The VW Bus Took the Sixties on the Road. Now It’s Getting a Twenty-first-Century Makeover

The VW Bus Took the Sixties on the Road. Now It’s Getting a Twenty-first-Century Makeover

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In 1976, at the tail end of the Ford Administration, hippies no longer hip, Sue Vargo and Molly Mead decided that they wanted to drive to the Florida Keys in a Volkswagen bus. They were best friends, in their twenties, living in a women-only commune in Massachusetts: muddy boots, acoustic guitars, mercurial vegetarians. They bought a beat-up VW bus, circa 1967, red and white, with a split windshield, a stick shift that sprouted up from the floor like a sturdy sapling, a big, flat, bus-driver steering wheel half the size of a hula hoop, and windshield wipers that waved back and forth—cheerful and eager, like a puppy—without wiping anything away. The bus had no suspension. “You just bounced along,” Vargo said, bobbing her head. “Boing, boing, boing.”

This year, Volkswagen is bringing back the bus—souped up, tricked out, and no longer bouncy—as the ID. Buzz. “ID.” stands for “intelligent design,” and “Buzz” means that it’s electric. It might be the most anticipated vehicle in automotive history. Volkswagen has been teasing a return of the classic, iconic, drive-it-to-the-Grateful-Dead bus for more than two decades. (I’m one of the people who’ve been counting the days.) The company keeps announcing that it’s coming, and then it never comes. Finally, it really is coming, and not only is it electric but it can also be a little bit psychedelic, two-toned, in the colors of a box of Popsicles: tangerine, lime, grape, lemon. It’s on sale in Europe this fall and will be available in the United States in 2024. (One reason for the wait is that Volkswagen is making a bigger one for the U.S. market, with three rows of seats instead of two.) Volkswagen expects the Buzz, which has a range of something like two hundred and sixty miles, to be the flagship of a fast-growing electric fleet. The C.E.O. of Volkswagen of America said that the demand for the Buzz in the U.S. is unlike anything he’s seen before. “The Buzz has the ability to rewrite the rules,” Top Gear reported in April, naming it Electric Car of the Year.

Bus nuts are busting out of their pop-tops. “I want one!” is more or less the vibe online. But not all bus nuts are on board. Sue Vargo is dubious. The Buzz, in the way of new E.V.s, is more swoosh than boing, less a machine you operate—pulling levers, cranking wheels, pumping brakes—than a computer you ride around in while its screen flashes officious little reminders at you. This is what new cars do, what they are. It’s not what old cars did, or what they were. The bus was cheap; the Buzz is pricey. (The base U.S. version is expected to cost around forty-five thousand dollars.) Also, the front end of the bus, famously, had a face, a loopy, goofy, smiling face: the eyes two perfectly round, bug-eyed headlights, the nose a swooping piece of chrome trim, the mouth a gently curving bumper. The Buzz has a face, too, but its eyes, hard and angular, look angry, as if beneath a furrowed brow, and its smile is a smirk. “If this is the future,” someone on the VW Bus Junkies Facebook page posted, “I’d rather live in the past.”

The future of the automobile is, undeniably, swoosh and buzz and smart—smart this, smart that. But is it appealing? VW’s pitch for the Buzz marries nostalgia with moral seriousness about climate change, a seriousness that, for VW, is a particular necessity. Volkswagen dominated the diesel-vehicle industry with its “clean diesel” cars and trucks until, in 2015, it admitted to tampering with the software on more than ten million vehicles in order to cheat on emissions tests. The scandal shattered the company and led to the resignation of Martin Winterkorn, then the VW Group’s C.E.O. He still faces criminal charges in Germany; another VW executive was given a prison sentence by an American court. Civil suits are ongoing. Just this May, Volkswagen agreed to pay nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to settle claims filed in England and Wales.

