It may be the worst great car in history: Slow, boxy, prone to rust and rollovers, Volkswagen’s cartoonish workhorse nonetheless enjoyed 63 years as the world’s most beloved mode of transport (if in popular imagination only), a pillar of self-reliance and an international symbol of freedom. Last December, Volkswagen finally halted production of its Microbus – which was discontinued in the States in ’79 but lived on in Brazil as the Kombi – closing out an epic run that launched countless trips, road and otherwise.
The buttoned-down executives at Volkswagen hardly intended to build a cult machine when launching the bus as a commercial and passenger van in 1949, but it grew over time to be viewed not just as the thrifty mover of goods and persons but a worldwide symbol of kicky individualism and wanderlust. After all, who wouldn’t want to climb into a noisy, ill-handling van with lousy heat and drive across the continent? “Box yourself in,” read a 1963 ad for the bus, but the bus’s message was unmistakably the opposite: “Don’t fence me in.”
The rear-engine Microbus looked and sounded like nothing else; it was built reasonably well and it was efficient – 20-something miles to the gallon. Fairly reliable, easy to work on, and best of all, for realists and dreamers alike, it could seat eight or more in its Spartan confines. Meaning it was also big enough to sleep in, dine in, camp in, work in, party in, even live in, as many a back-to-nature type would.
We do not speak unkindly of the dead when we point out that even at its most mature, the Microbus could be a bummer. It was underpowered (hitting 65 would be a minor miracle), didn’t corner well, and was unusually susceptible to crosswinds: Legend has it, Microbuses were once banned from crossing the George Washington Bridge on windy days because of their proclivity for being blown into other lanes and even blown over by strong gusts. But head-on collisions were a VW bus driver’s number one worry. Thanks to its forward control design, driver and shotgun passenger were seated over the front wheels, meaning that only a humble piece of sheet metal, a plastic steering wheel, and your leather hippie sandals were there to cushion the blow.
For years, VW heads have sworn by a bible called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. With it, they are fond of saying, it takes only a half hour and four bolts to drop a VW engine. This is a good thing, too, as Microbus engines need dropping pretty frequently. Thus, rebuilding VW engines at home became another era’s version of today’s hydroponic basement garden, something the laid-back and self-sufficient were expected to know how to do.
Representing some of the finest German automotive thinking, circa 1947, the Microbus wasn’t safe or secure, but until the end it remained a worthwhile proposition – even today there are people on all seven continents dreaming about quitting everything and driving around the world in one, ideally with the Westfalia camper conversion. Well-heeled enthusiasts, meanwhile, have begun paying $100,000 or more at auction for cherry examples of the airy 1960s Samba Deluxe buses sporting split windscreens, two-tone paint jobs, as many as 23 windows, and large sunroofs to assist in better grooving on Mother Nature’s rich majesty.