In one of those weird coincidences, Volkswagen of America is celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Beetle in the United States just as the last VW Type 2 (aka the Volkswagen bus) ever made, which was assembled in Brazil on December 20, 2013, arrived at the vintage vehicle museum in VW Commercial Vehicles’ headquarters in Hanover, Germany. The coincidence is that importing VW Beetles to America and building the VW bus were both ideas that originated in the mind of one man, someone who didn’t even work for Volkswagen, Dutch car dealer Ben Pon.
Ben Pon’s father Mijndert opened up a shop in Amersfoort selling sewing machines in 1898. A few years later he added Opel bicycles, both pedal operated and motorized, to the store’s lineup and in the 1920s the firm started selling Ford and Opel automobiles along with Continental tires. In 1931, Ben and his brother Wijnand took over the shop and renamed it Pon’s Automobielhandel. After the end of World War II, in need of transportation the British occupation forces put the Volkswagen works in Wolfsburg back into production. Impressed with the quality of the VW Type 1 sedan, aka der Käfer, the Beetle, Ben Pon arranged a meeting with the British authorities running Volkswagen in April 1947, hoping to import VWs to the Netherlands. Later that year, in August, that country became VW’s first export market when the Pons were named general importer for the brand, bringing in 51 Beetles in that first year, selling the first Volkswagens to be sold outside of Germany. The following year, they also started importing Porsches.
By 1949, the postwar American economy was starting to boom and the farsighted Ben Pon decided to try his hand at selling cars in the United States. He exported the first Beetle that was shipped to the U.S. and accompanied it, hoping to make a distribution deal. Unfortunately he could not find a partner. While it cannot be proven that Pon sold the first Volkswagen in the U.S., part of VW lore is a story that he used the Beetle that he had imported as payment to cover an unpaid hotel bill. Pon returned to Holland where selling Beetles and eventually Microbuses to the Dutch made him one of the richest people in the Netherlands. Following up on Pon’s idea, New York based Max Hoffman started to import Beetles to the U.S. in earnest in 1950, being successful enough in establishing the brand that Volkswagen of America was set up, and the factory took over importing and distributing Beetles here.
Going back to that April 23, 1947 meeting with the Brits running Volkswagen at the time, while at the VW works, he noticed a “Plattenwagen”, an odd looking utility vehicle with a flatbed, based on Type 1 mechanicals. As he was negotiating an import deal, he took out his notebook and started sketching. Europe was rebuilding and there was a need for commercial vehicles. Suitable for a rebuilding economy, a small van would be perfect for companies just getting off the ground. Pon drew out a box shaped cabin over the rear engined Beetle chassis, putting the driver and passenger in a cabover position at the extreme front of the vehicle. While not a large vehicle, it could carry a large amount of cargo (or passengers) in the space in between the driver and the drivetrain. Pon specified that it should have an empty weight of 750 kilograms with an equal freight capacity. He gave the sketch to his contacts at VW. At the time it was just an idea, the Wolfsburg factory was operating at capacity building Beetles.
By 1949, Heinrich Nordhoff was running Volkswagen. Nordhoff and technical director Alfred Haesner liked Pons’ idea of a Beetle based van. Development costs would be low because it would share many components with the Type 1 and they gave the project a green light. When some capacity was freed up a prototype known at the Type 29 was fabricated in just three months. It proved to be a little more expensive to make than anticipated since the stock Type 1 platform chassis was not strong enough and a new ladder chassis based unibody was developed. To allow the stock 25 horsepower VW flat four to power a 3,000 lb vehicle, VW engineers re-purposed the reduction gear used in the Type 81, the wartime Kubelwagen.
Though the early prototypes had terrible aerodynamics, with wind tunnel testing that resulted in body changes like the split “vee” windshield, the production Type 2 had a cd of 0.44, better than the Beetle’s 0.48. Nordhoff signed off on production in May of 1949 and the first Type 2 rolled off the assembly line on November 12, 1949, making this year also the 65th anniversary of VW’s first production small van.
Two models were initially offered, the Kombi, which had side windows and removable seats in the hold, and the Commercial, which had no side glass and was strictly a cargo van. The Microbus was added in May 1950, joined by the Deluxe Microbus and an ambulance model the following year, along with a single cab pickup version in 1952.
Early air-cooled Volkswagens have been getting serious money in recent auctions, with “barndoor” Type 2s and the 21 and 23 window Samba versions of the Microbus fetching truly silly six-figure prices. Ben Pon would probably smile at the prices the economical vehicles that he championed can demand today. He was just trying to provide simple transportation to the people and businesses of postwar Europe and later the United States. In doing so he’s justifiably credited with two of the best automotive ideas of the 20th century. Appropriately, this spring the first Barndoor Gathering & Vintage VW Show will be held in Ben Pon’s hometown of Amersvoort.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS