(first posted 4/25/2013) This is why I live in Eugene: So that I can run into an ancient VW Transporter with a heavy load of wood at the lumberyard, just a half-dozen parking spaces over from the 1986 Caprice Brougham del’Patina. No wonder I look forward to picking up supplies while Alec stays behind and does the heavy lifting. Both of these vehicles are poster-children for the essence of CC: old original cars and trucks dripping with patina and still earning their keep. And why exactly do I have such powerful feelings for them?
I don’t think it would take a lot of therapy or introspection to answer that. I guess I’m just a natural historic preservationist. I saved eight old houses from the wrecking ball by moving them and fixing them up, but not too much so. Admittedly, age undoubtedly plays into it. When I was younger, my yen to restore and make old things look all shiny and new was strong. Now I appreciate the survivors who wear their age and battle scars proudly. Who cares what anybody thinks, anyway? What a relief to to get over that neurosis.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate nicely restored cars and other things. But there’s so much history on a veteran, and much of that is often lost in a restoration. Not surprisingly, the wind has been changing about restoring old cars, and the demand and prices for historically significant cars has been growing dramatically in recent years. And they’re being appreciated more for just that, and not just exotics with racing pedigree or such.
Does that apply to an old VW transporter? Sure; it has a story to tell, and it does so right on its side, in the faded lettering. I struggled to read it, but could make out “556 Mission” right away. Of course, it’s from San Francisco, which helps explain the nature of its surface rust. It’s a very benign climate, but the touch of salt in the sea air does tend to encourage surface rust if the paint wears away.
I struggled to make out the rest of the sign, so juiced up the image to see if it would help. “Robert Morry inc Office Furnishings…Decorating”. I couldn’t quite make out the rest of the address or phone, but its enough to tell us a few things.
Like the fact that 556 Mission doesn’t exist anymore, since it was redeveloped at some point into what is now Golden Gate University.
And that Robert Morry, Inc. still exists, but is apparently inactive. Obscure details, but not ones that we’d know if it had been repainted.
And even if google maps didn’t confirm it, it would be easy to ascertain that this van spent most of its life sitting outside the offices of Robert Morry, Inc, because the patina on what would have been its north side is drastically less than on the sunny south side. I’ve seen this pattern on quite a few cars; houses do the same thing. UVs are the most destructive force of all.
The rocker panels have given up their earthly veil. But that’s a pretty common occurrence on these, and not necessarily a sign of stage II cancer.
There’s one thing I haven’t yet ascertained about this Transporter: its exact age. Which is quite a bit harder on a VW Transporter/bus than it is on the sedan. There’s no definitive clue, except that it’s a late fifties to early sixties version. So I’m calling it a ’59. (Update: it’s a 1961) Why? Because that was a very good year for VW’s trucks, just before Detroit responded to their rapidly growing success with their own compact vans and pickups.
Volkswagen was doing quite a booming business with their commercial trucks in the second half of the fifties. There was nothing remotely like it it on the market; the closes thing were panel trucks, based on pickups. But the VW Transporter’s low purchase price and operating costs made it very attractive.
Everything from plumbers to diapers arrived in VW Transporters, as well as office furnishings. It’s good to remember that during this era, home delivery was much more popular than today. grocery stores delivered, as well as just about any business. Folks didn’t drive as much, and the housewife was usually at home; sometimes without a car. The VW Transporter was there to do the errands for her.
In case you hadn’t noticed, our CC Transporter has the rather uncommon double-door option. It was particularly handy for delivering on one-way streets, which San Francisco has plenty of. As well as steep hills, but that’s not really a problem, as long as one isn’t in a hurry. The VW Transporter could climb an almost 25% grade in first gear. That pretty much covers them all, except for a couple that are steeper, but one-way downhill only.
