The Volkswagen Microbus, hippie icon since Janis Joplin and Canned Heat were going concerns, is dead. Long live the VW Microbus. More than six million were sold.
The bus, first imported into the U.S. in 1959, disappeared 20 years later—probably around the time the last hippie hung up his or her love beads. In just two decades, it firmly implanted itself into American psyche as transportation for Cheech, Chong (don’t open those doors!) and Deadheads galore. Friends of the devil can and did apply. I was at Woodstock, man, and a loaded (in every sense of the word) Microbus was the best way to get there.
Let’s shed a tear over the fact that the last Type 2 Microbus—the model has never been out of production somewhere in the world — will soon no longer roll off assembly lines in San Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. Attention collectors, there is to be a final edition of 600. But let’s also light a scented candle in the hopes that VW will make the Microbus’ on-again, off-again retro-styled successor a reality.
At one point, it appeared certain that the Microbus would be back for 2014, bearing many of the hallmarks of the 2001 prototype—which I loved when I saw it at the auto shows. The 2014 version was to be both nostalgic and sleekly modern, just like the retooled Bug. Instead of that old rear-mounted power plant (removable with four bolts) the new car was to feature both four-cylinder gas engines and turbo-diesels, as well as a possible range-extender hybrid version taking off from the Bulli concept first shown in Geneva in 2011. They could have sold a million of ‘em, but no. “Nothing on the horizon,” VW’s Mark Gilles tells me. "Minivans are not exactly a growth market. People seem to like three-row crossovers."
The 2001 show car was also slated for production, and VW went as far as to scout factories for it, but it got lost in the executive shuffle (including a new design language) and was killed in 2006. VW needs to rethink this always-a-bridesmaid thing. I’m confident that a new/old Bus could do well, because it both taps into the collective memory and will always make sense as a cheap and cheerful people mover. That said, VW could easily ruin the concept by larding on too many fancy systems and digital this and that.
Try to remember how basic the original Bus was. A box, a basic, easily fixed engine (remember “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by John Muir?), some sparsely upholstered seats. You could get it as a camper and as a pickup truck, but you could also use your imagination and make it into anything you wanted. If they were having a sale on psychedelic paint at the Love Shack, you could go to town.
So how did the Microbus become a must-have hippie accessory? David Dyer Burnett is glad you asked, because he wrote “From Hitler to Hippies: The Volkswagen Bus in America” as a thesis for his master’s at the University of Texas. “The hippie counterculture that flowered in the late 60s latched on to the VW bus for the same reasons that attracted earlier owners—a combination of practical and stylistic reasons,” Burnett writes. “Because hippie owners were younger and more adventuresome than previous owners, and tended to purchase older second-hand vehicles, they dramatically elevated the exuberance, singularity and borderline deviance of bus culture.”
I’ll buy that. I had the less evocative Squareback, but I can see the granola-enhanced appeal of the Bus. Throw a mattress in the back and you’re “On the Road,” just like Jack Kerouac. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say “on the bus,” like Ken Kesey. Go out looking for America in a Microbus, with a guitar, an “old lady” and some patchouli oil, and you’re sure to find it.
Can't get enough of hippie Microbuses? Here's one more, on video. Note the old hippie at the end: