How many vehicles have effected radical and lasting change? Not just in the automotive sphere, but also the realms of society, politics, popular culture, comedy, philosophy; even our very physiology? The VW Bus is such an agent of change, perhaps the most potent one since WW2. It’s a truly revolutionary vehicle that redefined that concept, most of all the relationship of inner space to outer. A 169 inch-long hybrid of egg, box and windows with an ability to comfortably and economically transport eight adults; an impressive feat by any measure, yet just the start of its many capabilities. Perhaps it should have been called the VW Transformer.
And the Samba version of the VW Bus is the most transformative of the family. So if seven of you want to hop aboard, I’ll open that giant sunroof, take you for a ride, and tell you how that came to be. It’s going to be leisurely and a bit noisy, as any ride in an old VW bus inevitably is. Will you be transformed? Well, if not, at least the views will be good.
Opposites attract (me). Nature seeks balance. And variety is the spice of cars, food, and sex. Accordingly, the VW Deluxe Micro Bus (“Samba”) should have been my second Curbside Classic ever, as the polar opposite and balance to the first, a 1972 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. The two are truly the ying and yang of the automotive universe. And I love them both.
I knew exactly which VW bus I wanted to write up: a daily-driver white-over-green Samba piloted by a proud young dad, usually transporting a gaggle of sun-splashed kids and their friends. For years, it danced gaily through our neighborhood to its distinctive rhythm of frantic shifts and blower howl.
But then it disappeared, just when I needed it. There’s been a VWacuum ever since, and my nature abhors that. Yes, there are plenty of old VW buses around (some consider it the official vehicle of Eugene), But not any old bus will do. The Samba is a towering icon and played a key role in my life; so yes, it has to be a genuine Curbside Classic: real, and being used for its intended purpose of transporting people.
Three-and-a-half years later, it’s finally arrived. Everyone on board?
The VW Type 2 story is vast, but its origins are surprisingly brief. Above is the very sketch that gave birth to the VW Bus, as drawn by Dutch auto dealer Ben Pon, who was interested in buying some early Beetles to import to the Netherlands.
During a 1947 visit to the VW factory (under the control of British Occupational Forces at the time), Pon saw an open parts mover cobbled together from Beetle parts. The light bulb went off, and the rest is history. The lesson: keep a notebook handy; like Pon, you might find yourself designing, in 60 seconds, one of the most famous vehicles ever.
In 1949, the first prototype was built, but not on the Beetle’s platform as Pon first envisioned. Because that platform wasn’t up to the task, the Type 2 is of unitary construction with integrated ladder-type frame rails; however, it shares the Beetle’s wheelbase and is a mere nine inches longer overall.
In order for it to haul a useful load with its 25 hp, 1133 cc Beetle engine, it was bestowed with the reduction gears on the swing-axle ends from the military Type 181 Kübelwagen. These were a mixed blessing, since they added unsprung weight, noise and complexity while increasing the center of gravity.
And since the driving axle rotates in reverse (corrected in the reduction gear), the Bus is famous for its tendency to tuck its wheels under and jack up its rear end on take-off, the opposite of most cars. It’s quite noticeable in first gear, but you have to really be looking to see it in second; never mind the higher gears.
In this chapter of the Type 2 gospel, we’re going to stick mostly to the Samba, a name whose origins are not known to me (or to Google). It wasn’t used back in the day either, but the name has stuck. It refers to the Deluxe version of the Micro-Bus (later called Deluxe Station Wagon in the US) that was the beneficiary of some well-applied Sawzalls, or whatever VW’s workers used to cut all those extra holes in a VW Kombi. And it was specifically designed for tourist transport in the Alpine region.
Supposedly the first Samba was built in 1950, but the earliest brochures date from 1951. Famous for its 23 windows and giant sunroof, the Samba perfectly filled a need for a compact, comfortable and efficient micro-bus. Never before had there been such a thing. The VW bus was a truly revolutionary design, much more so than the Beetle, which was derivative if not downright imitative.
Growing up in the heart of the Alpine region (Innsbruck) during the fifties, the Samba was a familiar childhood sight, as swarms of them ferried German, British and American tourists to various sights. And almost all of them seemed to have this black-over-red paint scheme, which my Father called “burnt tomato soup.” The white-over-red scheme that replaced it in 1959 became “tomato cream soup” in his parlance. Here’s a smorgasbord of both soup varieties on Grossglockner, Austria’s highest-pass road. And how did they ever make it up there with eight (or more) tourists on board?
Slowly, of course. The German nickname for the Type 2 is “Bulli.” Even the earliest 25 hp (30 gross) buses were unstoppable, in their lower gears at least, according to this 1951 chart depicting the climbing ability of a fully-loaded Bus. 23% is steep, and with the 30 hp (36 gross) motor that came along a few years later, that first gear climbing ability went up to 24.5%. Fourth gear might have best been left off here, as 3.5% is laughable, as is the 80 kmh top speed (49 mph). But in 1951 Europe, it was a perfectly reasonable speed for a bus or truck.
