The car’s uniquely versatile capabilities match no others. Nothing embodies the go-anywhere spirit of the Volkswagen better than the Volkswagen Microbus.
Designed as a spartan vehicle for new businesses starting up after the second world war, the Volkswagen Type 2 was initially based on Volkswagen’s first model, the Beetle, also known as the "Type 1", but it proved too weak for the larger bus.
A new chassis was designed specifically for it. Soon after its introduction, there seemed to be a market for a more luxurious, passenger-friendly Type 2, and so the variations began.
While visiting the VW factory in 1947, Dutch car importer Ben Pon came up with the idea for the Bus as we know it today, but it wasn’t until early 1948 that his concept was presented to the new general director, Heinrich Nordhoff, a couple of months after he took control of the factory from the British. Nordhoff possessed a strong will to make positive changes, ’not in a wild kind of optimism,’ as he put it, ’but with the courage to do what has never been tried before, to take - whate the Americans call - a calculated risk.’ This is exactly what he did.
The aerodynamics of the first prototypes were not good but heavy optimisation took place at the wind tunnel of the Technical University of Braunschweig. The wind tunnel work paid off, as the Type 2 was aerodynamically superior to the Beetle despite its slab-sided shape. Three years later, under the direction of Volkswagen’s new CEO Heinz Nordhoff, the first production model left the factory at Wolfsburg.
Officially launched on November 12, 1949, the Transporter line did not go on sale to the general public until March 1950. The most outstanding attribute of the Bus - other than its creation of a market where there was none before - is its construction. For a commercial vehicle to have both chassis and body welded together was a very advanced idea, especially during a time when the next best thing on the market was the Morris J-Type van and Citroen’s Type H van, both oddly shaped and utilitarian at best.
The Type 2 was among the first commercial vehicles in which the driver was placed above the front wheels. As such, it started a trend, at least in Germany, where the Ford Transit among others quickly copied the concept. In the United States, the Corvair-based Chevrolet Corvan cargo van and Greenbrier passenger van even went so far as to copy the Type 2’s rear-engine layout, using the Corvair’s orizontally-opposed, air-cooled engine for power. Except for the Greenbrier and a mid-70s water-cooled version from Fiat, the 850 Microbus - neither of which were produced in great numbers - the Type 2 remained unique in being rear-engined which was a disadvantage for the Panel Van which couldn’t easily be loaded from the rear due to the engine cover intruding on interior space, but generally advantageous in terms of traction and interior noise.
During the hippie era in the United States, the Bus became a major counterculture symbol. There were several reasons: The van could carry a number of people plus camping gear and cooking supplies, extra clothing, do-it-yourself carpenter’s tools, etc. As a "statement", its boxy, utilitarian shape made the Type 2 everything the American cars of the day were not. Used models were incredibly cheap to buy - a majority were hand-painted (a predecessor of the modern-day art car).
Some Bus enthusiasts (especially for antiwar activists) would replace the VW logo with a painted peace symbol up front. Since that time, however, the original 1950-1967 Type 2 (primarily the pre-1956 barndoors) has become a hot collector’s item with special variations reaching into the North American five-figure price territory. The second generation has also passed its low-price years and is on its way to collector status.
The base-model, no frills bus was the panel van, made for businesses. It had no windows down the sides of it, and no upholstery was available for the cargo area.
The next model was the “Kombi”, with three windows down each side, it was designed to carry people and/or cargo, hence the name. Removable, crude rear seats were optional for the back.
The model that followed was the Microbus, a step higher in specifications, it usually had the same configuration as the “Kombi”, not designed for cargo transport; nicely upholstered seats throughout the vehicle and matching interior panels and a cloth or vinyl headliner were standard. It also came from the factory with chromed hubcaps and two-tone paint.
The Deluxe Microbus were top of the range, the number of options were immense, you could get the three windows down each side, four windows down each side, or even five with a curved plexiglass corner window. This type usually has sunroofs and a fancy chrome strip between the upper and lower sections.
Like the Beetle, the first Transporters had a 1.2 L, 25 hp (19 kW), air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine mounted in the rear. The 36 hp (22 kW) version became standard in 1955 while an unusual early version of the 40 hp (25 kW) engine debuted exclusively on the Type 2 in 1959. This engine proved to be so uncharacteristically troublesome that Volkswagen recalled all 1959 Transporters and replaced the engines with an updated version of the 40 hp (25 kW) engine. Any 1959 models that retain that early engine today are true survivors. Since the engine was totally discontinued at the outset, no parts were ever made available.
In 1962, a heavy-duty Transporter was introduced as a factory option. It featured a cargo capacity of one metric ton (1,000 kg) instead of the previous 750 kg, smaller but wider 14 in (356 mm) wheels, and a 1.5 L, 42 DIN hp (31 kW) engine. This was so successful that only a year later, the 750 kg, 1.2 L Transporter was discontinued. When the Beetle received the 1.5 L engine for the 1967 model year, its power was increased to 44 hp DIN (32 kW).
There were many ambulance and firetruck conversions as well. There was a double door bus, with dual loading doors on both sides. All of these variations, plus the differences in window configurations makes for a seemingly infinite number of different busses.