Last week, a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal profiled the continuing attraction of ca. 1970s vans, decked out with all sorts of custom accessories and wild paint jobs.
It turns out, the vans are still so popular with a certain (aging?) segment of the American population, annual van rallies around the country attract thousands of participants.
But the article reminds us that, after more than 60 years of production and 10 million made, the very last VW vans came off the assembly line at the end of last year. That’s when Volkswagen’s Transporter van plant in metro São Paulo, Brazil shut down production.
Reportedly, production stopped because of new air bag and anti-lock braking system requirements for 2014 that were impossible to incorporate into the VW van’s design.
Brazil was the last place on earth where the iconic VW “bus” was being manufactured. A plant in Mexico stopped producing the classic version of the van in 1995. European production had already been halted as far back as 1979 because the VW no longer met the minimum vehicle safety requirements on that continent.
But the true glory days of the VW van stretch back even further … to when the vehicle was synonymous with laid-back “hippie” lifestyles in the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States.
Known by all sorts of nicknames (the Shaggin’ Wagon and Sin Bin are two of my favorites), the van served as “rolling homes” for many people.
It so reflected the popular culture of the day, the vehicle was featured on pop music album covers for the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and others.
“It has a magic and charm lacking in other vehicles. It’s about the open road, about bringing smiles to peoples’ faces when they see an old WV van rolling along.”
For many Americans, the vision of a VW van transporting young, bronzed dudes and their surfboards to the California beaches is an iconic image. But the VW van’s brand identity is not at all like that in other parts of the world.
In places like Africa and Latin America, the vans were pressed into more mundane service — serving as mini-school buses, transporting troops, hauling merchandise or construction materials – even moving the mail.
In Brazil, the VW van is known as the “Kombi,” which is short-hand for the German term “Kombinations-fahrzeug” – or “combination transport vehicle.”
Over the years, the van developed a reputation for being breakdown-prone. But the flipside of this problem was that the VW’s simple engine design made it easy to repair. So it was very popular with its owners — in a sort of ironic twist.
As one Brazilian van owner was quoted saying recently, “Driving a Kombi with your face up against the windshield is a thrilling experience … There is no other van that is so easy and inexpensive to maintain. Anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge about engines and a few tools can fix a Kombi.”
So it seems that no matter whether the VW van has been used for business or for pleasure, it has engendered similar feelings of attachment and affection.
The last VW van may have rolled off the assembly line and into history. But I suspect that many of the vehicles will be with us for decades to come – just like the 1950s American “fin” cars that continue to ply the streets of Havana five or six decades on.
Indeed, as long as there are people with a sense of wanderlust and the lure of the open road to beckon them, the VW bus will remain part of the cultural and emotional landscape in America.