In the late fifties, our family took summer vacations in the tiny Tirolean mountain hamlet of Ladis. Being without a car, my father arranged to have the University Hospital’s VW Kombi take us there. Here I am, posing in front of it during our 1959 trip with its driver, Herr Birkelbauer, on a rest stop along the way. We’re obviously discussing the finer points of Type 2s. That Kombi is a pre-1955 “barn door”, identifiable by the lack of the distinctive front roof overhang on later models.
One morning, in place of our usual hike we walked over to the Ladis Hotel, in front of which sat a “burnt tomato soup” Samba. There, we and a few other tourists lined up to take a one day excursion over Alpine passes to St. Moritz in Switzerland, and back. I was very excited indeed about finally having my first ride in a Samba on my first trip to a foreign land. According to Google maps, the most direct route is 108 km, and takes 1 hr 43 minutes. I can assure you that it took us significantly longer than that.
In my perfect memory, there were eight adults and several children on that trip. I soon squirmed out of my mother’s lap and hopped into the luggage area over the engine, which was mostly empty on this day trip. I can still see the scenery, moving by ever so slowly, practically counting every wildflower and cobblestone on the steepest passes.
We eventually got to St. Moritz, where I saw a number of ritzy cars I’d never see back in poor old Austria. Scenery indeed!
Now, the Samba wasn’t used only in the Alps. As the best-trimmed VW bus, it also served in a variety of other roles, including ferrying passengers to this PAA airliner (bonus points for identifying it). The point is, in Europe nobody bought a Samba for personal transportation; it was a small commercial bus. A plumber might buy a Kombi if he couldn’t afford a real car for the family, but in the US, the Samba’s institutional role wouldn’t work so readily.
Here’s an American-market Samba in 1954. It was the most radical thing on American roads since Buckminster’s Dymaxion or the Scarab, defying every convention. Check out those giant front bumper over-riders: VW bumper over-riders on Beetles and buses were developed specifically for the US export market; something to do with Americans’ parallel parking technique, I assume. Or just a reaction to American car bumpers in the Dagmar era.
Yes, some VW buses were sold to institutions in the US (our church in Iowa City had one), but they tended to be the non-Samba variety. So VWoA had to market it differently: “full of sun, full of fun Station Wagon.” So where’s the wood-grain planking on the side?
The tone of the ads changed when VW’s ad agency was switched to Doyle Dane Bernbach, which rightfully addressed the challenge of selling the Samba to the better half; typically, men bought into the whole VW bus idea much more readily. And now, women all want to pilot a tall, three-row CUV.
The DDB ads tried to break through the “odd” image the bus had; in the end, it only reinforced it. Let’s say that these were more common in University town families than in those of typical heartland hamlets. Or with those attending an opening of “Hamlet”.
But the VW bus ended up having a huge impact: The Big Three soon countered with their own 1960 compact vans.
The VW Bus’ “odd” image soon became the most potent wheeled symbol of the counter culture. And although a few Sambas became “hippie buses”, they weren’t particularly preferred: after all, it had too many windows to cover with Indian batik. However, I do remember at least one unforgettable ride in a Samba through the California redwoods, looking up at the towering giants through the immense sunroof. Ben Pon, you are a hero to a whole generation!
Let’s not get lost in that era, or I’ll never come back. Remember that in the opening I told you about the Samba daily driver that disappeared just as I started shooting Curbside Classics in 2009? I assumed that maybe the owner had cashed in, given the run-up in Samba prices (a 1963 23-window Samba sold at auction for $217,800 a year ago). A bit over the (open) top, but it does show the huge public draw this icon has become. Indeed, they don’t make them like this anymore.
Actually, they stopped making the 23-window bus after the 1963 MY. The ’64’s got a larger rear hatch and window, which eliminated the characteristic (and beloved) corner windows, making them “21-window Sambas.” That makes the 23-window Samba even more desirable, as well as scarce. And of course, Sambas disappeared altogether with the new T2 generation of 1968.
The other night, after a quick bite at the Laughing Planet, I saw this new member of Eugene’s extensive VW bus family–and I quickly made it out to be anything but a restored toy. As I was shooting it, up walked Rich, the owner, and his teenage daughter. Incredibly, he had been the owner of that very Samba that used to ply our neighborhood. Rich loved that bus, which met its demise in a minor accident by flipping (very slowly) after a spin on black ice. Rich, who was driving alone, was unhurt. He said it happened as if in slow motion…”will it flip, or won’t it?” Yes, it will.
With a spine permanently curved from all those years spent hunched over his bus’s wheel, Rich found that he couldn’t be comfortable driving anything else. Eventually he found this Samba (moldering away in someone’s yard), but only after looking for a long time; sadly, there just aren’t a lot of them sitting around anymore. And yes, he’s thrilled to be piloting it again. What’s more, his daughter also has the bus fever, although Mom isn’t too wild about that. Perhaps a DDB ad should have asked, “Do you have the right kind of mom for it?”
