Volkswagen Bus

The first Volkswagen Bus, seen here in an early brochure, debuted in 1950 and was called the Transporter, or VW Type 2.
The first Volkswagen Bus, seen here in an early brochure, debuted in 1950 and was called the Transporter, or VW Type 2.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The Volkswagen Bus was the first minivan, invented by the same logical minds that brought the world the Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, the Volkswagen Bus was for years really a big, boxy body on a Beetle chassis. The Volkswagen Bus even used the Beetle's air-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, and mounted it in the tail, just like the Bug did.

And much like the beloved Beetle, the Volkswagen Bus came to symbolize liberty and unconventionality for a whole generation of Americans.


Variously called the Transporter, Station Wagon, Kombi, and Micro Bus, later the Vanagon and EuroVan, this picture-paced article covers ever version of the Volkswagen Bus, and even looks ahead to the vehicle's future.

So strong was the original 1950 design that it survived until 1967, and by the time Chrysler launched its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1984, the VW Bus was already into its third generation.

Despite its steady success over the years, the 1990s and 2000s were not kind to the Volkswagen Bus. VW offered it in camper form only through much of the 1990s, and when it brought it back with more power than ever, that version lasted only from 1999 through 2003.

Even the very cool, German-engineered retro Microbus concept that raised hopes in 2001 was shelved. However, the Volkswagen Bus appears on track to return in 2008 using the underpinnings of the latest Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, but with a VW-designed body and interior.

The inaugural Volkswagen Bus was officially called the Transporter or VW Type 2 -- the VW Beetle being the Type 1. The Type 2 was born of VW chief Heinz Nordhoff's growing confidence in the still-young Volkswagen enterprise, which traced its origins to 1930s Nazi Germany, but really didn't begin volume production of customer cars - all Beetle sedans -- until 1947.

Introduction of the convertible version of the Beetle in 1949 showed that Nordoff was amenable to carefully considered variations on VW's one-note Beetle sedan theme. By 1950, Nordhoff had determined that the Volkswagen was healthy enough to support a second model range, and that was the Volkswagen Bus.

Nordhoff took particular pride in the Type 2, noting that it was developed without input from Porsche, the engineering and design firm named after Ferdinand Porsche, the engineer - later of sports-car fame - who designed the original Beetle.

The genesis of the Volkswagen Bus was instead a 1947 pencil sketch by Ben Pon, the importer who introduced the Beetle to the U.S. in 1949.

Numerous commercial versions of the Beetle had already been built, typically by entrepreneurs who cut, chopped, and added to the little Bug to produce a variety of open-bed and station wagon-type delivery vans.

The earliest Volkswagen Buses won renown as both passenger models and as slow but handy utility vehicles such as this.
© Vince Manocchi

The Type 2, however, was a purpose-built factory design and there was nothing like it on the automotive landscape. Other manufacturers offered various commercial vans, mostly tall bread-truck-like delivery vehicles, but no other maker thought to scale down the design to suit passenger duty.

Go to the next page to learn more about the design of the very first Volkswagen Bus.

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1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus

The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus was basically a big box atop the VW Beetle chassis. Note the rear engine location.
The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus was basically a big box atop the VW Beetle chassis. Note the rear engine location.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The story of the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus is one of a vehicle that created its own niche. VW had in fact invented a new automotive category that wouldn't have a name until decades later: the minivan.

The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus kicked off with a model officially called the Transporter. It debuted in March 1950. It used the Beetle floorpan and 94.5-inch wheelbase, but at 53.5 inches, its track was wider than the sedan's by 2.7 inches in front and a significant 4.3 inches in back.


It retained the Beetle's standard, rear-mounted air-cooled boxer engine and four-speed transaxle, though a steep 5.13:1 final-drive ratio gave it impressive low-gear grunt.

Using reduction gears in the rear wheel hubs provided a full 9.5 inches of ground clearance, which, along with the traction advantages of having the engine over the drive wheels, was an important plus in back-road duty.

At 168.5 inches, its brick-shaped body was 8.5 inches longer than the Beetle's, and it had vastly more interior room than any conventional station wagon. Because the engine was so low and was set so far back, and because the driver sat well forward in a bus-like position, the new Transporter was a very space-efficient machine.

The 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus borrowed its flat-four air-cooled engine from the Beetle. Early versions had 25 horsepower.
© Vince Manocchi

Passenger versions could carry up to nine occupants on three rows of bench seats; there also were enclosed cargo vans, flatbed haulers, double cab pick-ups, mattress-equipped campers, ambulances, and even a dump-truck variant.

The first-generation Volkswagen Bus debuted in Europe with a 25-horsepower Beetle 1200 (1,131-cc) air-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. This Transporter weighed 2,300 pounds (53 percent over the rear wheels) and had a maximum payload capacity of 1,650 pounds.

It was not a fast machine. It never would be, despite increases in engine displacement and horsepower. But it was maneuverable, roomy, reliable, and like all VWs, it was cheap to buy, fuel, and maintain. It was the "people's van."

The Transporter was available in the U.S. shortly after its introduction, but few were imported before 1954. VW offered these early U.S. versions with an engine rated at 30 horsepower at 3400 rpm.

Three models were available: the base Kombi, which was painted blue and retailed for about $2,200; the slightly better-outfitted Micro Bus, which was painted green and started at about $2,365; and the deluxe Micro Bus, which came in red-and-black two-tone and listed for about $2,500.

The deluxe model's body was one inch longer overall than the other models. From the start, VW also offered the camper version with foldout bedding for four, a built-in table and cupboard, window curtains, and an opening roof-panel "transom."

All Transporters had two front doors, a pair of swing-open side doors, and a small tailgate. Intrusive front wheel arches hampered ingress through the front doors, and the tall engine box floor made it difficult to load cargo through the small rear hatch.

Passenger versions of the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus could carry up to nine on three rows of seats, as this floor plan shows.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

But by taking a couple of minutes to remove the middle and rear bench seats, the owner of a passenger model could have 170 cubic feet of cargo room at his or her disposal.

What was it like to drive the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus? Find out on the next page.

