GREAT KOMBI-NATION

By Stuart Grant with photography by Oliver Hirtenfelder

Front 34 Opt 2

For many, the words ‘Volksie Bus’, ‘Kombi’ or ‘Microbus’ might conjure up images of David Kramer, red vellies and a Kombi pulling the broken-down Volstruis Fire Department truck up a gravel pass. Others might be transported back to following an ice-cream van down the road, chasing the endless summer in a rusty old split-window with surf boards, beach holidays, a ride with St John Ambulance or the slog to school with classmates. There is one more tag we can add now – that of a collectable classic, fit for a spot in your weekend fleet.

It is not surprising we all have a Kombi memory when one considers the idea was born in 1947 and South Africa started assembling the Volksie Bus 57 years ago. Classic VW Transporter desirability has taken off with certain of these humble people movers topping the sales charts and proving that well-preserved daily commuters are just as much of an investment as many of the fancy exotics and sports cars – and sometimes more. Emotion and nostalgia step in, transport us back in time and tug at the heartstrings. Kombi (short for kombinationskraftwagen, which translates to combined-use vehicle) must be the poster car for this phenomenon.

It all started back in 1946 when Dutch VW importer, Ben Pon, visited the Beetle (Type 1) plant in Wolfsburg. While in the factory, he noticed a cobbled-together part-carrying vehicle in service, and immediately figured that it would be better to use a Beetle-based item as a workhorse. On a doodle dated April 1947, he proposed a Beetle pan-based item with driver seated right up front and a payload of 690kg. Good on paper, but when built in prototype form it proved not rigid enough. Out went the idea of a Type 1 pan and in came a ladder chassis and monocoque body. This prototype, although the same wheelbase as the Beetle, proved decent in the flex department, however the slab-fronted cab-forward van body displayed the same aerodynamic qualities as a brick at a coefficient of 0.75. Wind tunnel testing saw the likes of a split-windscreen and vee-shaping the roofline improving matters to 0.44, enough for VW’s CEO Heinz Nordhoff to give the new Type 2 model the go-ahead.

Doors open

Production kicked off and the first unit rolled off the Wolfsburg floor on 12 November 1949. Sales started in 1950 with only two versions: the Kombi (two side windows with a pair of removable rear seats) and a load-carrying-only Commercial. A more passenger-orientated Microbus version was added soon thereafter and then a range-topping Deluxe Microbus in 1951.

All initially employed the Beetle’s 1131cc, air-cooled flat-four ‘boxer’ engine good for 18kW or 24bhp. For 1953 it grew to 1192cc and 22kW (30bhp) – by no means a powerhouse but thanks to decent gearing the Type 2 could trundle its load around. A higher compression ratio improved things in 1955 and a 30kW (40bhp) unit, exclusive to the Type 2, debuted in 1959. It was canned almost immediately, even before any spare parts were made, when Volkswagen recalled and swapped engines because it proved so unreliable. This first series Type 2, which is now referred to as the T1, continued in production until 1967. Pre-1955 models made use of a large rear engine cover, hence its ‘Barn door’ nickname. Spotting a ’55 onwards model is easiest done by looking for a roof extension above the windscreen and 15-inch wheels instead of the earlier 16s.

For 1963 the rear door was widened and the 1493cc with 38kW (51bhp) made an appearance. A year later a sliding side door was added to the options list for those wanting to replace the hinged double door. An ambulance model was included toward the end of 1951, which saw a tailgate style rear door added and the fuel tank repositioned in front of the transaxle, which meant the spare wheel got mounted behind the front seat. These features became standard on the rest of the Type 2 line-up from 1955 to 1967, except obviously the single-cab bakkie version, which had been launched in mid-1952.

Front Bench

German production of the first series came to a conclusion at the end of 1967 but Mexico had got in on the manufacturing act and kept churning out T1 versions, albeit in slightly altered format, until 1975 – these Mexicans are not as valuable as the German-made cars nowadays. When talking values or details with air-cooled gurus it gets a bit confusing with mention of 11, 13, 15, 21 and 23-window vehicles. In summary, the numbers go like this: 11 has a split windshield, two front cabin door windows, six rear side windows and one rear window.

Sporting extra chrome trim and better-appointed interior DeLuxe models took 15 with the usual apertures and eight rear side windows, while the sunroof DeLuxe with its additional eight small skylights sported 23. From 1964 rear corner windows were excluded, resulting in the 15 and 23 dropping to 13 and 21 respectively.

Clearly not as valuable yet, the T2 second generation Type 2 or Bay Window (after its deeper curved windscreen) launched late in 1967, and production continued in Germany until 1979. Again Mexico, who started T2 production in 1970, saw a long shelf-life – churning out the last of them only in 1994. Most notable T2 change from the T1 is obviously the lack of a split-windscreen but a deeper look reveals a totally new machine weighing in substantially more but with a more powerful 35kW (47bhp) 1600cc engine and the rear swing-axle and transfer box (used to raise ride height) were chucked out in favour of half-shaft axles and CV joints.

Kombi VW rear

Over the first three years of its life the T2 evolved gradually in the appearance department with slightly different bumpers, doors that opened further and air intakes on the B-pillars. Under the deck the big improvement came in 1971 with the arrival of a 37kW (50bhp) lump that although also 1600cc, saw improved oomph thanks to dual intake ports on each cylinder head. At this time disc brakes were fitted at the front, with new wheel design aiding the cooling of these. Those in the know use terms like ‘low light’ to refer to the pre-’72 models as the indicator lights were raised up next to the air vents from that year on.

The 1700cc engine designed for the Volkswagen Type 4 became an option to replace the old 1600 in 1972 and from 1973 if you ticked the option box for this 1700cc option you could specify a three-speed automatic, however the auto sacrificed 3kW when compared to the 49kW (66bhp) seen on the manual. Things got serious in 1978 with a 2-litre engine complete with hydraulic lifters and electronic ignition.

Having endured a 12-year production run the T2 came to an end in 1979. Thankfully it wasn’t the end of the rear-engined VW van concept though - it took another 11 years for VW move the mill to the nose. But back to 1979 and the all-new T3. Gone was the bread loaf look with square edges replacing the rounded-off look of T1 and T2. It was bigger and heavier too. 1984 saw the first water-cooled Kombis hitting the road, which although substantially better to drive and more practical, aren’t regarded as must-have collectables just yet (unless you find an ’89 4x4 Syncro). A fourth generation followed in 1990 where drive moved to the front wheels, but South Africa held out with the rear-engine T3 until 2002. This meant we skipped the T4 and moved straight into the T5.

VW Badge

The South African Kombi story started with the arrival at the Cape Town docks in December 1952. The first unit on local soil went to a German malaria researcher as a gift before Baron Von Oertzen, the chairman of SAMAD (what would become VWSA), took delivery of the second soon after. Both enjoyed testing the reliability and by 1955 took the decision to assemble Kombis for local consumption. In 1956 a Kombi sold for R1 348 while in 2015 the base model kicks off at R459 000.

Call them Kombi, Microbus, Splitty, Bay Window, Bread loaf, Type 2, Transporter, Surf Wagon or Hippie Van, these vehicles have made memories and will continue to for generations to come. And it is this ability, which couples with a functional honesty, which puts them high on the collectable list.

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