idea.
Volkswagen engineers further developed the idea, using the Type 1’s chassis, including its rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder air-cooled engine, and in 1950, Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter entered production.
It was far from a speed demon, as its overhead-valve engine produced a mere 30 horsepower through its 4-speed manual transmission.
Certainly its shape was novel and innovative, and lacked any real competitors for the best part of a decade. At 168.5 inches long, 67.2 inches wide and 76.4 inches tall, the Type 2 has a remarkable 162 cubic feet of space. This is why it was quickly put to use for transporting goods, and as a minibus. It’s employed by police and fire departments, as well as a postal delivery van, and later as a camper, thanks to Westfalia.
But Volkswagen viewed the industry’s initial reaction as “slightly less than spectacular,” according to “Small Wonder,” a book chronicling the history of Volkswagen.
“The truck world viewed the project with skepticism, and for good reason. Here was a truck designed with no preconceived ideas, no outmoded traditions to follow, no existing tools or dies,” VW admitted. But the truck would grow into a worldwide phenomenon, a best seller alongside the Beetle, and just as famous.
The first-generation Microbus was built through 1967, and is now referred to as the T1. Known to U.S. buyers as the “Deluxe Microbus with Samba package,” the 23-window bus was originally designed as a vehicle to tour the Swiss Alps.
Its design proved popular, and was widely copied by other automakers, including Mercedes-Bnez. It was replaced in 1968, and looked more like American vans, but now boasted as much as 65 horsepower. Known as the T2, it would remain in production until 1979, when it was replaced by the Vanagon.
By now the 1960s were a receding memory, and so was one its iconic vehicles. But its revered status hasn’t faded. And although the ID.Buzz recalls the T1 and T2 in design only, that may be enough for those buyers looking for something new, even if it’s old.