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Transporter's $218,000 sellout. Can you dig it? Add to ...

The times they are a-changin’, man.

Leftover 1960s-era hippies must have been soaking their tie-dyed T-shirts with their tears after learning another survivor of the peace-and-love decade and its official counter-culture icon – a Volkswagen Microbus like the ones flower children paid a few hundred bucks for and used as transport to love-ins, hootenannies and Woodstock – had just “sold out” for a very establishment-like $218,000.

This “Magic Bus” trick was performed at Barrett-Jackson’s recent Orange County auction in California by a 1963 Deluxe 23-window plus sunroof, top-of-the-line Transporter that would have cost $2,655 to acquire new that year.

The bus that went under the hammer for this rather astonishing price had been painstakingly restored over seven years to “museum quality.” Presented in its original and classy Mouse Grey and Pearl White paint scheme with Balsamic Grey interior, it was perfect down to the last engine decal with even the ashtray fully renovated.

This down-to-the-bare-metal process would also have ensured some purple-hazed hippie hadn’t forgotten his or her stash of weed behind a body panel. An Internet story says that was the case with another recent VW van restoration project – seven kilos of the stuff apparently.

To clear up a point for those who might actually remember the ’60s: The Magic Bus in The Who tune was of the Brit double-decker rather than German V-dub variety, but VW van enthusiasts have since co-opted the name. That joins Transporter, Station Wagon, Kombi, VW Van, Microbus and a dozen others around the world to describe this charismatic vehicle that is obviously still capable of striking an emotional chord with enough vibrato to shake loose more than 200-large from somebody’s bank account.

There are still many, likely still looking back on that swinging decade through rose-tinted granny glasses, who are still restoring and driving these things. The Westphalia camper version in particular has a large and cult-like following.

The original VW bus, known as the Transporter, made its debut in 1950 and continued in production in Germany until 1967 – by which time almost two million had been built – and in Brazil until 1975, after which it was replaced by the second generation and various follow-on models. Its lineage continues today, at least sort of, if you make the stretch to considering the Routan, a rebadged Chrysler minivan, part of the family. It had followed a still-born attempt to reprise the old van with a New Beetle style retro-mobile. Still-smitten or born-again VW van fans celebrated its 60th anniversary last year and many still believe a true resurrection will occur one day.

Volkswagen had struggled back into production shortly after the Second World War ended, producing the Type 1 – the legendary Beetle. As the company started to regain momentum in the late ’40s, it began looking for ways to expand its product line and a sketch produced on the proverbial restaurant napkin by Dutch importer Ben Pon apparently inspired what would become the Type 2. Pon was the first to sell VWs outside Germany and was later involved in importing them into the U.S.

What emerged was a bulky but oddly-appealing-looking vehicle that could seat up to nine on three benches, or if the seats in the rear were removed provide some 4,800 litres of cargo space. VW’s team had taken Pon’s idea and turned it into the first minivan. Pon’s son, also named Ben, later served a stint as a trainee with newly formed VW Canada in the early 1950s.

The Type 2’s boxy bodywork was draped over a modified Beetle body pan with a wider track front and rear and extended 215 mm longer than the car’s. Weight was 1,050 kg and it had a payload of 750 kg.

This was propelled down the road by the standard rear-mounted, horizontally opposed, 1,131-cc, four-cylinder, air-cooled engine’s 25 hp with performance improved by using reduction gears in the rear-wheels that lowered the drive ratio and produced a first gear that could get the bus rolling with any load aboard. North American export models, with power boosted to 30 hp, could reach about 110 km/h and maintain that as a highway cruising speed, on flat stretches anyway. The 1963 models came with a 1.5-litre, 51-hp engine.

Production began at the end of 1949 with two models –the nine-seat Kombi and the windowless Commercial – and 9,541 were built in its first year. These were followed by a number of variants including: an ambulance, single and then double-cab pickups, the Samba or Microbus with eight skylight windows in the roof and the Westphalia camper. Aftermarket converters also turned them into fire engines and even hearses.

The number of windows is the key to understanding the Type 2 model hierarchy, not forgetting the first-generation’s split windshield counted as two. The base Kombi has 11, the Deluxe 15 and the high-zoot Samba or Microbus with its eight roof-edge windows (it was marketed as an Alpine tour vehicle), a total of 23.

It doesn’t indicate anywhere in this Deluxe edition Microbus’s provenance that it was ever driven by actual hippies – more likely some middle-class American family just as today’s minivans are – but it still looks far out and groovy.

globedrive@globeandmail.com



Back in 1963

The Stephen Leacock Award is presented to Canadian author Donald Jack for Three Cheers for Me, the first of a funny series of books based on the adventures of an unlikely First World War flying ace.

The Littlest Hobo, a Canadian series featuring a stray German Shepherd dog that wanders around helping people, makes its television debut and runs until 1965. It airs again between 1979-85.

Coca-Cola launches diet drink Tab for those who want to keep “tab” on their weight and it proves successful until sideswiped by a study that says its sweetener Saccharin may be carcinogenic. This is later debunked, but even clever slogans like “Tab’s got sass” don’t return it to its former popularity.

NASA launches the first geosynchronous satellite and U.S. President John F. Kennedy uses it to call up Nigeria’s prime minister for a chat, the first between heads of state using real space-age technology.

Country singer Patsy Cline and fellow performers Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Potas die in a light-plane crash on their way home from a benefit concert.

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