Curbside Classic: VW Country Buggy – Stark Bliss

Blink and you’ll miss that there’s an automobile this picture. It may well be the simplest shape to emanate from Volkswagen, that paragon of simple automotive shapes. What you’re looking at is the Country Buggy, an extremely rarified native of Australia.

Australia was an early adopter of the Beetle, though the 1940 date shown above was a bit ambitious.

Our first were a batch of eight bought in 1947 by the Australian Scientific and Technical Mission in London. These were actually purchased for use in Germany by our reparations team. That same year, two of the them were shipped to Australia – a standard Type 11 and a Type 51 built over Kübelwagen running gear. – which in 1949 were auctioned off locally.

The first official imports arrived in late 1953, and were offered to the public in March the next year. At £972 the Beetle was not cheap; for comparison a Renault 750 Deluxe was £861; a Morris Minor 2-door was £848; a Ford Anglia was £922; a Fiat 600 was £838; an Austin A30 was £846 and the six cylinder FJ Holden Standard was £1142.

Nevertheless, the VW persevered over here, due in no small part to the durability it displayed in our harrowing Redex and Ampol trials. By 1956, VW was fifth in market share behind Holden, Ford, Morris and Austin.

Since 1954, the Beetle and Transporter had actually been produced CKD locally at the Martin and King premises in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton to take advantage of local tariff benefits. When VW supremo Heinz Nordhoff himself visited Australia he decided to purchase Martin and King, and thus was born Volkswagen (Australasia) Pty Ltd.

The existing factory was expanded to include a new press hall, paint shop and assembly hall. In 1959, the first body pressings were produced locally and CKD was phased out that same year.

As was happening in many other territories around the world, the Volkswagen range was starting to embed itself into the local consciousness. In 1959, the Australian Army first availed themselves of the Transporter – seen here in WRAAF guise.

Not long after, they approached VW Australia for a bespoke utility vehicle to suit local conditions, and the project was designated Type 197.

The first VW to land on Australian soil had actually been a Kübelwagen in 1946. It was gifted to us by the British Army from Wolfsburg to be appraised for possible domestic use.

These lightweight vehicles proved adept in the Australia-like desert conditions in Africa – particularly when fitted with their balloon-like aero tyres. Rommel himself claimed the Kübelwagen saved his life; his own making its way safely through a minefield that sent the Horch carrying his luggage close behind skyward.

In 1948 Laurence Hartnett, recently removed from birthing the Holden car for General Motors, was despatched to Wolfsburg to see whether he could secure any tooling for this utility vehicle, but with the Ambi-Budd bodyworks now sitting in the Soviet sector his efforts proved futile.

Curiously, despite Ferdinand Porsche’s good standing in the estimation of Adolf Hitler, the existence of the Kübelwagen was not a given. Engineer Ernst Kniepkamp had become a person of influence within the HWA – the German Army’s procurement division. He and Ferdinand had clashed over patents for torsion-bar springing as applied to the Panzer, Porsche emerging the victor. From then on, Kniepkamp did what he could to undermine Porsche’s standing within the HWA.

Nevertheless there was no denying the potential of the lightweight KdF-Wagen – as the Beetle was then known – platform. In 1938, some SS troops built a feasibility study directly from this source (above).

That same year, Ferdinand Porsche was finally commissioned by HWA for a military version of his people’s car.

He had in fact been thinking about something along these lines for a few years. In 1936 he produced a vehicle for off-road trials competitions held by the NSKK, and this became the basis for the army commission.

The Type 62 Stuka was presented to the HWA in November 1938. It became known as a Kübelwagen on account of its bucket seats, which compensated for its lack of doors in holding its occupants in place (kübel being German for bucket). The vehicle passed initial muster with the Army, but they asked for a more military-looking body in place of the Type 62 rounded contours.

By 1939, this project had evolved into the RWD Type 82 and 4WD Type 87. For the most part the Kübelwagens were of the Type 82 variety, using a ZF limited slip differential to help things along.

The first Kübelwagens were produced in 1940, but it was not until March 1942 that Adolf Hitler decreed the Porsche design be the exclusive Class 1 light vehicle for the German forces.

In 1964, plans and first drawings were prepared by VW Australia for the Type 197 utlitiy vehicle and within a year they were running prototypes. This vehicle was conceived and developed locally under the aegis of Engineering Manager, Cyril Harcourt and Quality Control Director Rudi Herzmer – who was himself familiar with the Kübelwagen.

In 1966 permission was sought from Wolfsburg to commence production. Head Office insisted on evaluating the vehicle for themselves, and so two of the three prototypes were flown over at great expense along with Rudi Herzmer

When Rudi arrived, he was ushered into a room housing a secret project for the German Army – the Type 181. Perhaps mindful of the 181’s civilian potential, Head Office’s approval of the Australian utility vehicle came with the restriction that no more than 1,800 units per annum be produced.

What emerged from Australia seemed more in keeping with the Porsche Type 597 Jagdwagen shape. First seen in public in 1955, this flat-four-powered 4WD proposal for the German Army was also anticipated for civilian use. It may have been remembered by the German-born members of VW Australia, but it seems more than likely its physical similarity to the Country Buggy was a coincidence.

It’s not exactly clear if it was specified in the Army’s brief, but there were some at VW Australia who were hoping the Type 197 would be able to swim. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen had proven even more impressive than the Kubelwagen, able to navigate at 6 mph and drive on land at 50 mph.

Ambitions for the local model were less well-considered. The box section sills of the prototypes were filled with foam which aided flotation, though not sufficiently. In any event, Wolfsburg decreed the foam be removed and all amphibian aspirations be set aside.