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Driving the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus

A simple layout and a steering-wheel angle that was, well, bus like, greeted early Volkswagen Bus drivers.
A simple layout and a steering-wheel angle that was, well, bus like, greeted early Volkswagen Bus drivers.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Driving the 1950-1959 Volkswagen Bus was a new and unique experience, especially Americans unaccustomed to highly space-efficient and severely underpowered vehicles.

Tom McCahill, dean of American automotive journalists, tested a Kombi for the January 1955 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. "Uncle Tom" was astonished at its spaciousness. "It is as versatile as a steamship con man and twice as useful," he wrote.


McCahill rationalized the Kombi's sloth like acceleration by explaining that it was a vehicle born and bred in Europe, where drivers presumably were accustomed to taking most of a day to drive up a mountain road. "It will climb anything but not fast," he said. "When the grade gets real grim the Kombi speed is not much better than a fast walk but it will get there."

Indeed, Road & Track clocked its 1956 Micro Bus at a sleep-inducing 75 seconds 0-60 mph. That in fact was the test vehicle's top speed, and it actually took less time, 27 seconds, to cover a standing-start quarter-mile.

Curiously, VW placed a sticker on the dashboard that read, "The allowable top speed of this vehicle is 50 miles per hour," though R&T noted that with a tailwind, a Micro Bus was perfectly capable of cruising at 70 mph on a level highway.

The 1956 model was rated at 36 horsepower at 3700 rpm and 56 pounds/feet of torque at 2000. The one tested by R&T weighed 2,300 pounds.

"The Micro Bus is very easy to drive, has wonderful visibility and easy steering requiring only 3.5 turns lock to lock for a 39-foot turning circle," R&T said. A tall center of gravity kept cornering speeds to a minimum, so "handling" wasn't much of an issue.

The bus like driving position was deemed comfortable. Ride quality was firm for occupants of the front seat, which was directly above the front axle, but better in the other seats.

Early VW Buses, like this 1951 delivery model, were good on bad roads because traction was enhanced by low gearing and weight over the rear wheels.
© Vince Manocchi

From the start, Transporter campers were recognized as the unique vehicles they were. No other manufacturer offered such a versatile package as part of its regular lineup. Germany's Westfalia Werke did the majority of the factory conversions, with such companies as Dormobile, Devon, and Danbury performing aftermarket work as well.

Motor Trend recognized these special properties as early as October 1956, when it tested a "Volkswagen Kamper." It wrote: "More a way of life than just another car, the VW bus, when completely equipped with the ingenious German-made Kamper kit, can open up new vistas of freedom (or escape) from a humdrum life."

So popular was the Volkswagen Bus -- demand was outstripping production two to one -- that in 1956, VW opened a new factory in Hanover to built it.

Go to the next page to find out what changes VW would make to its popular Transporter.

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1960-1967 Volkswagen Bus

This 1963 Deluxe Station Wagon model Volkswagen Bus started at $2,665. It had 50 horsepower.
This 1963 Deluxe Station Wagon model Volkswagen Bus started at $2,665. It had 50 horsepower.
© Vince Manocchi

The 1960-1967 Volkswagen Bus gained new features and more power, and also some competition.

In 1960, the bus got real split front seats to create a narrow aisle that allowed movement though the interior, and front-seat riders began to enter and exit through the side door rather than climbing over those high wheel arches.


By 1961, the 1200 engine had 40 horsepower and VW had some competition. Ford introduced the Econoline, a compact van based on the Falcon platform, and Chevrolet used its air-cooled rear-engine Corvair as the basis for the Greenbrier Sports Wagon.

Car Life magazine compared the VW to these newcomers in its September 1961 issue. It said the VW Station Wagon had far superior build quality than the others inside and out. The VW had better overall handling, too, though it and the Greenbrier, which used a similar swing-axle rear suspension, suffered directional instability in crosswinds.

Skylight windows and rollback sunroof were among the most alluring features of early Volkswagen Bus passenger models.
© Vince Manocchi

No rival had more-efficient fresh-air ventilation, but the editors noted that the VW's heating system was "virtually ineffectual. Hot air from the engine cooling fan must travel through long, uninsulated ducts before reaching the driver."

The Transporter averaged 20 mpg, about three mpg more than the others and nearly double the average of full-size automobile station wagons of the day.

The VW weighed 2,310 pounds, yet its 25.6-second time in the quarter-mile was only about a half-second slower than the Chevy's, which had 80 horsepower but weighed 3,560 pounds. The 85-horsepower, 3,230-pound Ford turned a 23.3-second quarter-mile.

The editors did not list a 0-60 mph time for the VW because it would go no faster than 59 mph for them.

VW built the one-millionth Type 2 Volkswagen Bus during 1962. Changes in specification were slow, but for 1963, VW installed the 1500-series engine, which at its most powerful, made 53 horsepower at 4200 rpm in the bus.

For 1967, a dual-circuit braking system was introduced in which front and rear brakes were independently pressurized in case either hydraulic circuit failed. As production approached two million in 1967, VW had a redesigned station wagon ready.

The new 1968 model was obviously a lineal descendent of the original, but also was clearly a more-modern design.

Learn about the second-generation Volkswagen Bus beginning on the next page.

This is a 1967 base passenger version of the Volkswagen Bus. Called the Kombi model, it cost $2,150 and had 53 horsepower.
© Vince Manocchi

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1968 Volkswagen Bus, The Second Generation

The second-generation Volkswagen Bus launched for 1968 and lasted through 1971. It retained the Beetle-based chassis, but had a new, larger body.
The second-generation Volkswagen Bus launched for 1968 and lasted through 1971. It retained the Beetle-based chassis, but had a new, larger body.
© Vince Manocchi

The 1968 Volkswagen Bus, the second generation of VW's versatile people mover was larger, sleeker, and more powerful than its predecessor. It did, however remained based on VW's Beetle, and even retained the little Bug's 94.5-inch wheelbase.

The body of the 1968 Volkswagen Bus grew in length by nearly five inches, to 174 inches overall, and height was up by about one inch, but width, turning circle, and front track hardly changed. Nearly three inches was added to the rear track, however.