VW’s commercial trucks survived the onslaught of the 1960 Corvair Corvan (above) and Ford Econoline reasonably well enough. But what did it in was politics. In 1963, President Johnson imposed the “chicken tax”, a 25% tariff on commercial trucks and vans, as well as a few other goods, in retaliation for European barriers to American chicken exports.
Analysis of LBJ’s tapes shows that the reason light trucks were targeted was a political quid pro quo that had nothing to do with chickens. From wikipedia: In January 1964, President Johnson attempted to convince United Auto Workers‘ president Walter Reuther not to initiate a strike just before the 1964 election and to support the president’s civil rights platform. Reuther in turn wanted Johnson to respond to Volkswagen‘s increased shipments to the United States.
What else is new? And yet the chicken tax lives on, exactly a half century later. Because VW’s trucks were unibodies, there was no way to circumvent it unlike the Japanese, who sent their trucks without beds to the US. The only option would have been to do what Ford does with the Transit Connect: import it as a passenger van, and then tear out the seats and windows. VW Transporters and pickups almost disappeared after 1963; one could find them at VW dealers as parts chasers.
The inside has obviously been spared the effects of California sunshine. Looks positively youthful still, actually.
Eight foot lumber fits in nicely. There’s always that big roof rack too. Will someone remind me why those vents are at the rear? I know it wasn’t like GM’s 1971 vents for their forced ventilation system. Not a problem in San Fran, but I can imagine them not helping much in Minnesota, not that the heater did much anyway.
That’s a provocative exhaust pipe, but it suits this bus rather perfectly. Much of this Transporter may be original, but I’d wager that’s not the case in the engine compartment. 1200cc buses are pretty trying in modern circumstances; there’s a reason why the 1500cc engine was embraced so quickly and enthusiastically when it became available in 1962. In the US, it was made standard almost instantly. Being able to hit 65 instead of 58 mph was appreciated on America’s fast highways.
A crustacean has found a home on the rear bumper; so what’s its story?
It’s all great, until you notice the cancerous-looking growth on the rear end, under the bumper (fart can).
Transporter are one of the few vehicles that look good to my eye witha well worn look. definatly nice to see this kne still earning its keep. In this region of Canada these rigs have all but disapeared as rust ate them from every angle, a regularly used and not undercoated one would have been lucky to survive for ten years here.
I’d date it around the mid to late 50s bullet front park lamps and single tail lights, very popular amongst tuners and restorers but as a working van when new nar they werent that popular here there were plenty of more reliable choices to buy from Ford, Bedford and Commer to name a few. The VW has no advantages over its opposition and several glaring disadvantages over conventional vans, the lack of a low loading floor in the back is the most obvious and a poor turning circle being another. The short engine life in VWs must have cut into sales somewhat as the only place VWs and the parts to maintain them have ever been reasonably priced is the US Dak Daks are notoriously expensive to keep running here.
It’s amazing, in hindsight, how VW could get away with selling such an underpowered commercial vehicle in this country. I’ll never forget when I saw an 18-wheeler rapidly overtake a VW bus on a 2-lane uphill road in Cajon Pass.
Porsche solved this with their B32 Vanagon.
I have never really looked at these before. The cargo doors on both sides was a really great idea, something that minivans in the US did not come up with until the 90s.
I would love to get a look at sales figures from, say, 1957-64. I would suspect that the Corvan hit these a little, but that the Econoline would have probably hit these pretty hard. The ability to load things straight in from the rear would seem to have been a big selling point that the VW could not match. Also, I doubt that the Econoline would have been any more expensive.
It’s a shame that the government had to inject itself into the market. Certainly there were some for whom this would have been the perfect vehicle. But sorry, you can’t have one.
And as a matter fact, sliding doors were an option beginning in late 1963, as were sliding doors on both sides.
I remember talking back to the commercial in the 90s when Chrysler claimed to be the first with dual sliding doors. Nope, VW, 1963.
