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Transporter History At A Glance

Volkswagen had just celebrated producing 6,700,000 Transporters in forty years of production when August 1990 saw the U.K. launch of the fourth generation model - the T4, most of which were built at the Transporter's traditional home in Hanover, Germany. T4's actually began rolling off the assembly line on January 6th 1990 - almost 34 years after the first Transporter emerged from there.

Part One - From Somber Beginnings

The story of the Volkswagen Transporter goes back beyond the oubreak of World War II, when Adolf Hitler rose to power. He wanted to replicate Henry Ford's achievements with the Model "T"...

Ferdinand Porsche - an ambitious yet unassuming, self-taught Bohemian engineer of German decent, who entered the World Stage with the...

... Lohner-Porsche electric car, first shown to the public at the 1900 World Fair in Paris.

His the next creation was the Mixte - credited as being the World's first Hybrid car and one of the first all wheel drive cars . His acheivements were honoured with a Doctorate in 1905, Porsche soon left the Austrian Lohner company for Austro-Daimler in 1906 (Lohner went onto make electric buses). Dr Porsche became Technical Director at Daimler in 1923. After a brief spell with Austro-Steyr-Daimler (not to be confused with Daimler-Benz), he found himself unemployed by the end of the thirties. Unable to find work, he established his own design bureau in Stuttgart during 1931...

In mid 1934 Hitler commissioned Dr Porsche's team - who had previously presented the Reichsverband der deutsche Automobilindustrie (RDA - the German automobile manufacturers association) with plans drawing on experiences with earlier designs for the Zundapp Type 12 and NSU Type 32. This shared vision with Hitler for an affordable, yet reliable design that could cope with harsh European winters and cruise all day with four adult sized passengers, at 100km/h on Germany's new Autobahns is why Dr Porsche won the contract - on the grounds that the new car would be beetle shaped - perhaps refering to the Briggs Dream Car unveiled by Ford in Detroit that year.

The RDA granted the Porsche office a meger subsidy to develop the new car, which had to return 40mpg with a target price of 990 ReichMarks. This ruled out Porsche's previous work, which were simply too costly to build and fell along way short in the economy stakes due to their weight and relatively big engines. Various engine designs were considered and tried - 2 or 4-stroke, 2 or 4-cylinders; even, it is said, a radial engine - a configuration popular in aircraft at that time. Porsche was quick to discard the 2-strokes and ruled out water-cooling as being impractical for his rear engined design - rear engined? Yes, this popular layout gave good traction created by having the bulk of the vehicle's weight over the driven wheels.

Soon after this contract was awarded Franx Xaver Reimspiess, a staff member at Porsche's office from the outset, who, after reviewing the previous engine designs, set about drawing up plans for a simpler air-cooled 4-cylinder engine of 984cc. By February 1936 the first of his engines were ready for testing...

Once the basic shape (penned by Erwin Komenda), chassis layout and engine design were agreed three hand built prototypes - V1, V2 (shown here) and V3 - fitted with the new engine embarked on a harsh
testing regime, involving thousands of kilometers driving in all weathers for well over a year.

Successful testing gave the RDA concerns that the car was too cheap - Hitler simply cut them out of the picture and made the German Labour Front (whose moto Kraft Durch Freude - Strength Through Joy - gave the new car it's name - KDF Wagen) responsible for the programme.

A further 30 prototypes - the V30's - were built by Daimler, for more rigorous testing - funded by the Labour Front.

The resemblence to the advanced 1.8 litre, air-cooled flat-four (belt driven ohc) Tatra T97 did not go unnoticed - Porsche and Ledwenke (the Tatra's designer) often met to discuss their work. Both were influenced by John Tjaarda - a pioneer in streamlining - "Starkenburg" studies of the late 1920's.

It is perhaps ironic that during this period the Briggs Manufacturing Company in Detroit were also working on a World Car project to resume the role of the Model T in bringing mobility to the masses. This car was also streamlined, rear engined and aircooled, and the project chief was non other than John Tjaarda...

The would-be VW used ten Tatra patents in it's design - a matter finally settled by VW in 1961 for 3 million deutschmarks. Only 508 T97's, costing five times more than the VW's target price, were made before the Nazi's annexed Czechslovakia in 1938. One was found and used by the factory after the war.

However, VW did pay the Porsche Design office royalties for their own patents from the outset, including the new twin torsion bar front suspension design.

This 1938 KDF-Wagen sunroof model was one of the final VW39 prototypes, assembled by Mercedes, that were used to launch the Beetle range that included a standard saloon and a Cabriolet, all of which could be aquired for RM990 with saving stamps - the average monthly wage was RM300.

These cars were to be built at a purpose built mile-long factory - inspired by Ford's Dagenham plant in England - constructed in the shadow of Wolfsburg Castle, alongside a New Town to be called KDF-Stadt, about 40 miles away from Hanover, on the banks of the Mitteland Canal that fed into the Rhine.

The First Porsche

Commissioned to enter the Berlin to Rome road race scheduled for September 1939, Dr Porsche's engineers built the...

... 60K10 Aerocoupe (Type 64). The lessons learned in the wind tunnel shaped the VW Aerocoupe, and became the mark of Porsche design ever since.

