Today, August fifth marks a day that might have some meaning for those of us who are at that stage of life where long-range planning is something we should have done decades ago.
One of the most iconic vehicles in the late 1960s was the Volkswagen Microbus. It was the aspirational countercultural vehicle; one that Detroit seemingly couldn’t beat, outlasting the Chevy Corvair Greenbrier, the Ford Falcon Club Wagon, and the Dodge A100 Sportsman. Come to think of it, it outlasted the Corvair.
All of those hippie vans trace their ancestry back to a sketch by Ben Pons, who imported Volkswagens into the Netherlands and was the first to try to sell them in the U.S. From sketches he made in April 1947, it was just about 30 months before the first one rolled off the assembly line in November 1949.
The Microbus passenger version went into production in May 1950.
Sophie, the dove blue van in the photo, which turned 70 today, having left thew assembly line on August 5, 1950. Sophie wasn’t the first off the line, but it is the oldest street-legal T2 in existence.
To Volkswagen, Sophie was the T2 or Type 2, also known as the transporter. Type 1 was the original Beetle.
The German economy was beginning to rebound from the devastation of the Second World War. The Allied occupation forces were still running the show and Volkswagen itself exists today because of an officer in the British Army was given the task of doing something with the plant in what was originally KdF Stadt and decided to put it to work making vehicles for the occupying forces. The British also renamed the town, calling it “Wolfsburg.”
The T2 was designed to meet the needs of smaller businesses for deliveries and other errands and was designed to be operated on narrow European streets. It had an air-cooled, 25-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and the aerodynamics of a brick. One could enjoy a leisurely lunch and perhaps a short nap in the time the T2 took to reach its top speed of 62 miles per hour.
But in town, it was everything a merchant could want. Gobs of space, easy access and a commanding view of the road ahead. Its short wheelbase made it easy to handle and park.
After leaving the plant, Sophie went to a merchant in Hildesheim, a 1,200-year-old city about 44 miles southwest of the VW plant. Sophie spent the new 23 years hauling stuff around the city.
After Sophie was retired from regular service, the van was owned by a series of collectors, eventually being bought by a Danish fan who completely restored it from the ground up. He then used it to tour Europe and give it the name “Sophie.”
After growing too old to enjoy touring, the collector decided to sell Sophie and after reviewing offers, decided to sell it back to Volkswagen, which added it to the company’s collection and put it on display at the company’s commercial vehicle plant in Hannover, Germany where Sophie’s 70th birthday was observed with an oil change.
Volkswagen ended van sales in the U.S. in 1993. The more recent Routan as a rebadged Chrysler minivan.
But some of us still remember those days when it was the archetypical hippie van and often served as a rolling billboard or easel for the lucky owner.