There is no doubt that some of the most iconic cars in the history of vehicle manufacture have come from the Volkswagen stable, and the VW Kombi is no exception. The Kombi has been one of the most enduring and sought-after motors since its introduction back in 1950. Over the course of more than six decades, it has become a worldwide symbol for all that is fun and fantastical, embedding itself in Australian culture as a surfing icon and true classic.
Legend has it that the Kombi was first developed as a vehicle for transporting parts around VWs German factory. A small fleet of utilitarian vans was fashioned from metal panels around a Beetle chassis and, seeing mileage in the idea, a small group of VW executives decided to fine tune the design and put the van into production. The rest, as they say, is history.
Earlier Kombis are characterised by a split front windscreen and affectionately referred to by Kombi fans as splitties, while models from 1967 onwards feature the more familiar single panel front glass and are known as bay window models. A popular ambulance version was developed back in 1951, which was widely used in a number of territories all over the world.
These days the Kombi comes in a Transporter, Multivan, and Caravelle format. Production has, for a long time, been limited to Brazil, where the single remaining Kombi plant was, until recently, still turning out some 250 examples every day. Many of these have been destined for buyers within Brazil but a not insignificant number have also found their way overseas onto Australian shores. Sadly, with the introduction of rigorous new road safety legislation, the Kombi has had to accept that its days are well and truly numbered.
The Kombis collectors item status means prices for older models are rising in line with their age, although as always, this is largely dictated by their condition and individual characteristics.
The earliest Kombis were powered by a 1.1L petrol engine, delivering just 18kW and with a top speed of 100km/h. This has risen over the course of several generations to the newest 2.0L and 2.5L turbo-diesel models, which are capable of achieving speeds of nearer 160 km/h with between 62kW and 128kW of power.
The Kombi was, from early days, assembled in Melbourne by Ford Australia. The original 1.1L delivering 18kW was upgraded in 1953 to a 1.2L model delivering 22kW and again to a 1.2L delivering 30kW in 1959. The latter was fraught with problems and eventually subject to a recall by Volkswagen. It is unlikely that many survive, but if you do come across one, think carefully before investing no spare parts were ever made!
Second-generation Kombis are known as the Type 2 (T2) and date from 1967 onwards. During the course of its reign, the T2 saw a variety of engines, from a 1.6L with 35kW right through to a 1.8L giving 67kW and a 2.0L with 52kW; they feature a choice of 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic gearbox. With such a range to choose from, it is important to test drive your Kombi carefully before you buy to ensure you know exactly what you are getting.
The Kombi was one of the first vehicles, along with the Citroen H Van, to place the driver above the front wheels in a forward control position, with the engine firmly out of the way at the rear. This is not unfamiliar these days, but in its time, it made for quite a different drive and not a supremely smooth one on the 15-inch wheels that came standard.
The VW Kombi is one of the most widely modified vehicles around. In addition to the standard factory variants, such as the Transporter, Multivan, and Weekender, a plethora of third-party adaptations include refrigerated vehicles, hearses, ambulances, fire engines, and, of course, the ubiquitous camping van conversions.
If you are looking for a VW Kombi with the familiar sliding door feature to the side, look for models dating from 1964 onwards, as it was only then that this option became available as an alternative to the outwardly hinged doors unless of course the vehicle has been modified in the intervening years.
As a collectors item and an iconic piece of vehicle design, in many ways the Kombi sits in a class of its own. If it must be compared to the rest, it holds up favourably against the other T models from Volkswagen, such as the Caravelle. Otherwise check out the Mitsubishi Express for more economy but less history and class.