The three Type 197 prototypes were run through 50,000 km of testing over some of the most hostile terrain on earth, actually circumnavigating the continent three times during its two-year shakedown.

The shape that emerged was much cleaner than the prototypes. The spare wheel was removed from the front and the whole frontal aspect was now a single volume. The epitome of simplicity, perhaps to many eyes overwhelmingly so. But despite the rather severe use of origami, this was a pleasing amalgam of angles and planes.

It was an entirely versatile off-road vehicle; a 51 degree angle of approach at the front and 32 degrees at the back. 230mm of ground clearance was matched with exhaust pipes sitting 600mm from the ground and making their way through apertures in the body itself.

But crucially, this was not a 4WD vehicle. Somewhere along the way this Australian Army requirement was set aside, and as a result not a single Type 197 would be purchased by our armed forces.

Componentry was sourced from al three Volkswagen types then in production. The Beetle donated the chassis frame, front axle and fuel tank, along with items such as clutch, torsion bar and spring plates, steering wheel and headlights. The Transporter gave rear axle tube, axle shaft, reduction hubs, reduction gearing, brake drum mechanism, road wheels and brake components. From the Type 3 came the steering and part of the pedal system. The Country Buggy was powered by the F-series 1,300cc engine, with the option of taking the 1,200 instead. At least one was produced with power take-off.

The new Volkswagen utility vehicle was shown at the March 1967 Motor Show, and profiled in Modern Motor a month later when was yet to be named and floatation was still apparently a part of its offering.

It was officially released to the public in April 1968, a whole year later thanks to delays in approval from Wolfsburg. A dealer launch film was made of the now-named Country Buggy enjoyed the beachside environs of the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne.

Production had actually commenced prior to Head Office approval, and changes needed to be made to those examples already built. From what I can tell, these involved the addition of body ribbing along the sides.

The vehicle was available with canvas roof and doors, and a fibreglass ‘hard’ roof was also a factory option. There also appears to have been a short roof and doors made from steel, but I’m not sure whether these were aftermarket or homebrewed. Best I can tell, they were not factory.

Despite the minuscule production quota, VW Australasia managed to send the Country Buggy to New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.

It was also sent CKD to the Philippines, where they were built in LHD configuration and made available with steel roof and doors. Once supply of body parts from Australia dried up, Volkswagen DMG started building their own version of the body (renamed the Sakbayan -car of the people). Headlights were changed to an inset arrangement and some of the ribbing along the side was eliminated.

Despite the Beetle’s platform’s natural affinity for utility, of all the VW satellite operations Australia was unique in developing a bespoke vehicle.

South Africa came close in the early 1970s when they were considering whether to buy into the tooling for the new Golf or retain the Beetle as the basis for a new body modelled specifically on the Range Rover. Stylists Tim Fry and Reg Myatt produced a pickup alongside the wagon for Project 1021, but this all came to naught when it was decided to go with the Golf.

I was expecting that Volkswagen do Brasil had built their own utility vehicle, given how many other bodies in their range were bespoke shapes. They did contribute parts to the Sakbayan and apparently it was available in this market between 1974 and 1980.

There was also the Gurgel Xavante X-12.

João do Amaral Gurgel was a Brazilian VW dealer who started making mini cars for children in 1964. In 1966, he created the Gurgel 1200 based on the Karmann Ghia floorpan (top row).

After setting up a new company in 1969, he launched the VW-based Xavante X-10 in 1974 (middle row). This would appear to have a shape based on the Country Buggy with more embellishment.

I personally don’t think there was any direct influence, however the X-12 from 1975 with its cleaner shape (bottom left, foreground) looked even more like it was based on the Australian utility. The XEF bottom right, however, does show Gurgel was not afraid of being directly influenced by others for his vehicle shapes.

And, of course, from the mid 1960s it became possible to build a VW-based off-roader in your own garage pretty much anywhere in the world.

On paper, the Country Buggy seemed the ideal middle ground between utility and lifestyle.

But that was a mantle better held by the Mini Moke.

Also conceived for military use, its low ground clearance and underpowered engine put it out of the running for that type of commission. It was, however, a greater success than the Country Buggy in the civilian market. It easily made the transition from utility to lifestyle, and Leyland Australia was able to manufacture more than 26,000 between 1966 and 1981, with 35% of them being exported.

And the Japanese 4WD was emerging as the dominant proposition for those who needed its off-road capability.

In truth, the Country Buggy was doomed before it was even released. In 1967 Volkswagen Australasia recorded its second significant loss in a row; $2.6 million after 1966’s $3.7 million. 1968 saw a rationalisation of the business in Australia with press shop equipment being scattered around the globe to Germany, Mexico Brazil and South Africa. The Beetle reverted to CKD, and before too long the company was assembling Datsuns alongside, and eventually Volvos as well.

Eight months after it was launched to the public, the Country Buggy was cancelled. Total production was 1,956, with approximately 400 made in LHD.

There’s something really special about driving a car along these lines. I spent bit of wheel time in (or should I say on) a biscuit tray Land Rover, albeit a long wheelbase version. I’m not squeamish about being exposed to the elements; this is driving pretty much at its most primal.

Problem is, so many fantastic shapes to choose from.

Maybe it’s a parochial thing, but for me the Country Buggy is the most desirable vehicle in this category. There is something sublimely minimal about its shape, yet just enough attention has been paid to its aesthetics – the angles and apertures make for something quite sophisticated. This is not a crude arrangement of boxes, it is a stark expression of bliss.

Further Reading

Excellent article on the Country Buggy by Bill Moore at Club VeeDub

History of VW in Australia at ClubVW

Fascinating history of Gurgel

VW Type 181 Thing by Paul Niedermeyer