Take a walk down memory lane as VW's Transporter turns 70
Hannover, Germany - You’re probably more accustomed to the word Kombi, but the commercial spin-off of Volkswagen’s bus range still uses the original Transporter name and it’s officially the longest-running commercial vehicle nameplate in the world.
In fact, the Transporter has just celebrated its 70th anniversary. Of course, we’re not talking about a single model here, but rather a series of vehicles that evolved through six generations, with some radical changes taking place in the middle.
Keen on a history lesson?
First-generation (T1): 1950 to 1967
The first Transporter rolled off the assembly line in 1950, and this first-generation T1 model (known for its split windscreen) was available as a panel van, passenger van and eight-seat bus.
The T1 borrowed its rear-mounted, air-cooled 1.1-litre flat-four engine, as well as its gearbox, from the Beetle and the first models offered a payload of 750kg. It wasn't a vehicle to be hurried, however, with the original motor producing just 18kW, but the engines were upgraded over time, and eventually there was a 1.5-litre unit that offered an earth-shattering 30kW.
It didn’t take long for some of the more iconic versions of the T1 to appear, with Volkswagen launching the ‘Samba’ bus in 1951 with its all-round windows and folding sunroof, and the rest is written into hippie folklore...
A bakkie version was launched in 1952, demonstrating the true versatility of this model range.
The T1 series remained on the market for 17 years, with 1.9 million of them finding homes in this time.
Second-generation (T2): 1967 to 1979
Although not as iconic as the T1, the T2 series was a logical evolution of its predecessor, which went on to sell in ever bigger numbers, with 2.14 million sales recorded in its shorter 13-year lifespan.
Although it was instantly recognisable as a Kombi, the T2 had a simplified window design, single-windscreen and a redesigned front end with a small air intake. A sliding door also became standard for the first time, and this generation also marked the introduction of the camper version with a pop-up roof.
Bigger motors were part of the deal too, with engine sizes now ranging from 1.6- to 2-litres, the latter producing 52kW.
Interestingly, there was also an electric version of the T2, launched in 1972.
The T2 also enjoyed an exceptionally long production life in Brazil, where it was only discontinued in 2013.
Third-generation (T3): 1979 to 1992
This is the version of the Kombi that most South Africans are likely to remember, largely because this generation enjoyed an extended production life on local shores, with VWSA only discontinuing it in 2002, 10 years after the German plant replaced it with the T4.
The T3 had a more boxy design than its forebears and it was also a somewhat more sophisticated vehicle thanks to fresh engines, a new chassis and a more spacious cabin.
All-wheel-drive was also offered for the first time here. You remember the Syncro Bus right?
The third-generation also saw the introduction of the more luxurious Caravelle variant, which exists to this day.
Fourth-generation (T4): 1990 to 2003
This is the first generation that wasn’t built in South Africa, and given the T3’s extended production run, it’s a less common sight on our roads as it was only sold for a few years.
This generation also marked the most radical changes in the history of the nameplate, having moved to a new front-engined, front-wheel-drive chassis format, and it was also a more sophisticated and luxurious vehicle, which was reflected in the more upmarket pricing.
Volkswagen sold 1.8 million T4s in its 13-year production cycle.
Fifth-generation (T5): 2003 to 2015
The T5 continued to up the game when it came to technology and sophistication, and Volkswagen managed to sell 1.65 million of them in 12 years.
The range was given a facelift in 2010, which also saw the introduction of a new 132kW 2-litre twin-turbo diesel engine.
This series was offered with multiple roof heights, wheelbases and trims, and also marked the reintroduction of a bakkie variant in South Africa, available in both single cab and double cab variants. But let's face it, this is not the most memorable generation.
Sixth-generation (T6): 2015 to present
Some argue that the T6 is more of a facelifted T5 than a new generation, so subtle was the evolution here, but the sixth in the series did come with a fresh look and new tech.
The cockpit was modernised with a web-connected 6.3-inch touchscreen with proximity sensors, while top versions made life a little easier with new convenience features like an electric tailgate. Added driver assistance gadgets came in the form of Adaptive Cruise Control, Adaptive Chassis Control, Driver Alert System and City Emergency Braking.
A refreshed model was revealed in 2019, commonly referred to as the ‘T6.1’ and it introduced a digitised cockpit complete with a 10.2-inch infotainment system and digital instrument cluster, while new gizmos included Cross Wind Assist and Rear Traffic Alert.
What does the future hold?
Volkswagen is currently working on a T7 generation, but there is no official word on when it will hit the streets.
Interestingly, and separate from the T7 project, the original T1 is set to get a retro-styled spiritual successor with electric power, in the form of the production version of ID-Buzz concept. It's set to start production in 2022.
It will be based around Volkswagen’s MEB platform that also underpins the ID.3.