What A Short, Strange Truck It Was - Air-Cooled VW Pickups

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
what a short strange truck it was air cooled vw pickups

It’s funny how it sometimes takes a while to recognize something familiar. In the mid-1980s, when my daily driver was a slightly hi-po’d 1972 VW Type 2, I was driving a work vehicle from the Detroit area to Toledo to pick up a part. As I drove down I-75 and got closer to Ohio, I noticed one Volkswagen Bus traveling north in the opposite direction — and then another. “That’s unusual,” I thought. By then air-cooled Vee Dubs weren’t terribly common, and *Transporters were less common than Beetles. Then a Vanagon passed by, but, as I said, this was the 1980s and Vanagons were still being sold new and didn’t think much about it until I saw a few more Type 2s, including some older split-windows. Was there a VW club convention going on? I once drove to Cincinnati and I passed a large group of MG enthusiasts on their way to a meet.

I didn’t reach facepalm status till I’d gotten off the interstate onto a county road to my destination. That’s when I saw a wildly painted, 1950s vintage International Harvester school bus — also traveling north — festooned with big decals of roses, broken wheels and skulls. Not fast enough to keep up at highway speeds, it was using the slower two lane roads. “Ah, that’s right, we have tickets to see the Grateful Dead at Pine Knob tonight.”

That night, when we pulled into the parking lot at the concert we parked amidst a row of Buses. Over in the part of the Dead parking lot scene called Shakin’ Street, where all the T-shirts, food and chillum vendors were, even more Type 2s were parked. I’m guessing that the guy who managed to shoehorn a propane-fired commercial pizza oven into his Bus back then may now be operating a food truck in San Francisco, or he’s retired.

Over the Independence Day weekend just past, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead put on a series of farewell concerts at Chicago’s Soldier Field, so maybe this is an appropriate time to do a post on VW Type 2s. Say the phrase “ hippie bus” to someone and they’re more likely to visualize a VW Bus than something like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ Further, kin to that IH struggling to make it out of Ohio. Pixar’s animated “Cars” movie features a VW Bus named Fillmore, a hippie voiced by George Carlin. The VW Bus was so closely associated with the Grateful Dead and its fans, that when Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack (while in rehab for his longtime heroin addiction) in 1995, Volkswagen published memorial advertisements featuring a drawing of a split-window VW Bus shedding a tear.

Jerry Garcia was still in elementary school when Dutch VW importer Ben Pon originated the idea of a van based on the Type I Beetle. Postwar Europe was rebuilding and there was a need for small commercial vehicles. The Type 2 was introduced in 1949 in both panel van and passenger “Kombi” versions. In 1952, a single cab pickup was introduced. The sides of the pickup bed were hinged, to aid in loading and also let it function as a flat-bed if needed. There was additional enclosed storage under the bed, in front of the rear mounted powertrain. In 1956 the double cab pickup was added to the lineup, later to be followed by one with a wider bed. All in all, more than 30 variants of the Type 2 were made.

By the time members of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions morphed into the Warlocks and then started playing in the band known as the the Grateful Dead in 1965, those commercial VW vehicles were becoming rare. Kombis and Westphalia campers were as popular as ever, but VW was scaling back on its commercial vehicle sales in the United States. That’s because in the early 1960s, to protect their domestic farmers, France and Germany enacted tariffs on chickens imported from the United States. At the time, Volkswagens were some of the more visible German imports in the States so in late 1963, President Lyndon Johnson retaliated with tariffs on brandy to get back at the French and on light commercial vehicles to get back at the Germans. Also, the UAW lobbied for the so-called “Chicken Tax” as a way of reducing competition with trucks made by their members. Within a year, VW commercial vehicle sales in the U.S. dropped by two-thirds. By the end of the decade, VW stopped importing non-passenger Type 2s entirely.

A generation of shade tree mechanics learned to wrench from How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Here, an owner shows how easy it is to replace an exhaust gasket.