Sue Vargo and her wife used to own a diesel VW Golf. “After the scandal, we brought it back to the dealer and traded it in for a new, gas Golf, for basically nothing,” she told me, but she doesn’t trust VW. A lot of people feel that way. The scandal likely sped up Volkswagen’s plans to go electric. Last year, the company launched its Way to Zero initiative, gunning for Tesla and pledging net carbon emissions of zero by 2050 at the latest. The pledge involves not only the cars that it makes but how it makes them: VW is investing in wind farms all over Europe and one of the largest solar plants in Germany. By 2030, half of Volkswagen’s U.S. sales are expected to come from E.V.s. No carmaker is investing so much in the jump to electric. Even Elon Musk has conceded that although Tesla leads the E.V.-tech race, Volkswagen places a very respectable second.

The Volkswagen ID. Buzz, then, isn’t just any electric car. It’s a bid for Volkswagen’s redemption. Is it also the car that can usher in an E.V. revolution, a true turn of the wheel in the long history of the automobile?

In April, I went to see the Buzz at the New York International Auto Show, at the Javits Center, a glass-and-steel K’nex box of a building that has exactly as much charm as an airport. Walking there, down West Thirty-eighth Street, I passed a four-story brick stable, with thirty-six horses housed on the second floor and a carriage parked out front, near a sign that read “SHARE THE ROAD: Horses paved the way.” Actually, when road paving began, it was for bicycles. The New York auto show didn’t start out as an auto show; it started out, in the eighteen-nineties, as the New York bicycle show. Bicycles, at the time, were known as “silent horses,” just as cars became known as “horseless carriages.” Then cars drove bicycles off the road. Many of those cars were electric. In 1899, when the bicycle show became the bicycle and automobile show, nearly every automobile it displayed was electric. The Times predicted that every vehicle in the city would soon be “propelled by the wonderful motive power which was discovered as controllable, years and years ago, by the ever illustrious Benjamin Franklin.” In 1900, the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who turned up for the bicycle and auto show got a chance to see more than twenty electric cars—manufactured by firms that included the American Electric Vehicle Co., the General Electric Automobile Co., and the Indiana Bicycle Co.—alongside two gasoline-powered runabouts, two steam-powered carriages, one gas-run wagon, and one Auto-Quadricycle. The first New York auto show, held later that year, featured an indoor track, made of wooden planks, that you could race the cars around, and General Electric’s coin-operated “electrant,” or electric hydrant, a four-foot-tall charging station, where, for a quarter, you could get a twenty-five-mile recharge. The Times reported, “It is expected that these automatic devices will be installed in suburban villages and places on the main lines of travel between important points where an electric vehicle might otherwise become stalled for lack of power.” (Today, there still aren’t anywhere near enough charging stations around.)

By the turn of the century, one of every three motorcars in the U.S. was electric. As an electric-car manufacturer remarked, gas engines “belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odor.” He couldn’t fathom anyone tolerating them for long: “Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell.” Electric cars didn’t pose this problem; they were also quieter, easier to drive, and simpler to repair. The problem was the storage capacity of the battery. A lot of people put their faith in a collaboration between the Edison Storage Battery Company, founded in 1901, and the Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903. “The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable,” Henry Ford told the Times in 1914. But by 1917 the collaboration had fallen apart, and by 1920 the gas engine had won. The E.V. dark age had begun.

That dark age may be ending. At the 2022 New York auto show, half the floor space was devoted to E.V.s. Downstairs, on an E.V. test track powered by Con Edison, you could ride around in more than twenty-five different electric cars; upstairs, you could test-drive Ford’s new electric pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning. It was as if the marriage between Edison and Ford had, at last, been consummated. Still, there was plenty of shtick. Subaru had the greenest display—fake pine trees, fake rocks, potted evergreens, hanging vines, a real dog run, ferns, fake logs, “bear-resistant” trash containers, and a new S.U.V. called the Outback Wilderness—but only one actual electric car, the Solterra, parked in a fake forest. (The Wilderness runs on gasoline, twenty-two city miles to the gallon.)

