Culture

End of the road for iconic VW bus

Brazil is the last place the Volkswagen van is in production, which will end because of new safety regulations

Brazilian advertising executive Marcelo Serpa drives his Volkswagen van, emblazoned with a "rolling mural" that he painted, through the streets of Sao Paulo.
Andre Penner/AP

It carried hippies through the 1960s, hauled surfers in search of killer waves during endless summers and serves as a workhorse across the developing world, but the long, strange trip of the Volkswagen van is ending.

Brazil is the last place in the world still producing the iconic vehicle, or bus, as it's known by aficionados, but VW says production will end Dec. 31. Safety regulations mandate that every vehicle in Brazil must have air bags and antilock braking systems starting in 2014, and the company says it cannot change production to meet the law.

Although output will halt, there should be plenty of VW vans rolling along for decades, if only because there are so many and they are so durable. VW produced more than 10 million Volkswagen Transporter vans globally since the model was introduced 63 years ago in Germany, though not all resemble the classic hippie machine. More than 1.5 million have been produced in Brazil since 1957.

The VW van is so deeply embedded in popular culture, it will likely live on even longer in the imagination.

"The van represents freedom," said Damon Ristau, the Missoula, Mont., director of "The Bus," a documentary that follows van fanatics and their affection for the machine. "It has a magic and charm lacking in other vehicles. It's about the open road, about bringing smiles to peoples' faces when they see an old VW van rolling along."

Perhaps nothing with a motor has driven itself deeper into American and European pop culture than the VW van, known for its durability but also its tendency to break down. Fans say its failures only reinforce its charm: Because its engine is so simple, it's easy to fix, imparting a deeper sense of ownership.

The van made an appearance on Bob Dylan and Beach Boys album covers, among many, though in music circles its most closely linked to the Grateful Dead and the legion of touring fans who followed the group across the U.S., with the machines serving as rolling homes. Steve Jobs is said to have sold his van in the 1970s to buy a circuit board as he built a computer that helped launch Apple. The vehicle is linked to the California surf scene, its cavernous interior perfect for hauling boards.

But in poorer regions like Latin American and Africa, the vehicle doesn't carry the same romantic appeal. It definitely doesn't hold the cool mystique in Sao Paulo that it does in San Francisco.

It's used in Brazil by the postal service to haul mail, by the army to transport soldiers and by morticians to carry corpses. It serves as school buses, operates as group taxis and delivers construction materials to work sites. Brazilians convert their vans into rolling food carts, setting up on street corners for working-class lunchtime crowds.

In Brazil it's known as the Kombi, an abbreviation of the German "Kombinationsfahrzeug" that loosely translates as "cargo-passenger van."

One recent drizzly morning in Sao Paulo, Jorge Hanashiro took a break in his light green 1974 Kombi while his wife, Anna, served deep fried meat and vegetable pastry pies to customers at an open-air market.

"There may be safer and more modern cars around, but for me the Kombi is the best vehicle to transport my stall and products to the six open-air markets I visit each week," the 77-year-old Hanashiro said. "It is economical, rugged and easy to repair."

The vehicle has found its way into the hearts of Brazilians like Enio Guarnieri, 54, who stood grinning next to the blue and white 1972 van he keeps in his cluttered garage in a working-class Sao Paulo neighborhood.

Guarnieri bought the vehicle a year ago to stoke childhood memories. When he was 10, his father taught him to drive a van.

"Driving a Kombi with your face up against the windshield is a thrilling adventure," he said. "There is no other van like it. There is no other van that is so easy and inexpensive to maintain. Anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge about engines and a few tools can fix a Kombi."

A VW plant in Mexico stopped producing the classic version of the van in 1995, leaving a factory on Sao Paulo's outskirts as its last lifeline. Production in Germany was halted in 1979 because the van no longer met European safety requirements.

The Associated Press

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