Gone was the eight-window design, taking with it the charming available skylights. In its place was a body with three long windows on either side and a one-piece windshield that was 27-percent larger than the two-pane unit it replaced.

Passenger versions dumped the double side doors in favor of an industry first: a single right-side sliding door. Exterior door hinges were gone, so there was less to catch wind and dirt. Sacrificed also was the widow's-peak nose of the first-generation; the new bus had a flatter brow with less character but stronger bumpers and better headlamps.

Interior volume with the rear seats removed expanded by about six cubic feet, fuel capacity was 15.8 gallons, up from 10.6, and curb weight increased by about 400 pounds, to 2,723.

The second-generation VW Bus retained an upright driving position, but gained some front crush space for better crash protection.
© Vince Manocchi

Two passenger models were offered. The Kombi was now the base model and started at $2,211. The base Station Wagon cost $2,495 with seven seats, and $2,517 for the nine-seater.

The basic 1968 Campmobile listed for just $2,110, but for an additional $655, buyers could purchase purpose-designed camping equipment that included bedding and curtains, plus an icebox, stove, and sink with a 4.5-gallon water supply. Adding a pop-up roof cost another $280. The pop-up roof section was much larger than before and was hinged at the front. For $1,075, buyers could get the camping gear, the pop-top, and a custom tent that mated to the sliding-door opening.

Commercial models included panel vans and pick-up trucks with base prices ranging from $2,295 to $2,455.

All second-generation Type 2 models used the latest Beetle's 1600 engine (1,584cc, 96.6 cubic inches), here rated at 57 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 82 pounds/feet of torque at 3000. Horsepower was up over the first-generation, but so was curb weight, so the 1968 Volkswagen Bus really wasn't much faster than the last of the first-generation 1967s.

Zero-60 mph still took about 37 seconds and top speed remained 65 mph. VW calculated fuel consumption with the vehicle traveling at 75 percent of top speed, which worked out to 23 mpg at 53 mph. At 65 mph, where most real-world buses cruised, weather and road conditions permitting, owners saw about 19 mpg.

A four-speed manual with a 5.37:1 final drive ratio remained the sole transmission. Eliminating the wheel-hub reduction gears shed some unsprung weight and along with the new double-jointed rear axle, ball-joint front suspension, and wider track, improved both ride and handling. Some reviewers went so far as to call it car like.

Safety features included a deep-dish steering wheel--now mounted at a less bus like angle--a new padded dashboard, nonreflecting interior surfaces, safety belts for each seat, plus shoulder belts for all outboard positions.

This VW illustration shows the eight-passenger seating arrangement. Seven seats were standard, and there was a camper model that seated five and slept four.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Sales continued strong. The two-millionth Type 2 Volkswagen Bus left VW Hanover's factory in 1968.

Go to the next page to learn about how the Volkswagen Bus continued to evolve, and how it stacked up to a new crop of rivals.

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1969-1971 Volkswagen Bus

This Titian Red and Cloud White 1970 Station Wagon model retailed for $2,772. Its rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engine had 57 horsepower.
This Titian Red and Cloud White 1970 Station Wagon model retailed for $2,772. Its rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engine had 57 horsepower.
© Vince Manocchi

By the era of the 1969-1971 Volkswagen Bus, VW's lovable, adaptable rear-engine box had become an iconic on America's highways and in its driveways.

The Volkswagen Bus had gained acceptance among suburban families, car poolers, and of course, counterculture types. The passenger-carrying Station Wagon model of the Volkswagen Bus had long been a favorite of the young and young-at-heart, and "hippy vans" painted up in psychedelic designs were a fixture of the 1960s.


Road Test magazine contrasted the Volkswagen Bus with the era's muscle cars in its review of a 1970 VW Station Wagon model: "[E]scape via a bus is far less expensive and more promising in terms of birds and bees than being encumbered with a bucket-seated, thirsty-engine GTO or Scat-Pack Dodge. Admittedly, however, flower symbols and curtained windows seem to attract the police as readily as racing stripes."

The Volkswagen Bus's stopping ability got a boost for 1971 with the introduction of front discs and a 20-percent increase in the lining thickness of the rear drums. VW also installed a regulator in the rear brake circuit that functioned like an early anti-lock system to help prevent premature wheel locking in hard stops. Wheel width also increased by half-an inch, to 5.5 inches.

By 1971, Detroit had responded to the Volkswagen Bus with a new crop of competitors. Unlike the compact-car based vans that Ford and Chevy offered in the early 1960s, these were true trucks with front-mounted engines and optional V-8s that allowed them to pull heavy trailers.

These American vans the Volkswagen Bus in size and in price. The new Chevrolet Beauville Sportvan, for example, was nearly 17 feet long, had a 250-horsepower 350-cubic-inch V-8, weighed 4,600 pounds, and cost $4,775. A 1971 Volkswagen Bus passenger model with the optional radio and sliding steel sunroof listed for $3,164 and weighed 2,900 pounds.

In its April 1971 issue, Motor Trend compared a Volkswagen Bus Station Wagon model against just such a Sportvan, plus a Dodge Royal Sportsman B300, and a Ford Chateau Club Wagon.

"The Volkswagen Station Wagon came out best in terms of size, finish, quality and ease of handling," the magazine said. "But, for sheer load space, the VW couldn't hope to match the Ford, Dodge or Chevy Vans. VW was also at a distinct power disadvantage, with an engine less than one-third the size of the optional V-8s available in the Detroit-made vans."

But, Motor Trend concluded, "For everyday driving, though, our staff still preferred the VW van over the rest of the group."

The second-generation VW bus introduced to the van world the sliding side door. It was on the right side.
© Vince Manocchi

So did many buyers, enabling total production of the Volkswagen Bus to hit the three-million mark during 1971.

New features, more power (including a Porsche engine!) were among changes in store for the Volkswagen Bus as the 1970s rolled along. Learn about them beginning on the next page.

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1972-1979 Volkswagen Bus

The 1972-1979 Volkswagen Buses averaged around 70 horsepower, not enough to keep them from feeling slow. That was especially true with heavier versions, such as this 1979 Campmobile model.
The 1972-1979 Volkswagen Buses averaged around 70 horsepower, not enough to keep them from feeling slow. That was especially true with heavier versions, such as this 1979 Campmobile model.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 1972-1979 Volkswagen Bus kicked off a four-year advance on the powertrain front, and concluded with VW planning for the third-generation Volkswagen Bus.

