The birth of the VW Type II arose after World War II (Type I being the Beetle). The British found themselves running the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. Ben Pon, a Dutch VW importer, saw the motorised trolleys built using stripped down Beetle chassis and running gear taking parts around the vast factory in 1947. He sketched a design for a beetle-based van: inspired by these rudimentary but ingenious vehicles, which looked rather like a box on wheels. Heinz Nordhoff took on this idea a year later when he took over as chief executive of Volkswagen and the first VW van was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in November 1949.
The series production of 10 vehicles a day began on 8th March 1950: the basic design remained the same for four decades of production and over five million buses were produced over that time 1. The forward control vehicle with rear engine and box-shaped body filled a gap created in the market in Europe after the War. There was a lack of simple but sturdy vehicles for transporting with a high degree of flexibility and low costs. The Type II filled this niche.
The Distinctive Ssound of an Air-cooled Engine
The first generation of Volkswagen buses were built from 1949 to 1967, and are known as split-window buses or splitties. Buses built after 1967 are known as the bay window models. Where these offspring may lack the personality of the originals they feature modifications including winding windows and a top speed of 80 mph. After 1979 more modern versions were developed and these became known as wedges. For the original Type II devotees the charm was lost and the cosy camper had become a bungalow on wheels.
The splitties sported a split windscreen (obviously) along with a sweeping v-line front and a large VW emblem. These buses were 170 cubic feet (about 4.8 cubic meters) in volume and were spacious enough to hold a 15-hand horse. The bus had the engine and axles of the Beetle but had a unitary construction supported by a ladder frame instead of the central frame platform.2 The payload was roughly 750 kg and the engine had a cubic capacity of just over 1100cc with an output of 18 kW at 3300 rpm (very low!)3.
The VW Transporter can carry up to 8 people and the two rear rows of seats can be removed in order to transport greater loads. As the design was so elementary, VW turned out 90 different body amalgamations over the first five years. These variations included buses, pick-ups, fire engines, ambulances, beer wagons, refrigerated ice-cream vans, milk floats, mobile butchers shops, bread vans, mobile grocers, ordinary delivery vans and the more familiar camper (the last variation).
Developing the Splittie
The Splittie is regarded by enthusiasts as the zenith of Type II production and during the 18 years of there were a great many developments. Splitties came in many guises; barndoor, panel, kombi, standard, deluxe, ambulance, single and double cab, walk through, double door, semaphore and safari are just a few
In 1949 the First Type II was introduced called the Bulli (meaining Workhorse) and came in Kombi and Panel van models. The Microbus was introduced in 1950. This had nicer upholstery, two-tone paint, engine adjustments and the shape of front bumper changed. The big cast aluminium 'VW' logo appeared on the front and back
1951 saw the introduction of the Westfalia camper model. Westfalia is a coachbuilding company located in a German town of the same name (a separate company from VW). However, the words 'VW', 'Camper' and 'Westfalia'" are mutually exclusive. The camper van took off due to its characteristic tiny fittings and furnishings to epitomise the home from home. The popularity continued as the van was adopted by 1960s counter-culture. Features such as a longer dashboard with radio and clock were added about this time along with chrome trim on the body. The Ambulance model made its debut with a rear opening door.
In 1952 the single cab pickup appeared and in 1954 the engine size increased to 36 HP. Around 30 more versions of transporter were now available including the delivery van and ambulance.
Four years later saw the introduction of the double cab pickup model and by 1960 the wide-bed pickup trucks became available on special order. The high roof delivery van was also produced about this time.
During 1963 the engine size increased to 1500 cc and also the sliding side door became available as an option. In 1967 the electrical system changed to 12 volts before the new type (Bay window) was introduced).
To Bay and Beyond
The split-screen was replaced in 1967 by the bay window version. The bay made the Type II a big triumph and by 1975 the Hannover factory had built four million of these vehicles. A range of larger engine sizes became available (1600cc, 1700cc, 1800cc and 2000cc) and the buses became far more reliable.
Fifty years on VW buses are a popular as ever enjoying a renaissance amongst the surfing community (as well as others). Presumably this is because they offer copious space to store boards, equipment and friends along with a cool sense of freedom. The bus owner must be prepared to frequent second-hand specialists for parts and to spend a great deal on fuel (expect no more than 25 miles to the gallon) but the rewards are great. There are also numerous customisation opportunities including lowered suspension, tinted windscreens, adding a V8 engine and the groovy paint job.
There are now plans afoot to develop a new generation of bus in the same vein as the new Beetle: called the Microbus which is to include a table with games console and internet access and a camera at the rear above the license plate. The actual engine spec and performance are not yet at fruition.