It was the defining image of nomadic hippydom, gracing Bob Dylan album covers, hauling surfers and their boards in search of killer waves and serving as the vehicle of choice for Scooby-Doo and his hapless, ghost-busting gang. But this month the last ever Volkswagen camper van rolled off the production line, 63 years after it was first unveiled at the Geneva motor show – because it can’t be fitted with an airbag.
Brazil is the last remaining country where the iconic Type 2 Kombi van is still produced, where more than 1.5m have been made since 1957. But new health and safety laws to be introduced in 2014, requiring every vehicle to have airbags and anti-lock braking, mean it is no longer compliant. Production in Germany was halted as far back as 1979, when the Kombi no longer met European safety requirements. It seems strangely fitting that the symbol of 60s freedom has gradually been hounded from existence by bureaucratic regulations.
The curvaceous minivan won hearts and minds after being promoted as not just a vehicle, but more of a holistic lifestyle choice. “Do you have the right kind of wife for it?” asked adverts for the van in 60s America. “Will she let your daughter keep a pet snake in the backyard? And invite 13 people for dinner even though she has service for 12?” Hell, with that kind of free spirit, you’re clearly suited to driving a Kombi!
Transporting revellers to Woodstock and innumerable gap year travellers around Australia – all at the stately pace of no more than 60mph – more than 10m Kombis have been made since they were first manufactured in postwar Germany. Following the success of the Beetle, the Kombi was the second vehicle produced by VW, its name short for “Kombinationsfahrzeug”, or “cargo-passenger van”, a multipurpose shed on wheels.
The origins of the nine-seater love wagon are credited to the Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon, who spotted an improvised vehicle while on a visit to the car plant in Wolfsburg – a Beetle chassis, jury-rigged for moving parts around the factory floor. He thought others could benefit from the flexibility of a big movable box, and so the Type 2, also known as the Transporter, was born.
With is trademark profiled wings that sweep around the front and down into a point, forming a valley beneath the split windscreen, it was an instant hit. Numerous iterations followed, including the Camper version, with a cooker, sideboard and folding bench seat, as well as models with trapdoor sunroofs and concertina pop-tops, which rose dramatically above the van like a great inflated accordions. To mark the momentous end of the beloved minibus, Volkswagen is releasing a final limited edition of 1,200 priced at about $43,000 (£26,000), which are expected to be snapped up by eager collectors.
A little house on wheels, the Type 2 has proved as versatile as the standard semi, being converted into everything from mobile restaurants to libraries and miniature music venues. In Brazil it has long been the workhorse of choice, used for everything from shuttling schoolchildren to transporting mail – and even used by funeral directors for carrying corpses. Anyone for a flower-power fun-hearse?