From Cargo to Counterculture to Car Shows—a History of the VW Bus

The History of the VW Bus
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Despite conventional wisdom, the VW Bus didn’t begin life as a solution for conveying groups of surfers and surfboards to the beach, nor did it immediately serve as a symbol of insubordination—or rock and roll. The iconic vehicle wasn’t born to transport bands and equipment to Woodstock, though that’s precisely what it did in later years. Despite its eventual affiliations with the American counterculture, the VW Bus had rather humble beginnings in a Dutch importer’s notebook.

What arose from the initial sketches, however, wound up becoming a classic car with a nearly 70-year history. How did the VW Bus rise from simple factory transport vehicle to counterculture symbol, to a classic car so iconic it’s still featured on VW Bus t-shirts to this day? Follow us along the long, strange history of the VW Bus and find out.

The VW Bus was an Importer’s Dream

The VW Bus

In 1947, Ben Pon was a Dutch V importer tasked with importing Volkswagen’s familiar Beetles to the United States and other locales. He visited the VW factory in Berlin and was immediately inspired by the squatty transport vehicles that shuttled parts around the factory. These vehicles—a stripped-down version of the Beetle built on the same Type 1 chassis—were the epitome of what Hitler envisioned as a “people’s car” (the literal translation of Volkswagen).

Back at home, Pon sketched an improved version of the Type 1 truck he believed could serve to transport people and things. The result? A van that looked more like a shortened version of a bus than a van, but captured the attention of VW chiefs in Berlin. So, how did we get the familiar profile seen on vintage car shirts the world over?

Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter

Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter

From Pon’s sketch, Volkswagen developed the Type 2 Transporter built on the same principles as the original Type 1—a rear-mounted, air-cooled, four-cylinder engine—and the first products that would see wide production rolled off the line in 1950. By this time, instead of the box-on-wheels Pon had proposed, engineers had fine-tuned the microbus and developed numerous body styles and uses. Most significantly, VW had begun to incorporate the split windscreen concept known as “The Splitty,” which would define the window stylings of the classic VW Bus for the next two decades.

By the mid-’50s, Type 2 had arrived on American shores and become the first real entry in a long line of cargo and passenger vans. Consumers realized its capacity for moving both people and things, just as Ben Pon had a decade prior, and it became a welcome solution for both instead of the full-size cars and trucks that had been in use before. Better yet, consumers quickly became aware of just how easily Type 2 could be converted into just about anything the owner wanted.

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VW Bus Versus VW Van

Back in 1950 Volkswagen released the first “MicroBus”, which is why most car enthusiasts will refer to it as the VW Bus and not the VW Van. However, here’s a little more history for you. The DKW Schnellaster had put out the DKW F89 L in 1949, but they called it just a van. So, technically, the first MicroBus was actually called a van.

The Volkswagen Bus Counterculture

Volkswagen Bus Counterculture

As Volkswagen busied itself with forming partnerships and creating camper conversion kits to diversify the Transporter, Americans were focused on its looks. Far different from the boxy, imposing front grill profiles of American full-size cars driven by the well-to-do, the original VW Bus stood out in all the right ways. Its friendly profile, rounded face, and VW logo were precisely what those on the fringes of society wanted—a stark opposition to the cars driven by “the establishment.”

As a result, multiple factions of the counterculture movement embraced the VW Bus as a way of rejecting mainstream society. It saw various uses over the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, including transporting activists to rallies and protests and even—in the case of one notable 1966 VW Transporter—shuttling black children in then-segregated Charleston, South Carolina, to and from school. In any case, whether the painting on the side of this beloved slab van featured peace signs or profanities, the counterculture made the VW Bus its own, as evidenced by the vintage VW Bus t-shirts, backpacks, stickers and other merch of the day.

VW Bus: Function and Fashion

Through the prime years of America’s counterculture, the VW Bus went through a bit of a style transformation. From the Splitty, the Bus quickly moved to the Bay model in 1967, which had a larger body and increased capacity. With the introduction of the Bay Camper Bus in 1975, Volkswagen fully realized the VW Buses potential as a camper or mobile home, inspiring other manufacturers to follow suit.

No matter what the model name, however, the VW Bus remained instantly recognizable among a sea of boxy, imposing American muscle cars, and its reputation as a “hippie van” or “beach-mobile” only grew. Fortunately, with increased capacity, later versions of the VW Bus did lend themselves quite well to both—a relatively sparse interior with rubber mats meant the ability to stow almost anything, or anyone. The mechanics were relatively inexpensive to maintain, simple to work on, and altogether formed the perfect vehicle for America’s fringes.

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The VW Bus Lives On

VW bus culture

Today, collectors, car enthusiasts, and VW owners alike continue to revere the VW Bus for what it was—a revolutionary mechanical idea that came to define a social revolution. In the years since, many car manufacturers have introduced conversion vans, cargo vans, and minivans, and none of them have reached the iconic status of the VW Bus. The love that still exists for these vans is evident in many a vintage car shirt, car show, and beach parking lot across the nation, 70-plus years after its development.

While the latest versions of the VW bus were not released in the US, and the VW Bus line as a whole ceased production in 2014, the Bus isn’t dead yet. Collectors continue to demand early, Splitty body styles—sometimes to the tune of $100,000 and more—and more and more collectors are millennials, which truly speaks to the cross-generational appeal of the VW Bus. Perhaps even better is the fact that VW plans to release an electric version of the minibus as early as 2022.

Custom Merch for VW Bus Lovers

In honor of the impending return of the VW Bus, as well as the many years of rich history supplied by this beloved model, we’ve added VW Bus merch to our shop! We have tons of gift ideas for car lovers here.

Featured Volkswagen Apparel

 If you appreciate this iconic symbol of peace, love, and rock-n-roll as much as we do, now you can find a way to show the love during auto shows, race weekends, or even a comfortable day at home.

Vintage VW Bus BackpackVintage VW Bus Backpack
This medium size Vintage VW Backpack is just what you need for daily use or sports activities! The pockets (including one for your laptop) give plenty of room for all your necessities, while the water-resistant material will protect them from the weather.
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Vintage VW Bus T-Shirt
Vintage VW Bus T-Shirt

You’ve now found the staple t-shirt of your wardrobe – the Vintage VW Bus T-Shirt. It’s made of a thicker, heavier cotton, but it’s still soft and comfy. And the double stitching on the neckline and sleeves add more durability to what is sure to be a favorite!
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Buying a Gift for the VW Bus Fan in your Life?

Vintage VW Bus Mug
Vintage VW Bus Mug
Imagine your friend drinking morning coffee, evening tea, or something in between in this Vintage VW Bug Mug (we didn’t even mean to rhyme there, but it’s got a nice ring to it… Bug Mug!) It’s sturdy and glossy with a vivid print that’ll withstand the microwave and dishwasher. A fun and affordable gift for the Volkswagen fan in your life!
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VW Bus Sticker
Vintage VW Bus Sticker
Another affordable gift option – the same fun vintage VW bus design on a sticker! The vintage Volkswagen sticker is printed on durable, high opacity adhesive vinyl which makes it perfect for regular use, as well as for covering other stickers or paint. The high-quality vinyl ensures there are no bubbles when applying the sticker.
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Check out our full line of Vintage VW Products on our shop.

About Chris Weatherall

I’m a kid at heart disguised as an auto researcher and business owner. I’ve always enjoyed providing insight in the form of reviews (anime, video games, autos, etc.) When I’m not researching, I’m spending time with my family, driving my Dodge Challenger, riding my motorcycle, and finding new entrepreneurial pursuits.