It's all about the stories
People carriers are entirely functional, which makes it difficult to build an emotional bond with them. There is one people carrier that’s hard not to love and in an effort to find out why, we packed one up and drove out to Parys.
There’s no doubt that the VW Kombi is a favourite around the globe and not just here in South Africa. In Brazil, for example, the original was built and sold in large numbers until the end of 2013 when safety legislation finally killed it off. In South America, it lived on because it was functional. The government bought thousands, converting them into school buses, postal delivery vans and small fire trucks.
In the USA, it was a symbol of freedom, just like its little brother, the Beetle.
It was even a musical icon, transporting various rock bands and their fans to and from venues. Both Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys honoured it by placing it on their album covers, which meant a great deal back in the day when music still came in packaging.
But what is/was its appeal in South Africa?
In order to find out, we got our hands on a brandnew Kombi short-wheelbase Comfortline with a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine and a DSG gearbox.
Though it functioned perfectly on the daily commute, we couldn’t let the opportunity for a short weekend break pass through our fingers. But where to? Luckily, we heard about a Kombi collector with a plot next to the Vaal, so Parys it was.
And what use is an empty Kombi, so we filled it up with good company, pointed its nose towards the Free State and hoped that we’d find the answer to why we love them so much in South Africa.
The history of the Kombi goes back all the way to 1945 and the US army successfully capturing Wolfsburg. The US handed it over to the British, who had three options: burn it to the ground, take it back home in pieces and rebuild it in Britain, or leave it as is. They went for the latter, simply because one American Major, Ivan Hirst, noticed one of the cars, had it painted green and presented it to his bosses. They all agreed it was a wicked little car and that it might be a nice way to boost the local economy. There was a massive unemployed workforce, so why not use it? Volkswagen was back on its feet.
In the late ’40s, it decided to broaden its line-up, which consisted of only the Beetle. This broadening would be done via two cars catering to two different audiences. The first was the Beetle cabriolet, the second the T1 people carrier. And here we are, decades later with the T6 Kombi, which is a superb people carrier.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO LIVE WITH?
Ask any parent what the ultimate luxury is and the answer won’t be heated massaging seats, gesture control or an electric tailgate. No sir, the ultimate luxury is having the kind of space where you don’t have to worry about space ever again. Never having to wonder whether all the luggage will fit, or whether there’s enough room for the kids to bring their friends along on holiday. In a Kombi, the answer is always yes, and then some.
There’s more to it than that,
however. Sure, the space will always be the big selling point when it comes to this car, but because it’s a Volkswagen, you’ll appreciate the quality of the space as well. It all fits together nicely, the touch points are made from high-quality materials and the optional touchscreen sound system does a splendid job of providing entertainment on those days you don’t have company along for the ride.
Noise, vibration and harshness levels are also worth mentioning. As the driver, it was fairly easy to carry a conversation with someone in the third row.
It’s effortless to drive, too, mostly thanks to the 132kW/400Nm biturbo diesel, mated to Volkswagen’s now famous DSG gearbox. It accelerates briskly and effortlessly in town but it’s at its best on the highway with cruise control engaged. We recorded a combined figure of 10.1l/100km on this trip, which is completely acceptable given the size of the thing.
In fact, the only problem we have with the space is that things are so easily lost once they hit the floor. A friend provided a good way of looking at it, though: “The Kombi is so big that you’d discover things in it years later the same way you discover a R20 note in a jacket from the previous winter.”
For now, back to the space. The Comfortline DSG is only available as a short-wheelbase, but don’t let the nomenclature fool you into thinking it offers anything but copious amounts of space.
There are two seats up front, three individual seats in the middle and three more in the third row, all with enough head and legroom for even the tallest human beings. Behind that is a spacious boot, large enough for four people’s luggage, all the camera and cleaning equipment needed for a Leisure Wheels
shoot and a drone. With all that packed in, it’s about half full.
That’s at least part of our question answered. People love and buy them because they’re good cars that offer loads of space and comfort at a reasonable price. If you need all of these things, it’s a logical choice.
What about the other half?
The other half of the reason is more difficult to quantify, because it deals with emotion and the non-logical portion of our brains.
It starts with the introduction of the Kombi to the South African market. Since VW was established here in 1951, it didn’t take long for them to arrive and they’ve been part of the landscape ever since.
Like any other model that’s been on sale that long, there are a lot of stories that involve Kombis.
Over the course of writing this article, we encountered many, many Kombi stories, but in fear of overworking our talented and astonishingly skilled sub editor, Alan, we chose to stick with just one. (You forgot ‘good-looking’ – sub ed)
This particular story involves the dearly departed father-inlaw of one of our staffers, Oom Johan Potgieter.
Having purchased a brandnew 2.3-litre soon after the turn of the millennium, he decided to take his family of five on a holiday to Mpumalanga. Before setting off on said trip, he purchased a fridge to fit inside the interior, which was a source of pride back in those days. The fridge was there to keep the beers cold, he said. After a long day of driving, there’s nothing more satisfying than cracking open a cold one and reflecting on what was likely an adventurous drive.
On their way down to Cango Caves, the wife and kids wanted to stretch their legs at one of those interesting road-side shops that sell everything from scratch cards to tyre repair kits.
This shop also sold a variety of the stinky cheese Mrs Potgieter liked so much, but there was still a long road ahead and without refrigeration, the cheese simply wouldn’t make the trip.
Luckily, there was still space left next to the beers, so with cheese in hand, the family set off to do the long trip through the caves.
What they didn’t know at the time is that the youngest member of the family, firmly seated directly behind the fridge, had accidently kicked the wiring loose, rendering the fridge completely useless. Actually, not useless as such. A closed non-operational fridge filled with beer and stinky cheese, mounted in a car parked in the warm South African sun for six hours makes a rather nice stink bomb.
Having emerged from the caves, Oom Johan met up with a few of his mates from back in Pretoria, which turned out to be the perfect opportunity to show off his new fridge, mounted to his new set of wheels.
Imagine his surprise and dismay when he had nothing to
“He offered Greenie as the subject of our shoot but the other running vehicle was just too good to pass on. It’s a red campervan, lovingly restored and in perfect working condition”
Main: The deputy editor caught lying down on the job while the photographer snaps the modern Kombi among a collection of old caravans.
Above: The gravel roads surrounding Parys are in a relatively good state and along the way you might find some decent, four-legged company. Note the dual sliding doors and the sheer amount of legroom in the second row. Space for days. Below: Old and new driving side by side on the outskirts of Parys. In terms of speed, the new model wins hands down, but when it comes to styling…
This page: As we weren’t in any kind of rush, we drove to Parys the long way round. The Kombi fared extremely well, even though it was front-wheel drive. Below, left and right: A seemingly intense discussion over some chocolate cake at Plum Tree in Parys. The Old School Diner is a must for Volkswagen and music fans alike.
This page: Bringing some much-needed colour to the dry landscape next to the polluted Vaal River. Opposite page, clockwise from top: Febé-Marié Horn and Daniëlla van Heerden get caught up in the Westy lifestyle. The interior of the red Westy, lovingly restored to original condition. Standard fare includes a table, some curtains and a comfortable bed. As a driving tool, the new Kombi is much better. A quality leather steering wheel, touchscreen infotainment, climate control and a DSG gearbox. As a means of travelling long distance with company, few cars come close.