If there's another vehicle in Volkswagen's lineup that's as iconic as the Beetle, it's none other than the Kombi. Like the Beetle, it's hard not to recognise a Kombi even from a block away. The image of this cab-over van with its flat face, lamp-size VW logo, and two round headlights elicits the same warm and homey feeling that the Bug does.
For obvious reasons, the Volkswagen Kombi became popular with families, travellers, campers, surfers, adventurers, and businesses. People who had been around in the '60s would know about the role that the VW van played in the flower-power movement. Indeed, the Kombi has made its mark apart from merely being the sibling of Volkswagen's firstborn.
History of the Volkswagen Kombi or VW Type 2
Volkswagen first produced the Kombi back in 1949, at about the same time that the production of the Beetle (aka VW Type 1) resumed after the WWII.
What is the Kombi short for?
The Kombi is officially called the Volkswagen Type 2 or Transporter. It is popularly known as the Kombi, which is short for Kombinationskraftwagen (German for a combined-use vehicle). It has several other names, including the Minibus, Microbus, the Bulli, the Bus, the Hippie van, and the Camper in different parts of the world.
Are the Volkswagen Kombi, Caravelle, and Transporter the same?
Both the Kombi and Transporter line-ups have the same origin, but in 1990, they began to lead separate yet parallel lives. The Kombi can be both a passenger and cargo vehicle, with removable rear seats for bigger cargo capacity. The Volkswagen Caravelle is strictly a people-mover, while the panel van is a dedicated cargo vehicle with no side windows.
Different names and body types of the VW Type 2 through the generations
VW Type 2 – T1, T2, T3
For three generations, Type 2 (or Typ 2) was built with an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that powered the rear wheels. In Australia, the passenger van was marketed as the VW Kombi, while the utes and commercial carriers were called VW Transporter.
I have indicated below the variants released in Australia for the first three generations:
- 1st generation, Typ 2 (T1) – 1950-1967 – passenger van (Kombi), panel van & ute (Transporter)
- 2nd generation, Typ 2 (T2) – 1967-1979 – passenger van (Kombi), panel van & ute (Transporter)
- 3rd generation, Typ 2 (T3) – 1979-1992 – passenger van (Kombi), multi-van (Caravelle)
VW Transporter VW T-platform – T4, T5, T6
In the international scene, the fourth generation of VW Type 2 had been re-engineered to run on water-cooled transverse front-engine with either a front-wheel or a four-wheel-drive layout. This development breathed new life to the VW Type 2.
This Type-2-derived series of vans and commercial vehicles is now referred to as the VW T-platform. The first three generations (rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive) predating this platform had been designated as T1, T2, and T3 retrospectively. The latter generations (front-engine, front- or four-wheel drive) are now called the VW Transporters with the following T designations, viz.:
- 4th generation, Transporter (T4) – 1990-2003 – people-mover (Caravelle), panel van (Transporter)
- 5th generation, Transporter (T5) – 2003-2016 – people-mover (Kombi and Caravelle), panel van & utes (Transporter)
- 6th generation, Transporter (T6) – 2016-present – people-mover (Caravelle), panel van & utes (Transporter)
This article will zero in on the Kombi, which is the VW Typ 2 people-mover or passenger van released in Australia for the T1, T2, T3, and T5 generations. As for the Caravelle and the Transporter models, you may refer to two separate articles dedicated to each of them, also in this website.
1st Generation VW Kombi, Kombi Alpine: T1 (1950-1967)
The first generation of the VW Type 2 adapted the rear-engine layout of the Beetle in the '50s and was built as a forward control van. The Kombi T1 is easy to tell apart from the other generations because of its split windshield, which earned it its Splitscreen and Splittie nicknames. Unique to this generation is the curvy V outline on its two-toned vertical front.
Not very long after the Kombi's first production roll, it too became the world's favourite like its successful sibling. It spurred competition among other automakers and pioneered the market for passenger vans and people-movers.
Back then, it was quite common to categorise the Kombis by the number of windows they had, i.e., 11-window and 13-window Kombis. Basic variants had eleven windows (2 for the split windshield, 2 for the doors, 6 for the side windows, and 1 for the rear). Luxurious models featured a sunroof and skylight with up to 23 windows total. In Australia, these variants were called Kombi Alpine.
It was not until 1965—two years shy of the next generation—when the Kombi T1 hit the shores of Oz. It came in only one engine choice. Here are the specs and details of the powertrain used for this generation, including the body style of the Kombi at the time:
- 1965-1967: 1.5L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 4-speed manual transmission – commercial 2-door van
2nd Generation VW Kombi, Breadloaf: T2 (1967-1979)
This generation dropped the split windshield and the V-outline and grew slightly in length. It earned several nicknames such as Breadloaf and Bay-window. It underwent some facelifts and mechanical updates, including bigger engine and engine compartment, rounded bumpers, fresh-air grille with square indicator lamps on each end, redesigned and taller taillights, air intakes in the D-pillars, and a smaller VW logo in the later T2 models.