However, this was not Porsche's dream - having had his appetite wetted by the thunderous Auto Union Grand Prix car. His sights were set much higher with his privately funded Type 114 1.5 litre V10 mid-engined sports car.

But World War II broke out in September 1939 - the VW factory used forced labour to produce military hardware, including the VW derived Kubelwagen and amphibious Schwimmwagen - only 640 civilian Beetles were built throughout the war years.

The factory was virtually flattened by Allied bombing and a Lancaster bomber crash landed on one of the Halls - the remains of which lay among the ruins; on liberation what remained was ransacked; some by the liberated labour force, most by the German workers who took whatever they could find to sell on the black market - they thought what was left of the factory was theirs for the taking.

A Fresh Start

Credited as "The man who gave life to the Beetle", although he said it was due more to the dedication of the experienced team of petrol heads around him, Major Ivan Hirst (1916 - 2000) of REME - the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers - was commissioned to set up and run a workshop to service and maintain Allied vehicles at the derelict Wolfsburg plant, which happened to be in the British quarter of war torn Germany.

There they found a salvageable Beetle, which was knocked into shape, painted khaki and shown to the captains of the British and American motor industries, who had already pondered over numerous captured Kubelwagens, and discounted the Beetle threat before the outbreak of war.

One report famously lampooned the car stating that it "does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor car... To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise"! Knowing that there was a desperate shortage of transportation and high unemployment in the area, he showed the car to the British High Commission, who duly ordered 20,000 - because what was available to them at that time kept breaking!

These events proved critical as plans were afoot to dismantle the factory for good, or for the whole Volkswagen operation to absorbed by Ford, for instance.

The end of 1945 saw 55 khaki 1131cc Beetles built from the cannibalised remains of wartime Kubelwagens, such as the 4wd version shown here, whilst the presses and production lines were found in storage and reassembled around them.The 4wd versions were standard issue to the Military Government

March 1946 saw the 1,000th model leave the production line - the first two models to leave Germany were delivered to London by Wing Commander Richard Berryman for reappraisal by the British motor industry and Australia House. Ideas were afoot to set up full scale production down-under, as the VW was deemed the ideal car to get the Aussies back on their feet. These ideas for the VW did not reach fruition until much later, whilst the British did their best to establish themselves over there.

The first 50 export models were delivered to the Russians encamped in the town - two miles inside the demarkation line with Eastern Germany. It was believed that the Russians had their eye on the munitions and tooling for V1 and V2 rockets still in storage, at that time, in the factory basement, but no one really knew why they were there.

KDF Stadt was renamed Wolfsburg by the Allies on May 25th 1945 after the local castle. In 1950 Wolfsburg was twinned with Luton, England.

Dr Porsche was captured by the French, whilst his family fled to Austria living off VW royalties. Some say they tried him as a Nazi Collaborator in Lyon, France; other accounts reflect that the French wanted a peoples car of their own.

In Austria, the fledgling Porsche company (as we know it today) rose from the 356/1 mid-engined sports car and...

... 356/2 rear engined Coupe.

The Professor was soon released without charge and, upon his return, liked what he saw (the 356/1 grew into the Spyder) - not to mention the numbers of Beetles he saw buzzing around. His only visit to Wolfsburg after the war was in late 1950, where it is recalled that he was overcome with emotion, and could not complete the factory tour.

The extensive pre-war testing of the KDF wagen, provided the Allies with cheap reliable transport that, due the the weight of the engine bearing on the driven wheels, had abundant traction that was ideally suited to the ravaged terrain of the time, negating the need for all wheel drive, thus costs could be kept low.

This was looking more like a viable enterprise with each passing month, and by 1947 the first export Beetles were shipped to Holland, via the Dutch importer - Ben Pon...

The Bulli - workhorse

To transport components around the factory site Major Hirst's team initially had to borrow whatever he could. Soon they had devised some flatbed trucks, christening them as Plattenwagens.

Upon seeing these Plattenwagens (the last one was mothballed in 1994) during a factory visit to discuss Beetle exports, Ben Pon's original sketch from 23rd April 1947 took the Transporter idea further, with a forward control cab and low floor.

The first blueprints of the compact, yet aerodynamically challenged "box on wheels" over Beetle running gear landed on Dr Heinz Nordoff's (Chief Executive since January 1st 1948) desk on November 20th 1948 kicking off this icon of automotive design.

The "one-box" prototypes had brick like aerodynamics (CD 0.75) - the 25hp 1131cc engine struggled to cope when combined with the weight of the not-so-strong unitary body (the Beetle had a stronger, lighter separate body and chassis design).

The more sculpted and aerodynamic (CD 0.44) Type 2 "Bulli" was unveiled at a press conference on November 12th 1949.

Lower gearing, acheived by adding reduction gearboxes at each rear wheel, which also increased ground clearance, helped the little engine, but put a firm lid on top speed. The chassis was also strengthened, adding weight and reducing the initial payload capacity to 15cwt (3/4 ton). As time marched on this would later be increased to 1000kilo's (albeit less than an imperial ton - 20cwt).

