After experiencing a 1964 Beetle, a 1963 Karmann Ghia and a 1984 Volkswagen GTI in the span of a few weeks, I presumed that I was finished driving vintage VWs for the summer. But then VW offered me one more heritage fleet vehicle, a 1967 Type 2 Microbus. Who was I to refuse?
The Volkswagen Bus, as it's commonly known, is an automotive and cultural icon. It’s the exemplar of VW’s commitment to simple, practical and affordable transportation. It rivals the Beetle for whimsical charm. And, while certainly not VW’s best car, it’s the most valuable among collectors. Particularly well-kept examples can run into the six figures.
My loaner was the fancy version of the VW Bus — the Samba model. It had 21 windows for extra natural light, a two-tone paint job, and a sliding fabric soft top (which was no longer watertight...if it ever was). Below are a few thoughts on what it’s like to drive one in 2020.
The Type 2 I drove used a 1.5-liter flat-four that put out about 53 horsepower when brand new. It had a bit more oomph than the ‘64 Beetle, but the van weighed around 1,000 pounds more. As a result, the VW Bus takes a while to pick up speed and struggles mounting hills.
The steering would be unacceptably floaty by modern standards; shifting was an adventure; and the brakes made me rue the number of leg days I'd skipped. Sitting on a springy chair right above the wheel, it felt a bit like traveling over water at high speed.
The best way to maximize cabin space within a small footprint is to build a box. That’s what VW did with the Microbus. It seats eight comfortably — perhaps more if you aren’t too particular about lap belts. And it still has substantial room for luggage above the engine bay.
Here's the thing: it does that all that while being more than a foot shorter than the 2020 VW Jetta. Need more space for gear or luxuriating before a Grateful Dead concert? Take out a row of seats.
I’m only 5’11,” and driving the Bus made me feel Brobdingnagian. Most cars emphasize driver space and comfort; with the VW Bus, that was clearly an afterthought.
You sit high, because you’re above the wheel well. Eye-level for me was the top of the windshield; I had to duck to see traffic lights. The steering wheel is almost horizontal, because a vertical one wouldn't fit above your knees. I even had trouble depressing the clutch fully because my foot was too big.
The VW Bus is conspicuous, especially in two-tone orange. It’s instantly recognizable, and gives off all of the good vibes. But you have to like getting attention. People can’t help but smile at you, wave, take pictures, and gesture for you to roll down the window to converse. I often found myself obliged to feign that everything was groovy from the waist up while desperately trying to find first or second gear.
The Bus has a reputation for being a deathtrap. That seems more or less accurate. Forget crumple zones, airbags, an engine or even a hood: you're sitting in front of the front wheel and behind a headlight that juts into the cabin. There's nothing but thin sheet metal between you and a frontal collision.
My loaner had a piece of tape asking me not to exceed 55 mph after a previous incident. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing so anyway.