The 1972 Volkswagen Bus gained the 1700-series engine from Volkswagen's model-411 passenger car. It had 72 horsepower and cut 0-60 mph times from over 30 seconds to a more-acceptable 22 seconds. Quarter-mile times fell to 23 seconds, and official top speed increased to 75 mph.


For 1973, the Volkswagen Bus was offered for the first time with automatic transmission. It was a $235 option and had three speeds. It was thoughtfully matched to the 1700 engine, maintaining each gear until well up in the rev range and downshifting promptly for good passing response. At about 23.6 seconds 0-60 mph, overall acceleration with automatic transmission was little different from that with the four-speed manual gearbox.

The automatic did not have an overdrive fourth gear, but its 4.45:1 final-drive ratio allowed the engine to turn at about the same rpm on the highway as the 5.37:1 ratio of the manual transmission. Fuel economy was not as good with the automatic, however, and could dip to around 16-17 mph.

The automatic arrived the same year VW stopped listing gross horsepower ratings and, like many manufacturers, switched to net ratings. Gross ratings were taken under optimum laboratory conditions. Net ratings were designed to reflect output with the engine installed in the vehicle and with power-sapping accessories and drive belts in place.

The 1979 Campmobile listed for nearly $8,000, but featured sleeping space for four, plus a stove, refrigerator, table, closets, and louvered side windows.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Thus the 1700 was rerated at 63 horsepower at 4800 rpm with manual transmission and at 59 at 4200 with automatic. Automatic-transmission models enjoyed more torque, though, 83 pounds/feet to 81, at the same 3200 rpm, which helped account for their similar acceleration.

The bus regained some of the lost power for 1974. It borrowed the 1.8-liter boxer from Volkswagen's 412 passenger car range and also added electronic fuel injection. Horsepower was now 67, and a manual-transmission van could run 0-60 mph in 20 seconds flat.

The 20-second barrier fell in 1976, when the Volkswagen Bus borrowed yet another engine, this time the 2.0-liter flat-four from the Porsche 914 sports car. Horsepower remained 67 at 4200 rpm, but torque climbed to a relatively robust 101 pounds/feet at 3000. Even with automatic, VW buses could now run 0-60 mph in 19.9 seconds.

Evolution of the second-generation bus slowed dramatically after this. About the only major change was in price, which by 1979, had climbed to $7,595 for the seven-seat model.

Driven by the escalation of the German currency, price increases were helping accelerate a sales decline that had been in progress for several years. VW sold 23,322 buses in the U.S. in 1978, but only 15,990 in 1979.

Worldwide, however, the Volkswagen Bus was still outselling all competitors and the company knew it had to update the design to protect its market share. Discover on the next page how Volkswagen did it.

In addition to passenger and camper models, the Volkswagen Bus was available in a variety of cargo versions, including this pickup truck.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

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1980 Volkswagen Bus: The Vanagon

Debuting for 1980, the third-generation Volkswagen Bus was renamed the Vanagon. It retained an air-cooled rear-engine layout but for the first time did not share its chassis with the Beetle.
Debuting for 1980, the third-generation Volkswagen Bus was renamed the Vanagon. It retained an air-cooled rear-engine layout but for the first time did not share its chassis with the Beetle.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

A new model name debuted with the 1980 Volkswagen Bus: the Vanagon. It graced the third-generation Volkswagen Bus, which ushered in the biggest changes in the big box since the original version of three decades earlier.

Wolfsburg had long been planning the third-generation Volkswagen Bus. It had been considering a dozen proposed configurations, from front-engine/front-wheel drive, to a front-engine/ rear-drive set-up, to a mid-engine/ rear-drive configuration.


In the end, it decided the original rear-engine/rear-drive layout would provide the most-efficient packaging and the best traction. Thus was the layout of the third-generation bus decided. It debuted for 1980, called the Transporter in Europe and the Vanagon in the U.S.

Other than the powertrain arrangement, the Vanagon was a clean-sheet design. It had a new platform, fresh sheetmetal, and a redesigned interior. Wheelbase was stretched 2.4 inches, to 96.8, and the body shell was widened by 3.3 inches.

The platform's floor was lowered by 2.4 inches, the spare tire moved to beneath the nose on a drop-down cradle, and the fuel tank, now at 16 gallons, was relocated to under the front seats. (Oil could be checked and filled from behind the hinged rear license plate cover.)

The suspension was completely new and qualified as a truly all-independent design. In front, trailing arms and torsion bars were discarded in favor of unequal-length A-arms, variable-rate coil springs, tube shocks, and an anti-roll bar.

In back, the torsion bars were banished and replaced by a semi-trailing-arm design with progressive-rate coil springs and tube shocks. The track was wider by 6.9 inches in front and 4.5 inches in the rear.

As before, overseas markets were offered a variety of body styles, including commercial vans and pickup trucks, but Americans got only seven- and nine-seat passenger models, a stripper Kombi with just two front seats, and the Westfalia Camper.

About half of all VW vans were purchased for personal use, so designers concentrated on making the Vanagon user-friendly inside and out.

Overall, there was a 15-percent increase in interior volume. The center aisle between the front seats was wider by 15 percent. The rear floor over the engine box was lowered 7.9 inches, increasing luggage space in the rearmost compartment by 40 percent, to 36.6 cubic feet.

The sliding side door was bigger, the rear hatch increased in size by a full 75 percent, and the rear window was enlarged by 50 percent. Total glass area was up by 22 percent.

The interior featured upscale trim, full carpeting, and door map pockets. The angle of the steering wheel was a little less bus like than before, and the dashboard was as up to date as in most passenger cars.

Heating and fresh-air ventilation were as good as ever with the Vanagon underway, but VW still didn't furnish a fan as standard; buyers had to pay extra for a three-speed blower. A another wise option was the gasoline-fired auxiliary heater, which cost $370.

