Magic Bus: VW's Bulli or Barbie's Rolling Boutique?

March 23, 2011

Back in 2001, VW's Microbus Concept stole the show-car category at the North American International Auto Show.  Its winsome combination of heritage design cues and advanced technological features transformed the minivan from frumpy to cool.

Overwhelmed by the public's positive reaction, Volkswagen appeared to give the green light to building this streamlined breadbox on wheels.  Even Mattel got on the bandwagon.  Faster than Barbie dropped her longtime companion Ken, the toy maker offered its most-famous fashion model the ultimate travel accessory--a VW-badged and approved mini coach.

I found this scale model in my kid's collection.  Its forlorn weathered exterior houses crayons, castoff Barbie shoes and costume jewelry.  Two batteries power its horn.

From Bus to Brooke

Despite the hoopla, the people car company's leadership got metaphorical cold feet.  For instance, shortly before the production version of the retro-Microbus's debut in 2005, VW's brand chief, Wolfgang Bernhard, announced he negotiated a deal with this former boss, Chrysler's CEO Dieter Zetsche, to sell a Mopar-produced minivan.

The result was the Routan, Brooke Shields, Baby Maker 3000 and lots of disgruntled U.S. dealers.  "Dub heads," who were genuinely excited about a successor to the "Transporter" seen in Little Miss Sunshine, were baffled.  My contact at VW's logistics claims VW of America continues to pay Chrysler a fee for the minivans it originally ordered but chose not to produce.

VW of America's CEO Jonathan Browning and its COO Mark Barnes tell me they've been inundated with requests.  People want VW to bring back the 2001 Concept.  And they've also clearly stated that they'd really like to have such a vehicle; it resonates with VW's American consumers.  The problem: the firm's German parent company won't comply.

Bulli for them?

Well, things change. VW unveiled its Bulli Concept at this year's Geneva Auto Show.  Bulli is one of the old bus's nicknames.  This car show car recaptures vintage VW styling and colors but departs from the original (and 2001 Concept) in several ways:  it's smaller (think Mazda5/Ford C-Max), has two rows of bench seats and is a zero-tailpipe-emissions electric vehicle.  Conventional powertrains will fit.

VW's press release says the Bulli Concept has the potential to "establish a new, fifth brand of people carrier" complementing its lineup of European tall wagons, minivans and light trucks such as the Caddy, Touran, Sharan and Caravelle.  That notice even dares to compare the Bulli to VW's vintage Samba-style Microbus that collectors adore.

There's a big VW on its face, clean lines, uncluttered interior, and two-tone paint scheme that echo both the vintage bus and the 2001 Microbus concept.

No word on whether Mattel has first dibs.  However, with teaser talk like this, VW could make its dealers and long-time fans happy, if they actually build it.

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