Microbus: Nostalgia Rules VW?

2002 VW Jetta Wagon GLX VR6 by Dan Carney (6/3/2002)
2002 Volkswagen GTI by Anthony Duke (5/27/2002)
2003 Volkswagen Passat W8 by TCC Team (5/6/2002)

DETROIT--Volkswagen AG finally approved the production of the New Microbus. It’s due in 2005.

Does anyone care? You bet. But VW is still mum on some key details, and some answers for some critical questions: Why a Microbus? Does it make good business sense? And now that the New Beetle is struggling to keep its bulbous roof above water four years after introduction, is the market for comeback heritage vehicles really there at the volumes necessary to sell it to the accountants?

The Microbus legend

Where did it all begin? Well, in Germany of course, but much of the legend and lore of the Microbus wasn’t built on where it was built — it was built on the people who drove them.

From Alice’s Restaurant to the Grateful Deadheads to the Reverend Jim from Taxi, a let’s-call-them-unique generation of people warmed to the Transporter/Microbus, the first real minivan (that’s right, Lido), and adopted it, along with its Beetle cousin, as an icon.

Ben Pon, a Dutch importer for the U.S., proposed the original design in 1947. His drawing was a simple concept; he drew a rectangle on top of the existing Beetle platform. It’s astonishing to think that the Microbus was on the same chassis as the Beetle, and had the same engines — a nine-passenger van on the same wheelbase as the four-passenger Beetle. No wonder the driver found himself sitting forward of the front axle, virtually unprotected in a front-end crash.

Volkswagen MicrobusBuses began with the same 1131-cc engine as the Beetle, but as years passed, they gained bigger flat fours along with the other VWs. In 1956, the Deluxe Microbus had windows all around the body plus skylights and sold for $2,095. Late 1950s Microbuses came with Safari-like swing-open windshields and the panel truck versions came with doors on both sides of the body.

How they sold

Building the Microbus was fairly simple, but selling it to an unsuspecting American market raised on megacruiser station wagons was no simple feat. When introduced in the U.S. in 1950, Volkswagen advertised it as a "Station Wagon" to make it more palatable to consumers who never heard of using a van for everyday driving. Using the success of the Beetle's "Think Small" ad campaign, the Bus was marketed to people as "Think Tall."

When they first arrived, they had no competition. At first it was Eisenhower Moms and Pops who liked to go camping or had six or seven kids. But by the mid-1960s, they were showing up on college campuses and elsewhere as the choice of hippies who often painted them with house paint to reflect the passing moods and political feelings.

The vehicle was known as the Type 2, Type 1 being the Beetle, and was referred to as the Transporter. The term "Microbus" was used to describe it because the vehicle had seating for nine, 21 windows with a panned windshield and the engine in the rear.

Nearly two million vans were built between 1950 and 1967 (the first generation), but sales did not take off in the U.S. until the 1960s. By 1962, Transporters were the second best selling imported vehicles after the Beetle.

In 1967, the second generation of the Bus was released, officially called the T2. The front end was flattened, the windshield was changed to a one-pane wrap, the sliding side door was introduced and the engine was given a boost in power.

The T2 had the best year of any Volkswagen bus and sold 65,069 units in 1971. Overall 433,594 Microbuses were sold in the U.S. between 1967 and 1978.

Modern-day upgrades

2002 Volkswagen EurovanIn its many iterations since then, the VW Bus/Caravelle/EuroVan has stayed amazingly close to the original concept. Which puts it at loggerheads with the state of the American minivan market, which is engineered toward plushness, safety, and wide open spaces — something the narrow and tall Eurovan doesn’t match up against well.

But don’t say the “m’ word to VW. They have other language to describe the Microbus. “It’s all about space,” said the video produced to introduce the Microbus concept in 2001. “The space you need between a minivan and a sport utility.”

Volkswagen insiders say the hard part is going to be delivering on the idea that the Microbus is no Caravan, no Odyssey, no Windstar, no Sedona. It’s a vehicle about space for people who don’t want to be seen in a minivan, and are feeling squirmy about buying a Tahoe or Expedition.

It will have 4Motion all-wheel drive, DVD players and as much or more of the practical bins and creature comforts that hip VW aficionados expect. And with VW style — colors will pay homage to the original Microbus, with two-tone options to be sure.

One of the critical engineering challenges of the new Microbus is to keep the snub nose of the original Microbus while maintaining a strong safety rating. It can’t have VW style without the distinctive looks — and many critics suggest it can’t have those proportions and a five-star safety rating, too.

Platform choices

That VW will build it in Hanover seems to indicate that it will be built on the next generation Transporter, the T5. We know it in the U.S. as the Eurovan. VW would have to make some serious changes to the way the T5 behaves in comparison with the T4 for people to forget about minivans when driving a Microbus.

But some VW folks in the U.S. say not to jump to conclusions. “Don’t think platform,” said one VW insider, “think architecture.”

We have heard that before. Actually, we are supposed to think “joint production and modular components” when it comes to the T5/Microbus.

VW is looking to build the Microbus, the Transporter and the small European minivan, now called the Sharan, at Hanover off the same underpinnings. Those are different vehicles with different wheelbases. And the Transporter drives like a city bus — not the quality VW is looking for in the Microbus.

Minivans in the U,S. are getting better, and are mostly built off car platforms now.

VW says it has the problem licked, and will be able to build at least two very different vehicles with different wheelbases off a lot of the same steel. The Sharan may go away altogether, with the Microbus replacing it in Europe.

To make economic sense, VW has to get some 300,000 vehicles off the same basic “platform,” which could include the Transporter, Microbus, a separate minivan, and commercial light delivery vehicles. The Microbus will account for 100,000 of those, with 60,000-70,000 headed for the U.S.

The key, more in the case of the Microbus than the New Beetle, is to make the thing (not the Thing) really appealing from a practical, in addition to emotional, standpoint. Unlike New Beetle, which is not the most practical car on the streetscape for most of us with its puny trunk opening and cramped back seat, the Microbus could be the — make that The — minivan to have, a minivan with cool and cachet.

Can a van be the anti-minivan? The Microbus could be.

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