Obviously, it’s a work in progress, but one can still get just about anything for a bus. Currently, there’s a steady market in reproduction parts, but will that dry up when the last Samba has been restored?
Rich’s bus is a “walk through”, with individual front seats. Although some utility Transporters had walk-through front seats going back to the mid-fifties, that practical feature appears to show up in the micro-bus around 1959. Combined with a two-passenger middle seat, it suddenly made interior access available, should the need arise to change a diaper or mop up vomit on the go. One magazine test even suggested that ladies might have an easier time getting into the front seat of a bus (modestly) via the rear side door and through the walk-through.
Rich’s proudest component is the top-line, period-correct Blaupunkt “Köln” multi-band radio with automatic signal seeking. It cost $180 new ($1200 adjusted); probably not much more than an exchange motor. The rule of thumb back then was 60k miles on a new factory engine, 40 – 50k on a factory rebuild, and 5k miles on one rebuilt on the kitchen table by compleat idiots. If that long.
In its little cubby out back, there’s a well-built “stock” 1600cc engine that Rich picked up from a fellow Volkswagonista. Originally, it would have held a 1500cc motor (optionally available in Europe starting in 1963, but immediately standard for US models). Its 50 hp (44 hp net) did give the bus a solid 65 mph top end cruising speed – on level ground, and without a headwind. That was a significant improvement over the 1200 cc motors.
But don’t laugh: A 1960 Car Life comparison of a VW bus with the new Corvair Greenbrier and Econoline had the 40 hp bus almost identically fast through the quarter mile as the 80 hp Corvair with its two-speed Powerglide. The fully-synchronized, slick-shifting VW transmission kept the little mill humming at full boil.
I know about that. I learned to drive a stick shift (car, not tractor) on a 1965 VW bus, on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Blind, when I was fifteen. This was shortly after my first illicit drives in the family ’65 Dodge Coronet, and I was eager to graduate to something a bit less automatic. An obliging new French teacher at Loyola, straight out of college, was the medium. He drove the most unusual VW bus ever: It was a regular white-over-green 11-window job, but with a giant aftermarket air conditioner on top of the roof at the very rear, fitted under a nicely faired-in panel, making it look for all the world like an old city bus. I’ve never seen one since, and apparently neither has Google.
Anyway, it often wouldn’t start for him after school, so I fiddled with the carb (held it wide open because he flooded it) to get it going. One evening he was driving some of us to the Maryland School for the Blind to perform our allotment of community service. Payback time: that evening, my social contribution was to not hit any of the blind students walking the campus roads with their sticks as I mastered the VW’s stick.
Pretty soon, I was the new designated chauffeur of the so-called “Smokemobile”, into which a number of us would pile in order to indulge our nicotine habit as we rode through the neighborhoods around Loyola between classes. As the bus labored up Chestnut Avenue, trails of smoke poured from the flip-out windows.
I ended up driving that bus on all sorts of trips, including a ski trip up to the mountains of Pennsylvania, in fresh snow no less. Nothing like a supple fifteen-year-old brain to rapidly master the various dynamics involved in hurtling a loaded bus through snow-covered winding back roads. Teach ’em young, even before they get a license.
Mysteriously, the facilitating teacher’s tenure at Loyola was cut short after only about four months. This coincided with the Smokemobile’s engine blowing up in a cloud of, well, smoke. But by then my tuition at Loyola had paid off, and I was a Type 2 ace. Rule One: The gas pedal is essentially an on-off switch; all or nothing. Rule Two: You shift up when the motor noise level stops increasing. Rule Three: No hard braking in turns. Rule Four: Don’t get caught.
From my earliest childhood encounters, the Samba instilled in me a deep longing to take folks for a ride in a bus, to show them new sights and create memorable experiences. Whether they were my fellow ninth-grade smokers and skiers, my passengers on a city bus, my girlfriend in my Dodge van, my family in the back of our Caravan, or perhaps even you, through the ramblings on this page; it is what I was (and am) called to do. I’m happiest hunched over the wheel of of a bus, box or keyboard.
The VW bus is a vehicle of exploration, both inner and outer. It has facilitated dreams of every sort. And created nightmares. Thanks to its weaknesses, we are stronger. Or at least wiser.
Our little trip is over, and we’re back to where we started. Well, not really, because we’re never quite the same after a real trip, one that has pushed the boundaries at least a wee bit. And a ride in a Samba will inevitably do that, one way or another. It may not be life-changing for everyone, but it was for me.
After that memorable long, slow trip over the Alpine passes as a child, I heard the howl of the Samba’s engine, fan, transmission and reduction gears in my head as I went to bed that night. And in one of life’s little symmetries, it’s all come back to me: my ears are hearing the Samba’s thirty horse engine conquering that pass once again today, 24/7. I’m told it’s the symptoms of tinnitus, but I prefer to call it tinnibus.
some images courtesy thesamba.com