The tale of Volkswagen's Bulli goes back to Wednesday, April 23, 1947. That's the day Dutch VW importer Ben Pon drew a rough sketch of the now internationally famous Transporter 1, or T1, van. In the States, it was known as the Microbus. In Germany, marketers labeled it the Bulli. And this year, in concept form at the 2011 Geneva show, the Bulli has returned with a retro-inspired design, modern usability, and a zero-emission electric powertrain.
The latest six-passenger Bulli is a reinterpreted reinterpretation of what's been billed as the world's first van. VW showed a retro van in 2001 at the Detroit auto show, and like that concept, the more evolved Bulli has a variety of simple, attractive, and classic traits.
The slightly extended nose, for instance, sports an extra-large "VW" badge in the middle of a distinct V-shape. Flanking it are bright L-shaped wraparound LED headlamps and dominant lower fog lights that add a bit of personality to the front clip, while slight intakes provide cool air to the electric powertrain.
The two-tone paintjob divides at the beltline and runs the vehicle's entire 156-inch length. Body panels were machined to portray a seamless look, and blacked-out pillars add a sense of size. The tailgate spans the Bulli's 68.4-inch width, making it ideal for loading cargo. Each corner sits on a chrome-dipped retro-look 18-inch alloy, and, as you can tell, the overhangs remain stubby.
Interior designers continued to meld modern style and classic cues by incorporating twin bench seats. Both can be folded down to maximize passenger comfort during trips, and if need be, the rear bench can completely stow, increasing overall interior space.
A panoramic sunroof bathes passengers with sunlight while they play with the removable iPad user interface. The iPad controls navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, and stereo functions. Climate control settings are set via conventional switches. Air vents on the dash continue the slim outlet theme seen on the nose.
A color multifunction display shows pertinent vehicle data and operates in conjunction with the iPad. Long gone is the gearshift; in its place is a relay switch. Tunes are provided by Fender, the American brand famous for its amplifiers and guitars.
In the concept, a nose-mounted 114 horsepower electric motor making 199 pound-feet of torque gets its juice from a 40 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and propels the front wheels to a top speed of 87 mph. Stomp on the accelerator from a standstill and VW says the 3190-pound Bulli can pull to 62 mph in 11.5 seconds. Engineers also say the setup is good for some 186 miles on a single charge, and that it can be recharged in just one hour with the correct (unspecified) outlet. We'll believe all that when we see it.
Just in case, VW made sure the motor bay can fit a variety of the brand's 1.0-liter and 1.4-liter gas or diesel direct-injection engines if the Bulli does make it to production lines.
Prior to the Bulli, VW execs, designers, and engineers were deadlocked on how to reintroduce a model that referenced its successful buses. It seems VW has figured out what it wants to do, which means the legendary people-mover that Pon conceptualized some 50 years ago could continue on in a few years' time.