A True Icon A Brief History of the VW Bus.

A True Icon A Brief History of the VW Bus.

By Matt Weston

Hipster playing guitar for his friends on a summers day

Hipster playing guitar for his friends on a summers day

Often characterized as the ‘Hippy’ transport of Woodstock and the 60’s generation, the VW bus has gone through a number of modifications and although the familiar front design of the Split-Screen is now long gone, the VW van lives on in it’s newest guise; the T5. Most who are familiar with the VW Beetle will know that the car was actually commissioned on orders from Adolf Hilter, to produce a cheap, reliable car for the ‘Volk’ (The People) – The original Type 2 (The official name given to the VW bus) was based on the same technology, although the first vans were not available commercially until 1949. Unveiled at the Geneva motor show, the vehicle was produced at the same factory, Wolfsberg, in Germany.

The initial idea of the VW type 2 had come from Ben Pon, a Dutch importer, who noticed that many of the motorized trolleys around the Wolfsberg factory were made from stripped down Beetle chassis and running gear. His sketches put the wheels in motion for a beetle-based van, which was noted to look like ‘a box on wheels’ – And so, the VW van was born.

By 1950, up to ten vehicles a day were being produced at the plant, and the basic design would remain the same for the next four decades. This first generation, known as the ‘Split Screen’ is the most popular (and by far the most expensive variation of the van today!) The Split was produced from 1950 to 1967.

The unique design of the VW bus meant that the rear seats could be removed in order to transport greater loads. Due to the design being simple and cheap to produce, VW were able to turn out approximately 90 different body combinations over the first few years. These included buses, pick-ups, fire engines, ambulances, beer wagons, refrigerated vans, milk floats, mobile butchers/bread vans, delivery vans and of course, the well loved utility camper.

With 1951 came the introduction of the ‘Westfalia’; it’s name coming from Westfalia-Werke, the contractor commissioned for building the interior conversion, located in the Westphalia region of Germany. This variation proved popular, with many features added, including a longer dashboard with radio and clock, and chrome body trim. When the VW Camper was released in the USA in the mid 1950’s it was remarkably successful, with over 150,000 sold by 1963! By 1952, single cab pick-up variations were made available, with an engine sizes increasing by 1954. Production of the VW bus was then moved from Wolfsburg to Hannover, and by 1960 the wide-bed pick-up trucks became available on special order and the high roof delivery van was also produced. Flashing indicators (Front and rear) also replaced the somewhat erratic semaphores! By 1963, engine sizes increased to 1500cc from 1200cc, and sliding doors were made available as an option. This year also sadly marked the end of the Split, with an estimated 1,477,330 buses sold and in circulation. The Split was replaced in 1968 by the ‘Bay Window’. This new bus was based on a radical rethink of the vehicle as a whole, with suspension changes and a one-piece windscreen. Wind down windows were also added (A nice added extra at the time!) Although this was still a VW bus, this version had been changed both mechanically and visually. In 1973, the design of the Bay was changed again, with larger bumpers added, larger indicators (Forced on VW by the American market). Larger engines were also made available; 1600cc, 1700cc, 1800cc – reliability and ‘drivability’ was now better than ever.

1979 saw the last bay produced for the UK and European markets. A variation of the Bay Window was produced in Brazil (Along with the VW Beetle) until only as few years ago; although the latter had lost its air-cooled engine, to be replaced with a water-cooled lump (based loosely on the 1.4 VW Golf engine) The T25 van (Or the ‘wedge’ as it came to be known) was available from 1980, keeping a 2.0 litre air cooled until until 1983, when water-cooled engines became the standard across the range (The latter suffering somewhat with head gasket problems) The T25, again, was a completely redesigned vehicle with a more ‘square’ shape all together, proving as popular as it’s predecessors. ‘T4’s’ were produced over the following years, and the subsequent, current model, the ‘T5’ is continuing the massive success the of the VW camper. The most common models seen around the coasts of Devon these days are by far, the T25 and the T4 – both being the more affordable and reliable options. The VW Bus has been one of the most popular vehicles of the last few decades, and for whatever reason has become a massive part of the surfing community across the world. So, the next time you walk past that battered van parked up on the sea front, with it’s slightly shabby arches, dinked bumper and driver’s door sporting a different colour to the rest of the van, try to remember this machine’s proud heritage and the legacy it has given to millions the world over.

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