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Surfers lament end of Kombi era ‘Everybody in California has some VW story’

LOS ANGELES, Dec 11, (AFP): Frank, Mark and Doug, three 60-something buddies, gather every morning to surf at Hermosa Beach, south of Los Angeles. And every morning they park their Volkswagen Kombis outside their favorite Mexican restaurant nearby, facing the ocean, where they retire post-surf to recall their glory years in the 1960s. But a core part of their nostalgia will soon be no more, after German automaker VW’s Brazilian plant stops production of the celebrated “hippie” van once and for all. The VW Kombi entered the US market in the 1950s, but it was only in the following decade that the distinctive vans came into their own, thanks to hippies and California surfers. “A lot of people who camp and surfers liked it because they were cheap, they got good gas mileage, they were easy to fix and you can put a ton of stuff in it,” Frank Paine, 63, told AFP.

“You can relate to it on a human, mechanical level.” His Kombi is a white and green 1973 model, decorated with Hawaiian motifs, straw mats covering the walls and roof. “All us guys that are retired grew up with VWs, and there’s a lot of nostalgia. Everybody in California has some VW story,” added his friend Mark Mitchler, 62. “We also say, if you want to learn how to be a mechanic, buy a VW,” added Doug Ball, 63. Their stories range from first girlfriends to road trips to Mexico, to camping expeditions among giant redwoods and the easy friendships struck up with other Kombi owners, part of a “brotherhood” of the road.

A Bob Marley tune wafts from the back of the restaurant, as the three consider how the Kombi has become an improbable icon symbolizing the counter-culture of that era. The vehicle has featured in countless films and TV shows, from the “Mystery Machine” in Scooby-Doo cartoons to Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006. It even appeared in Pixar’s animated “Cars,” where it played .. a hippie van. In a country like the United States where success is measured by size, price or sophistication, the moderately-priced Kombi has long appealed to young people with little money and a desire to defy authority. “In the 60s with the counterculture it became sort of the car to have if you were a hippie,” said Mitchler.

“Not only could you fix it yourself, personalize it and take it anywhere, but you could also live in it, a big plus for impoverished hippies or surfer dudes.” And driving a foreign vehicle was a statement to their elders. “If you slap the government, you slap the old people in the face by driving one of these, because they were insulted by people driving a foreign car,” said Paine. For the three old friends, the Kombi takes them back to a simpler time, when things were made to last and you could understand how they worked, and fix them yourself. “People have actually gotten to the point that they almost treat them like a pet or another family member,” said Mitchler.

“They feel a little different, they sound a little different, the keys work or don’t work different. They are not all the same. They have personality,” he added. And the symbolic magic which they had back then then still works now, he insisted. “You’re driving along and people come by you and they honk or do the peace sign. I can’t get between here and my house without having somebody waving at me,” he said.

Production of the iconic vehicle may be about to shut down, but its fans in California and elsewhere hope they will be driving their van to the beach for many years to come. “It’s amazing how much the VW, no matter how horrible it is, how beat up it is, how long it’s been sitting some place, it will always start,” said Mitchler. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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