From ’67 to now: The enduring appeal of a Volkswagen van – Canberra – When Jim Smith, aerodynamicist, bought his Volkswagen Kombi in May 1988 in England for roughly 800 British pounds, he just wanted a camper for inexpensive family holidays with his wife and two daughters. Now, after nearly 28 years, and a move Down Under, his Kombi is a treasured and indispensable part of the family.
Jim’s Volkswagen Type 1 Kombi is a rare breed – a Canterbury Pitt conversion camper. The interiors are almost entirely in their original condition. The seats, the woodwork, the fittings, the cooker, the sink – all have been preserved since the vehicle’s initial conversion from a microbus into a camper in 1967. There have only been a few changes to the interior since, like redone upholstery on the front seats. Meanwhile, the exterior has a split screen and a two-tone colour scheme in cumulus white and sea blue. The front ‘face’ of the vehicle features a drooping v-shaped nose and round doe-eye blinkers. “It has style and character,” Jim says. “I bought it simply because I wanted to take the kids camping in a van. Now it has turned into a design icon and a bit of a work of art.”
The distinctive look of Jim’s Kombi speaks to its colourful background – the van is well-travelled. It was manufactured in Germany as a microbus in 1967, and then shuttled between France and England for over 15 years with its first owner, who had it converted into a camper. The Kombi settled in England, when one of Jim’s neighbours in Fleet, Hampshire, purchased it from its original owner. The keys changed hands again in 1988 and Jim became its third owner. When Jim removed the furniture for restoration, he noticed French francs, loose change, down the back of the seats – remnants from the Kombi’s past journeys. By the time he moved to Australia 14 years later, his beloved camper was “part of the family”, so along it came.
“I like its ability to take me somewhere else,” Jim says. “You’re just taken out of your normal life and transplanted into lovely country settings to camp up for a relaxing weekend.” He recalls a particularly memorable camping trip in which he drove up to the Snowy Mountains on a clear and crisp night, and settled down to sleep in the camper’s bunk, nestled in a sleeping bag and five blankets. When he woke up the next morning and peered out the window, he realised that the glass panes had frosted over and his van was completely covered in ice. “It had been minus five, and I had a comfortable night’s sleep,” he says, laughing.
Jim’s notes that his Kombi is almost irreplaceable because it has the authenticity of the original interior: “You’d have to go back to the UK to try and find another one. There’s one other in Australia that’s similar, and there are four or five in New Zealand and about a dozen in the UK. It’s not common at all.” His van has been awarded ‘Volkswagen Car of the Day’ at the Canberra German Car Show, and has been second twice in the ‘unmodified Type 1’ category at the Volkswagen Nationals in Sydney. He drives to every show he attends.
Cars have come a long way since the ‘67 split screen Kombi was in production, but the classic vehicle has left its legacy in the form of Volkswagen’s modern range of commercial vehicles. The latest (sixth) generation Volkswagen Transporter series, including the limited-edition Multivan Generation Six, features a whole host of newer technologies that can’t be found in a classic Kombi: direct-shift gearboxes, electrically adjustable seats, an array of intelligent driver assistance systems, touchscreen infotainment systems, and more. Yet, the modern range continues to bear the unmistakeable and celebrated stylistic traits of its predecessors.
After taking the limited-edition Multivan Generation Six for a spin near Lake Burley Griffin, Jim describes his experience: “I find it very pleasant to drive – quite comfortable, easy handling, very much less noisy than my old Kombi and having air-conditioning is helpful. Power steering makes a difference. Mine has a great big bus wheel; this is much more like driving a car. It’s very impressive. If I didn’t have the Kombi I would buy one.” Then, with a grin: “But I have a Kombi.”
“My general reaction to the vehicle is that it’s smart, practical, well-designed and has lots of good features.”