1961 Volkswagen Microbus
1961 Volkswagen Microbus. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

Much credit for the popularity of the minivan must go to the Chrysler Corporation for its T-115 “Magic Wagon” garageable vans, the 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. They were an immediate success and became immensely popular. Along with the utilitarian Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant K-cars, they saved the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s.

This led many to believe that Chrysler had invented a whole new class of vehicle, a belief that Chrysler promoted. But while Chrysler made it a household item, it was Volkswagen that really created the modern minivan.

Although there were a few minor attempts earlier, the genesis of the modern minivan began in 1950. With Volkswagen’s war-damaged Wolfsburg plant recovering and Beetle production well under way, the company decided to move into the commercial field.

Starting with a ladder-type frame, VW engineers designed the largest possible vehicle using the same 2,400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase as the Beetle. The van’s 4,191 mm (165 in.) length was only 127 mm (5 in.) longer than the car’s.

Not surprisingly, it resembled a box on wheels. With a flat front, almost horizontal steering wheel and front seat mounted directly above the wheels, it was the ultimate cab-forward design.

Access to the cargo area was through two right-side swinging doors plus a rear hatch. Its compact dimensions, huge 170-cubic-foot volume, high manoeuvrability and curb-side doors made it ideally suited for light-duty urban delivery duties. Its carrying capacity was three-quarters of a ton.

This VW Type 2, called the Transporter, had the Beetle’s 30-horsepower, 1.2-litre, air-cooled, four-cylinder, horizontally-opposed (flat) engine behind the rear axle. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, and like the Beetle, suspension was independent all around via lateral torsion bars.

To increase ground clearance and give commercial grade pulling power for cargo and the van’s 1,048 kg (2,310 lb) weight, reduction gears were fitted in the driving wheel hubs. These had been used in Volkswagen’s military Jeep-type Kubelwagen, and they served their purpose, although gear whine and engine noise did create a real din in the bare metal box.

These gears speeded up the engine, and since VW’s engineers weren’t comfortable turning the little flat four much over 3,500 rpm, an instrument panel decal on early models warned: “The allowable top speed of this vehicle is 50 mph” (80 km/h), a warning that was often ignored.

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