/ 28 April 2024

Back to the 1950s in a VW splitty

Img 9990 (1)
It’s old but it’s good: The immaculate 1959 VW bus we drove in was comfortable, spacious and airy.

Imagine being transported back in time to a sunny coastal drive in the 1960s, when you and your closest friends fill a compact bus which has a surfboard  on the roof. 

As the windows slide open, the salty air of the West Coast fills the cabin, with the Beatles’ Hey Jude playing over the speakers. 

No vehicle captures this moment better than the Volkswagen Kombi, considered by some the quintessential emblem of its era. Few vehicles have become as iconic at different intersections throughout their existence. 

I’ve listened to numerous stories from my dad and his friends about the adventures they had in one of these people carriers. This made me curious to experience firsthand what the fuss is all about. 

But, before we dive into what a drive in the T1 Kombi is like in 2024, let’s turn back the clock to its origins. 

The VW “hippie” bus began its life after World War II, when the German manufacturer Volkswagen saw a need for a do-anything vehicle capable of transporting people, carrying equipment and being turned into a workhorse with ease. 

Dutch Volkswagen designer Ben Pon was the mastermind behind the bus, which began its journey in 1947. 

Pon believed the VW Plattenwagen would be a useful vehicle for buyers. After drawing up his initial design, the brand had to pump the brakes until 1949, when a prototype, named the Type 29, was produced. 

Unfortunately, the Type 29 sported the distinctive Beetle chassis, which they quickly discovered wasn’t strong enough for the vehicle’s intended workhorse use. To counter this, Volkswagen swapped it out for a ladder-frame chassis. 

Aerodynamics was the next cause for concern and, after some tweaking by the design team at VW, the Kombi, as we know it, was finally launched late in 1949. As you can imagine, it was a rather successful launch.

The first generation of the bus was named the T1 and Volkswagen offered it in eight models in the initial lineup. 

As well as having features such as removable seats for more storage space, the bus was available in pick-up truck and cargo van iterations, without rear windows, which were both modelled on the original Plattenwagen.

Img 9920 (1)

All the Kombi fanatics out there would know that the first generation came with two window options: 11 to 15 windows or 21 to 23 windows, which allowed a lot more natural light to flow in. 

The 23-window option is widely considered the collector’s dream —the current price is almost double that of the 21. 

The first generation’s styling included a split window, which led to the “splitty” nickname. 

The Kombi was renowned for being a spacious and practical vehicle and the styling was a hit. 

The brand sold 100 000 units in 1954, and these numbers only improved once Kombi reached countries such as the US.

It proved to be an excellent alternative to the fuel-heavy offerings of the time to transport goods and equipment around town. 

It also attracted outdoor enthusiasts and families who were in the market for a station wagon. 

It has built on its success since then and has now passed through six generations under the name Transporter. 

But the unit we got to experience was the classic first generation, so let’s get into what it’s like to drive in one today. 

Excited would be an understatement when I got word of possibly experiencing this stunning bus. The Kombi in question is a 1959 and to find one in this condition is virtually unheard of. 

This two-tone Kombi is arguably one of the best maintained in the country — everything, down to the stitching, is pristine and it gets a rating of 10/10 for the paintwork. 

The first-generation Kombi sported a 19kW 1.1-litre rear-mounted, air-cooled engine bolted to a four-speed transmission, which couldn’t break the 120km/h mark. In 1954, it was upgraded to 22kW.

But this particular bus isn’t any old bus. The lads at Generation Old School got a hold of it and have created something worth drooling over. 

The motor has been upgraded to a 1.6-litre unit and, with slightly more power and improved ride quality, it is capable of reaching highway speeds. This makes living with the van in modern times that much easier.

As for the refurbishment, it was done to replicate its showroom condition. I was impressed with how well the restoration team encapsulated the van’s heyday. 

Three rows of newly refurbished white seats make for a bright cabin experience, along with fresh, time-accurate carpets. 

The refurbishment was rated 10/10 on quality by Vintage Cars South Africa (and I think they are spot on), which gives you an idea of just how special this VW is. 

It does host a not-so-old sound system but I can guarantee that the modern niceties end there. 

I was fascinated with how spacious this bus feels, and this could be credited to the opening safari windscreens allowing the air to flow through your hair. 

Its ride, although outdated, was smooth and comfortable and provided a smile-inducing experience which could be enjoyed on longer road trips. 

I immediately noticed just how close the front passengers were to the front of the vehicle, with the bumper and my feet only a few millimetres apart. 

But there is a spacious feeling in this bus, one that provokes adventure and memory-making. 

Img 9922 (1)

All this does come at a price. This particular Kombi is for sale at Vintage Cars South Africa for R1 100 000, which might seem a steep price for a 1950s bus, but good luck finding a more perfect Kombi for your collection. Everything inside is immaculate and it runs like new, making it worth every penny. 

My time with the Kombi answered my questions about why the bus was such an icon. It’s enjoyable and liberating, with enough room to accommodate all your friends for a drive down the coast and enough cargo space to load up your weekend necessities. In addition, it has personality. 

But, most importantly, it’s a bus that evokes so many memories for so many people; it represents the history of the 1950s and 1960s, while playing a practical role in an otherwise empty section of the industry in its heyday.