The body contours were actually less rounded than before, though the windshield had more rake. On the safety front, three inches of sheetmetal had been added ahead of the front wheels to serve as a crush zone. Side-door beams and structural reinforcements satisfied all U.S. safety standards for cars, even though the Vanagon didn't have to meet them because it was classified a truck.

Though the new nose had what looked like a black plastic grille, the Vanagon was the only German-built VW product to retain an air-cooled engine. In the U.S., the only engine was again the all-alloy 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four with electronic fuel injection. It remained at 67 horsepower and 101 pounds/feet of torque.

The standard four-speed manual transmission had a final-drive ratio of 4.57:1, but for the first time it had an 0.88:1 overdrive top gear. A three-speed automatic was optional at about $350 and had a 4.09:1 final drive.

What was this third-generation Volkswagen Bus like from behind it's still quite bus-like wheel? Go to the next page.

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Driving the 1980 Volkswagen Bus

Gone, finally, was the overt bus-like driving position, but driving the tall, roomy, power-challenged 1980 Volkswagen Bus was still far from a car-like experience.
Gone, finally, was the overt bus-like driving position, but driving the tall, roomy, power-challenged 1980 Volkswagen Bus was still far from a car-like experience.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Driving the 1980 Volkswagen Bus, which was officially marketed as the Vanagon, was a lot like experiencing a familiar flavor in a new and different wrapper.

Driving the 1980 Volkswagen Bus started with the realization that with curb weights up by about 250 pounds over the 1979 version, to around 3,300 pounds for the basic Vanagon, acceleration was still not a strong suit.


Road & Track tried a four-speed seven seater, which had a test weight of 3,510 pounds, and clocked it at 21.2 seconds 0-60 mph and at 21.5 seconds at 60.5 mph in the quarter-mile. Top speed was 88 mph.

"Clearly, this is not acceleration that will elicit gasps of glee," Road & Track admitted, "but it does permit the Vanagon to keep up with everyday, around-town traffic."

Car and Driver wrung out a 17.9-second 0-60 mph time, turning 20.7 seconds at 63 mph in the quarter, but its top speed was only 75 mph. Fuel economy averaged about 17 mpg in most tests.

Nobody ever purchased a Volkswagen Bus for its power and that wasn't going to change with the Vanagon. But sensitive drivers would be rewarded by the Vanagon's road manners.

Unladened weight distribution was now 50/50 and though the breadbox-on-wheels was still top heavy, the new suspension and wider track allowed it to circle the skidpad at a car like 0.79 lateral g forces, compared to the previous bus's 0.63 g's.

Resistance to crosswinds was better than ever, but much attention was again required of the driver in gusty conditions. The Vanagon's ride was firm, but overall control was far superior to that of domestic vans, which still used solid rear axles.

"Once you get used to being seated a couple of stories above the pavement, you can slice through twisty roads with abandon," Car and Driver said in its first test of the new Vanagon.

"Its steering is amply quick, and even has plenty of road feel and a strong sense of center, " the magazine continued. "Bumps, even in the middle of corners, don't have a prayer of deflecting the Vanagon off course. But like many a German car, it thrums its way across tar strips and surface imperfections."

All this goodness came at a price. Vanagons started at around $9,500 for 1980, and with options such as the $290 AM/FM cassette system and auxiliary heater, the cost of a VW bus could top $10,200. Most reviewers found it worth the money, however.

"All in all, the Vanagon is a major improvement over its predecessors and, in our opinion, maintains VW's position as the manufacturer of the world's leading van," said Road & Track.

Motor Trend liked the new Vanagon so much it named it 1980 Truck of the Year. "The Vanagon is one of the best utilitarian vehicles ever to take to the highway," the editors said. "Its efficient use of space, attention to ride comfort and sedan-like handling position it as the new high mark the industry must strive to equal."

"Some things, it's nice to see, just never change," concluded Car and Driver. "The VW bus stood apart from the crowd when the children of the Sixties were dropping out, and it's still a vehicle for the alternative-minded now that they've dropped back in. Of course, these days the VW bus's special attractiveness results from engineering refinement rather than counterculture appeal."

That "engineering refinement" would soon include a water-cooled engine. Would it be enough to stave off yet another batch of competitors? Find out beginning on the next page.

For more on new, used, and classic Volkswagens, check out:

1981-1985 Volkswagen Bus

The 1983, the 2.0-liter flat four-cylinder engine in the Volkswagen Bus was re-engineered, going from air-cooled to water-cooled. It had 82 horsepower.
The 1983, the 2.0-liter flat four-cylinder engine in the Volkswagen Bus was re-engineered, going from air-cooled to water-cooled. It had 82 horsepower.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 1981-1985 Volkswagen Bus benefited from an accelerated rate of change, but its basic rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive design was about to be eclipsed by a new sort of minivan.

Even as Wolfsburg was planning changes to roll into the 1981-1985 Volkswagen Bus, Chrysler was already at work on its front-engine, front-wheel-drive minivans. As the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, they would revolutionize the market pioneered by the Volkswagen Bus.


As those rivals were under development, Volkswagen bolstered the Vanagon with a quieter, quicker, and more-fuel efficient engine. It was introduced during 1983 and called the Wasserboxer. That was the German way of saying that the Volkswagen Bus flat-four had gotten water cooling.

Added to engine were passages for cylinder heads and piston sleeves through which liquid now flowed. On the nose of the Volkswagen Bus, below the false "grille," appeared a genuine one and behind it was a radiator. Coolant circulating from the radiator to the engine passed through a real heater beneath the dashboard and another optional unit under the rear seat, finally providing the Volkswagen Bus with bona fide cold-weather comfort.

The engine's new water jackets further isolated engine noise, and while the engineers were at it, they refined the boxer's pistons, valves, camshaft, and fuel-injection system and gave it a higher compression ratio, 8.6:1 compared to 7.3:1.

Displacement actually decreased by 55 cc, but horsepower increased by 15, to 82 at 4800. Torque grew by five pounds/feet, to 106, and now peaked at 2600 rpm, 400 rpm sooner than before. Zero-60 mph times fell into the low-18-second range, and overall fuel economy climbed to around 19 mph.

