Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Volkswagen Bus

The first Volkswagen Bus, seen here in an early brochure, debuted in 1950 and was called the Transporter, or VW Type 2. The Volkswagen Bus was the first minivan, invented by the same logical minds that brought the world the Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, the Volkswagen Bus was for years really a big, boxy body on a Beetle chassis. The Volkswagen Bus even used the Beetle's air-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, and mounted it in the tail, just like the Bug did. And much like the beloved Beetle, the Volkswagen Bus came to symbolize liberty and unconventionality for a whole generation of Americans. Variously called the Transporter, Station Wagon, Kombi, and Micro Bus, later the Vanagon and EuroVan, this picture-paced article covers ever version of the Volkswagen Bus, and even looks ahead to the vehicle's future. So strong was the original 1950 design that it survived until 1967, and by the time Chrysler launched its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1984, the VW Bus was already into its third generation. Despite its steady success over the years, the 1990s and 2000's were not kind to the Volkswagen Bus. VW offered it in camper form only through much of the 1990's, and when it brought it back with more power than ever, that version lasted only from 1999 through 2003. Even the very cool, German-engineered retro Microbus concept that raised hopes in 2001 was shelved. However, the Volkswagen Bus appears on track to return in 2008 using the underpinnings of the latest Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, but with a VW-designed body and interior. The inaugural Volkswagen Bus was officially called the Transporter or VW Type 2 -- the VW Beetle being the Type 1. The Type 2 was born of VW chief Heinz Nordhoff's growing confidence in the still-young Volkswagen enterprise, which traced its origins to 1930s Nazi Germany, but really didn't begin volume production of customer cars - all Beetle sedans -- until 1947. Introduction of the convertible version of the Beetle in 1949 showed that Nordoff was amenable to carefully considered variations on VW's one-note Beetle sedan theme. By 1950, Nordhoff had determined that the Volkswagen was healthy enough to support a second model range, and that was the Volkswagen Bus. Nordhoff took particular pride in the Type 2, noting that it was developed without input from Porsche, the engineering and design firm named after Ferdinand Porsche, the engineer - later of sports-car fame - who designed the original Beetle. The genesis of the Volkswagen Bus was instead a 1947 pencil sketch by Ben Pon, the importer who introduced the Beetle to the U.S. in 1949. Numerous commercial versions of the Beetle had already been built, typically by entrepreneurs who cut, chopped, and added to the little Bug to produce a variety of open-bed and station wagon-type delivery vans. The earliest Volkswagen Buses won renown as both passenger models and as slow but handy utility vehicles such as this. 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus was basically a big box atop the VW Beetle chassis. Note the rear engine location. The story of the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus is one of a vehicle that created its own niche. VW had in fact invented a new automotive category that wouldn't have a name until decades later: the minivan. The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus kicked off with a model officially called the Transporter. It debuted in March 1950. It used the Beetle floorpan and 94.5-inch wheelbase, but at 53.5 inches, its track was wider than the sedan's by 2.7 inches in front and a significant 4.3 inches in back. It retained the Beetle's standard, rear-mounted air-cooled boxer engine and four-speed transaxle, though a steep 5.13:1 final-drive ratio gave it impressive low-gear grunt. Using reduction gears in the rear wheel hubs provided a full 9.5 inches of ground clearance, which, along with the traction advantages of having the engine over the drive wheels, was an important plus in back-road duty. At 168.5 inches, its brick-shaped body was 8.5 inches longer than the Beetle's, and it had vastly more interior room than any conventional station wagon. Because the engine was so low and was set so far back, and because the driver sat well forward in a bus-like position, the new Transporter was a very space-efficient machine. The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus borrowed its flat-four air-cooled engine from the Beetle. Early versions had 25 horsepower. Passenger versions could carry up to nine occupants on three rows of bench seats; there also were enclosed cargo vans, flatbed haulers, double cab pick-ups, mattress-equipped campers, ambulances, and even a dump-truck variant. The first-generation Volkswagen Bus debuted in Europe with a 25-horsepower Beetle 1200 (1,131-cc) air-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. This Transporter weighed 2,300 pounds (53 percent over the rear wheels) and had a maximum payload capacity of 1,650 pounds. It was not a fast machine. It never would be, despite increases in engine displacement and horsepower. But it was maneuverable, roomy, reliable, and like all VWs, it was cheap to buy, fuel, and maintain. It was the "people's van." The Transporter was available in the U.S. shortly after its introduction, but few were imported before 1954. VW offered these early U.S. versions with an engine rated at 30 horsepower at 3400 rpm. Three models were available: the base Kombi, which was painted blue and retailed for about $2,200; the slightly better-outfitted Micro Bus, which was painted green and started at about $2,365; and the deluxe Micro Bus, which came in red-and-black two-tone and listed for about $2,500. The deluxe model's body was one inch longer overall than the other models. From the start, VW also offered the camper version with foldout bedding for four, a built-in table and cupboard, window curtains, and an opening roof-panel "transom." All Transporters had two front doors, a pair of swing-open side doors, and a small tailgate. Intrusive front wheel arches hampered ingress through the front doors, and the tall engine box floor made it difficult to