Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Brief History of the Volkswagen and How The Vanagon Came To Be

The Beetle (Type 1)

The Volkswagen Beetle began as a promise. Germany in the late 1920's and early 1930's was suffering from the aftermath of years of war and a dismal economy.  Ferdinand Porsche, bursting with ideas, saw the economic and social value a simple automobile that most everyone could afford to buy and operate.  The son of a tinsmith, he became interested in electricity and the new internal combustion engine while enrolled at a technical college.   Fresh out of college, he took a job sweeping floors at the United Electric Company and soon was in a position where he could develop an electric car.  It wasn't long before his skills and ideas were in demand.  Many advances were made in engines, transmissions, and suspension while working for several companies.  But production of his dream car was thwarted by the trend toward building racing and luxury cars which could be owned by only a select few.  The promise of the Volksauto remained unfulfilled.

The spacey 1939 Type 64 built for racing
Rear view betrays it's Beetle lineage

Hungarian Joseph Ganz also had a hand in developing the People's Car
This all changed when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany and head of the National Socialist Party.  Hitler loved cars, notably large and luxurious Mercedes-Benz touring cars, but he also realized the political hay he could make for his party with an efficient, affordable car.   Hitler and Porsche met at the 1934 Berlin Motor show where they found they shared a common dream of a "people's car" and it wasn't long before prototypes were being designed, built and tested.  By 1938, the test cars were being driven all over Germany to raise public interest in a plan where workers could buy a savings stamp each week and at the end of about 4 years could trade in the stamps for a new KdF-Wagen (the Strength Through Joy Car), as they were then known.  However, the promise was broken and no worker ever received a single car.

V30 prototypes ready for testing
With Germany's declaration of war in 1939, all plans for production were shelved as the newly completed factory was pressed into service building military vehicles.  Many improvements were made over the next several years as if often the case when the base demands of war are driving innovation, but it all came to a crashing halt in Spring of 1944 when the factory was chosen as a target for Allied bombers.  The factory sustained major damages with many direct hits and a bomber crashing right into it.  An attempt was made to resume production, but it stopped altogether after a few months.

Type 166 Schwimmwagen scoots out of a canal
At the close of the war, Germany was partitioned between four Allied countries, and the British took over the factory.  They renamed the town Wolfsburg after a local Count.  A British officer was sent to assess the situation there and, having driven one of the prototypes while working for Mercedes-Benz before the war, immediately recognized the potential of the efficient little car in helping to rebuild Germany.  Production of the Volkswagen was offered to British car makers, and even Henry Ford had a chance to take it on, but it was widely dismissed as being unattractive, lacking any real market outside of Germany.  Initially production was slow due to shortages of materials and power to operate the machines.  Cars were assembled with leftover military parts and began to trickle out to the public, finally delivering on the promise.

By 1948 production was in full swing and the factory was once again under German management.  A Beetle was sent to the United States in early 1949 with no takers, but 330 were sold by 1950 and the sales continued to grow exponentially from there.  A mere 12 years later, there were more than one million Beetles on the road in the US alone.  BY 1972 over 15 million Beetles had been produced and by the end of production in 1992, more than 21 million had rolled off the assembly line in Germany and 13 other countries.  Of course, during those years the Beetle was not alone;  there was also the Karmann-Ghia, the Variant (Squareback, Fastback, Notchback), the 411, and later all the water cooled series. And...

The Transporter (Type 2)

Meanwhile, an enterprising Dutch importer named Ben Pon entered the picture.  Sometime around 1947 he was hanging around the Wolfsburg factory, spotted a curious looking vehicle used to move parts about and a licht went on in his head - a van, built on the rugged Beetle chassis!

The plattenwagen was used for various chores
around the Wolfsburg factory
The need for commercial vehicles was great as much of Europe was in the midst of rebuilding it's war torn economy and infrastructure.  Pon quickly made a crude sketch and brought it before Volkswagen management.  The genius of the design was immediately recognized - near perfect weight balance and huge cargo capacity - and within one year testing of the prototype T29 began.
Ben Pon's sketch was cleaned up a little
and became the Transporter
The initial tests showed the Beetle chassis was not up to the task of supporting the van, so a new ladder-type frame was built and with the addition of a more rounded unitized body (all welded - no bolt on panels), proved to be so flexible and durable that it is still used today.   

