Truck Trend Legends - Volkswagen Transporter: The World’s Most Famous Van
It’s probably the most famous van in the world. It helped a war-torn German economy get back on its feet and subsequently became an iconic mode of transport for surfer dudes half a world away. Steve Jobs once had one but sold it to finance his little computer company.
Jerry Seinfeld still owns one. He even used a rusted-out pickup version in the Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In 2000, an American couple—Amanda and Rich Ligato—left their jobs, bought and modified a ’78 VW camper van, and then clocked 60,000 miles driving it around Central America, South America, and Africa. And they’re far from being the only couple to have undertaken epic trips in VW vans.
The rarest version, a barndoor Samba with 23 windows, including those little ones in the roof, can now sell at auction for around $200,000. Not bad for a vehicle range with dodgy electrics and a steering wheel angle guaranteed to hurt your wrists. Plus, it won’t go up hills or brake all that well either.
The Type 2 came about after a Dutch car importer, Ben Pon, visited VW’s Wolfsburg plant in 1947 looking to buy some Type 1 cars (also known as the original Bug). Pon noticed that the workers often used flatbed runabouts adapted from the Type 1 to move various car parts from one area of the factory to another. Light bulb moment.
He starting sketching what a commercial vehicle based on the rear-engined Bug might look like, with the front end influenced by trolley cars (trams) that were popular in Europe at the time. As it happened, the Type 1’s platform wasn’t strong enough, so VW created a one-piece body based on a ladder frame but using the Bug’s engine and axles. By 1949, VW had a panel van and a minibus ready for production and officially introduced the Type 2 at that year’s Geneva Motor Show.
The Type 2 was cheap and simple. Its basic form meant it could be square one for so many uses, like a mobile shop or delivery van, or even a fire engine, ambulance, or ice cream van. The side door was another little stroke of genius. By 1954, there were 30 variants (including the famous Microbus) and 100,000 units had already rolled off the production line. As such, the Type 2 went beyond the purpose of commercial vehicle. It was the post-war economic boom, and the first time in history where working-class people could afford personal transport for leisure pursuits.
Remarkably, this boxy shape was refined in the wind tunnel of Braunschweig Technical University to achieve a lower drag coefficient than the Type 1—0.44 compared to 0.48. The engine, of course, was that famous air-cooled flat-four. It displaced 1.1 liters and made all of 24 hp.
The first Type 2 (also codenamed T1, confusingly) had a two-piece windshield (or split screen). When generation two (codenamed T2) debuted in 1968, it came with a one-piece windshield and soon had the “bay window” nickname attached to it. Out back was the Beetle’s now-1,600cc engine making 47 hp. From 1972, North American-spec vehicles had the 1.7L engine that developed 75 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque. A revised rear suspension deployed a double-joint rear axle with semi-trailing arms, freeing up some more interior space.
The T2 was made in a few countries, like Mexico and Brazil, and total production runs varied from place to place. The last T2 to ever roll off a VW assembly line was a Kombi bus in Brazil, in 2013.
Generation three (with a water-cooled boxer-four) is better known in the United States as the Vanagon, while the front-drive fourth and fifth generations are usually referred to as Transporters, although the fourth generation was sold here as the EuroVan. The T6 debuted this year for markets outside North America.
Transporter was a name used when the Type 2 first appeared, but one nickname that has stood the test of time is “Bulli,” which appears to be a contraction of two German words meaning bus and delivery truck. Believe it or not, those early vehicles used on the VW factory floor—and the inspiration for Ben Pon—proved so reliable that the last one wasn’t taken out of service until 1994.