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VW's Camper van, symbol of hippy movement, will ride no more

German carmaker is ceasing production of its popular Combi – but not before celebrating its long and colourful journey

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 10:39pm

Ten years after Volkswagen’s legendary Beetle drove off into the sunset, the German carmaker’s other main icon, the camper van, takes its leave from the world’s automobile stage this month.

Volkswagen’s last Type 2 – the van’s official name – is scheduled to roll off the production line in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on December 20, closing a 63-year-long chapter of automotive history.

In the vast firmament of the automobile industry, the camper van’s star shines almost as brightly as that of the Beetle.

The worldwide popularity of both vehicles helped VW become a global carmaker.

It was the Beetle – the Type 1 – that gave birth to the company that is currently the world’s third-biggest car manufacturer. And it enjoyed various guises over its 60-something life before it was finally pulled from production in 2003.

The Beetle began as a little twinkle in the eye of Adolf Hitler, who took it into his head in 1934 to make a reasonably priced car – at around 1,000 Reichsmark – available to all Germans.

And from the functional “People’s Car” of the Nazis, it went on to become a symbol of the German post-war economic miracle, emblem of the hippy “flower power” generation and even star of Walt Disney’s Herbie comedy adventure movies.

The history of the Type 2 – which shares the Beetle’s rear engine and its axles – is equally long and just as prosaic.

It started life as a doodle by Dutch car salesman Ben Pon, VW’s first car dealer outside Germany, on a visit to the carmaker’s plant in Wolfsburg in 1947.

VW finally agreed to put it into series production in March 1950.

German auto industry expert Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer says the success of the camper van – known as the “Combi” in France, “Kombi” in Brazil and “Bulli” in Germany – is closely linked with the country’s economic miracle of the 1950s.

Watch: Goodbye, Hippy Bus

Icon of the hippy generation

“Workmen needed a low-cost utility vehicle,” he said. And it cemented VW’s reputation as a maker of “people’s cars”, Dudenhoeffer said.

Originally conceived to transport goods, the Combi was refitted as a minibus to transport people in 1951.

And then it went on to conquer the world as a cultural icon of the hippie generation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, adorning the album covers of the likes of Bob Dylan.

The camper van’s robustness, its low price and the ease of its repair has won it a loyal fan base despite its lack of comfort and relatively slow speed.

But just as the free spirits of the hippie era have settled down and grown paunches, so too has the camper van’s star been waning for many years.

VW ceased building the 1967 version of the Type 2 in Germany in 1979, then in South Africa and Mexico, until Brazil was the last remaining assembly site, exporting to the rest of Latin America.

But there, too, ever-stricter pollution and safety regulations that will come into effect next year have sealed its fate.

Following the announcement earlier this year to finally halt production, VW launched a special edition, costing 85,000 reais (HK$280,000).

Interest was such that the carmaker agreed to double the number of the limited series to 1,200, all destined exclusively for the Brazilian market.

But despite its demise, the camper van’s legend will live on, and it is etched into the collective memory by its appearances in the Scooby-Doo TV series and more recently in the film Little Miss Sunshine.

Venues abound where fans can swap information and repair tips or buy and sell memorabilia, from key rings to tents.

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