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Last 'old' Kombi to roll off the line

Ten years after Volkswagen's legendary Beetle drove off into the sunset, its other main icon, the camper van, takes its leave from the world's automotive stage this month.

Volkswagen's last Type 2 - the van's official name - is scheduled to roll off the production line in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on December 20, closing a 63-year-long chapter.

A 2013 Last Edition VW Kombi is displayed at the VW plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo. Image: ReutersVW Kombi Last EditionVW Kombi Last EditionA labourer works on the VW Kombi assembly line in Sao Bernardo do Campo. Image: ReutersA customized Volkswagen Kombi minibus arrives to a Kombi fan club meeting in Sao Bernardo do Campo December 8, 2013. Volkswagen Brazil, the last plant to produce the Kombi, will cease production of the iconic vehicle on December 20 after 56 years of production. Higher ma ...Visitors pose inside a Kombi during a Kombi fan club meeting in Sao Bernardo do Campo in Brazil. Image: ReutersA Kombi owner cleans his vehicle during a Kombi fan club meeting in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. Image: ReutersA man unloads cardboard boxes from his Kombi in Sao Paulo. Image: Reuters

In the vast firmament of the motor industry, the camper van's star shines almost as brightly as that of the Beetle.

The worldwide popularity of both vehicles helped VW become a global carmaker.

It was the Beetle - the Type 1 - that gave birth to the company that is currently the world's third-biggest carmaker.

And it enjoyed various guises over its 60-plus years before it was finally pulled from production in 2003.

The Beetle began as a little twinkle in the eye of Adolf Hitler, who took it into his head in 1934 to make a reasonably priced car - at around 1000 Reichsmark - available to all Germans.

And from the functional “People's Car” of the Nazis, it went on to become a symbol of the German post-war economic miracle, emblem of the hippie “flower power” generation and even star of Walt Disney's “Herbie” comedy adventure movies.

ORIGIN OF THE ‘KOMBI’

The Type 2 - which shares the Beetle's rear engine and its axles - started life as a doodle by Dutch car salesman Ben Pon, VW's first car dealer outside Germany, on a visit to the carmaker's plant in Wolfsburg in 1947.

VW finally agreed to put it into series production in March 1950.

German motor industry expert Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer says the success of the Kombi is closely linked with the country's economic miracle of the 1950s.

“Workmen needed a low-cost utility vehicle,” he said. And it cemented VW's reputation as a maker of “people's cars”, Dudenhoeffer said.

Originally conceived to transport goods, the Kombi was refitted as a minibus to transport people in 1951.

BIRTH OF A CULTURAL ICON

And then it went on to conquer the world as a cultural icon of the hippie generation in the '60s and '70s, adorning the album covers of the likes of Bob Dylan.

The Kombi's robustness, low price and the ease of repair have won it a loyal fan base despite its lack of comfort and relatively sluggish performance.

But just as the free spirits of the hippie era have settled down and grown paunches, so too the camper van's star has been waning for many years.

VW ceased building the 1967 version of the Type 2 in Germany in 1979, then in South Africa and Mexico, until Brazil was the last remaining assembly site, exporting to the rest of Latin America.

KILLED BY SAFETY REGS

But there, too, ever-stricter pollution and safety regulations that will come into effect next year have sealed its fate.

Following the announcement earlier this year to finally halt production, VW launched a special edition, costing 85 000 reais (R385 000).

Interest was such that the carmaker agreed to double the number of the limited series to 1200, all destined exclusively for the Brazilian market.

But despite its demise, the van's legend will live on, and it is etched into the collective memory by its appearances in the Scooby-Doo TV series and more recently in the film “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Venues abound where fans can swap information and repair tips or buy and sell memorabilia, from key rings to tents. -AFP

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