load cargo through the small rear hatch. Passenger versions of the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus could carry up to nine on three rows of seats, as this floor plan shows. But by taking a couple of minutes to remove the middle and rear bench seats, the owner of a passenger model could have 170 cubic feet of cargo room at his or her disposal. The Type 2, however, was a purpose-built factory design and there was nothing like it on the automotive landscape. Other manufacturers offered various commercial vans, mostly tall bread-truck-like delivery vehicles, but no other maker thought to scale down the design to suit passenger duty. Driving the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus A simple layout and a steering-wheel angle that was, well, bus like, greeted early Volkswagen Bus drivers. Driving the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus was a new and unique experience, especially Americans unaccustomed to highly space-efficient and severely underpowered vehicles. Tom McCahill, dean of American automotive journalists, tested a Kombi for the January 1955 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. "Uncle Tom" was astonished at its spaciousness. "It is as versatile as a steamship con man and twice as useful," he wrote. McCahill rationalized the Kombi's sloth like acceleration by explaining that it was a vehicle born and bred in Europe, where drivers presumably were accustomed to taking most of a day to drive up a mountain road. "It will climb anything but not fast," he said. "When the grade gets real grim the Kombi speed is not much better than a fast walk but it will get there." Indeed, Road & Track clocked its 1956 Micro Bus at a sleep-inducing 75 seconds 0-60 mph. That in fact was the test vehicle's top speed, and it actually took less time, 27 seconds, to cover a standing-start quarter-mile. Curiously, VW placed a sticker on the dashboard that read, "The allowable top speed of this vehicle is 50 miles per hour," though R&T noted that with a tailwind, a Micro Bus was perfectly capable of cruising at 70 mph on a level highway. The 1956 model was rated at 36 horsepower at 3700 rpm and 56 pounds/feet of torque at 2000. The one tested by R&T weighed 2,300 pounds. "The Micro Bus is very easy to drive, has wonderful visibility and easy steering requiring only 3.5 turns lock to lock for a 39-foot turning circle," R&T said. A tall center of gravity kept cornering speeds to a minimum, so "handling" wasn't much of an issue. The bus like driving position was deemed comfortable. Ride quality was firm for occupants of the front seat, which was directly above the front axle, but better in the other seats. Early VW Buses, like this 1951 delivery model, were good on bad roads because traction was enhanced by low gearing and weight over the rear wheels. From the start, Transporter campers were recognized as the unique vehicles they were. No other manufacturer offered such a versatile package as part of its regular lineup. Germany's Westfalia Werke did the majority of the factory conversions, with such companies as Dormobile, Devon, and Danbury performing aftermarket work as well. Motor Trend recognized these special properties as early as October 1956, when it tested a "Volkswagen Kamper." It wrote: "More a way of life than just another car, the VW bus, when completely equipped with the ingenious German-made Kamper kit, can open up new vistas of freedom (or escape) from a humdrum life." So popular was the Volkswagen Bus -- demand was outstripping production two to one -- that in 1956, VW opened a new factory in Hanover to built it. 1960-1967 Volkswagen Bus This 1963 Deluxe Station Wagon model Volkswagen Bus started at $2,665. It had 50 horsepower. The 1960-1967 Volkswagen Bus gained new features and more power, and also some competition. In 1960, the bus got real split front seats to create a narrow aisle that allowed movement though the interior, and front-seat riders began to enter and exit through the side door rather than climbing over those high wheel arches. By 1961, the 1200 engine had 40 horsepower and VW had some competition. Ford introduced the Econoline, a compact van based on the Falcon platform, and Chevrolet used its air-cooled rear-engine Corvair as the basis for the Greenbrier Sports Wagon. Car Life magazine compared the VW to these newcomers in its September 1961 issue. It said the VW Station Wagon had far superior build quality than the others inside and out. The VW had better overall handling, too, though it and the Greenbrier, which used a similar swing-axle rear suspension, suffered directional instability in crosswinds. Skylight windows and rollback sunroof were among the most alluring features of early Volkswagen Bus passenger models. No rival had more-efficient fresh-air ventilation, but the editors noted that the VW's heating system was "virtually ineffectual. Hot air from the engine cooling fan must travel through long, uninsulated ducts before reaching the driver." The Transporter averaged 20 mpg, about three mpg more than the others and nearly double the average of full-size automobile station wagons of the day. The VW weighed 2,310 pounds, yet its 25.6-second time in the quarter-mile was only about a half-second slower than the Chevy's, which had 80 horsepower but weighed 3,560 pounds. The 85-horsepower, 3,230-pound Ford turned a 23.3-second quarter-mile. The editors did not list a 0-60 mph time for the VW because it would go no faster than 59 mph for them. VW built the one-millionth Type 2 Volkswagen Bus during 1962. Changes in specification were slow, but for 1963, VW installed the 1500-series engine, which at its most powerful, made 53 horsepower at 4200 rpm in the bus. For 1967, a dual-circuit braking system was introduced in which front and rear brakes were independently pressurized in case either hydraulic circuit failed. As production approached two million in 1967, VW had a redesigned station wagon ready. The new 1968 model was obviously a lineal descendent of the original, but also was clearly a more-modern design. Learn about the second-generation Volkswagen Bus beginning on the next page. This is a 1967 base passenger version of the Volkswagen Bus. Called the Kombi model, it cost $2,150 and had 53 horsepower. Source: Internet