As a result, air-cooled Volkswagen panel pickup trucks are pretty rare on this side of the pond these days, particularly the pickups. The “bay window” versions introduced in 1968 are even rarer. Well, that is, unless you’re at a vintage Volkswagen show. The annual Vintage VW show held in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park is one of those events that’s penciled in for my attendance every year, otherwise I’d lose some oddball car cred. This year, instead of checking out grey-market Mexican Beetles, I concentrated on the pickups. My intention was to write about how rare they are but in reality they were far from the rarest vehicles there. The show had only one Type 34 Karmann Ghia on display while there were about a half dozen different pickups, single and double cabs, including a 1968 double cab, which has to be very rare in the United States

Deadheads and movies like “Little Miss Sunshine” and the aforementioned “Cars” have kept the iconic vehicle, well, an icon. A 23-window, split-window Samba sold for over $200,000 at Barrett-Jackson a few years back and ever since then VW Buses have started fetching silly money. A 21-window 1960 Kombi sold for $150,000 in February in Australia.

Even vintage commercial VW vehicles are appreciating in value. You can probably expect to pay five figures for a vintage VW pickup in nice shape. If you’re just looking for something fun to play with you can find a driver with some rust for much less. This very rare ’74 DoKa (for DoppelKabine, double cab) on Hemmings’ site looks to be a very nice 65K survivor with a rebuilt engine, but it’s also almost $23,000. This ’68 double cab at eBaymotors with an as-yet uncompleted restoration has a buy-it-now price of $22K.

*About nomenclature. Officially it was the Type 2, the Beetle being a VW Type 1, and VW called it the Bulli when it was introduced, and that applied to both passenger and commercial versions. It seems that Kombi was used for passenger versions. Samba was a high-trim version of the 21- and 23-window Buses. Transporter was also used, though that nameplate has lived beyond the Type 2, with both the Vanagon and Eurovan wearing that designation.

(Author’s note: It’s off topic to this post, but there’s another automotive connection to the Grateful Dead. In the song Sugar Magnolia, lyricist Robert Hunter wrote the lyric, “jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive.” Bob Weir always sings it the way most people pronounce Willys, like Will-ease, but Willys founder John Willys is said to have articulated his name as Will-is.)

Photos by the author. You can see the full galleries here.

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 get a parallax view 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.

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2 of 24 comments
  • VolandoBajo VolandoBajo on Jul 19, 2015

    Have to say this...my early cars and wrenching were heavily VW-centric. And in the course of things, I once owned both a crew cab pickup and a single row pickup VW. The crew cab was great camping vehicle (mostly tent camping), but blew a rebuilt engine while I was 500 miles from home, and as I was just barely starting my career, I couldn't afford to spring for another rebuild of unknown reliability, so I sold it cheap and took a (Trailways) bus back home. I wish I had that pickup today, and not just for the resale value. It would have been an awesome DD, especially with a well built up engine. Other odd similar vehicles included a standard VW bus, and a three quarter ton GMC panel truck. But the crew cab VW was a favorite. My 21 year old son is starting a lawncare and snow removal business. The double cab wouldn't be much in the winter, but would be an awesome lawncar vehicle, with no need for a trailer. Oh, well...if I had everything I ever owned that I wish I still had today, my largish back yard would be a warehouse/garage full of memorabilia, I suppose.

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jul 21, 2015

    I saw one of these trucks at work once (someone just drove it in that day), and it was so cool I photographed it. Blue and white, with built in cargo boxes on the sides. Of course I have since lost that photograph, somewhere in phone land.

  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.
  • El scotto Tesla has one team making EV's because that is all Tesla does. Farley -rolls eyes- decided to split Ford into two huge warring factions: ICE vs EV. Hey Jimbo, it says "FORD" on the buildings.Lord only knows what GM did internally because it's GM. I'm betting it's like Ford pitting ICE vs EVs. With GM being GM every existing division will be divided.Stellantis will keep building Challengers and Rams. Someday they may figure out that Jeep is the fugu fish of the automotive sushi world and unload to some Chinese. EV's? no, not really.If this site was The Truth About HVAC (TTAH) some on here would tell us that central heating and air causes unknown illnesses, will be bad, and cause a degradation of our nation's moral fiber. By golly they shoveled coal and carry ash buckets and that shouldn't change.