The Volkswagen Type 2, better known as the Microbus, VW Van, Hippie Bus, Kombi, or whatever else, may be one of my favorite vehicles of all time. Even though it has a sort of whimsical reputation today, the truth is that it’s one of the most straightforward and rational vehicles ever developed.
Volkswagen let me drive their nearly-perfect 1967 21-window bus recently, so it seemed like as good a reason as any to tell you five interesting things about this iconic vehicle.
It’s worth mentioning that with old air-cooled Type 2 prices going insane and not seeming to stop for quite some time now, the fact that VW’s heritage collection let me hoon this lovely orange bus around on a beach seems a little bit like madness. But the absolute best kind of madness, so, thanks Volkswagen.
This is sort of confusing, because, really the Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter (the Microbus’ proper name, the one VW yells at it when they’re really mad) was the first vehicle designed from (mostly) scratch by post-war Volkswagen.
The initial concept, though, didn’t come from inside VW at all. It came from a Dutch importer of Volkswagens named Ben Pon.
Pon was very aware of the post-war automotive market in Europe, and realized that what they were really going to need as the economy got back on its feet would be practical, cheap to buy-and-run commercial vehicles. Delivery vans, work vans, pickup trucks, and so on.
Pon also noticed while visiting the VW factory in Wolfsburg these clever little factory work vehicles VW employees threw together from VW chassis and scrap parts called plattenwagens. These little reverse-orientation pickup truck-like things made Pon realize that maybe, just maybe, the humble VW Beetle could be converted into the commercial vehicle he needed.
Pon wrote how much such a vehicle would need to carry—750 kilograms—and drew a quick sketch in his notebook of a very simple and clever vehicle, essentially a box on wheels, with the driver sitting over the front wheel and an engine tucked in the back. It’s remarkable how close the final product was to this quick, crude sketch.
There’s a reason you can’t buy any number of cool pickup trucks and commercial vans from all over the world in America, and it’s because of chickens and the Volkswagen Type 2, at least in some ways.
In the years after World War II, America got really, really good at mass chicken farming, so good that the flood of delicious American chickens was running European chicken farmers out of business. To protect their farmers, many European countries, including, notably, West Germany, put significant import restrictions on American chicken, causing a huge loss for U.S. chicken exporters.
This really pissed off a lot of American lawmakers, so, to retaliate, in 1963 the U.S. imposed a tariff on many European goods, including brandy, dextrose, and, significantly, light commercial vehicles. This tariff became known as the Chicken Tax.
That last one was a direct jab at West Germany, since the VW Transporters, in work van and pickup truck form, were becoming quite popular in America. That ended when the 25 percent tariff went into effect, killing VW’s commercial vehicle sales in the U.S.
The passenger-carrying Buses were exempt because they were not technically commercial vehicles, so those (and campers) could still be sold profitably in America.
Normally, we think of portal axles as being the sort of thing you’d see on a Unimog or some other hardcore off-roader. But the humble old Bus uses them, too, but for very different reasons.
When the bus was being developed in 1948 or so, the only engine VW had available was the Beetle’s engine, which, at the time, only made 25 horsepower. In order to give the van the torque it needed to move a ton and a half of van and stuff, VW took the portal axles they developed to give the wartime Kübelwagen more ride height and stuck them on the back of the Bus, where they traded speed for torque.
With them in place, the little engine could actually move heavy loads in the bus, just, you know, not quickly. These stayed on the bus until the independent suspension rear axle in 1968.
If you’re curious if an old bus you see has portal axles, watch it as it accelerates (I know that’s a generous word)—the rear end should raise slightly when it does.
The early prototypes of the bus had, unsurprisingly, terrible aerodynamics, since it’s basically shaped like a brick. With the weak 25-horse engine pushing the big box along, VW realized they’d need all the help they could get, so this thing had to be better at getting through the wind than that.
They reached out to the Technical University of Braunschweig, who had a wind tunnel they could use for development. They started with a drag coefficient of 0.75, which is terrible, but through a lot of testing and redesign (making the windshield into a pair of windows in a ‘V’ formation, rounding off edges, and so on) they were able to get it to a very respectable 0.44 Cd (later versions were down to 0.42), which was the same as a Jaguar E-Type.
The E-Type has a lot less frontal area, so it’s not exactly apples-to-apples, but still. It’s impressive for a big-ass box.
Even though we all know it as a bus or Microbus or whatever, for a time Volkswagen insisted on calling it a “station wagon,” since they felt many owners would be put off by the idea of owning a bus.
Even though it’s not a station wagon in actual design, it was employed to do the same job as a station wagon—move people (usually a family) and a bunch of their stuff easily and with as much flexibility as possible.
They made a big deal about how much it could carry, both people and stuff, and how its one-box design let it carry more in less space than a conventional wagon:
Really, it was a pretty clever approach, like so much of VW’s advertising of the era.