‘Magic Bus’ era fi­nally ends

Story of VW van takes wacky turns

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - AUTOS - By David Booth

IT is per­haps fit­ting the in­tro­duc­tion to the de­fin­i­tive book on Volk­swa­gen’s Trans­porter reads like a blissed-out hip­pie’s stream of con­scious­ness.

The Trans­porter (also known as the Magic Bus, Mi­crobus, Camper, Kombi, West­falia — its of­fi­cial Volk­swa­gen Type 2 des­ig­na­tion — and the so­bri­quet Splitty) is the ul­ti­mate coun­ter­cul­ture ve­hi­cle, hav­ing trans­ported hip­pies to com­munes, pro­test­ers to peace marches, mu­sic lovers to Wood­stock, drugs across bor­ders and pen­ni­less folk-rock bands to their gigs.

In­deed, Mike Harding’s book, The VW Camper Van: A Bi­og­ra­phy, starts with a long me­an­der through an end­less num­ber of bands, all seem­ingly ply­ing their trade in some re­mote back­wa­ter of Eng­land. Even­tu­ally, Harding, a folk-mu­sic DJ and banjo player, gets to the in­ter­est­ing bits, namely how the Volk­swa­gen Type 2 — sign of free­dom and re­bel­lion for gen­er­a­tions — came into be­ing.

It’s a bit of a twisted plot, full of in­con­gruities and hap­pen­stances that, were it not set in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Sec­ond World War in wartorn Ger­many, you’d swear had the mark­ings of a reefer-fu­elled plot of in­trigue and der­ring-do.

Ac­cord­ing to Harding, it turns out the only rea­son we have the Trans­porter (or its pre­de­ces­sor, the Volk­swa­gen Type 1, which we know as the Bee­tle) is be­cause one some­what-antsy British ma­jor, Ivan Hirst, de­cided to bend his or­ders to “just sit” on the KdF-Stadt fac­tory in the town of Faller­sleben, later re­named Wolfs­burg. Hirst de­cided to re­vi­tal­ize the bombed-out VW fac­tory, which had a car­cass of a B-17 Fly­ing Fortress oc­cu­py­ing the ru­ins of a ma­jor po­tion of the plant, mainly be­cause he was too bored just to play se­cu­rity guard.

On tak­ing con­trol of the fac­tory, Hirst dis­cov­ered a few wilt­ing Bee­tles, left unat­tended since the be­gin­ning of hos­til­i­ties, gath­er­ing dust in a corner of the ram­bling plant. Piec­ing to­gether one good model from the rem­nants and paint­ing it mil­i­tary green, he drove one of the few pre-war Bee­tles to his BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) head­quar­ters, where the com­man­der promptly or­dered 20,000.

To pro­duce them, Hirst had to res­cue some “lib­er­ated” tools and dies from ma­raud­ing Rus­sians, which he did with whisky and cig­a­rettes, and save the plant from a dy­na­mite-de­mented bri­gadier whose idea of a good time was blow­ing up Ger­man fac­to­ries.

With the tools, dies and presses back in ac­tion, Hirst had the first 10,000 Bee­tles pro­duced be­fore the end of 1946, most of them, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, smelling like fish be­cause of the glue the fac­tory was forced to use to af­fix the head­liner.

The next char­ac­ter in this Teu­tonic com­me­dia dell’arte is Bernar­dus “Ben” Pon, who had been Hol­land’s Volk­swa­gen im­porter be­fore the war and who, ac­cord­ing to Harding, had a habit of show­ing up at the Wolfs­burg plant in a pur­loined Dutch army gen­eral’s garb claim­ing “that with­out this ma­jes­tic en­try, no­body would have taken any no­tice of him.”

And no­body would have, had it not been for the serendip­ity that Hirst was look­ing to build some form of trans­porter ve­hi­cle, mainly to ferry parts around the fac­tory, and Pon saw a fu­ture in a small com­mer­cial de­liv­ery ve­hi­cle.

On one sheet of a small loose-leaf note­book, the Dutch de­signer sketched the “bread loaf” with wheels that be­came the VW panel van — the note­book and sketch still ex­ist. So, one of the most suc­cess­ful ve­hi­cles ever pro­duced — more than 10 mil­lion vari­ants in 63 years — owes its ori­gin to one child­like pen­cil draw­ing by a some­what ec­cen­tric auto dealer who later got rich ex­port­ing Bee­tles to the U.S.

Volk­swa­gen’s Type 2, now in its fifth gen­er­a­tion, has been pro­duced all over the world, most no­tably in Mex­ico, where pro­duc­tion stopped in 1995, and Brazil, where the Kombi (short for Kom­bi­na­tions­fahrzeug or “cargo-pas­sen­ger van”) is still pro­duced at VW’s Sao Paulo plant.

But that glo­ri­ous 63-year his­tory will come to an end on Dec. 31 when new Brazil­ian reg­u­la­tions call­ing for airbags and anti-lock brakes, which Volk­swa­gen says it can­not en­gi­neer into the cur­rent plat­form, come into ef­fect.

Sim­i­lar safety regs caused Ger­man pro­duc­tion to halt in 1979. Volk­swa­gen did show a camper-van con­cept at the 2011 Geneva auto show, but there has been no fur­ther hint at pro­duc­tion. So it looks like the 600 Brazil­ian com­mem­o­ra­tive spe­cial edi­tions will be the last Magic Buses ever pro­duced.


Mike Harding’s chron­i­cle of the iconic VW van be­gins with its gen­e­sis in a bombed-out fac­tory in post-war Ger­many.

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