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.
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.
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.