By: Dave Abrahams
Wolfsburg, Germany – Most of us would like to retire at 65, but Volkswagen’s versatile van just keeps on going.
When Dutch car importer Ben Pon visited Wolfsburg in 1947, he saw a scrap Beetle chassis that had been made into a flat-bed for moving components around the plant. That sparked the idea of a cheap and cheerful delivery van with forward controls and a box body on a Beetle platform.
He quickly drew a sketch in his notebook and showed it to plant manager Heinrich Nordhoff, who was canny enough to recognise a stroke of genius when he saw one. Two years later Nordhoff presented four prototypes – two panel vans, an eight-seater bus and a multipurpose vehicle – to VW’s bosses and the Transporter was born.
It was designed from the outset as a workhorse; Nordhoff famously said: “These vehicles won’t be handled with kid gloves, rather they will be treated roughly.”
In one of the first instances of platform engineering, he lifted the drivetrain and suspension of the Beetle as two complete sub-assemblies but, instead of using a fabricated spine chassis, he put a simple box body on top of a ladder frame, making the new model both robust and versatile.
Its 1.1-litre aircooled flat four churned out 18kW at 3300rpm, and the two passenger benches in the bus version could be quickly removed to make way for about 750kg of cargo, hence the nickname Kombi, which has stuck ever since – except in Germany, where it’s affectionately nicknamed ‘Bulli’.
A NEW WAY TO TRAVEL
Production of the Transporter began on 8 March 1950 at the rate of 10 a day.
By the end of the year 8001 had been built and demand was growing; it was cheap, it was tough and it was adaptable – exactly what a Germany just beginning to recover from the ravages of war needed.
A one-off Transporter fitted out as a camper was shown at the 1951 Berlin motor show – and suddenly Volkswagen realised it had not only invented a new way to travel, it also had a major hit on its hands.
Export sales took off; the 100 000th Transporter came off the assembly line in Hall 1 during 1954, by which time the VW’s ‘microbus’ had crossed the Alps and carried its first load of hippies to India.
Production – in no less than 30 different variants – had been pushed to 80 a day, but there was no way Wolfsburg could handle any more and anyway, the space was needed to make more Beetles.
So, a new plant was built at Stocken in Hannover; it began production in March 1956, just in time to ride the global post-war recovery boom.
Today, more than 11 million T-series vehicles spanning five generations have been built worldwide, and the sixth-generation T6 will go into production at Stocken later this year.
The California camper – the successor to that 1951 show special – is built at a special plant not far away in Limmer, while the Transporter bus is produced at Poznan in Poland, and another plant is being built in nearby Wrzesnia for the new Crafter.
Ben Pon has much to answer for.