Still groovy, the VW microbus turns 65

Still groovy, the VW microbus turns 65

Like the hippies who loved them and raised them to cult-like status during the 1960s, the VW microbus has become a senior citizen.

This excellent 1963 VW bus set the bar when it sold in 2011 for $217,800 at Barrett-Jackson | Bob Golfen

This excellent 1963 VW bus set the bar when it sold in 2011 for $217,800 at Barrett-Jackson | Bob Golfen

Like the hippies who loved them and raised them to cult-like status during the 1960s, the VW microbus has become a senior citizen. This month, the Volkswagen Type 2 turned 65.

The official birthday was March 8, 1950, when the first production model rolled off the assembly line in Wolfsburg, Germany. The Transporter, as it officially was known, soared in popularity almost immediately, with more than 8,000 sold that first year, and production passing 100,000 in 1954.

Based on the unique rear-engine design of the Volkswagen Beetle, though with some significant differences such as a sturdier ladder frame, the microbus originally targeted tradesmen and small businesses with an affordable, practical and sturdy vehicle for transporting goods and services.

A cutaway view from early VW ad | Volkswagen

A cutaway view from early VW ad | Volkswagen

But it quickly became apparent that the Transporter was so much more, and there were soon many variations for families and campers, as well as pickup-truck versions.

Though slow and ungainly, and decidedly unsafe with nothing ahead of front-seat occupants but a hunk of sheet metal, microbuses have gotten by on basic charm. After reigning as the groovy counterculture ride of the ’60s, VW buses filled the parking lots of a zillion Grateful Dead concerts and remain an enduring favorite among the legion of Volkswagen hobbyists and collectors.

Today, elaborately restored first-generation microbuses through 1967 have become a mainstay of classic car auctions, especially the highly desirable multi-window Sambas that fetch often-surprisingly high bids.

Classic microbus scene at recent Amelia concours | Bob Golfen

Classic microbus scene at recent Amelia Island Concours | Bob Golfen

The landmark big score came in June 2011 when a gorgeously restored 1963 23-window Samba sold for a then-shocking $217,800, including buyer’s fee, at Barrett-Jackson’s auction in Orange County, California. It was the top seller of the auction and it seemed to exemplify the Southern California beach culture and its longtime affection for the microbus.

After that, beautiful buses seemed to come out of the woodwork, with decent examples regularly selling for $100,000 and up.

The most money paid at public auction for a microbus occurred in December, when a rare 1955 23-window Samba sold at a German auction for $235,000, including fees. According to the auction house, only 11 Sambas were produced in 1955.

The enthusiasm for the VW microbus shows no sign of letting up, with successive generations of hobbyists, collectors, customizers and restorers keeping the spirit alive. The bus is as much a favorite among the Millennials as it ever was among the Baby Boomers.

Building buses during the 1950s | Volkswagen

Building buses during the 1950s | Volkswagen

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