Symbol of the “Hippie” movement, the VW Kombi or Microbus is the epitome of a time when life was easier, when sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were in vogue. It has been immortalized in film, in song (recall Men at Work’s Land Down Under, where it is mentioned in the first line itself) and in countless pieces of literature.
Yet, the VW Microbus has its roots a whole decade before the Swingin’ Sixties. The first generation or T1 was introduced in 1950 as a Forward Control panel van and was the second post-war VW model (the first being the Beetle). The Microbus shared many mechanical details with the Beetle, including the renowned flat-four air-cooled engine.
Early T1 models used the 1.1L flat-four with a meagre 24bhp; couple that with a vehicle that had a payload capacity of 750kg and you could have progress that was generously called ‘glacial’. Engines were soon upgraded, and payload was upped to 1,000kg in 1962. Various body styles were available; Microbus in several lengths (called the 11-window, 13-window and 15-window respectively by American enthusiasts, and 21/23 window for ones with skylights), and a pick-up truck style which could be had in regular (2 door) or crew cab (3 door) variants.
The second generation T2 was introduced in 1967 and continued up to 1979. The base engine was now 1.6L with 48bhp, electrics were now 12 volt, and the rear axle received a significant upgrade from the T1’s Swing Axle configuration, to using half-shafts and CV joints. Front disc brakes came too.
The T2 introduced many creature comforts and thoughtful touches. For example, as an option you could specify an automatic step - slide open the door and the step automatically swings out to aid climbing in. This is done through linkages and springs to ease effort – no electrics at all.
The windows could be had with pull-down blinds, there are metal bars in the cargo area to protect luggage from sliding around and crashing into the window glasses (with disastrous effect, no doubt) and a novel passenger ventilation system that uses moulded conduits in the front doors to channel fresh air taken in from the front grille into the second row!
Automatic transmission was offered for the first time in the T2 (three-speed), and four-wheel-drive prototypes were created too!
The spotless example we have here is a 1974 T2 that is owned by a young man named Dileep Nilaksha Fonseka, an ardent enthusiast of the VW Kombi and Microbus, and spends his time lovingly restoring them for discerning owners. As we visit his home / workshop, we see many T2 and T3 models in various states of restoration. This T2 is his personal vehicle and it has a special story.
The van was owned by a Swede who drove it overland to Sri Lanka in 1982, and subsequently settled in our Paradise isle. It was registered under a car license since it is a passenger vehicle. However, the Swede was approaching his twilight years and returned to his homeland, leaving the VW in the custody of a local friend. Years passed by with no contact, and it was not sure in fact if the original owner had returned to his Maker! Nilaksha’s family eventually purchased the vehicle from the local friend.
This example is a late T2 bay window Microbus Deluxe model, sporting the 48bhp air-cooled flat four engine. Options included a padded dashboard, trip mileage recorder, clock, two-speed blower fan, the aforementioned automatic step for the passenger door, a handbrake indicator, cigarette lighter and rear sun visors. The rear seats can be fully removed by simply unscrewing some wing-nuts by hand, converting the vehicle between a passenger carrier and a goods carrier.
What is truly special is, the interior, leather seat covers, carpets, wiring harness and even the engine are all the way from 1974, untouched. Nilaksha proudly tells me that the engine has never been opened since it left the VW factory, and hums away peacefully to this day. He proudly opens the rear engine bay and shows us the spotless engine and fittings. Air conditioning was an option on later models and can be retro-fitted to the T2 but fitting one would spoil the purity of his vehicle, and he doesn’t mind compromising a little heat in the interest of keeping the van as original as possible.
When we drove along the back roads of Pitipana, the engine sound way back in the tail is barely heard and the sensation is one of tranquillity as we motor along at an indicated 40mph (67km/h), the suspension making the concrete road seem like smooth tarmac. Nilaksha proudly states that he has taken her on the Expressway at 100km/h where she had more to give, and even transported tourists in the van, who were highly thrilled to be travelling Sri Lanka in this vehicle. The only non-standard equipment is the modern radio and speakers which were fitted by the previous owner.
Some interesting stats from the brochure…
Engine Flat Four, 1.6L, air-cooled
Top Speed 68mph (110km/h)
Transmission 4 speed, rear-wheel-drive
Fuel Consumption 24.8mpg (91 octane)
Hill Climb Ability 26%, in first gear, fully laden on a good road
Steering Hydraulic steering damper, safety column
Brakes Dual circuit; discs in front and drums at rear
Tyres 7.00 x 14, 8 PR (Nilaksha uses 185R14C due to rarity of original spec)
Nilaksha is well experienced and passionate in restoring VW Kombi and Microbus models, and can be found at 1/101, Pitipana South, Negombo.