When my valet came by with the big stack of printouts of my emails (that's the only way I read them — he also types in all my articles from my recordings on an old reel-to-reel tape deck) I almost slapped him with delight at seeing the pictures of the weird homebuilt car Jalopnik reader Tom M sent us. Eventually, I ended up slapping my valet out of sudden realization: this strange vehicle, though seemingly the one-off project of a dedicated kook with a vendetta against style and comfort, was actually remarkably similar to another humble but very influential old VW: the plattenwagen.
The important things to realize here are how big ideas can come from shockingly remarkable origins, and if you're my valet, you're going to get slapped.
Let's start by examining this fascinating Ann Arbor-area vehicle. The first thing that will shock many people is that this machine is apparently legally registered in Michigan, and is used — in a wintery, snowy area — as someone's general transportation. Hats off to you, anonymous kook!
The vehicle is clearly powered by a VW air-cooled engine, and disturbingly for the area, I can see the heat exchangers are removed in favor of a pair of nice loud headers. It looks to be a single-port engine, which would peg it likely at '70 or older. The chassis is shortened, and the open-hub wheels suggest the donor car was probably a '67 or earlier. There's some grippy-looking fat tires at the rear, as well.
The body looks a bit like a cross between an outhouse and tollbooth, and seems to be made of brown (rust?) painted sheet metal and some black corrugated panels that I think are plastic. There's flat platforms front and rear, and the front also has what could be a small cargo box and a drop-down towing frame. At the rear are four small brackets that suggest some sort of boxy cargo can be mounted there. There's the usual lights and indicators as well, and they look sourced from the trailer aisle at Pep Boys.
I think the tow frame is a hint to the purpose of the thing: I suspect it's there not to tow the vehicle, but so the vehicle itself can push and tow... something. Maybe boats on trailers? To get them into and out of the water? Small, private aircraft, maybe? Parade floats? Hot-air balloon equipment? I'm not sure. But I bet it's something like that.
The no-bullshit utility-shed look of this thing reminded me of another VW-based flat-bed utility vehicle: the plattenwagen. The name just means "flat-bed car" and these were crude parts-hauling runabouts built by the VW factory in the early post-war days (mid '40s or so) to ferry things around the factory. They were built on regular Beetle chassis, with the driver sitting at the rear over the engine, and the big loading tray in front. No one's really sure exactly how many were built, but there seem to be about three known survivors today.
There seem to be a number of types of plattenwagens built, some with enclosed cabs, some with a simple bench seat over the engine, and some sort of in between. Early ones seem to incorporate a Kubelwagen engine cover, and all seem to have, for some reason, a fully street-legal set of lights and indicators (even semaphores on the first ones!).
The real legacy of these vehicles, however, is much bigger. I'm sure most auto factories of the era (and much later) had similar vehicles made with whatever was handy, but the lowly plattenwagen was the spark that inspired Dutch VW importer Ben Pon to sketch his now famous drawing of what would become the Volkswagen Microbus.
Pon was touring the factory in 1947 and noticed the factory runabouts. Keenly aware that post-war Europe would soon have a large, unfulfilled need for a small delivery vehicle, it was not lost on Pon that the basic VW platform could be modified to be a useful cargo hauler. He made a quick sketch in his notebook where he moved the driver to the extreme front, and the rest is history.
I have no idea if our unknown Michigan tinkerer knows or even cares about the Ben Pon/Microbus story, but I hope they'll eventually see this so they know someone appreciates whatever the hell it is they're doing there.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to slap my valet.