Goodnight, Sweet Prince: Bidding Farewell to the VW Bus

Pop quiz: In which year did the venerable Volkswagen Microbus cease production? You may be surprised at the answer. The Transporter, Kombi, Microbus – formally known as the Type 2 (following the Type 1 Beetle) – has known many monikers, spawned countless adventures, and, up until December of 2013, had enjoyed a 63-year production run. For those who may still be a bit hazy from the bus’s glory days, you did indeed read that right. Now pop on some Grateful Dead and crank up the nostalgia, because it’s time take one last ride in the world’s most lovable Bus.

vw bus painted like a mural

A real peace of work

Simple in design and economical in price, the first iteration of the bus was sketched in 1947 by a Dutch VW importer named Ben Pon, whose foresight for post-war utility helped to drive the spirit of a restless generation. In November of 1949, the original Type 2 rolled off the assembly line, offered in two models – the Kombi and the Commercial. Shortly after, in 1950, the Microbus version was introduced. Refined to cut down on drag and equipped with a 1.2 liter air-cooled flat-four engine capable of generating a whole 28 horsepower, the bus offered drivers space to roam. Skylight windows, a rollback sunroof, and plenty of places in which to stash stuff would also become alluring features.

pink vw bus with a flower

While the Hippie crowd may have helped cement its cultural significance, when the ‘60s ended and tie-dye was replaced by suits, the Microbus continued its path to historical significance by becoming the oldest continuous production vehicle in the world. The Microbus ceased US production in 1979 but VW continued to manufacture models in Brazil, where they not surprisingly went on to become a South American staple, selling more than 1.5 million units and racking up countless miles.

vw camper bus

Just a vehicle … or a part of the family?

Instantly recognizable and usually furnished with a good story (or ten), the Microbus elicits instant nostalgia for freedom, exploration, and plain old good times. Today’s German-engineered vehicles look and feel very different from VW’s clunky, cavernous party mobile, though it’s a safe bet that none of these technologically superior vehicles will ever produce the type of emotional reaction the Microbus conjures up daily. VW has always had an otherworldly ability to ingrain its automobiles into our lives, either through their own doing or otherwise, and the Microbus is the best example of this phenomenon. Connected to counterculture and the setting for teenage antics and dream-filled romps across the country, the VW Microbus resembles less a means of transportation and more a family member – one that may smell a bit weird and tends to ramble on at times, but one that is beloved by all.

vw bus made of wood

Oh, the places you’ll go…

These days the Microbus remains popular among drivers of all ages, many of whom personalize the interior to a liking of their own creation – which is ironic, since many may have also been created inside of one of them. Some, like Jason McKelvey and his Popsicle-orange 1975 Westfalia Helsinki (Bus #9 and home for him), together explore fresh terrain and new ideas fueled by freedom. He acquired his first bus – a 1972 Type 2 that didn’t run – by trading for a pair of mountain bike shocks. His roaming home for the past four and a half years offers him a new front yard whenever he feels like a change; the only constants are his sense of liberty and his self-proclaimed “mobile mansion.”

Others, like Jane Taylor Cananza, her husband Lu, and their bus “Arlo,” help to carry on both their and VW’s lineage one trip at a time. She used an inheritance left by her late father to purchase a 2007 VW Triple White New Beetle for herself and a 1966 white-on-red Bus for her husband. Whether trekking coast-to-coast or simply running to the supermarket in their home state of Arizona, Arlo never fails to make both driver and bystander smile. “My Daddy would be so proud to see how much fun we have had (and are having) in our two special VWs,” says Cananza.

vw bus painted like an abulance

Even when things turn bad, the VW Bus keeps on truckin’. Lauren Rose of East Northport, New York knows that the bus’ healing powers aren’t merely metaphorical; after Hurricane Sandy, her family used their son’s 1977 Camper to stay safe and connected to a world that doesn’t always hand out peace and love. They took shelter inside their camper, which effectively provided the essentials: cooked meals, entertainment, and, of course, phone charging.

You can read these stories and many more on VW’s “Bus Stories” website. If you’re still hungry for air-cooled adventure, you’re invited to travel 25,000 Miles to Glory. Sit shotgun with three men, their 1967 Bus, and plenty of human spirit on a tour that takes them to some of the most passionate NFL communities in the country. It’s as much about getting to know people as it is about football, which is easy to do when you’re riding inside everyone’s adopted All-American automobile. And the movie is coming soon!

Whether you’re searching for nostalgia or are just looking to hitch a ride, most agree that VW love is real. A lucky few even manage to find their significant other through the bond of a bus, though most are content to have a lifelong love affair with the bus itself – a vehicle that keeps us grounded when we want to be and liberated when we need it the most.

short yellow vw bus

I will get by, I will survive

From its inception through the haze of the 60s and into today, the VW bus’s iconic status lives on. Strike up a conversation with the owner of a bus and you’re bound to run into a story you’re not likely to forget. Take a trip in one and create your own chapter. And the next time you see one of these wooly mammoths on wheels, take a good look and give a nod to the coolest minivan out there. Here’s to the original Microbus. We’ll see you out there.


Photo Credit: Metro Centric, Steve Parker, Michael Gil, Arne Hendriks, Craig Howell, and Prayitno.

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