The Birth Of The VW Bus: From First Sketch To Production

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
the birth of the vw bus from first sketch to production

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:

Join the conversation
2 of 23 comments
  • Bobbysirhan Next thing you know, EV drivers will be missing the freedom to travel on their own schedules instead of their cars'.
  • Cprescott I'm not surprised by this behavior - it is consistent with how owners of Honduhs, Toyoduhs, or Mazduhs drive. Without fail, these are the consistently obtuse drivers on the road.
  • MaintenanceCosts Timely question as this happened to me just this morning. The answer was "my kids were engaged in a stupid fight in the back seat." I was trying to drive and keep them from killing each other at once, and I cut off a pedestrian in a crosswalk while making a left turn. Thankfully I wasn't close enough to create serious danger, but it was a jerk driving move.
  • Dave M. "81 million supposedly". Landslide according to some statisticians.
  • SCE to AUX I drive an electric Hyundai, so by definition I am a Bad and Annoying Driver.