The downside was a price that kept escalating, with the average passenger Vanagon now listing for around $12,250. It was still worth paying, though, according to the professional testers.

"In our initial Vanagon road test...we said that the VW van is clearly

the leader in technological development in its class," Road & Track asserted in its May 1983 report on the water boxer Volkswagen Bus. "That's still true, as we discovered driving the standard shift and automatic Wasserboxers. The new engine's power, flexibility, economy and quietness are delightful and give the VW van a level of performance that is commensurate with its design."

This would be the final time most Americans would agree that Volkswagen could claim a clear design advantage in the small-van field.

Vanagon sales had enjoyed a modest increase in 1983, climbing to 15,193 from 12,847 the previous year, and sales advanced again in 1984, to an all-time high of 17,985.

But the Chrysler minivans, which were built on the company's front-drive K-car platform and were much more car like than the larger Vanagon, took the market by storm from their launch in early 1984.

Ford and Chevy weighed in for 1985 with the more conventional truck-based front-engine/rear-drive Aerostar and Astro, respectively. And the Japanese were now aboard with odd little home-market transplants. But it was the Caravan and Voyager that dominated, with combined sales of more than 160,000 in 1985, their first full year. Vanagon sales for 1985 fell to 16,803.

How did VW respond to declining Volkswagen Bus sales? With more power and a new way to deliver it. Find out on the next page.

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1986-1991 Volkswagen Bus

For 1986, all Volkswagen Buses got a 2.1-liter engine with 95 horsepower. Horizontal headlamps were new, too, as seen on this Camper model.
For 1986, all Volkswagen Buses got a 2.1-liter engine with 95 horsepower. Horizontal headlamps were new, too, as seen on this Camper model.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 1986-1991 Volkswagen Bus spanned a time during which VW thought more power and availability of all-wheel-drive might entice buyers back to its people-mover fold. The new features pleased Volkswagen Bus loyalists, but didn't hold much appeal to those for whom minivan now meant the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

The 1986 Volkswagen Bus, still marketed as the VW Vanagon, debuted both a larger engine and high-tech traction-enhancing all-wheel drive option.


The engine was again the horizontally opposed water-cooled four-cylinder, but displacement grew to 2.1 liters (2,109cc, 129 cubic inches), compression rose to 9.0:1, and horsepower increased by 16 percent, to 95 at 4800. Torque jumped to 117 pounds/feet at 3200 rpm.

A new grille with rectangular headlamps dressed up the nose of the1986 Volkswagen Bus, and power windows, central locking, and heated power mirrors were new options.

The 1986 Volkswagen Bus Vanagon Syncro model was the first all-wheel-drive passenger van sold in the U.S. It was available as a passenger model or a Camper. Its all-wheel-drive system was less-complicated than the center-differential setup VW was offering in Europe on its Quattro passenger car.

Under normal driving conditions, the Syncro sent 95 percent of the engine's power through the rear wheels. But power was fed to the front wheels whenever the speed differential between the front and rear wheels exceeded six percent, meaning rear-wheel traction was being lost.

By 1989, when this plush $19,000 Wolfsburg Limited Edition was offered, Vanagon sales were suffering at the hands of the car-based Chrysler and Dodge minivans.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The speed differential acted upon a gooey silicon fluid trapped in a viscous coupling integrated into the front-axle differential. Interconnected plates within the case were engaged by the fluid action and in turn transferred power to the front axles.

The amount of power transferred depended on road conditions and was infinitely variable, continuous, and undetectable by the driver. For maximum traction, an optional locking rear differential could be engaged via a dashboard knob.

Syncro models rode 1.2 inches higher than rear-wheel-drive Vanagons, had about one additional inch of suspension travel, and rode on 205/70R14 tires, two sizes wider than on regular Vanagons. Syncro models were available only with manual transmission, but they got a "creeper" 6.0:1 low gear, for five forward speeds.

VW fitted Syncro models with an 18.4-gallon fuel tank, but mounted it in back, nestled around the gearbox. The spare tire also moved to a new aft location.

The Syncro was marketed not as a off-road vehicle but an all-weather van. VW demonstrated the system's mechanical reliability by driving a Vanagon Syncro around the world, covering 27,000 miles in a record 131 days in conditions that ranged from minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Canada to a roasting 123 degrees in Australia.

Though Syncro hardware, which included a front skid plate, added 330 pounds to the 3,270-pound Vanagon or 3,670-pound Camper, it did not seriously affect acceleration.

Car and Driver tested a Camper Syncro, which tipped the scales at 4,000 pounds, and recorded a respectable 0-60 mph time of 18.3 seconds. The feature wasn't cheap, however, adding $2,175 to the cost of a Volkswagen Bus.

So 1986 Volkswagen Vanagons now started at $13,140, with a Camper Syncro topping the line at a listed $19,335. Popular options were air conditioning ($990) and an AM/FM cassette radio ($575).

Syncros accounted for only small fraction of Vanagon sales, which continued to shrink in the U.S. The Vanagon was doing well in other markets and each day, the Hanover factory turned out nearly 500 of all types to satisfy worldwide demand.

The 1986-1991 Volkswagen Bus still appealed for  features like this friendly seating arrangement. And the 1986 Syncro model was the first all-wheel-drive passenger van.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

In 1986, VW built its six-millionth Volkswagen Bus. In the U.S. that year, Vanagon sales sunk to 12,669. It was a slide that seemed to have no end, as you'll discover on the next page.

America was entranced by the Chrysler brands, which sold more than 220,000 units for 1986 and would soon be averaging 500,000 or more annually.

Sales of the 1987 Volkswagen Bus slumped to 10,656, then to 5,416 for the 1988 Volkswagen Bus. There they hovered for the balance of the decade.

As the Vanagon played out its string, VW gave it some minor exterior styling changes and introduced plush Wolfsburg and Carat editions. It even briefly offered an inline four-cylinder 1.6-liter diesel engine, but with only 48 horsepower, it wasn't popular.

Once again VW needed something new to get back in the van game. This time, mere powertrain alterations wouldn't do. Find out on the next page about the redesigned, and renamed, 1993 Volkswagen Bus.