The Transporter (also known as the Bulli and later the T1) was well received when presented to the media in 1949.  As crude as it may seem by today's standards, it was a technological marvel of the day - far beyond other vehicles of it's type - and considered very stylish.  Soon after production began in spring of 1950, it was being converted for use in a wide range of commercial applications.  
Click here to view an amazing slide show of commercial applications

By 1951, Westfalia was producing the "Camping Box" complete with bed, sink, stove.  In 1952 the Samba was introduced - comfy seating for for 9, 21 windows and a large canvas sunroof; perfect for touring the Alps.  In 1952 the 100,000th Transporter rolled off the line and by 1956 the demand was so great that production was separated from the Beetle and moved to its own factory in Hannover.

A happy family enjoys the view from their
Kleinbus (mini-bus)
By 1962 over one million Transporters were on (and off) the road in every nation around the world due to the capacious and highly adaptable interior, coupled with mechanical simplicity and durability.  On any given day one might see a Transporter hard at work in fields as diverse as delivery, fire fighting, mail handling, airport shuttle, and on safari in the African Savannah.  The large sides served as ready billboards for all manner of advertising.  

In 1968, with 1,800,000 Transporters produced, a new style known as the Bay Window (T2) was introduced.  The basic design remained as it had been but with many refinements.  It had a  large curved windshield (the original had two flat panes separated in the middle - now referred to as a Split Window).  The front door windows now rolled up and down instead of sliding back and forth.  Increased horsepower and a re-designed drive train and suspension allowed higher cruising speed and more car like handling.
Bay Window (T2) cutaway view
Over the next ten years the Bay Window added  improvements such as disc brakes and increasingly higher powered engines with fuel injection.  For creature comfort, automatic transmission and air conditioning were available.  Westfalia and many other companies offered camper conversions.  Production for U.S. and Europe ended in 1979 but continued through 1986 in Argentina, until 1996 in Mexico, and is still produced in Brazil in both air and water cooled versions.

The Vanagon 

In late 1979 the third generation Transporter came on the scene.  Dubbed the T3 (Vanagon in the US), it retained the rear engine configuration but now the body style was more squared and angular.  The interior appointments were very up to date and car-like. The suspension changed from the original torsion bars to coil springs.  Later models could be ordered with aluminum alloy wheels, power steering, power windows and door locks and cruise control.  Of course, Westfalia and other companies provided camper conversions as they had done before.  If a full camper was not needed, The Weekender package could be ordered with a pop-top, rear storage cabinet, 12 volt cooler, extra battery and a fold away table.  Many Vanagons came with the "Z bed" where the rear seats all fold flat for snoozing.

The 1980 Vanagon
Initially the engine was air cooled as it's predecessors.  In 1982 a water cooled diesel engine was offered with limited success due to it's minuscule horsepower rating.   Then in 1983, the gas engine was converted to water cooling and over the next several years increased in size and power.

1985 brought the introduction of the Syncro.  A four wheel drive system consisting of  a viscous coupling borrowed from Audi along with a locking differential and increased ground clearance resulted in a very capable off road van.  Check out this New York Times story written by a Syncro Westy owner.

The Vanagon was also available as a single or double cab pickup (as were all it's predecessors).  These are plentiful around the world, but few are found in the U.S. due to the so-called Chicken War, in which a 25% tariff was placed on light trucks and other items, enacted in 1964 and still in effect today.

Vanagon production for the U.S. ended in 1991 and Europe in 1992 when it was replaced with the T4 (Eurovan).

Production continued in South Africa until 2002.  It was available there with larger windows and an optional Audi 5-cylinder engine.  South African parts such as larger wheels, bigger brakes, better lighting are highly desirable for upgrading U.S. Vanagons.  

Watch a short video on the history of the transporter here.

See more details about Vanagon history at The Vanagon Blog.

For a detailed history of the Transporter, I recommend the book Volkswagen Transporter by Richard Copping.

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