- Production of the iconic Volkswagen microbus will end this December.
- Built first in Germany, then in other countries, the microbus saw 63 years of continuous production and sales of more than 10 million units.
- A plant in Brazil will produce 600 Last Edition models, which will sell for $35,637, nearly twice the standard price.
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Manufacture of the iconic Volkswagen microbus will cease in December, after 63 years of production and sales of more than 10 million units.
Officially called the Type 2, but better known as the bus, microbus, or minibus, VW's breadbox-on-wheels became a symbol of the counterculture generation of the 1960s, providing transportation and shelter as free spirits wandered the roads.
At least, that was the image. For most owners, the vehicle primarily served as a means of carrying a lot of stuff from one place to another.
Countless students used microbuses to get them and their belongings to college while listening to music on under-dash cassette players. Bands found the cavernous interior perfect for transporting drums and amplifiers.
And — although it runs counter to popular lore — some middle-class families even found them ideal for loading up the kids for a trip to Yellowstone. And not a few tradespeople actually used the things to haul tools and supplies to their jobs.
Based on Volkswagen's Beetle (the Type 1), the microbus was given life by the company's managing director, Heinz Nordhoff, who was seeking ways to expand the model line in the years after World War II. In addition to two- and four-seat convertibles, a commercial vehicle seemed like a good bet, especially since individuals around the world had already been chopping up Beetles to create flat-bed haulers and makeshift pickup trucks.
Production began on March 8, 1950, with an initial run of ten units. At a time when commercial vehicles were mostly heavyweight trucks or tall step-vans, and groups of people were transported in station wagons, the VW bus offered a unique alternative for both purposes. It was, in essence, the world's first minivan, decades before Chrysler coined the term in 1984.
With its economical air-cooled rear engine, forward controls and generous interior space, the microbus proved ideal for transport duty by European businesspeople sorely in need of small commercial vehicles at the time. And its two rows of removable seats meant it could do double-duty as a people-hauler.
Although export to the United States began in the early 1950s, the buses didn't catch on immediately. In fact, Volkswagen sales in general were still fairly low back then, primarily due to a small dealer network and a dearth of advertising funds.
But dealerships increased, sales grew and by 1956 the VW microbus had been reviewed by magazines like Road & Track and Motor Trend. Those articles and period brochures indicate that, unlike in Europe where the small van was mainly aimed at businesses, in the U.S. the primary market was families, especially those who liked camping.
So how did the little kid-friendly bus morph into a counterculture icon? Ironically, the qualities that made the vehicle ideal for family camping translated perfectly to the Summer-of-Love generation seeking the freedom of the open road.
In addition, Volkswagen's reputation as something other than a "mainstream" vehicle, which applied to both the Beetle and the van, provided yet another way for nonconformists to show their disdain for societal conventions.
While the reality may have been that sales were strongest among middle-class families and thrifty businesses, the image of the psychedelic-painted microbus carrying a load of hippies and their gear on a cross-country journey of enlightenment is one that will forever symbolize an entire era in American history.
Production of the Type 2 halted in Germany in 1967, but the vehicle continued to be built in Mexico and Brazil. Models from Mexico were imported into the U.S. until 1979, when tightening emissions and safety regulations ended their viability in this market.
Mexico ceased production of the vans in 1995, although it continued making the now-water-cooled engines for several more years. Thus Brazil was left as the last bastion of microbus production, with distribution taking place mostly throughout South America.
But regulations have become more restrictive in those markets, as well. Brazil's new laws mandating airbags and antilock brakes are scheduled to go into effect in 2014, and the manufacturer says making the necessary updates would be too costly. Production will end on December 31, 2013.
In Brazil, where the van they call the Kombi has maintained its status as both cultural icon and easy-to-maintain commercial vehicle for 57 years, 600 "Last Edition" models will be built before the end of the year. Designed to appeal to collectors, they'll feature 1960s-style two-tone paint and nostalgic striped upholstery and will sell for $35,637, nearly twice the standard price.
Edmunds says: Bummer.