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From Packhorse to Cult Car – the VW micro bus Legend

Der Bulli

The VW micro bus has achieved cult status as a small van, symbol of the German economic miracle and favorite of surfers and hippies. The electric version of the Volkswagen transporter, the ID. BUZZ, arrives in 2022.

Classic car icon, transporter star, cult vehicle: The Volkswagen Transporter is still the market leader in its segment. Over six generations, the VW micro bus has developed into a true legend. Launched in November 1949 under the name “Type 2” to supplement the Volkswagen Beetle, the minibus became a worldwide bestseller already in its first generation. By 1967, 1.8 million units of this model had been manufactured.


Zeitgeist in the 1950s and 1960s: See the world with a van and a tent (or even just an awning) - with low travel costs

The vision of a Volkswagen transporter had already emerged years before. Unrealized project sketches produced by the Porsche GmbH design office, which was founded in 1931, included a patented proposal for a transporter. Based on a Volkswagen chassis with rear-wheel drive, it anticipated many of the features of the subsequent first model of the series in terms of both design and dimensions. A sketch of a light commercial vehicle made by the Dutch businessman Ben Pon during a visit at the Wolfsburg factory in April 1947 resuscitated the idea for a transporter. After several prototype experiments on the basis of a Beetle chassis starting in March 1949, the first cars rolled off the assembly line at the Wolfsburg site in March 1950. 

First panel van, then station wagon

  1. Panel van

    The first variant of the VW micro bus offered for sale was the so-called box van. With its large luggage compartment, a high payload and smooth side walls for advertising posters, it achieved the practicality of a transporter for goods production while at the same time serving as a rolling advertisement column for companies and tradespeople. Scarcely a month after the box van came on the market, the so-called “Kombi” followed.

  2. Kombi

    In contrast to its predecessor, the Kombi had windows in the luggage compartment and two rows of seats for passengers. The seats could be easily removed so that the vehicle could serve as a utility van or a passenger car as needed, enabling the car to be used as both a work and a family vehicle. In May 1950, Volkswagen presented a third model, which was sold in Germany as a minibus. The eight-seater was almost identical to the Kombi, but had better interior furnishings and was designed for people who valued roominess and lots of space.

  3. Samba

    This was followed in June 1951 by a model that was also designed for passenger transport but was far more luxurious than the minibus. Originally offered as a special model in Germany and sold in other countries under the designation “Microbus Deluxe”, the car also became popular under the name “Samba.” The Samba’s most conspicuous feature, besides its large folding top, was the multitude of windows. The luxurious bus had a grand total of 23, whereas a Kombi or minibus had to make do with 11 windows. Also typical were the four panoramic windows placed on each side of the roof, in the style of the busses of the day.

Another new characteristic of the vehicle was the generous use of chrome parts. Even the large Volkswagen logo on the front, which was painted white on other models, was chrome-plated here, as were the hubcaps. The Samba’s interior was of high quality and very different from the spartan interior of a box van, for example. The seat upholstery (nine seats in three rows) was made of fabric, and ash trays, handles and hooks for coat hangers were also provided. While the Samba or Deluxe version stood out considerably from the rest of the range with regard to their equipment, the engine was the same. At this time, the plant calculated the maximum speed to be a moderate 80 km/h, corresponding to 3,300 rpm.

With the expansion of the Transporter series to include different variants, the number of innovations and improvements to technology and equipment which were incorporated into the individual model series also increased. These ranged from engine power to the introduction of front turn signals, a back bumper and a tailgate as standard, as well as an individual seat for the driver.

Newly won freedom and the desire to travel

As a delivery van, passenger transporter, special vehicle or camper van, the models of the VW micro bus series also stood for newly acquired freedom and wanderlust in the post-war era. Simply driving wherever you wanted to go. With the VW micro bus, a weekend trip to the beach or a family picnic in the countryside signified a new way of life. The VW micro bus thus mutated into a status symbol and an expression of individuality. This was also reflected in the loving furnishing of the cars, with personal accessories such as self-crocheted tablecloths. Some people even traveled around the world in their VW micro bus. The VW micro bus, together with its little brother, the Beetle, therefore became a symbol of the German economic miracle. In North America, the VW micro bus had an extra special significance. In the 1960s, the camper van with its appealing face became the preferred vehicle for hippies and the protest culture of 1968.

Simply driving wherever you wanted to go.


Seventy years after the birth of the first Volkswagen Transporter, the VW micro bus has matured into a true classic car icon. Used vehicles still reach top prices on the market today.

The combination of unmistakable design, reliability and durability will also shape the future of the VW micro bus. And this will be electric and autonomous. The Volkswagen Group has announced the introduction of the new, fully electric ID. BUZZ for 2022. 

Source: all photos Volkswagen AG

  • The VW micro bus as a symbol of a nomadic lifestyle

    Victor Papanek was one of the most important pioneers regarding the approach to design with a social and environmental orientation.

    During the peak period of the Volkswagen transporter, designer and activist designed furniture for a nomadic lifestyle in the 1970s, for which the VW micro bus became a symbol. Papanek took a committed design concept and was considered a thinker for the alternative cultures of the hippies, who made the VW micro bus to their dream vehicle. The story of the car, which served as a projection screen for higher goals and world-enhancing fantasies, is closely linked to that of the hippies and freethinkers yesterday and today.

    Papanek’s key work Design for the Real World (1971) is still the most widely read design book ever published. In it, Papanek advocated for inclusion, social justice and sustainability. Volkswagen has sponsored a retrospective with the title “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design,” which is currently showing at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein until March 10, 2019.

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