Sales did dip in 1961, when the American competition came into the market but it rebounded in ’62 and steadily increased until the Chicken tax went into affect. However, even then, the sales numbers were still respectable as by then, Americans were buying more passenger and Camper Type 2s rather than the commercial models. The passenger Buses were sold as “station wagons” in order to circumvent the truck taxes.
Double sliding doors have been a common feature on Japanese vans for decades US makers really do need to upgrade to compete internationally.
The Corvair vans also had the option of doors on both sides, even on the passenger Greenbrier, but they are pretty rare.
My parents bought one of these brand new in 1961. Same colour but a window van. Dad insulated and paneled the inside and added a used transit bus seat in the back and off camping we went all over BC, Washington, and Alberta. My sister and I slept nose to foot across the shelf over the engine and Mom & Dad & baby sister on the floor. Lots of problems with the reduction gears and camshaft…Dad said it was the worst vehicle they ever had! They traded a 1959 Beetle that he always said was the best he ever had. Dad always talked about the steepness of mountain passes as to wether he had to use second gear or not!
Bullet turn signals, low hinge cargo doors. It’s a 1961.
To be more specific, it’s a late ’61 since it has the low hinge cargo doors. I think those started in Dec ’60 IIRC.
On another note, For the first time I got CC Clue correct! If there’s one thing I know when I see it, it’s a split window Type 2!
The VW did have some advantages over it’s American competition.
Here’s an interesting comparison from 1961.
Being that aircooled VWs are my forte and my niche in them is the split window Buses, I have a feeling I’ll be glued to this article all day long.
Reading the Carlife article, it seems like the hot setup would have been a Greenbrier with the available 4-speed. How could GM have allowed a Powerglide bus to participate in the comparison? The editors were definitely VW-friendly, considering that they stated the automatic Greenbrier had the same acceleration capabilities as the VW 4-speed, when in fact it was much quicker and faster even without the effort required to maximize the VW’s capabilities. I still relish the thought of a world where LBJ never mattered.
Oh and Paul, those vents were simply for ventilation. If it was a bench seat model, it had a divider sealing off the cab from the cargo area and I think it was some kind of regulation.
9 times out of 10 if you see a Panel with those vents it’s a bench seat. If it had the walk-through cab option those vents usually aren’t there. As with all VWs, there were some oddballs, but thats usually the case.
A “fowl” aspect of the Chicken Tax was the competitive advantage of American factory-farmed chickens. This is the sort of thing muckraking journalists can build their careers writing about.
Muckraking journalists…remember those?
Had a 56 and agree that this is later. Put one of those 1500s in a bug and it sure didn’t last. I thought the 1200 was a good under stressed engine. 1300 was only for 66 in the states and I liked mine. 1500 seemed to overstress the blocks and IMO they were not long lasting. 1200 lasted a long time and 1600 does too.
I think vw had their act together for this country when they developed the 1600 single port engine. When they went to the pancake I lost interest. Safety considerations and smog is probably what it took to kill it considering it’s life in mexico and other places. I liked these vans but I don’t want one. I used to but practicality has overtaken me. Yup, you could talk me into a corvair.
Just a little postscript here and not that it totally applies, but this is what our IT guy showed up in today. He uses this for virtually every call because he can. It’s a 63 but he no longer uses a 1200. He has a porsche transaxle and a 1914 engine and a 12 volt system. Thats a 1600 block with oversized jugs and heads.
Is it a classic? It sure started out as one and I for sure wouldn’t kick it out of bed. Gotta spend the money somewhere. Hate to lose my ac in the Houston Summer, otherwise I’d be happy to drive this.
The picture is rightside up on my computer. Sorry.
1600 twin port motors crack the oil gallery behind the flywheel its a casting fault thankyou alledged German quality the only cure is new engine cases from Brazil those guys at least cast blocks properly. The only GOOD VW engine is the suitcase series 1700, 1800,2000. Or the olde 1200 its only real problem was no power on hills.