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1993 Volkswagen Bus: The EuroVan

With the redesigned 1993 Volkswagen Bus, the EuroVan, VW exchanged rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, for a modern front-engine, front-drive layout.
With the redesigned 1993 Volkswagen Bus, the EuroVan, VW exchanged rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, for a modern front-engine, front-drive layout.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

VW put an all-new people mover on the market and introduced yet another new name. Here was the 1993 Volkswagen Bus: the EuroVan.

VW had not offered a Vanagon-generation Volkswagen Bus for the 1992 model year; dealers had enough leftover 1991 versions. Clearly something different was needed.


The1993 Volkswagen Bus, the EuroVan, arrived in April 1992 as a fourth-generation design with an entirely new powertrain layout. The 1993 EuroVan exchanged the time-honored rear-engine/rear-drive configuration for front-engine/front-wheel drive.

VW pitched it not as a "minivan" rival to the Chrysler brands, but as a "midsize" van capable of taking on the Astro and Aerostar.

Indeed, with a wheelbase of 115 inches and an overall length of 186.6, it was larger than the Vanagon. And it looked different. But the big news was the new powertrain.

The only engine offered in U.S.-market EuroVans was a 2.5-liter overhead-cam inline five-cylinder. It made 109 horsepower at 4500 rpm and 140 pounds/feet of torque at a low 2200 rpm. The new five-cylinder drove the front wheels through a standard five-speed manual transaxle or an optional four-speed automatic. Base curb weight was 3,806 pounds, about 340 more than the comparable Vanagon.

Acceleration was a little better than that of the last Vanagons, whose 2.1-liter boxer had ended its run at 90 horsepower. But a EuroVan still wouldn't zip in and out of traffic or pass on a two-lane road without a lot of advanced planning. And maintaining speed on a long uphill grade still required downshifting from fifth gear to third.

EuroVan's body was sleeker than the Vanagon's, with a longer nose and chiseled contours. It could not be called handsome, but then VW's vans had lost a big chunk of charm with each succeeding redesign. None was more spacious that the EuroVan, however. Few vans were.

VW's desire to maximize interior volume led to a new, more-compact suspension. In front was a double-wishbone design that reverted to torsion bars instead of coil springs. In back was a semi-trailing arm and coil-spring setup.

The EuroVan was the fourth-generation Volkswagen Bus. Base prices were in a reasonable $16,000-$22,000 range, but it was still soundly outsold by American minivans.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

In width and height, the EuroVan was within fractions of an inch of the Vanagon, but managed to furnish a full 201 cubic feet of space with the rear seats removed. It could swallow a 4x8 sheet of plywood. Buyers had to go to a full-size domestic van to equal such capacity.

When they did choose a EuroVan, what was it like to drive? Find out on the next page.

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Driving the 1993 Volkswagen Bus

The 1993 Volkswagen Bus had a 109-horsepower 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, but at 3,800 pounds, it was not enough to move the Bus with much verve.
The 1993 Volkswagen Bus had a 109-horsepower 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine, but at 3,800 pounds, it was not enough to move the Bus with much verve.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Driving the 1993 Volkswagen Bus gave some clue about why it was now called the EuroVan. Despite its now minivan-conventional front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout, driving the 1993 Volkswagen Bus was a distinctly European experience.

The longer wheelbase took the front doors off the wheel arches, so it was easier to climb into the front buckets than before, but getting into or out of a EuroVan still was not as easy as in most rival minvians. Once aboard, the cabin was more luxurious than ever and the seats were more supportive, but the interior was still teutonically austere compared with that of competitors.


EuroVan's German character also came through in a suspension that noticed most every pavement flaw but provided a relatively flat ride and fine overall control. Noise from engine and road were quite evident, though wind rush at highway speeds was surprisingly low.

Gauges and controls were unobstructed, but the additional controls necessitated by the standard front and rear air conditioning on uplevel models made for a confusing array of climate buttons, levers, and dials.

A modern dashboard layout helped, but the EuoVan driving position still was not as car-like as most Americans would have desired.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Compared to the car like driving positions of rival minivans, EuroVan's steering wheel was still fixed at a bus like horizontal angle. Visibility was nearly panoramic, though as many as five headrests could be visible through the rearview mirror, confusing the view aft.

Braking was by ventilated front discs and rear drums, with an anti-lock system--unavailable on Vanagon--a new option. A driver-side air bag, which had become standard on most other minivans by 1993, was not available, however.

The only EuroVan model offered in the U.S. was the seven-seat passenger version. The Camper was superseded by an optional Weekender Package that included a pop-up roof with an integral double bed plus a refrigerated cooler and window curtains and screens. The usual assortment of commercial and utility models, as well as a 130.7-inch wheelbase camper, were offered in other markets.

Volkswagen Bus loyalists could see that EuroVan was true to traditional VW-van virtues of lots of room and utility in a manageably sized package. But the world had changed. High style, car like comfort, and sport-sedan acceleration were the fashion now.

For once, EuroVan prices were in line with rivals, starting in the mid $16,000s to about $22,000, though options such as automatic transmission ($895) anti-lock brakes ($853), power windows and locks, and cruise control ($765) could push up the price. The Weekender Package was a hefty $2,530.

The American public was unenthusiastic. EuroVan sales in the U.S. totaled just 5,634 for 1993. VW didn't formally introduce a 1994 Volkswagen Bus, instead selling off some 4,675 leftover 1993 EuroVans.

A roomy cabin with supportive seats was a highlight, but the EuroVan still seemed out of step with minivan trends, and U.S. sales slowed to a trickle.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

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1995-2003 Volkswagen Bus

With demand low, VW of America offered just a camper version of the Volkswagen Bus for 1995. It was a Winnebago conversion of a long-wheelbase European model.
With demand low, VW of America offered just a camper version of the Volkswagen Bus for 1995. It was a Winnebago conversion of a long-wheelbase European model.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 1995-2003 Volkswagen Bus story was an on-again, off-again affair, and it effectively ended the Volkswagen Bus's European connection.