Volkswagen introduced the following engines in the second generation, with the last one continuing through the third generation:
- 1968-1972: 1.6 L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 4-speed manual transmission (35 kW) – commercial 2-door van
- 1973 only: 1.7L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto or 4-speed manual (46-49 kW) – commercial 2-door van
- 1974-1975: 1.8L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto or 4-speed manual (50 kW, 132 N⋅m) – 3-door, 8-seat
- 1976-1980: 2.0L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 4-speed manual (51 kW, 140 N⋅m) – 3-door, 8-seat
Just a note on Typ 2: Parallel to the release of the Kombi T2 van in Australia, Volkswagen had also been marketing the ute variant as the Transporter T2 from 1970 to 1979.
Although the production of the T2 in the European and US factories ended in 1979, the plant in Brazil continued manufacturing the Kombi T2 until December 2013. After half a century, the time finally came for its last Kombi production. Before the final batch rolled off the production line, VW-Brazil released a short film called Os Últimos Desejos da Kombi. It listed the Kombi's last 15 wishes, the 15th indicating its desire to return home.
3rd Generation VW Kombi, The Wedge: T3 (1979-1992)
The third generation of Kombi was nicknamed The Wedge by Kombi-lovers owing to its squared-off corners. It is heavier and larger than the previous versions. Volkswagen redesigned its face. On each end of the grille are the headlamps, instead of the indicator lights. The indicators were now below the grille. The VW logo took its new position in the centre of the grille. In the UK, it is also known as the T25, while in the US, they call it the Vanagon.
The Kombi T3 is the last of the air-cooled rear-engined Typ 2 models to be produced before it was phased out in favour of the water-cooled front-engined Transporter versions. In Australia, the T3 became available in 1982 through 1992 as 9-seater variants. Beginning in 1988, Volkswagen also began to offer 7-seat 4x4s and more luxurious trim packages.
The powertrains for the T3 are the following:
- 1982-1983: 2.0L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto or 4-speed manual (51 kW, 140 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat
- 1984-1986: 1.9L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto or 5-speed manual (63 kW, 143 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat
- 1987 only: 2.1L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto (70 kW, 160 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat
- 1988-1992: 2.1L 4-cylinder petrol engine, 3-speed auto or 5-speed manual (70 kW, 160 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat FWD; 3-door, 9-seat 4WD
- In 1982, Volkswagen Australia also released the 4-door, 8-seat Caravelle people-mover as a lineup separate from the Kombi.
4th Generation T-Platform, VW Transporter & Caravelle: T4 (1990-2003)
The T4 generation ushered in the new era of the water-cooled front-engined Typ 2 successors—the Transporters. Volkswagen Australia did not market the T4's as the Kombi, but as Transporter (2-door 2-seat) and Caravelle (4-door 8-seat). So, for this generation, please refer to our separate articles on the Caravelle and the Transporter.
5th Generation VW Kombi T5 (2003-2016)
The Kombi nameplate reappeared in the T5 generation, along with the Caravelle people-mover and the Transporter panel van & ute. All three T5 nameplates were available in Australia in 2003. They belong in the medium-size light commercial vehicle class. The Caravelle and Transporter line-ups are still selling to date, but the Kombi was available only until 2009.
The Kombi T5 adopted a more streamlined look than the previous generations with a more sloped A-pillar and a more defined bonnet. It came with a restyled front, with the grille, headlamp, and wraparound indicator lights all aligned. The facelift also included new taillights and a redesigned dashboard.
Like the Transporters in this generation, the Kombi came in short- and long-wheelbase versions (SWB and LWB), in addition to the shorter base model. Aside from cosmetic changes, VW also introduced the following new engines:
- 2003-2007: 2.5L 5-cylinder petrol engine, 4-speed auto or 5-speed manual (85 kW, 200 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat; base, SWB, and LWB
- 2006-2009: 2.5L TDI PD 5-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine, 6-speed automatic or 5-speed manual (96 kW, 340 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat; SWB, LWB, and Beach variants (4-door, 4-seat) including Beach 4WD
- 2006-2009: 1.9L TDI PD 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine, 5-speed manual (75 kW, 250 N⋅m) – 3-door, 9-seat; SWB and LWB
This generation produced its one-millionth T5 in June 2009. The Kombi was built with the same idea as the Beetle – that of practicality. Due to its versatility and spaciousness, it saw active duty as a cargo transporter, camper, and people-mover. For this reason, it has stayed on for almost six decades. More recent Transporters superseded it, and these models are in circulation up to the present.
Will Volkswagen revive the Kombi?
The Kombi will most likely be reborn as VW’s new retro icon, succeeding the Beetle. It will be a battery-operated model underpinned by VW’s MEB electric vehicle platform. The final production version, which is a people-mover labelled I.D. Buzz, is expected to be unveiled in the Frankfurt Motor Show this September.
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By Jeannette Salanga (JMSL)