I was puzzling over the anomalous door hinge placement in the clue, and the LH side door resolves this.
The “chicken tax” really bothers me because I love the VW double cab and very few made it in. However you do see some odds and ends around and my neighborhood was home to “bay window” high roof cargo van for several years.
Oddly enough, a 1968-72 era Transporter appeared in Imperial Beach, California in 1992. In a used-car lot…I was assigned to Coronado NAS, down the road.
Oh, how I wanted it! I’m guessing it was a 1968 Mexican, and thus legal to import…how the Chicken Tax did on used trucks, I have no clue.
That one was faded-paint but solid. Another lust lost…
Great original van isn’t it ,these are worth big bucks now a samba went for £250.000 that’s a lot of change my dad had a Citroen Dylan van for 20 years he was a builder and that van was ..abused..but it kept going and going and going ..I regularly see a very battered 1962 commer van still earning its keep..like this vow still going after all these years ..google image commer van ..you’ll love it
Yes Sambas go for huge coin, but you can buy repop roofs and corner window inserts and build your own in fact to restore a VW split window bus all you really need is a chassis number the entire thing can be bought new from specialists od course the more of one you can find makes it cheaper and easier.
Looks like a 59 to me. I had one just like this in white in high school in 1973. Bought it for $300 and drove it through three engines and a trans axle by 1975. The reason I say 59 are the “nipple” front turn lights combined with the small back window and the small rear tail lights. Would love to have it again. Please let me know if it ever comes up for sale.
My Dad had a 61 VW camper , nice vehicle, but complained about the low power on hills. It was his first experience with a VW and drove it in a strong head wind, slowing it down like driving up a hill. He didn’t shift down, and fried the engine. The bullet turn signal lights were changed to larger flatter ones in 63. They also upgraded to larger tail lights that year, and a larger 1500 cc engine. The bigger rear hatch and window would have started in 65. My dad also had a 67 blue an white van, last year of the split windshield, 1st year of the back up lights. We drove all over Europe in that van for 3 summers, and never had any problems with it.
There was once a company in California that put Corvair engines in these….or was it the Porsche flat six ?
Hey Paul, an edit is needed to “VW Transporters and pickups almost disappeared after 1063.”. That would have been before the Battle of Hastings!
(Delete this after editing)
My uncle had what might have been a Samba for his dry cleaning business.
He was forever counting the windows to see if it could pass as a passenger vehicle. Enough windows & he could access the “parkways” that, otherwise, restricted commercial vehicles.
CC audio effect: As I was reading the above, my neighbor started up his ’69 bus and drove off. It needs a tuneup, and my old VW valve-setting fingers itch every time I hear it.
Interesting article, the photo of the cargo van with the engine parts inside really caught my eye, the workman standing by the open side doors looks likes he is about to unload what appears to be a Walker 88 jack, I have one that looks just like it. I picked mine up at a swap meet a couple of years ago, very handy jack, and made in Racine, Wisconsin….again good article…and loved seeing the Walker jack…
I had 2, 3 or 4, depending on your definition of ownership. They were way cool, could carry an absurd amount of weight on the chassis, springs and suspension, but using an engine/tranny designed for a 1700 pound car in a one ton truck with the frontal profile of a billboard just didn’t lead itself to longevity, or performance. Maybe in a city or even suburban environment, but while some of them were semi capable of freeway speed, driving with your foot on the floor, as I did, most of the time, just isn’t a recipe for longevity. They did have some neat features like the overhead fresh air ventilation, and a very nice camper option, but the drivetrain just wasn’t up to this country and driving styles
BTW, the vents in back were for the engine, and theoretical cooling thereof. Aircooled, have to bring the air in from somewhere.
I have a 61 German 6 door transporter but with widows all the way around and a wood and sliding glass top partition.it was a taxi. it has a metal cover over the bottom of the car so none of it guts show. I painted Captain America and the mad hatter on the sides as a kid.looking for a shop to restore it