Who built the first double-cab pickup? It’s debatable, since undoubtedly there were custom and coach-built ones going back quite far. But VW’s “double cabin” pickup is one of the true pioneers of the segment, and a rather iconic one at that. Of the three body styles that the VW Transporter family offered, this one splits it pretty much down the middle, since it’s really half-bus and half pickup. But that precisely is the charm of these, as well as all double-cab pickups. If you can’t decide between a van and a truck, it’s possible to get the best of both, and in one very compact package, in the case of the VW.
VW started building single cab pickups in 1952. As the story has been told, a florist went to the German coach-building firm Binz, and requested a pickup body that had both open and enclosed areas, and the VW double cab pickup was the result. VW liked what it saw, and requested more from Binz. Now the florist part is not verifiable, but the fact that Binz started building them for VW in 1953 is documented. And as can be seen here, the Binz used a wider rear door than the subsequent factory-built version.
In October of 1958, VW decided that the market for their pickup “with double cabin” was big enough to warrant building it themselves. And it obviously was cheaper to just use one of the Transporter’s double side doors than a new wider one.
This brochure is for the 1959 version, and targeted to the US market. VW Transporters and pickups sold very well during the late 50s, enough so that the infamous “Chicken tax” was the result. It was a 25% import duty on all “light trucks” in retaliation for a European tax on American chicken exports. The only “light truck” that was then being imported in any meaningful numbers was the VW, and it had caught Detroit’s attention. Sales quickly tanked. And GM and Ford brought out their own compact trucks in 1960. The Japanese eventually got around the tax by importing their pickups without a bed, and adding a US built bed. But the VW’s integrated body and bed made that essentially impossible. After 1963, the primary market for VW pickups was VW’s own dealers, who used them for parts trucks.
Not surprisingly, this double cab pickup appears to be a 1962, from the pre-chicken tax era. What suggests it’s a ’62 are the engine vents that flare out (instead of in), and the pull-type door handles, both of which were changed during the 1963 model year. I shot it a couple of years ago, at our popular Farmer’s Market, on the side where the vendors unload their trucks. The original engine would have been the 1200cc, with 40 gross, 34 net hp. Most likely, it’s long been swapped out for something bigger; typically a 1600cc from a later bus or Beetle.
The double cab’s rear door was a single one, on the curbside, naturally. Assuming you’re not parked on the left side of a closed street, that is. I assume that was reversed in RHD countries.
Of course, old VW buses were the cool vehicle to have in the late 60s and early 70s. But these double cab trucks were doubly cool, as they were always rather rare, and just so…cool. It was half bus, and half truck. What a brilliant idea? Why didn’t anyone else think of this? Of course you couldn’t put a big mattress in the back, but who cared? Some young seekers didn’t really want to have half a dozen freeloaders in the back.
Maybe just one. I was picked up hitchhiking by a guy driving one like this, and it was a good long ride; from West Branch, Iowa all the way into Western Indiana. And it was a memorable ride, because his truck ran really well, something that was not a given in those days when most young long-haired owners had been rebuilding their engines on the kitchen table, following John Muir’s directions in his bible on the subject. The results were not consistent.
This double cab scooted along at exactly 65 mph wide open, on the endless flats of Illinois. That was good, for the stock 1500cc engine he had in it. But what was really surprising to me, given how much time I had spent in VW buses, was how quiet it was.
There was a reason for that: the engine was back under the bed, and its busy little howl was not transmitted directly into the big box of a body. It was a bit of a revelation, actually. Is this why folks were so hot on these? And the rear compartment was quite roomy, with a big, tall bench seat and plenty of room to toss my backpack there along with the owner’s gear. The whole idea of a double cab pickup suddenly made gobs of sense. Why weren’t these more popular? At the time, in 1972 or so, double cab American pickups were still very rare, since only Dodge and International had been building factory-assembled versions for some years, and Ford was new to the game.
Of course, the American double cab trucks were very long, and folks just hadn’t cottoned to the idea of using them as the family hauler. The VW: 168.5 inches long. That’s all of 8″ longer than the original VW Beetle. But there’s lots of upright seating room for five adults, and a cargo bed in the back. Now that’s space efficiency we can only dream about nowadays. No wonder it’s such a cult classic. And this one has probably been restored and sold for something well over $50k by now. There’s more money on old VW trucks than there is in organic vegetables.
More VW T1 love: