By on July 17, 2015

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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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24 Comments on “What A Short, Strange Truck It Was – Air-Cooled VW Pickups...”


  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    My father in law is an old hippie….who now showers and what not and goes to work everyday and has for quite sometime now, 40 years or better. But he really wants one of these with the three doors, the precursor to the modern day crew cab.

    • 0 avatar
      RobertRyan

      Most “Pickup Trucks” in Europe for want of a better word are Cab Chassis Variants of Vans. They are vastly more capable than the old “Put Put ” Beetle

      They do all sorts of work and range up to a 15,400lb GVWR, 23,000lb GCVWR versions

  • avatar
    Pch101

    I would think that the parking lot area would have been Shakedown Street (based upon the song and album title), not Shakin’ Street.

    That particular song was the Dead’s nod to disco. Not a personal favorite, but quite popular, anyway.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakedown_Street

    • 0 avatar

      You’re correct. I deliberately don’t own that album. The Dead pretty much renounced it – Mickey Hart said it was made by plumbers.

      It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve been at a Grateful Dead show parking lot and and I confused it with the MC5’s Shakin’ Street, which is definitely not disco.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Deadhead snobs take pride in not listening to the albums at all, so there’s no problem there. (I suspect that they were just too cheap to spend money on them.)

        I like the albums for the most part. That particular one is mostly a miss, but it does have “Fire on the Mountain.”

        There are plenty of free legal concert bootlegs on the Internet Archive if you’re interested. You can have thousands of hours of Dead shows for free if you want them.

        • 0 avatar

          It wasn’t that fans were cheap, they spent plenty of money of Maxell and TDK cassettes and on tickets and travel to shows, it’s just that the studio albums rarely were as good as the band could be live. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are the exceptions, but for the most part, the best versions of their original songs and covers were performed live.

          I was never super serious as a taper, but back in the day I recorded the Dead, Bob Dylan and a few other bands with a WM6DC Sony Pro Walkman. My Nakamichi tape deck needs repair so I haven’t recently played any of the 400 hrs of live tape that I mostly traded for. The Sony still works so if I really wanted to, I suppose I could patch it in to my stereo system, but with about 600 CDs and about 550 LPs it’s not like I can’t find something to listen to.

          In any case, I recently read something that a prima ballerina said. A film of balet isn’t balet, it’s a film. Recordings, even of live shows, aren’t the same as going to hear and see live music. If you live in a decent sized city, there’s probably an open jam that you can go to for free every night of the week.

          Even if it’s just a bar band, go hear some live music this week.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    I really needed to see this. I’ve got to get back to work on my ’79 Type 2 out behind the barn. Thanks.

  • avatar
    skor

    Google ‘comedians in cars michael richards’ and you can see an un-restored surviving double cab still on the road.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    It’s been a while since, I’ve seen restored survivors at a car show.

    Four observations from a current owner of a 71 VW tin-top Westfalia.

    * They are a death trap – if you happen to be in frontal collision on the highway.

    * The OEM air cooler is basically maxed out at 65mph on a level interstate. Mountain passes are a different story, with more than few needing 2nd gear at 25 – 30 mph.

    * They are high maintenance vehicles. You will need to be above the base level shade tree mechanic. Parts need to be FedEx’d, if you are in a hurry.

    * The fuel system, to include carburetors, are not ethanol friendly. So at the very least upgrade those fuel lines.

    Dodge has been building mini-vans for 35 years that are more modern and without a doubt safer. I’m still waiting for them to include an independent rear suspension, along with a camper version.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      “Dodge has been building mini-vans for 35 years that are more modern and without a doubt safer. I’m still waiting for them to include an independent rear suspension, along with a camper version.”

      The closest they ever came was, up until the mid-nineties, Chrysler offered a $553 ‘Converta-Bed’ option where the second row seats folded flat into a bed that filled the entire rear area. It didn’t sell well and was eventually dropped. The little information that’s available seems to indicate the biggest problems were it eliminated the third row seats and it was very heavy, necessitating two people to remove it.

      They sort of tried again recently with the ‘Swivel-N-Go’ option which had the second row captain’s chairs swivel around with a small table installed into the floor between them and the third row seats. To say it was uncomfortable for normal sized adults is an understatement. Again, it sold poorly and was unceremoniously dropped after a few years. The failure of the Converta-Bed and Swivel-N-Go options probably means that Chrysler will never try a full-on, factory camper version of their minivan.

      There was an outfit in Canada called Venture Vans that had what looked like a nice Grand Caravan camper conversion that included a pop-top roof (a la VW Westfalia) called Illusion, but it was never sold in the US. Unfortunate because it seemed like it might have been a good product for Dodge dealers to carry in RV-centric locales.

    • 0 avatar
      CobraJet

      In the summer of 1962 there was a crash up the street from my house between a car of some sort and a VW pickup just like the one in the second picture. It was the same green color. The VW turned over on its side and the driver was ejected and killed. I still can picture that scene as all of us neighborhood kids went running up there.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      “They are a death trap – if you happen to be in frontal collision on the highway.”

      Not just on the highway. Any frontal collision above 25 mph is going to result in significant intrusion into the front seats.

      I will add that any operation in cold weather is going to require layers of clothes and gloves while driving. Air-cooling cannot deliver any useful heat to the front of the vehicle. I used to have to carry a small scraper when driving my Type 1 to clear off the frost that built up on the windshield.

      The older ones, at least, didn’t require exceptional mechanical skills in order to keep them on the road. The design was so simple that most service could be handled in the driveway with common tools, and back when I had mine, parts were readily available from Warshawsky’s. I think you could have built a complete Type 1 out of their catalog.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, the front crush zone includes your lower extremities. I drove my kids in Buses, I’d rather they not drive my grandchildren in them.

      My ’72 had a high pressure oil pump, external oil filter, and valves and plumbing to switch between an auxiliary oil cooler on the roof and a heater for the inside of the Bus that I made from a doghouse oil cooler and a 12V fan.

      High maintenance but John Muir showed that even a compleat idiot could fix them.

      Our ’91 Chrysler minivan was more than two decades more advanced than our ’72 Bus.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Ever since I first learned of kei trucks I’ve wanted those flappy-sided beds. Sure wish they’d catch on in the US.

  • avatar

    After Jerry Garcia died, in August, ’95, Golden Gate Park was full of interesting VW busses. I was there by happenstance, and I shot Ellis D’s (!) microbus, among others:

    http://motorlegends.com/artcars8.htm

  • avatar
    rudiger

    “Dodge has been building mini-vans for 35 years that are more modern and without a doubt safer. I’m still waiting for them to include an independent rear suspension, along with a camper version.”

    The closest they ever came was, up until the mid-nineties, Chrysler offered a $553 ‘Converta-Bed’ option where the second row seats folded flat into a bed that filled the entire rear area. It didn’t sell well and was eventually dropped. The little information that’s available seems to indicate the biggest problems were it eliminated the third row seats and it was very heavy, necessitating two people to remove it.

    They sort of tried again recently with the ‘Swivel-N-Go’ option which had the second row captain’s chairs swivel around with a small table installed into the floor between them and the third row seats. To say it was uncomfortable for normal sized adults is an understatement. Again, it sold poorly and was unceremoniously dropped after a few years. The failure of the Converta-Bed and Swivel-N-Go options probably means that Chrysler will never try a full-on, factory camper version of their minivan.

    There was an outfit in Canada called Venture Vans that had what looked like a nice Grand Caravan camper conversion that included a pop-top (a la VW) called Illusion, but it was never sold in the US. Unfortunate because it seemed like it might have been a good product for Dodge dealers to carry in RV-centric locales.

  • avatar
    El Hombre

    Christmas day 1975, I was on the PCH south of Santa Cruz. About 10% of the traffic were Type 2. Found out later there was a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Cruz.

    ’72 and ’73 vans were some real dogs. Only years with dual carbs from the factory. Get them five or six years down the road and the throttle shafts would egg out the carb body and cause vacuum leaks and it was impossible to get them to idle. Only fix was new carbs; no one had tooled up and was rebushing the body. That came later. Other problem was dropping exhaust valve seats and fragging the motor. My brother had a ’72 Westphalia and dropped the seat west of Jackson on I94. He fixed it and sold the mother.

    The new Transit Connect and Pro Master City are the heirs to the bus legacy. Decent fuel economy and space to actually sleep in the back. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll get one.

    • 0 avatar

      The nice thing about the ’72 Type 2s was that they had the chassis improvements like disc brakes up front and real independent suspension (i.e. no swing axles) in back, but you could still hang a Beetle engine on that transmission (I used sheet aluminum to fair in the engine tins so the air cooling worked properly). My ’72 had a 1648cc Beetle engine with a Holley Weber two barrel, dual port heads with a little work on them, a street cam and a mechanical advance distributor. It could cruise at 75-80 mph all day long.

      • 0 avatar
        El Hombre

        You built your ’72 into a ’71; that was first year with the disc brakes and the dual port 1600 engine. I built a white ’68 Kevorkian Special, with the disc brakes off a ’73 and got the dual port tin and manifold to install a dual port engine in it. The double jointed axles came out in ’68, it was the split window bus that still had the swing axle. Even had my dad send me some Fieger for Governor signs that I taped to the windows….not many in Norcal got the joke.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Type 2s were very cool but terrible vehicles for US highways. They were truly nerve-wracking to drive on the interstate, under-powered and subject to drift in even a modest breeze. I drove mine across the Mackinac Bridge once, and between the stiff crosswind and the metal grid road surface I was white-knuckled the whole way across.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    When I was about 20 had a 61 split window for a while, it was a UK version “Devon” camper .

    Stove and fridge , great for “dates”, if you get my meaning!

    Very slow, I just tried to never slow down.

    Unfortunately the frame rust was so bad I swear if you looked in the rear view mirror the rear of the van was flexing and twisting independent of the front.

    Sold it for parts for what I paid for it.

  • avatar
    VolandoBajo

    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.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    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.

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