Curbside Find: 1961 VW Transporter – Van Life Survivor With No Cosmetic Surgery

It’s almost as if the VW Transporter/Bus was conceived as a camper van from the very beginning. It just lent itself to the task better than anything before, and it arrived at a time shortly after the war when the yen to hit the road was becoming epidemic. It was the consummate rolling box, with just enough room to accommodate, as many as were willing to pile in, and get them there with a minimum of fuel and fuss. Just not very quickly.

This ’61 Transporter I found a few blocks from my house is still at it; there’s very obvious signs of life inside. For some folks, there’s just never been anything that could improve on the original.

Sketching one’s idea for a van seems to be a thing; Dutch VW importer Ben Pon made this one in his little notebook in 1947, he saw how the VW’s layout with its rear engine lent itself ideally to a box with a low floor.

It’s the counterpart to the sketch we saw earlier this morning made by Bill Collins for a rear engine camper van that would fit under his low garage door. Maybe he should have just bought a Westfalia?

The VW Transporter arrived in 1947, and we shall never know who was the first person to throw a mattress in the back and sleep in it. But already by 1951, Westfalia offered a camping conversion for it to make a cozy little rolling cabin.

And by 1955, the Westfalia already found itself on the cover of Popular Mechanics. (full article and history here). Van Life had arrived in America and would soon proliferate.

We all know how the VW bus became iconic as the proto-hippie van, but of course its appeal was much wider than that. And for this owner, it’s never ended.

I told you there were signs of life inside.

This survivor was a hard-working Transporter when it was first bought in 1961, just a year or so before the notorious “chicken tax” on imported trucks ended the VW’s career as a work truck and had to be sold as a “station wagon”, even if it was a bit different than the usual family truckster.

This one also came with the optional driver’s side rear side doors.

I can’t readily say when the massive roof carrier was first installed, but given the rust and wear, it might be as old as the van. The ladder is clearly a more recent addition. But what’s really curious is the black vinyl fabric cover for what is obviously a big sunroof. Now I’m stumped, because the Transporters just didn’t come with them; only the deluxe Samba people carrier did. Hmm… But then these Transporters didn’t come with a white roof either, although the Samba did. Maybe it had a roof swap at some point?

As to what’s behind the engine compartment door, that’s anybody’s guess. Most surviving old buses of this vintage have gone through several, and typically end up with something a bit more ambitious than the original 40 hp (34 PS) 1192 cc engine.

It’s a face I love dearly, having made such indelible memories in VW buses. It’s like running into a grade school or high school friend: you recognize them instantly despite the wear and tear the decades have imparted. And just like it’s getting harder to find folks of this vintage that haven’t had cosmetic work done it is with T1 VW buses. A rare unrestored survivor.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1965 VW Deluxe Micro Bus “Samba” – A Truly Revolutionary Vehicle

Vintage Magazine Article and Brochure: 1955 VW Westfalia Camper – The Beginning of an Icon

Curbside Classic: 1960 VW Bus – On The Bus

Curbside Classic: 1960 VW Bus – On The Road And On The Bus; Three Years, 40,000 Miles And Three Engines, So Far