People love cars for countless reasons. Some of them love unleashing massive horsepower when a stoplight turns green. Others are addicted to the thrill of extreme cornering. Some love the aesthetic appeal of a gorgeous automobile. Others desire the tactile comfort of a fabulously luxurious ride.
Owners of the Volkswagen Transporter – a.k.a. the Type 2, the Kombi, the Microbus, and “the hippie van” – are a more sedate bunch. Their vehicles aren’t particularly quick, nimble, beautiful, or opulent. But whether it’s spec’d out as a pickup, cargo van, or, as it’s most commonly known, a Microbus, VW’s plucky people mover is very versatile and incredibly fun.
Not long after the birth of the iconic Beetle (or Type 1), Volkswagen engineers began developing a decidedly more utilitarian vehicle. The first prototype Transporter used a standard Beetle platform, but the production Type 2 unveiled in 1949 featured more robust construction, with a ladder frame supporting the Bug’s engine, basic suspension components, and wheelbase. And just as the Beetle became a beloved international icon, so, too, did its rectangular descendant.
Innumerable people have comfortably crossed whole or partial continents in VW vans. Hollywood has immortalized the Microbus in movies such as Little Miss Sunshine, in which the entire Hoover family takes one from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, and Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner drives from Iowa to Boston to track down James Earl Jones.
Real people have epic Transporter stories, too. For instance, in early 1958, our design editor, Robert Cumberford, was studying philosophy at UCLA, having left the General Motors design studio the previous year. He and some friends decided to travel to Mexico over the summer, so Cumberford traded his sleek Porsche 356 Super coupe for a brand-new boxy Microbus that could fit the entire crew. Alas, all but one of his party backed out of the adventure, but Cumberford and a female acquaintance went ahead with the plan anyway, after swapping the rear bench seats for a double mattress. From Los Angeles, they wandered through Mexico and along its west coast as far as Mazatlán before continuing on to Mexico City and then all the way to Baltimore, Maryland, where Cumberford dropped off his companion. But that wasn’t the end of the trip: Cumberford ambled (at a top speed of about 50 mph) back to California, where he retrieved the rear bench seats, moved to San Francisco, and promptly sold the van. Aside from a brief reprise in 1976, Cumberford says, “I haven’t driven a Microbus since, and I have absolutely no desire to ever get into one again. But it was fun fifty years ago.”
Many, however, still find a lot to love in these vans. Although they were once road-tripping workhorses, VW Microbuses have become quite costly, particularly the first-generation “split-window” models, which can sell for upwards of $50,000 in rare twenty-one- or twenty-three-window form. But the object of our interest is the more-affordable, more-usable, and more-common second-generation “bay-window” Microbus, which debuted for the 1968 model year with a one-piece windshield, a sliding side door (instead of double swing-out doors), larger dimensions, and slightly more power. This design continued until 1980, when the same basic van was revamped as the sharper-edged Vanagon.
Dan Canalos of Huron, Ohio, has owned the 1971 Westfalia-built Campmobile you see here since 1992, and he still camps with it regularly, often attending large conventions of fifty buses or more. Canalos’s VW is almost entirely stock and includes hard-to-find original features such as a matching removable stool, window curtains, and an A-to-B-pillar hammock, as well as more typical amenities like a sink, a built-in cooler, a bed over the engine compartment, and a very slick pop-up sleeping loft (where Canalos prefers to sleep).
Canalos’s VW is particularly desirable because it combines the same venerable 1.6-liter four-cylinder air-cooled engine used in many Beetles (larger-displacement engines came later; third-generation vans eventually got water cooling) with front disc brakes. Unlike Cumberford’s 50-mph VW, this ’71 bus reportedly tops out at a whopping 70 mph.
We can’t vouch for that. We had only enough space to coax the Campmobile to about 55 mph before a gentle Lake Erie breeze smacked the van out of its lane like a tiger playing with a field mouse. Despite the lack of high-speed props, however, driving a Microbus is unforgettable. After you’ve climbed over the front wheel, you’ll marvel at the comfortable, sitting-at-the-dinner-table driving position; in fact, holding the huge, nearly horizontal steering wheel is akin to grabbing your fork and knife. Even though your feet straddle the steering shaft and you can see daylight around the clutch pedal, it’s easy to imagine yourself patiently piloting the Campmobile for thousands of miles. The light and slightly vague four-speed gearbox takes some getting used to, but the trickiest part about shifting is knowing when to do it: there’s no tachometer, and the quiet sputtering of the engine – about seven feet behind you and buried beneath cushions and camping equipment – is difficult to hear from the driver’s seat.
The driving experience certainly isn’t invigorating, but that’s not the point. You don’t need to find a racetrack or a lonely stretch of highway to enjoy a Microbus. Just mosey your way to some parking lot or campground filled with kindred spirits, and enjoy a classic car at a slower pace.
1.6L OHV flat-4,60 hp, 82 lb-ft
SUSPENSION, Front: Trailing arms, torsion bar
Suspension, Rear: Swing axle, torsion bar
BRAKES F/R: Discs/drums
WEIGHT: 2535 lb
594,200 (all variants, worldwide)
Just because the Grateful Dead aren’t touring much doesn’t mean you can’t cure your Mexicali blues with a Microbus. Legions of fanatics gather regularly across the world to camp, commingle, and carouse. Parts are readily available, thanks in large part to the Beetle connection, and the simple mechanicals are generally easy to fix-even on the side of the road.