Will the VW Microbus Keep on Truckin'?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 09, 2012

It’s time to bring back the beloved VW microbus, icon of Woodstock and the entire hippie movement but also a very practical load hauler—a minivan before we even knew that word. Amazingly enough, VW seems to have gotten the message and is said to be very close to greenlighting a version of the very retro “Bulli” concept. That car was first shown at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show as, believe it or not, a battery car. Edward Abbey would approve.

The Bulli was shown as an electric car, but it's a likely template for a gasoline-powered production version. (VW photo) VW’s Mark Gillies, manager of product and technology, tells me it’s still a big maybe. “First up,” he said, “our executives have indicated they would like to see a production version of the Bulli, but as far as I am aware there has been no clear decision to produce it. It’s a lot smaller than the minivans that are sold on the U.S. market—so even if it went into production, there’s no guarantee it would go on sale here.”

Arrrgh, I’ve heard that before. The notion that Americans won’t buy small minivans has kept many really nice and versatile Japanese and European vehicles off the market here. But remember the smallish first-generation ’94 to ’98 Honda Odyssey (based on the Accord)? That was also smaller than a Chrysler Town & Country but sold darned well.

As shown, the Bulli is all-electric, with a 40-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, 186 miles of range (pretty good) and 114 horsepower. In production, it’s unlikely to be offered in an electric version, but who knows?

If VW does bring back the microbus, I predict it will be a big hit. I can’t count the number of times people who really should be driving minivans told me they wouldn’t buy them because of the “soccer mom” image. But a vehicle that suggests tie-dye and patchouli oil? Everybody is going to want one. Plus, it’s cool looking.

Even though I went to Woodstock (driving a fire-engine red Chevy Nova convertible) I never had a microbus. I was more of a Volvo man. But my friends certainly had them, and sometimes made a living fixing them. It wasn’t hard. One ponytailed mechanic friend told me he could pull the engine on a microbus in less than an hour. “It’s just four bolts,” I seem to remember him saying.

There was a book, John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, that sat on every wire-drum coffee table back in the day, its psychedelic cover nicely complimenting the Whole Earth Catalog. Anyone could keep a VW alive, it said, even folks with zero technical knowledge. This bestseller was first published in 1969, and thus set the stage for the “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot” books. If only John Muir had known how to spell “Complete!”

Let’s face it, hippies needed things kept simple. When you’re tripping on magic mushrooms, adjusting tolerances to within thousandths of an inch wasn’t likely to happen. Luckily, ‘50s and ‘60s Bugs and buses were very durable and could survive bouts with shade-tree mechanics who had the added liability of being stoned. I know this era is long gone, but would you believe me if I told you that I once rented a room from card-carrying members of Woodstock Nation who had a dog named, and I kid you not, Cannabis?

A particularly fine example of hippie painting on a VW microbus. A museum might want this car (Wikipedia photo)In fact, the VW Type 2, as it’s known, predates the peace symbol and the first Doors album. It was the second VW model, sketched in 1947 and on the market in 1950 as a complement to the Beetle (Type 1). VW made many updates to the basic design over the years, introducing delivery vans, open-bed trucks, the famous 23-window model and iconic campers.

The bus was updated in a more squared-off design in 1967, losing some of its appeal. But the later ones got free passes to the commune anyway. These cars, known as T2a, were built in Germany until 1979 and in Mexico into the mid-‘90s.

This is the Brazilian version of the Type 2, still crazy and in production after all these years. (VW photo) Was that the end of it? By no means! The T2c, with a taller roof, is still in production in South America as the Kombi, with a few imported into Europe. There was a cliffhanger, because production was threatened by a Brazilian law that required airbags on all cars by 2014. But VW of Brazil says it’s found a way to redesign the dashboard and add bags to the venerable design.

The Kombi is dual-fuel, able to run on gasoline or the alcohol Brazilians make from sugarcane waste. It last got an update in 2005, when it got a water-cooled four-cylinder engine from the non-U.S. Polo model.

So, unlike the legendary original Beetle, the hippie flag still waves for the Microbus. And there’s still a lot of the old ones on the road, some of them still wearing their colors from back in the day. Look at this one, which found its way to my radio station’s table at the Gathering of the Vibes this summer. The bus is a Type 2, I believe, and it’s determined to keep on truckin.’

That's a Type 2 survivor, wearing the team colors, at the Dead-endorsed annual Gathering of the Vibes. (Jim Motavalli photo)I'll leave you with a visual tour of the 2009 High Country VW Bus Festival. The music is certainly appropriate:

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