The VW Campervan: Wheels of style

The Volkswagen Type 2 has been taken out of production after over thirty years. Jonathan Glancey looks back at the history of a much-loved design.

Earnest history teachers driving their families on improving holidays across Europe. Hippies heading to Woodstock in 1969. Surfers rolling down to Cornish or Californian beaches. The elderly chap next door who wore shorts and sandals with socks in summer and whose wife insisted the plastic wrappers that came with the front seats when new stayed firmly in place… The Volkswagen Type 2, better known as the Kombi, Camper, Transport or Bus − it had various names in different countries − was in production, in one guise or another, for more than sixty-three years.

No other road vehicle has been built for so very long, yet at the end of last year, production came to a halt. The last generation of Type 2s were made at VW’s Achieta plant near Sao Paolo, Brazil, and had been for the previous thirty-four years. Quite simply, this slow, characterful, economical and easy-to-maintain minibus, van or camper had been irreplaceable. It was still selling well when VW applied the brakes. Current safety regulations, however, had finally caught up with this much-loved universal runabout.

The Camper version has long been the height of VW’s offbeat motoring chic. Second-hand examples − especially the original split-windscreen models with their swooping V-shaped fronts − command eye-watering prices, while if you find a high-spec Samba-Bus with skylight windows and a cloth sunroof (they were designed for Alpine touring), the price will be as high as the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak.

Certainly, if you are one of the countless thousands happy to get along with the T2’s slow and meandering ways, this oddball, yet highly functional machine remains as fashionable as ever. And, perhaps, even more so now that those earnest history teachers and men in summer socks and sandals no longer drive them.  

All aboard

The T2 was, as its name made clear, the second VW model. The first was, of course, the long-running Beetle. VW was persuaded to make the new model by Ben Pon, a Dutch businessman and Beetle importer, who became a millionaire exporting Kombis to the United States. The T2 made its debut at the 1949 Geneva Motor Show, and went on sale the following year. It was a stylish, if unexpected design: a scientifically streamlined utility vehicle with an air-cooled engine hidden under the floor at the back, and with the driver − perched over the front wheels and with nothing in front of the windscreen − holding a big, bus-style steering wheel.

The T2 thrummed along inexhaustibly, accompanied by its distinctive VW beat, at 60mph (97 kph), carrying up to a ton of people and goods while weighing little more itself. It was quiet inside, while the rear-mounted engine provided impressive traction, enabling the vehicle to pull away happily in sand or snow.

In 1967, as the Summer of Love played out in festivals, ashrams and fashion boutiques, the T2 was given a facelift, losing its distinctive split-screen and looking rather like a loaf of bread on wheels. In all other respects, it retained the original character, and was as popular as ever with police and ambulance services as it was with ranchers in South America and dropouts heading to the Age of Aquarius via Route 66.

Since 2006, water-cooled engines have powered the Brazilian-made Kombis, with radiator grilles marring their once serene front ends. Still they sold, although no-one seems to know quite how many million T2s, split and single-screen, were made over those sixty-three years. And still, they feature in films as they had done for decades because they always look ineffably ‘cool’. You can spot them, in fact, in as many as you can name in the time it took a T2 to reach 60mph. There’s Wait Until Dark, a thriller from 1967 starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. There’s Alan Arkin again in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. And, Magnum Force with Clint Eastwood, Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner, not forgetting Alice’s Restaurant from 1969 starring the folk singer Arlo Guthrie, nor last year’s Argo by Ben Affleck, featuring six US embassy staff being smuggled out of Tehran by the Canadian secret service in a yellow-and-white T2b bus.

Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine was not a T2, as often claimed, but a Chevrolet Corvair Greenbrier Sportswagon, one of the many VW rivals that emerged from the late ‘50s in the United States, Britain and Japan. But, despite Scooby Doo and all that Ford could do with its Thames 400E and Econoline models, none of these less than mysterious machines ever achieved anything like the cachet, nor the sales figures, of the evergreen T2. It might be out of production, but it will keep on truckin’ − or camping − for decades to come.

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