By on April 13, 2010

Here’s the very sketch that gave birth to the VW Bus. Dutch Ben Pon was visiting the VW factory in 1947, which was then controlled by the British Occupational Forces. Interested in buying some early Beetles to import to the Netherlands, Pon saw an improvised boxy parts mover on the factory grounds, and the light bulb went off.

The “Plattenwagen” (flat bed truck) made him appreciate the intrinsic flexibility of the VW layout, and his sketch envisioned a compact van, weighing 750 kg (1650 lbs) that could carry that much again in cargo weight. He shares his idea with the British managers, but they are too busy trying to keep up with Beetle demand.

But the brilliance of Pon’s idea won’t die, and after Heinz Nordhoff becomes the Chief of VW, the design is revived, and two prototypes built. But the Beetles platform chassis is not up to the job, so a complete redesign is needed, with a ladder-type frame unitized with the body. But when the blunt body is sent for aerodynamic testing, it proves to be the proverbial brick, which is a significant issue when all of 24 hp are on tap.

A revised front end on this scale model dramatically improves the coefficient of drag, to .44, which is even  a bit better than the Beetle (obviously, the total drag is greater due to the larger frontal area).  Nordhoff approves the Type 2 for production, based on the first rolling prototypes from 1949 (below).

Production begins, initially with the cargo carrying Transporter, followed by the Kombi, which features some windows and two removable rear seats.

In 1950, the first Microbus (Samba) appeared, with windows all round, and optional roof windows so favored by sightseeing buses in Europe and collectors today.

The VW bus’ remarkable space efficiency and clever design is best appreciated as a passenger, with its tall upright seats and superb views; or of course with a nice cutaway, like this:

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23 Comments on “The Birth Of The VW Bus: From First Sketch To Production...”

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    I notice the size of the emblems that manufacturers put on the front of their cars increasing in size each year and I wonder how much larger they will get.

    But then I see the frisbee-sized VW on the front of this thing. Is that the largest emblem ever put on a production car?

  • avatar

    Whenever Paul waxes poetic about these all I can think of is the old Car Talk Columns were someone would ask the guys about buying a hippie bus and making some romantic cross country trek. They are always advised against it cause of the old “your legs are the crush zone” in a VW Bus.

    • 0 avatar

      Didn’t Iacocca once remark, “You shouldn’t get to the accident before your engine does?”

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting to hear another person talk about Car talk / Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

      Its almost evident that the vehicles have no crash protection.

      I can think of a dozen current vehicles that have the same issues..

      But what I was also hoping for.. is a couple of the recent m.y2000 renditions of the VW Bus..

      Looked far better than that Chrapsler garbage.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s what VW teased everybody with a few years back. I saw it in the sheetmetal at the Detroit Auto Show and I know it would have sold better than the Rouatan or whatever that re-badged Chrysler is.

    • 0 avatar


      That is what garbage looks like.

    • 0 avatar

      “Didn’t Iacocca once remark, “You shouldn’t get to the accident before your engine does?””

      He might of done, but so what? He’s no more qualified than my mum to make such an (utterly wrong as it happens) assessment. Just because he made some strategic corporate decisions it doesn’t make him some kind of structural engineering guru.

  • avatar
    Samuel L. Bronkowitz

    “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse Micro-bus…”

    C. W. McCall

  • avatar

    The world’s worst song and movie (but for some reason I watch it every time it’s on). I too loved the whole concept as a kid as well. (but then again I thought, at one time, being the dude hanging off the back of the garbage truck, hanging out with elroy, listening to the theme song from sanford and son, would have been the greatest job in the world too)

  • avatar

    The one with the roof windows is unaccountably cool, but unless they make one out of carbon fiber, I wouldn’t get in it. Thinking of being in that hurtling along a cliff edge doesn’t seem like it would be a great advertisement – though given the safety of cars in general back then, perhaps the quick death offered by the nonexistent roll protection would be a blessing…

  • avatar

    as most know even stubborn egr suckers with thier “FWD lasting forever”… the bus started off with 24hp, crash zones were not much of a quibble..and as for Iacocca and his comment.. the bus is gonna outlive him too..I wouldlove to rip a k-car in half with a 90hp any angle he chooses..

  • avatar

    I fulfilled my (temporary) hippy destiny in one of those.

    Having crashed my BMW 1600 one too many times, a friend suggested he would take it off my hands and connect me to a running Bus as a trade.

    So off we go to his new age boarding school in New Hampshire. On arrival, sure enough, was a slightly worn, but running Bus with that smell that VW interiors get when stored in a barn. . . distinct.

    Like a lemming following some kind of instruction manual, before I knew it, I had a the thing packed full of friends heading to a Grateful Dead show. High jinks ensued for much of that summer. It was the perfect party vehicle, seriously slow, with a nice view of the road, and that sitting directly on top of the front wheels really made you aware of the road (but what was going on at the back end was anybody’s guess.)

    Years later, I actually met a poor fellow who had become one of those who’s legs became the crash zone in one. So, yeah, romantically speaking, a great car. Glad I survived it though.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Back in the 60s I drove one, fully loaded, from Chicago to the east coast. It had a top speed of about 62 mph, and every time a truck blew past it, it jumped about 3 feet to the right. If you got in an accident in one of those things, you were in trouble. Its biggest virtue was that it was cheap and could carry a lot of people and stuff, but, as a vehicle, it was just plain bad.

  • avatar

    Not as bad as you might think. Avoid head-on crashes of course… Safer than a motorcycle anyhow – just.

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