Volkswagen’s bus is one of the most recognizable vehicles ever made. The VW bus wasn’t only a hit in post-war Germany, as its popularity stretched across the Atlantic to the U.S., where it became a counterculture icon of the 1960s. Though it had its U.S. heyday in the 1960s, the van’s history stretches before and after this time period, with tons of enthusiasts and collectors all around the world.
Known in the U.S. as the VW Bus and in the U.K. as the VW Camper, the official name for the vehicle is the Transporter. This name for the VW bus is especially fitting, as the vehicle quickly became popular for its ability to carry large groups of people. With the automobile’s huge influence on the countercultural movements of the 1960s and its striking design, it’s easy to see how the iconic VW bus evolved through the years.
The Volkswagen Bus Evolution Through the Generations
The VW Transporter’s history began in 1947 when Ben Pon drafted up the first VW bus’s design. Pon had already been instrumental in importing Volkswagen vehicles from Germany to the United States and the Netherlands, and he was on the lookout for ways he could make new models more appealing to consumers. While he was touring a Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, he spotted a VW Plattenwagen.
In the context of Europe recovering after WWII, Pon thought the Plattenwagen, originally a front-loaded vehicle made to carry car parts, could be redesigned into a useful vehicle for buyers. Taking inspiration from the VW Plattenwagen, he sketched out the initial design for a VW bus. Though Volkswagen couldn’t act on his design immediately, they would start production on it a couple of years later.
Volkswagen finally created the first VW bus prototype in 1949, dubbing it the Type 29. This van featured a standard Beetle chassis, but Volkswagen quickly discovered this chassis wasn’t strong enough for drivers who wanted to use the VW Bus as a workhorse. To strengthen the vehicle, the company added a ladder frame beneath the van. After engineers made some redesigns on the VW bus to reduce its drag, it was finally released in 1949.
Following the release of the new Volkswagen bus models, the vehicle’s popularity led to its continuing success into today.
First Generation: 1949–1967
Volkswagen kicked off the first generation of VW buses, otherwise known as T1 models, by offering eight different Type-2 models for buyers to choose from. These eight models arrived in multiple configurations designed to meet the various needs of potential customers. For example, a Kombi VW Bus featured removable seats that made it perfect for hauling around plenty of cargo or even people in its rear. Volkswagen also offered a dedicated cargo van, a VW bus with fixed seats and a Plattenwagen-inspired pickup truck.
Throughout the first generation, many VW bus models came with an assortment of window options. On the lower end, buyers could purchase VW buses with 11 or 15 windows placed around the van. Buyers who wanted more windows could purchase 21- and 23-window VW buses, which allowed more natural light into the van. These days, collectors value 23-window VW buses the most, with 21-window VW models available at about half the price.
The first generation’s split front windshield inspired its nickname, “the Splitty.” The initial VW buses only had 25 horsepower, with their top speed not even cracking 60 miles per hour. Despite the lack of horsepower, this vehicle had tons of room, with space for nine passengers. The VW bus also featured an air-cooled engine and rear-wheel drive.
Marketing the T1 VW bus was much like the Beetle’s promotional efforts, as Volkswagen highlighted the vehicle’s usefulness and practical stylings. With the VW bus, buyers could have a vehicle perfect for work, home and play. These T1s would see major success, with over 100,000 of them purchased in Europe by 1954. Once they were imported to America, the VW bus was even more successful, with many American buyers seeing it as a more affordable alternative to the standard family station wagon.
When the car was first exported to the U.S. in the 1950s, the lack of horsepower was more noticeable. The bus was originally designed for more narrow and curvy European roads, and the wide-open highways of the U.S. showed how little power this van had. As the first generation continued rolling along, the VW bus began receiving more power, though the first generation never really showed itself to be a powerhouse of a vehicle.
In 1953, the engine added a whopping 6 horsepower, with an upgraded 72.7 cubic-inch engine. This engine replaced the previous 69 cubic-inch engine and offered 30 horsepower. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the T1’s horsepower continued creeping upward. By 1963, some models were sold with a 53-horsepower engine.
The First Generation’s Impact on Consumer Culture
The horsepower didn’t impact the vehicle’s appeal. The VW bus’s customizability was its big draw. Early owners began making adjustments to the vehicle on their own, customizing it to their needs. Many outdoor-loving VW bus owners began adding sinks, beds and other camping gear to the vehicle. Volkswagen took inspiration from these car buyers by releasing VW Westfalia Campers, which were later exported to the U.S. in 1956.
Besides appealing to the outdoorsy crowd, the VW bus also attracted many buyers in America who wanted an alternative to the impractical, roaring horsepower vehicles coming from Detroit’s major automotive manufacturers. The van’s boxy appearance and customizability appealed to those in the countercultural movements of the 1960s. For example, its roomy interior made it easy to fit many people in a van on the way to a protest or music festival.
If you wanted to reject the mainstream American culture, the VW bus was the way to show it. After VW bus owners started painting it with peace signs and psychedelic colors, the vehicle quickly became known as a hippie bus. Additionally, it appealed to a broader American audience as it was easy to fix and afford. With the VW bus, buyers could practically live in their vans with others, rejecting American individualism and consumerism.
By the end of the first generation in 1967, the humble VW bus had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, becoming a cultural icon in the U.S. The vehicle’s popularity guaranteed a second generation, where Volkswagen would try to build on the VW bus’s previous success and satisfy their consumer base.