Volkswagen displayed its gleaming fleet in a back corner of the main show floor, where the Buzz was parked on a platform behind a plastic half wall and roped off, like a work of art. It was one of the few cars at the show that you couldn’t climb into or touch. People were curious about it, took pictures, pointed it out to their kids. “I think it’s sharp,” they’d say. “Is it a Bulli?” (That’s what the VW bus is called in Germany.) Or, “Oh, a Kombi!” (what it’s called in much of Latin America). Technically, the Buzz is the start of a whole new line, but sentimentally it’s the eighth generation of a very old car.

Volkswagen’s first car, the Type 1, is better known as the VW Beetle. It dates to the company’s origins in Nazi Germany. Hitler wanted a “people’s car,” and in 1934 the Reich commissioned the designer Ferdinand Porsche to develop it. The Type 1 was manufactured at a factory in Wolfsburg, whose workers, in the early nineteen-forties, consisted mostly of Dienstverpflichtete, forced laborers, including Polish women; Soviet, Italian, and French prisoners of war; and concentration-camp prisoners. (In the nineteen-nineties, Volkswagen paid reparations.) After the war, the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg was one of the few sites of industrial production not razed by bombing, and the Allies set about supporting its operation as a way to bolster West Germany’s economic redevelopment. The first postwar Beetles were sold in 1945. Not long afterward, a Dutch importer noticed that workers at Wolfsburg had used spare parts—Type 1 chassis, piles of boards, steering wheels—to put together makeshift Plattenwagen, flatbed carts, to carry their tools. He had the idea that if you put a box on top of the chassis, instead of just a platform, you’d have a pretty neat little bus. This became the Type 2, the original VW bus, also known as the T1, the first-generation Transporter. It was first sold in 1950, and six years later VW opened a factory in Hanover that was entirely dedicated to building the new model. In the argot of kids’ flicks, the Type 1 is Herbie, from the 1968 Disney movie “The Love Bug”; the Type 2 is Fillmore, from the 2006 Pixar film “Cars.” (George Carlin did Fillmore’s voice.)

“What’s hilarious is I’m an Aquarius with, like, strong fire-sign energy.”

Cartoon by Charlie Hankin

The T1 and T2 sold like crazy. In Europe, the VW bus could do anything: it was used as a fire truck, an ambulance, a delivery vehicle, a taxi. It didn’t have a lot of power, but it could go anywhere and park in any spot, and it could carry a lot more than you’d think. People loved it for camping, especially if they got the Westfalia, a model that came with two beds, a hammock, a refrigerator, a stove, a kitchen cabinet, and a dining table. Motor Trend wrote, “More a way of life than just another car, the VW Bus, when completely equipped with the ingenious German-made Kamper kit, can open up new vistas of freedom (or escape) from humdrum life.” In the U.S., the bus wasn’t at first called a bus—it was called a station wagon—and was marketed as the ideal car for the suburban family. The hippie part came later. You get the sense that something was changing, a mood shifting, in a TV ad from 1963. The camera pans around a VW Samba, a model with twenty-one windows, while a man’s voice asks:

If your TV set broke down right now, could your wife find something to talk about? Is she the kind of wife that can bake her own bread? Does she worry about the arms race? Do the neighbors’ kids wish they had her for a mother? Will your wife say yes to a camping trip after fifty straight weeks of cooking? Will she let your daughter keep a pet snake in the back yard? Can you show up very late for dinner without calling first, with two old friends? Will your wife let the kids eat frankfurters for breakfast? Would she name a cat Rover? Would she let you give up your job with a smile and mean it? Congratulations. You have the right kind of wife for the Volkswagen station wagon.

A year or so later, the VW bus had become the iconic image of the counterculture. You could go to concerts in it, or to protests. You could smoke pot in it, or fool around. You could sleep there, on the cheap. You could plot a revolution, or you could store your surfboard. Still, for all the cult of the counterculture, the fate of the VW bus, starting in the nineteen-sixties, mainly had to do with the price of chicken.

