A Brief History of the Volkswagen Transporter

Whether you call it a Transporter, Caravelle, Microbus, or Vanagon, take a spin with us now through some of the great moments in the history of the Volkswagen Transporter we all love.

1947 An idea first takes shape

Ben Pon, a Dutch distributor of Volkswagens, sketches his ideas for the Transporter after seeing VW Beetle-based flatbed trucks used to carry components around Volkswagen’s first factory in Wolfsburg.

1950 VW Bus

1948 A prototype is developed (with some help from the Beetle)

Pon’s idea for a commercial vehicle is officially accepted by Volkswagen and detailed drawings for a prototype are developed. Many of the components, including the engine, transmission, and running gear are borrowed directly from the Beetle.

1949 Test. Retest. Success. Transporter is put into production

Testing begins on a prototype Transporter. Unfortunately, because the first prototype is based directly on the Beetle's frame, it doesn’t have the necessary strength to withstand the stresses produced by the additional weight of the Transporter's body. After going back to the drawing board, a second prototype using unibody construction is produced. Following successful testing, the Transporter is officially presented to the world in November and production begins.

1950 Introducing the Kombi

The Kombi is introduced in 1950. The initial Transporter was intended to be purely a delivery type vehicle. While still Spartan in appearance, the Kombi offers seating in the rear compartment for passengers, along with windows down the side of the vehicle. The seats are easily removed for loading cargo. This makes the Kombi the first combination people/package hauler, hence the name “Kombi.”

1950 VW Bus

1951 The Samba Bus debuts, and this bus is built for comfort

The Samba Bus (also known as the Microbus DeLuxe) is introduced. Essentially, it’s a Kombi bus with all the bells and whistles for passenger comfort. These include more windows, a sunroof, updated interior, wet bar, and a good deal of chrome on the exterior. Well, maybe not a wet bar...

1952 Yes, Germany had their own version of the El Camino

The pickup version of the Transporter goes into production. Intended for use by construction companies and the like, its unique feature is fold-down sides in the bed. This made it possible for the pickup to carry objects larger than itself, provided they didn’t weigh very much.

1954 100,000 Transporters and counting

The 100,000th Transporter rolls off the assembly line in Wolfsburg. The engine size is increased, improving horsepower from 25 to 30 horsepower. All models are made available with right-hand drive to increase sales in foreign markets and the postal service.

1955 Hydraulic shock absorbers, and so much more

The first major revisions are made to the Transporter, including an opening tailgate, a full-width dashboard, an overhang above the windshield to accommodate a new ventilation system, and smaller wheels in combination with hydraulic shock absorbers to improve ride.

1956 All Oom-pah-pah music at the new Hanover factory. All the time.

With the Wolfsburg factory operating at full capacity, production of the Transporter is moved to a new facility in Hanover, which had been designed with production of the Transporter specifically in mind. The facilities include ceiling-mounted cranes, automated painting booths, a large employee lounge, and 24-hour oom-pah-pah music played over the factory PA system.

1958 Now, with a double-crew cab

The pickup version is produced with a double (or crew) cab, as well as the original single cab model.

1959 Transporter gets some major smoothness in the shifting department

Two performance improvements are introduced: engine power is increased to 34 horsepower and the transmission features synchromesh on all gears, improving shifting smoothness.

1960 Buh-bye side-mounted semaphore signals

Safety is increased with the introduction of bullet-shaped flashing indicators on the front of the vehicle. This replaces the old system of side-mounted semaphore signals, which now seem incredibly dangerous and antiquated, even for the time.

1961 One million Transporters and counting

The 1,000,000th Transporter is produced. Very popular in Germany, it’s now driven all over the world, with the exception of the Soviet bloc countries (for some reason).

1963 Optional sliding doors, and more improvements

A number of improvements are introduced, including a more powerful 42 horsepower engine, an improved lighting system including larger front turn indicators, a larger rear hatch, the option of sliding side doors, and the increase of payload to one full ton.

1965 Still getting lapped by everything short of an ice cream truck, but not as quickly

Engine is upgraded to an output of 44 horsepower at 4000 RPM. Yet Transporters are still passed on the highway by everything except heavily laden ice cream trucks. But at least now they’re not being passed quite as quickly.

1966 Buckle up. Seat belts and new electrical system added

One of the major complaints about the Transporter is finally addressed with the 12 volt electrical system replacing the old and inadequate 6 volt system. Transporters can finally operate at night without their headlights dimming at stop signs. Another safety feature—seat belts—are introduced.

1967 The all-new second-generation Transporter brings new styling and features

The first major revision of the Transporter since its inception. The new second-generation Transporter features a revised body shape including a large one-piece front windshield and sliding side doors on all models. Drivetrain changes include a transmission with double-jointed driveshafts and a new 1.6 liter, 47 horsepower engine. The new Transporter is not as aesthetically pleasing as the original bus, but it does feature more interior room and hauling capacity.

1969 Turns out rocket ejector seats aren’t all that “safe”

Two safety-related improvements are introduced: a collapsible steering wheel and stronger doors. A third proposed safety improvement—rocket-assisted ejector seats—is rejected due to cost considerations and the existence of overhead power lines. (Just kidding.)

1970 You had me at dual-port cylinder heads

The engine is redesigned to include dual-port cylinder heads, which improves performance to 50 horsepower at 4000 RPM.

1971 Bigger engine. More to love.

The engine size is increased to 1.7 liters on the 1971 VW Bus model, with a major (well, relatively) power increase to 66 horsepower at 4800 RPM.

1950 VW Bus

1972 Just don’t forget to lift your legs if there’s a collision

The automatic transmission is made available on all models except the pickup. An important safety revision is the redesign of the cab floor with a crumple zone. Drivers are still advised to lift their legs in the event of an impending head-on collision.

1973 In other news, front indicators are relocated to side of front grill

The engine is once again enlarged, this time to 1.8 liters, producing 68 horsepower at 4200 RPM. In a minor appearance change made by VW Transporter Design Department to justify their existence to upper management, the front indicators are relocated to either side of the front grill.

1975 New love for small VW engines. (All it took was a global gas crisis.)

The 2-liter engine is introduced, providing 70 horsepower at 4200 RPM. The power increase in turn allows for a new maximum payload of 2500kg. The small engine size finally pays off as owners of large V-8 powered vans are stuck in around-the-block lines at filling stations during the gas crisis while Bus owners cruise on by.

1979 Hello Vanagon!

The third-generation Transporter or “Vanagon” is introduced by Volkswagen in 1979. The Vanagon features a complete restyling of both the exterior and interior. Gone is the round shape of the previous two generations of Transporters in favor of a more angular "wedge" shape. The interior is upgraded substantially to bring it up to the level of comfort in modern vehicles. In addition to the body, all other systems are redesigned and improved.

1982 Finally, the Waterboxer

While other Volkswagen vehicles were now water-cooled, the Transporter had hung on to its air-cooled heritage. No longer. The Transporter now features a water-cooled 1.9 liter flat-four engine, also known as a “waterboxer.” Also available this year, a 1.6 liter diesel engine (and you thought standard Transporters were slow on acceleration).

1986 The Transporter reaches 100 mph (not that you’d want to)

The 2.1 liter waterboxer engine is introduced. Highway speeds approaching 100 mph can be attained, but are not recommended.