Second Generation: 1967–1979
The next generation of VW buses, the VW Transporter T2s, came with some changes. Volkswagen removed the split windshield, installing a single wraparound window in its place. The company also reduced the number of windows on the T2 VW bus, with some remaining windows including side, vent, rear and sliding varieties. Additionally, this new VW bus was heavier and larger. Due to these changes, the new van received the nicknames “the Baywindow” and “the Breadloaf.”
Over this vehicle’s life, Volkswagen offered four different body styles for the van, with a four-door panel van, a four-door minibus, a two-door pickup with a regular cab and a three-door pickup with a crew cab. The initial T2 came with a 1.6-liter engine and an upgraded electrical system, making the bus incompatible with the previous generation’s electric accessories.
Volkswagen also removed the transfer boxes and swing axle rear suspension from the first generation, which had previously raised the VW bus’s ride height. For the second-generation VW bus, Volkswagen added half-shaft axles featuring constant velocity joints to increase its ride height. After the initial T2’s release, Volkswagen began phasing in the T2b model over a few years, gradually changing the initial T2 offering. Some of these modifications included new engines, exterior design improvements and mechanical tuneups.
Third Generation: 1979–1992
The VW bus’s third generation of models, the VW Transporter T3s, initially came with an air-cooled engine like the first two generations. Later models would replace these air-cooled engines with water-cooled ones. The 1.6- and 2.0-liter air-cooled engines offered from 1979 to 1983 came with 50 and 70 horsepower, respectively. After 1983, water-cooled engines came standard, with the most powerful 1.9-liter engine reaching 89 horsepower. Additionally, the most powerful 2.1-liter engine reached 112 horsepower.
Some main design differences offered in the early T3 models included chrome-plated steel bumpers and round headlights. After 1985, the VW bus came with upgraded air conditioning, additional fabric options, redesigned transmissions, an improved engine management system and a rev counter. The vehicle was heavier and larger than the T2, with Volkswagen replacing the older rounded edges with new square corners. For the rest of the T3’s generation, it was sometimes referred to as “the Wedge” due to the new design.
Fourth Generation: 1990–2003
Starting in 1990, Volkswagen released the T4 version of the VW bus. This bus came with a water-cooled engine instead of the traditional air-cooled engines of past VW bus years and models. In Europe, Volkswagen marketed the bus as a Transporter, while in North America, they marketed it as the Volkswagen Eurovan.
One of the major changes to the VW bus in the fourth generation was the switch from a rear-mounted engine to a front-mounted one. Up until this point, all VW buses came with engines in the rear. To meet new safety standards and put some distance between the driver and other cars during a crash, Volkswagen installed a front engine on the VW bus. Subsequently, this gave the bus’s front a longer hood.
Fifth Generation: 2003–2015
Running from 2003 to 2015, the fifth generation of VW buses came with a more aerodynamic design. The top horsepower option for this vehicle was a 232 horsepower engine. This generation of VW buses was larger than previous models, with Volkswagen still selling them in various designs, such as campers, trucks, cargo vans and passenger vans. Unfortunately, due to high import taxes, Volkswagen didn’t sell the van in the U.S. market.
Overall, the T3, T4 and T5 models didn’t have as big of an impact on consumers, with many preferring the classic T1 and T2 VW buses. Even though these vans didn’t become a mainstay, they still provided plenty of space and variety for customers to pick a vehicle perfect for their needs.
Sixth Generation: 2015–Present
Some VW bus enthusiasts differ on whether the T6 VW bus should be considered a new model or a facelift for the T5. However, Volkswagen claims there are enough changes for the current model to represent a new generation. This new design arrived with a six cylinder-diesel engine offering 204 horsepower.
It also came with some external changes, such as modifications to the tailgate and nose. Internally, a couple versions of the bus feature a new dash. Additionally, the newest VW bus has reduced noise levels and improved handling and riding.
The VW bus’s future looks bright with Volkswagen’s recent announcement of a 2022 or 2023 VW Microbus. This bus will go into production in 2022 and feature an all-electric powertrain. While there is little information set in stone about the van currently, all signs point to the electric VW bus having a 300-mile range, a nostalgic exterior appearance and customizable seating configuration. One great piece of news for U.S. buyers is that Volkswagen has planned to offer these VW buses in the states.
5 VW Bus Trivia Facts
With the VW bus’s long history, it’s generated a huge cultural impact. Many celebrities have owned it, and the van has made numerous appearances in pop culture. There are tons of facts and interesting details about the vehicle that only the most dedicated VW bus fans will know about. The next time you’re at a trivia night, keep these five answers in mind:
- How long did the T2 stay in production? While the official final year of the T2 ended in 1979, it was produced long after that. Most notably, Brazil factories continued producing the T2 until 2013, when new safety regulations caused them to stop.
- Who were the most notable celebrity owners? Many celebrities have owned a VW bus. Musicians include Robbie Williams, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Other owners include Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef, and a couple famous motorists — Richard Hammond and Jenson Button.
- What TV show was it featured on? Alongside its celebrity owners, the van also gained fame on TV. “Lost,” one of the most popular TV shows of the 2000s, featured multiple VW buses on the island. A mysterious group used them to transport supplies and people.
- How much are first-generation VW buses worth? First-generation VW buses can cost a significant amount of money. A 1965 VW bus model set records when it went for $302,500, the highest price ever paid for a VW van. Even some VW buses that are only in fair condition can cost buyers $39,000. If you’re looking for an early-generation VW van, expect to spend a bit of money.
- How popular was the VW bus in the 1960s? In 1962, the VW bus and its sibling, the VW Beetle, captured 60% of imported car registrations in the U.S. With numbers like this to back it up, it’s safe to say the VW bus was incredibly popular.
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