Friday November 15, 2019
The 12th November 1949 marked the press launch of a rather remarkable commercial vehicle. It was a van that was essentially a box on wheels, with access to the load bay via side doors and a rear engine. Its standards of handling, gearchange and steering surpassed virtually all domestic rivals, and the new Volkswagen Type 2 looked set for a long career.
The story of the Type 2 is known to almost all classic enthusiasts; in 1946 the Dutch businessman Ben Pon visited Wolfsburg to negotiate sales of the Beetle in The Netherlands. It was a successful mission as his firm Automobielhandel became the first dealership outside of Germany to market Volkswagens. However, Pon was also intrigued by the plant’s "Plattewagen”, an improvised motorised trolley powered by Kubelwagen running gear that was devised by Major Ivan Hirst. In early 1947 he sketched an idea for a VW light van, and this was passed to the British military command, but Hirst’s commanding officer Colonel Radcylffe believed the factory’s resources were already over-stretched.
Heinz Nordhoff became Volkswagen’s first post-war civilian Managing Director in early 1948, and he appreciated the potential in Pon’s ideas. Early plans to use the Beetle floorpan were abandoned when the centre section of a prototype’s chassis collapsed, just months before the proposed launch date. Instead, the new commercial vehicle was to employ unitary construction with subframes reinforced by longitudinal rails and cross members between the front and rear axles.
The Type 2 was unveiled to the public on March 1950 at the Geneva Motor Show. The original version was the Van, which could be ordered in any colour you desired so long as it was Taubenblau. Nordoff was proud of the fact that the cargo space lies exactly between the axles and pointed out that the cab-above-the-engine format resulted in ‘such horrendous handling that we never even considered it. You can tell by the state of the trees in the British zone how well the British army lorries, built on this principle, handle on wet roads when they are not loaded’.
The Van was shortly followed by the Kombi and the Microbus, the former with extra windows, two rows of removable seats and a décor that was ‘deliberately simple and completely suited to changing tastes’ - i.e. standard fittings were kept to a minimum. The latter had permanent seating, denoting the fact that VW’s management never intended it to be employed as a delivery vehicle, and its cloth headlining, and more elaborate interior trim helped to make the Microbus the ‘ideal vehicle for small touring parties’.
1951 saw the welcome introduction of a rear window for the Van and Kombi, and there was the new option of load-bay doors on both sides. But to all VW enthusiasts, 1951 will primarily be the year of the De Luxe Microbus, aka the Samba. The utterly magnificent Type 2 flagship was a star of the Frankfurt Motor Show, with visitors gazing in admiration at the duo-tone paint finish., the extra chrome (including the hubcaps) and the cabin with its carpeted floor and even a clock.
Most distinctively, the body now featured additional windows including four Plexiglass panes in the roof. When US sales commenced in 1952, the importer advised that ‘no words or pictures can properly convey to you the beauty, comfort and numerous advantages of this remarkable eight-passenger vehicle’. Admittedly, the 1,113cc engine could propel your VW to a maximum speed of 50 mph, with 0-40 in 22.7 seconds, so it was not ideal for the Freeway, but with the Golde sliding roof opened, a Samba in Chestnut Brown over Sealing Wax Red was possibly the ultimate holiday transport or hotel courtesy bus.
The Pick-Up - less glamorous than the Samba but eminently practical - made its bow in 1952; Volkswagen boasted it was ‘a joy to drive and a joy to work with’. By 1953 the engine capacity was increased to 1,192cc, and the transmission was now fitted with synchromesh on the upper three ratios. The earlier “crash” gearbox meant regular bouts of double de-clutching. Production passed the 100,000 mark in October 1954, the year that the Type 2 line-up was available in RHD form.
Official Volkswagen sales in the UK commenced in 1953, and by the end of that year, some 945 Beetles had been sold. The Type 2 was available in March 1954, and it certainly impressed Commercial Motor magazine. ‘Newcomer Sets High Standard’ was the headline of their test, with the writer noting ‘the 15-cwt. van is remarkable both in construction and performance, as I found during a series of tests, totalling over 200 miles in one day. Much can be said for the driving comfort in that I felt far from weary at the end of the run’. The scribe was further impressed by interior heating as part of the specification, although in place of a fuel gauge ‘the tank has a three-way tap affording a one-gallon reserve after the main supply is used’.
At £668, the Type 2 was not cheap but nor was it excessively expensive, and it was markedly different from the light commercial norm. The average fleet operator or small retail business was most likely to have opted for the Bedford CA, a Morris J-Type, the latest Commer 1 ¼ Ton or a last-of-the-line Austin K8. There was also the Thames E83W – an obviously pre-war design but utterly straightforward but a select group of customers opted for the VW, appreciating its combination of form and function. A Kombi even guest-starred in the classic 1955 horror film The Quatermass X-Periment.
The Type 2 gained an extensive facelift in March 1955, with a tailgate, a smaller engine hatch in place of the “Barn Door”, a peak over the windshield incorporating air vents and a new dashboard. By that time, many German motorists were using their VW as holiday transport and in 1953 Westfalia created a “Camper Box” of removable furniture that could transform a Type 2 into a mobile front parlour. But the VW Motorhome is a story in its own right - and so for now, here is a quite brilliant period VW commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq1gollgvm8