The early post-WWII success of the Volkswagen
Beetle contributed significantly to the economy of West Germany as it
dug itself out of the rubble of WWII. Despite primitive and "make-do"
methods of operating, the cars were well put together, economical, and
to many, just plain "cute".
As early as April 1947, plans for a Volkswagen
commercial transporter were taking shape, but it took several years to
translate those ideas into sheet metal. 1951 saw the first regular
production Transporters hit the road, and they were an instant success.
It didn't take long before the factory turned to passenger-based
micro-bus vehicles. By 1955, annual production of the Transporter and
its derivatives was exceeding 50,000 units for the export market. In
addition to basic transportation, these early "bus-ettes" were soon
converted to economical campers and even ambulances in some regions.
Early factory art of the 23-window model
with sunroof, produced through ‘63.
The popular and desirable 21-window
model. This one’s a ‘66.
Does it get any cooler than this? A '61
Westfalia camper conversion.
Considered to be grossly underpowered for
heavy-duty work, the VW Transporter and all it variations were perfect
for light-duty local duties, particularly in urban settings. And due to
Volkswagen's policy of not making annual changes (if they did they were
incremental improvements), it was easy to keep up with the Joneses--you
always had this year's current model!
BECOMING AN ICON
The hippie culture of the late 1960s saw these then
very cheap micro-buses became home for thousands of the Peace and Love
Generation. Correctly or not no one group is more related today to these
vehicles than the fans of the legendary Grateful Dead, who up into the
1990s, followed the band on tour with an unofficial caravan of
Transporters. Often these were painted in wild colors that bore little
resemblance to those that had come from the factory.
Another group to latch on to the Transporter was the surfer crowd. In
the 1960s they had made the woody station wagons of the forties and
early fifties their vehicle of choice, not because of their beauty or
historic value, but because they were cheap to buy and operate. As those
cars disappeared, the next generation of surfers descended upon the VW
microbus. Usually driven until all the little horses inside the
rear-mounted horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine were put to rest,
they eventually made way to bigger American-made vans.
THE BUS GETS NOTICED
In the mid-1980s, Volkswagen enthusiasts began to
take notice of these vehicles, and preservation efforts got underway.
Immediately, the most popular versions became the 23- and 21-window
versions. Equipped with plenty of side glass, the mini-buses could be
ordered with eight optional skylight windows in the upper portion of the
roof. Even with heavily tinted glass, these tended to make the mini-buss
a rolling oven on warm sunny days. Of course, just open that big canvas
sunroof and that problem went away. It’s useful to note here that while
the sunroof was standard on these top-of-the-line versions, it could be
deleted. Especially rare are the pre-’64 23-window versions that added
two curved panes of glass at the rear corners.
'Cutaway of a '59 Deluxe
Indicative of the basic design of early models, the
transporter didn't include a gas gauge until 1956. Up to then you either
kept the tank full, or used the old method of a dip-stick, familiar to
many drivers of the period from their Ford Model T days. Subtle
changes were made to first generation Transporter-based vehicles
throughout their life-cycle. More horsepower and the addition of more of
the creature comforts Americans expected helped bring in more customers.
The early Volkswagen Microbus has reached dramatic
price levels both on the auction block and in private sales. In the
mid-1990s, while the collector car world was getting up and dusting
itself off after the crash of '90-'91, premium examples of the 21 and 23
window micro-busses, especially those with the factory sunroof and/or
the pop out safari windshields, broke through the $20,000 level. Over
the next couple of years, prices continued to rise, nudging $40,000 for
a few fancy examples in superb condition.
In the past year or so, it seems that supply has
caught up with demand, and many of the really good examples produced
between 1951 and 1967 have been placed into private collections. Nearly
everybody who wants one (and has the means!), has one, and prices have
come back down a notch or two, at least when looking solely at auction
results. Looking at the entire market, prices have pretty much
plateaued. However, the Transporter market is clearly soft right now,
and we expect values to drop slightly over the next year.
In the right venue, prices for prime examples can
still reach the mid $30,000 range. While one may think that the earliest
versions would be more desirable, it is actually the later models that
command the premium dollars. From 1965 and onward, horsepower maxxed
out, more accessories were available and two-tone paint and trim schemes
got downright flashy. The one exception is the pre-’64 23 window
version, which can bring about as much as the later 21 window version.
Long term? They have a charm that's hard to resist: just watch the
crowds that gather around a gleaming restored example. That bodes well
for the future.
As with anything collectible, some regions of the
country are more likely to spring big money for an item that brings back
nostalgic memories. California in particular seems to have a weak spot
for these -- although even there the market has cooled off a bit.
Hardcore Volkswagen collectors are purists, and they want to see only
factory items, or factory authorized accessories such as Safari
windshields and authentic racks. Camper conversions were
contracted to Westfalia (and still are), and early examples in excellent
condition have been climbing steadily over the past few years, too.
The Transporter saw a major design change in 1968.
While bigger, roomier, and more powerful, the original looks were gone,
as were the 21 and 23 window versions. Today, Volkswagen markets a
fourth generation Transporter, primarily in Europe, and it is still a
popular commercial vehicle over there.
In an effort to perhaps recapture some of the
character of the original, VW has been parading around a modern
"Microbus" on the show circuit. Rumor has it that it will be produced.
Groovy. (2010 update: that van was never produced, here the VW van is
a re-badged Chrysler minivan. My how times have changed.)
This profile first appeared in the
November 2001 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide. (c)
Copyright 2001 VMR International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Volkswagen Club of America
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705 Gordon Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17112
Strictly Vintage 2's