Here’s where I need to explain about the Chicken War. In the nineteen-fifties, the factory farming of poultry by Big Agribusiness exploded, leading to a plunge in the price of chicken and a boom in the market for it. American farmers exported staggering numbers of cheap, frozen chicken parts to Europe, so many that chicken became one of the most valuable U.S. exports—much to the distress of German farmers. “In Bavaria and Westphalia, protectionist German farmers’ associations stormed that U.S. chickens are artificially fattened with arsenic and should be banned,” Time reported in 1962. “The French government did ban U.S. chickens, using the excuse that they are fattened with estrogen. With typical Gallic concern, Frenchmen hinted that such hormones could have catastrophic effects on male virility.” Members of Europe’s Common Market raised tariffs on imported chicken. “Everyone is preoccupied with Cuba, Berlin, Laos—and chickens,” one German minister reported after a visit to the U.S. The German Chancellor, describing two years of diplomatic talks with President Kennedy, said, “I guess that about half of it has been about chickens.” Americans were furious: there was talk, for a time, of pulling U.S. troops out of NATO unless the chicken tax was dropped. Instead, in December, 1963, President Johnson, eying the next year’s election and needing the support of the United Auto Workers, not least for his civil-rights agenda, retaliated in kind. Volkswagen had started selling a Type 2 pickup truck that was becoming popular. The U.A.W. was threatening a strike. Johnson, whose Secretary of Defense was Robert McNamara, the former C.E.O. of Ford Motors, imposed a twenty-five-per-cent tax on imported light trucks. It was aimed at Volkswagen, but it applied to everyone. It has never been lifted.

Because of the tax, Volkswagen couldn’t sell the Type 2 in the United States as any kind of truck—not as a pickup, not as a panel van, not as any vehicle that could be construed as commercial. It could only be a passenger van, a family car. Although Dodge is usually given credit for inventing the minivan, if “credit” is the word, it’s really Volkswagen that invented it, out of necessity. As the nineteen-sixties wore on, though, driving around a pile of people came to mean something different, something about community. There’s the faded-green rusted rear door of a 1966 Type 2 in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture: it was used by civil-rights activists in South Carolina to take Black children to school. Painted on it, in wobbly white letters, are the words “LOVE IS PROGRESS.”

Sue Vargo got her first car, a used VW Beetle, in 1973, the year she graduated from Michigan State. The bus and the Beetle have the same engine, toylike and in the back, and she learned how to fix it by reading “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,” a guidebook with R. Crumb-style illustrations. “It told you what six wrenches you needed, and how to make a timing light out of a twelve-volt bulb and some alligator clips,” she told me. “You had to set the valves every six thousand miles.” Anyone could do it.

Vargo’s friend Molly Mead got her first VW bus, brand new, all blue, in 1971. The next year, she and a friend added a cooler, a two-burner propane stove, an eight-track player, and a transistor radio and camped in that bus for four months, with two golden retrievers in the back, driving through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Vancouver, and over to Vancouver Island and back, then down the West Coast, while Richard Nixon ran for reëlection. “In Seattle, I cast my mail-in ballot for McGovern,” Mead told me. They listened to Led Zeppelin, Cream. The VW bus was famously underpowered. Thirty horsepower. (The ID. Buzz has more than six times that.) Two dogs, two women, the Rockies: the bus could barely make it, creeping uphill like a slug.

Volkswagen made millions of T2s, including an electric model. It stopped making T2s in 1979. My first Volkswagen bus, which was made in 1987, was a T3, known in the U.S. as a Vanagon. It was almost twenty years old when my husband bought it. (“You have the right kind of wife for the Volkswagen station wagon.”) It was rusty and brown, with a stick shift, and the locks didn’t work and it smelled like smoke, except more like a campfire than like cigarettes, and we took it camping and pushed down the seats to make a bed and slept inside, with two toddlers and a baby and a Great Dane, and we all fit, even with fishing poles and Swiss Army knives and battery-operated lanterns and binoculars and Bananagrams and bug spray and a beloved, pint-size red plastic suitcase full of the best pieces from our family’s Lego collection. It was, honestly, the dream. If you took it to the beach, you could just slide open the door and pop up the table—the five seats in back faced one another—and eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches while watching the waves or putting a baby down for a nap. The carpet would get covered with sand and crushed seashells. Weeks later, the whole van would still smell like a cottage by the sea.

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