VW didn't even offer a EuroVan at all in the U.S. for 1995, though buyers could order a version of the 130.7-inch wheelbase Camper. A small number of these campers were built with the help of the U.S. firm, Winnebago Industries Inc. of Forest City, Iowa.


The $30,000 Camper, which included sleeping accommodations for four, plus the usual cooking and storage equipment, was sold through an even smaller number of Volkswagen dealers who had signed up for this temporary venture. The camper was the only Volkswagen Bus available in the U.S. through 1998.

Again, VW was at a crossroads. It had produced the Sharan, a sleek front-wheel-drive minivan for Europe in cooperation with Ford. Ford's version was called the Galaxy. The significance of the Sharan for American buyers was that it could be had with VW's unique narrow-angle V-6 engine, an engine that provided the impetus for a revised and relaunched 1999 Volkswagen Bus.

Still badged the EuroVan, the 1999 Volkswagen Bus had slightly revised front-end styling and, with 140 horsepower, was the most-powerful Volkswagen Bus yet. The power came from VW's VR6, its first new engine since the 1970s.

The VR6 name was a combination of "V" and Reihe, the German word for an inline design. The engine came to the U.S. first in the 1993 Passat GLX sedan and wagon, where it was rated at 174 horsepower.

VW re-entered the U.S. passenger-van market for 1999 with a revised EuroVan packing the innovative narrow-angle VR6 engine and slightly revised styling.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The VR6 was a unique powerplant that packed 2.8 liters of V-6 engine into the space of a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine. It's cylinder banks were set at a 15-degree vee, rather than the conventional 60 or 90 degrees.

The narrow angle allowed use of a single cylinder head for both banks. There were two valves per cylinder and, despite the "DOHC" stamping on the engine cover, one overhead cam per cylinder bank.

The EuroVan used the VR6 to power a GLS passenger model, a recreation-oriented MV (Multi-Van), and the long-wheelbase Camper. While most minivan rivals now had sliding doors on both sides, the Volkswagen Bus persisted with a single, right-side sliding door.

The VR6 was a smooth runner, but the 1999 Volkswagen Bus still took about 12 seconds 0-60 mph; that compared with 8.9 seconds for a contemporary Toyota Sienna minivan with a conventional 3.0-liter V-6 of 194 horsepower. The Volkswagen Bus was expensive, too, with the GLS starting at around $30,000 and the Camper now around $35,000.

The VR6-powered Volkswagen Bus soldiered on through the 2003 model year, sales sinking consistently.

Even as sport-utility vehicles took over from minivans as the American family wagon of choice, the minivan market in the U.S. was still the world's largest, with sales steady at about 1 million units annually.

But starting in 2004, in a category of vehicle that it invented -- one in which it had stood alone, inspiring imitators and generating a cult following - Volkswagen was without an entry.

Find out on the next page what VW planned to do to re-enter the minivan market.

The last EuroVans were the most mainstream Volkswagen Buses ever, but high prices and slow sales doomed them, and U.S. imports were halted after the 2003 model year.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

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2009 Volkswagen Bus

VW teased Volkswagen Bus loyalists with the Microbus concept at the 2001 Detroit auto show. It captured the retro flavor of early VW buses.
VW teased Volkswagen Bus loyalists with the Microbus concept at the 2001 Detroit auto show. It captured the retro flavor of early VW buses.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 2009 Volkswagen Bus is VW's way of saying, "If you can't beat 'me, join 'me." After decades of swimming upstream, the 2009 Volkswagen Bus places VW in the minivan mainstream.

The 2009 Volkswagen Bus is built, literally, on the most successful minivan heritage of all time. It uses the chassis, running gear, powertrains, and general structure of the newest Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, but with a VW twist to styling and materials.


The 2009 Volkswagen Bus was scheduled to go on sale during 2008. No pictures of the 2009 Volkswagen Bus were available in time for this report, but it is not likely to look much like the boxy Dodge and Chrysler minivans that were redesigned for the 2008 model year

"When I saw the styling of the vehicle it is quite distinctive and Volkswageny," Trevor Creed, Chrysler group senior vice president of design told the trade paper Automotive News. "And they have done their own interior as well."

Added Creed: "All of their sheet metal is unique. All of their glass is the same. That is the big economy of scale in doing it."

To control costs, the 2009 Volkswagen Bus will almost certainly retain the Grand Caravan's 121.1-inch wheelbase, among the longest in the minivan class. The Dodge and Chrysler minivans come only with front-wheel drive and a choice of three V-6 engines, ranging from 175 to 251 horsepower. VW was mum on the engine lineup for the 2009 Volkswagen Bus, and also on whether it would offer all-wheel drive.

VW announced in 2004 that it would not offer the U.S. a production version of the Microbus concept shown here. Instead, it would tap Chrysler for its next U.S. van.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

Volkswagen sources said the 2009 Volkswagen Bus would have seven seats, but would not confirm whether it would also offer the Stow 'n Go or the Swivel 'n Go setups available on the Dodge and Chrysler, at least not initially.

Stow 'n Go enables the second and third-row seats to fold into the floor, and the Swivel 'n Go allows face-to-face seating for the second and third rows, with a fold-out table in between. Swivel 'n Go, in fact, harkens back to seating available on Vanagon and EuroVan versions of the Volkswagen Bus. VW sources did confirm that cabin materials would be more upscale than those on the Chrysler models.

Basing the 2009 Volkswagen Bus on a Chrysler platform might rankle the most committed Volkswagen Bus loyalists. But at least it insures Americans will be able to buy a 2009 Volkswagen Bus.

Any future for the Volkswagen Bus was quite uncertain after VW shelved plans to offer American buyers anything like the charming Microbus concept unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

That retro design captured the rounded forms of the beloved pre-1980 Volkswagen Bus, and seemed destined for production. VW deflated that plan in May 2004, announcing that something like the Microbus might be offered for European and Asian markets, but not for the U.S.

The flip-flop seemed typical of the twists and turns that make up the story of the Volkswagen Bus. The original people mover was always easy to like, but seldom had it easy in a world too busy to appreciate its laid-back approach to moving people.

Whether the Chrysler-minivan-based 2009 Volkswagen Bus will look anything like the Microbus concept pictured was a closely held secret in 2007.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

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