Long before minivans were the mainstay of American soccer moms, before the Ford Econoline or Corvan (the Corvair Van) came along, the Volkswagen bus was the ultimate form of transportation for families that wanted something more than a station wagon.
And now more than 60 years after VW’s answer to family and commercial transportation first hit the highway, it’s run is finally coming to an end. Somewhere down in Brazil, VW is about to build its last Volkswagen bus.
But wait, you say, VW still sells vans all over the world. True, but they’re not the classic bus. It has somehow survived in South America. But now, even Brazilian safety laws have caught up to the transporter that changed the world.
Legend has it that the VW transporter design came from a Dutch importer. Back in the late 40s, he saw a butchered VW that was used to haul stuff and was inspired to sketch out the basic design for a new vehicle. Eventually VW’s head designer, Heinz Nordhoff picked up the cause. The company gave the go-ahead in 1949 and the first VW transporters were 1950 models.
They were never supposed to be fast, or powerful. In fact, the original engine had just 25 horsepower. It was merely designed to transport people and stuff slowly but effectively and it worked just great. In fact, it worked so well, that VW came up with all kinds of variations. From panel vans to pickups, they all lived off the same basic design. There is even talk that VW’s crew cab version in 1958 was the first production pickup with big cab (long before it became the norm with pickups in the US).
The US didn’t see one until 1954. By then, power had made a massive jump to 30 hp. The styling didn’t change much through 1967. It’s distinctive split windshield was both a design feature and a big aerodynamic assist (much slipperier than the proposed flat window version).
In 1968 the styling saw a big change. Some folks called it the bread loaf. Five inches longer and nearly an inch taller, the design was both sleeker and broader, and it was the first sign that the transporter was changing with the times. Of course it still had the air-cooled engine in the rear, but by now it was up to a massive 57 hp. The most interesting design feature was the sliding side door (which replaced the “barn door” style). It was a first for a van.
It is this basic body style that has survived all these years in Brazil. The air-cooled engine is gone, but the styling is the same.
The first generation van has also become a collector’s item. They regularly show up at Barrett Jackson and other auctions and command big bucks. Two years ago one sold at the Orange County Barrett Jackson auction for $217,000. It was a “Samba” style with 23 windows which has proven to be the most popular. While we haven’t seen the price soar that high since then, It’s not unusual to see them over $100,000. The best part is because they have value, people are now restoring them to concours level.
So while the Brazilian version may finally bite the dust, it’s obvious that interest in the original VW transporter is not facing anytime soon. Not bad, for something that Dutch importer sketched out seven decades ago.