Full scale production started at Wolfsburg on March 8th 1950 alongside the Beetle at a rate of ten a day.

The huge roundel (another one of Reimpiess' inspired designs) on the front led VW on to become one of the most recognised brand names in the World; that, and VW's two model policy throughout the 1950's. By October 1954, 100,000 Bulli's had rolled off the productionline.

A Diesel Transporter?

Although not a specific Transporter study, Project 508 was a VW commission given to Porsche during 1951 to investigate the merits of a diesel engined Beetle. A Beetle and a Transporter were used to test the 4-cylinder engine - lessons learned from this allowed Porsche to develop the 3-piece crankcase for the 1.3 and 1.5 litre engines fitted to later 356's. Although economy gains were huge performance was decidedly lack lustre with a 0-60mph time of 60 seconds - in the Beetle.

Subsequently, the two-stroke diesel used in the Porsche tractors of the late 1950'sand early 1960's was conceived, by Porsche also for VW's use - it never came to be.

Supply And Demand

With demand for both VW models constantly outstripping supply, production capacity was soon reached at Wolfsburg. On March 1st 1955 Dr Nordoff ceremoniously laid a foundation stone at Hanover, the site chosen for the dedicated Transporter factory; the first model rolled off the line on April 20th 1956.

Today, over half a century and over 10,000,000 units later, every new generation Transporter still sets the standards for others to follow in an ever diversifying Volkswagen range. Key milestones along the way include:

The Westfalia motor caravan, one of the first to be offered to the masses as a mainstream model along with Dormobile's Bedford CA of the same era.

Inspired by Westfalia's 1951 "Camping Box", VW offered Westfaliawerke the rights to build a camper version of the T1 that would be sold through their network in strategic markets the world over. Westfalia were also given charge of most of the special order body construction for the EU market. In spite of it's deep involvement with VW, Westfalia built camper versions on other platforms - such as the Ford Transit - as well as cabs for Mercedes Unimogs, various trailers and towbars.

The Deluxe Microbus and Samba Deluxe available from late 1951 is ackowlegded as the first popular and practical MPV with it's famously distinctive rear corner windows (upto 1963) and the characteristic skylights and full length Golde fabric sunroof. This is not strictly true as there were family estate versions of rival vehicles before the T1 came to be (for example, the seven seater Fordson!).

The first "World" van. With VW factories in all corners of the World, the T1 was built alongside the Beetle either in series production or assembled from kits imported from these production centres with a proportion of locally sourced parts so they could be classed as locally built to avoid import taxes. The overall design remained the same, whereas rival companies prefered to stick with localised adaptations of existing vehicles made in each region / country. The network of global factories was set to play a crucial role in keeping VW afloat in later years.

The Ever Expanding Range

As needs became apparent, the team of factory designers and engineers set about devising new models for to the range, that remain in place to this day - here follows a brief summary of some key developments:

the 1952 Ambulance (Krankenwagen);

the 1952 Single cab Pick-Up;

the 1958 Widebed (steel or wood) Pick-Up;

the 1959 Double Cab (Doka), not to be confused with...

... the coachbuilt Binz of the mid 1950's (this illustration clearly showing the roof overhang over the windscreen which is the fresh air intake for cabin ventilation (early models had to make do solely with sliding cab door windows and opening 1/4 lights);

the Special Options (SO) catalogue is introduced in 1959, which includes the Westfalia Campers, and any other special equipment available from VW's partner companies.

the 1963 Medium and High Roof options designed for the german post office could take a maximum of 780kg payload (that includes the driver);


The bulk of export buses and trucks were destined for North America. With an eye on newly launched rivals in the 1960's - namely the Chevrolet Corvan and the Ford Econoline - American export models tended to be the first recipients of improvements such as:
  • the addition, in 1962, of a fuel gauge, hazard warning lights and seat belt mounting points.
  • the 44hp 1500cc engine, in 1963, giving a top speed of 65mph over 59mph for the previous 34hp 1200cc engine - and 56mph for the previous 30hp 1200cc incarnation (which had a lower compression ratio).
the larger tailgate on Hanover sourced T1's meant the famous Samba rear corner plexiglas windows had to go - however they remained on South African Microbuses until 1975 and Brazilian T2's Kombi's until 1997.

The sliding side door was introduced as an option in 1965 - South African and later Brazilian Kombi's retained the hinged double side doors until 1997.

It didn't take long for the Type 2's main American rivals to upsize, leaving the VW to share the niche it had carved out with the similarly sized Dodge A100 van. Yet Volkswagen became firmly imprinted on the World's psychy to symbolise freedom and free expression by the 1967 Summer of Love.

Political Uncertainty

October 1962 saw the 1,000,000th model emerging from Hanover.

This popularity attracted many detractors - The 1965 "Unsafe At Any Speed. The Designed-In Dangers Of The American Automobile" was a publication by lawyer Ralph Nader, which heaped much scourn on the safety of all the unconventional rear-engined, swing-axled motor vehicles of the time - and there were many, from European manufacturers (Fiat, Renault, Simca and Hillman - not just VW) and the American arm of General Motors...

... to be continued...
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