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.
Excellent article on the Country Buggy by Bill Moore at Club VeeDub
History of VW in Australia at ClubVW
VW Type 181 Thing by Paul Niedermeyer
This would be just the Thing. And yet it isn’t.
I’ve never seen this before. Thanks for sharing.
Does anyone know where I could get blueprints for the country buggy.
Love that Ozzie Buggy Bug. Never knew about it, either. Those Beetle eyes set into that completely rectangular face… So odd, yet it works, somehow. That Sakbayan hardtop is also very cool. Much nicer than the Citroën FAF or those weird South American contraptions they made back then.
A small car, but a great addition to your immortal œuvre , Professore Andreina. Superb post.
Wow, this is one VW I had never heard of. I kind of like it.
Professor A, the history of Volkswagen in this country is already borderline crazy as it is, but this! I had no idea. Your genius prevails yet.
VW Aus had full production, panel stamping, the casting of engines, etc, such that barely 5% of the cars was imported by 1965,which is quite outrageous. At their best, they sold 30,000-odd units, therefore an excellent seller – for gorsakes, there weren’t enough people to sell more to – but ridiculous as a full production factory.
I know Aus was meant to be the VW Asian hub for the future, but it seems that once VW in Germany woke up that few in SE Asia had money for food, let alone a people’s car, they came to Australia in ’66 and said “Enough!”. Three million English quid loss in ’66 is a boatload of devalued German Deutschmarks, and far too much to lose.
For the interest of CCérs, the body stamping (and engine tooling, I’m less sure) was sent off to Brazil, which is why very late Beetles from there still had 1960-ish, small-window bodies, 1960-odd being the last time the weird-ass Aus outfit was able to tool up. (Thus, we went from 1960-ish panels to imported 1967-jobs in one year).
All this means it’s just crazy them Aussies were given any sort of light, green, red or blinking pink with polka dots, to pursue another (money-spending) local variant. Just amazing. No wonder the senior VW blokes turned up in ’66 and said “Halt!”. Ironic, that, as it was General McArthur (based in Melbourne during a good stretch of the Pacific war) who said he would return, yet the Germans, who didn’t say that, did. And shut local full production forever upon that arrival.
Don, that Volks that the Australian army had was handed over in ’46 for evaluation was, in fact a ’45 model. It was found in some exceptionally degenerated state on (I think) Flinders Island (for CCers, think remote, windy, salty, and cold).
It was sold a while ago in South Australia, fully restored.
What a fantastic post, Vice Chancellor. Where did you see this oddity street parked thus?
Thanks for the additional elucidations on the rather unusual history of VW in Australia. I guess one could say that they simply saw the light long before Ford and GM, but that might be a bit harsh.
Yes Justy CDK kits from Australia were assembled in New Zealand a friend has one from 1963 easy to identify it as Australian everything on it has a Kangaroo stamped into it, Yes Country buggies came here I remember them and a couple have emerged recently there were also locally brewed examples of VW utilities built on floor pans of written off Beetles, thanks to the woefull handling of the swingaxle rear suspension totalled Beetles were not hard to come by for a dune buggy project or the various outfits building things like the Terra which could be had with either VW flat four or V4 Ford Transit engines, One such VW based farm ute was featured on the TV program Start me up recently
Apparently one Beetle ute was prepped by VW Oz for the RAAF and set to Malay for testing in the mid 60s. Couldn’t find a pic of it. Kangaroos on inside of gas cap…
Aussie VWs had several differences to German and American vehicles the updates didnt always keep up with the Euro versions, window sizes being one of them they grew incrementally model by model visually theres not a lot in it but lay two windscreens from two cars built four years apart back to back and you can see it, things like front mudguards changed shape on Aussie VWs between 59 and 63 I tried swapping them over rather than repairing the originals and they simply dont fit, though Paul tells me on US models they do, Vans in OZ had the high mounted scoop air intakes on split screen models to aid cooling yet a friends UK 66 van doesnt have those, VW Aussie changed things to get around problems that emerged in their market nobody else had to contend with and hot dusty conditions killing engines was a big one.
Thanks Justy. Our example was captured outside Dutton in Richmond. Discrete enquiries established owner was inside enjoying lunch with mates so didn’t intrude.
Fascinating with once again many blanks filled in including numerous ones I didn’t know were blanks. Like turning the last page in a book and realizing oh wait there’s another chapter. Most interesting!
Thanks for this informative essay in the VW in Australia and other palces in the world. Here in the U.S. we would now know of these. Fascinating developments, too!
Another superb if obscure chapter of the ever-fascinating (to me, anyway) VW encyclopedia. Very fascinating, and most excellently done; both the car and your write-up.
I agree with you that the VW was simply the best basis for these types of vehicles, thanks to its rear engine and resulting superb traction. And the high ground clearance if the chassis used the portal rear axles from the Kubelwagen and Type 2.
Speaking of, the Type 62 from 1936 lacked that feature, and thus sufficient ground clearance. 19″ tires were used in an attempt to mitigate the aspect, but not deemed sufficiently. Thus the portal (geared) rear axle hubs were developed, which very substantially raised the ground clearance of the Type 82.
Yep, those reduction gears set the higher clearance but were also a bit of an achilles heel. First thing to go in the field of combat.
And here, I thought this was going to be another Thing thing. Boy was I wrong!
Thanks to such an in-depth and fascinating post, Professor Don!
Timing was the thing. These arrived on the market just when Australia had about had its fill of All Things Beetleoid.
The sixties was a time of incredible social change across the globe, but in an automotive sense it seemed even more so in Australia. Japanese cars had been on sale here since the early sixties, and quickly made inroads into the Australian market, earlier than in the US and Europe. You could now get reliability and toughness with quietness, modern style and great equipment levels at no cost penalty by buying Japanese. By 1968 when the Country Buggy went on sale, much of the postwar stigma against Japanese products was gone, and a Datsun or Toyota was the natural choice if you wanted something smaller than a Holden. Increasingly it was only the diehards who bought an Austin, Morris or Hillman. Or even a Volkswagen. As a young person, we wanted modern, we wanted it all. What we didn’t want was a holdover from our parents’ wartime era. From my teenage observations it was mostly older people like my Uncle Jack who’d had them previously who bought new Volkswagens. The Cadillac syndrome…..
If the Country Buggy had hit the market five or ten years earlier it could have been a great success, but by 1968 it seemed like something designed for an Earlier Australia, not the modern era. Maybe not too little, but certainly too late.
The last place you would expect to see a Kubelwagen,
At a Classic Cars & Coffee in Perth,Western Australia!!!
The guys that bring it also dress in Afrika Corp uniforms when they bring it down.
I am late to the party, but I finally had some time to read this article. What a phenomenal piece Don! This is a VW I knew very little about. What an interesting history and well researched article. Thanks for this wonderful piece.