by Brian Willoughby
VW Pick-up - Siku
VW Panel Van - Siku
VW Police Van #244 - Majorette
VW Kombi Van - Budgie
VW Van #34 - Matchbox
VW Kombi #34 (both silver) - Matchbox
with Maisto copy (white)
VW Van #23 - Matchbox
VW Ambulance - Matchbox
VW Transporter - Matchbox
VW Van - Matchbox
VW Pick-up - Husky
VW Pick-up w/platform - Husky
VW Pick-up w/belt - Husky
VW Transporter Police - Impy Lone Star
VW Transporter - Tomica
VW Transporter - Playart
VW Transporter - Zylmex
VW Transporter - Kinsmart
VW Transporter - Hongwell
VW 'Beach Bomb' - Hot Wheels
VW Vanagon - Hot Wheels
VW Drag Bus - Hot Wheels
VW Van - Johnny Lightning
VW Transporter Van - Johnny Lightning
VW Pick-up #277 - Johnny Lightning
VW Van - Tiger Wheels
At the end of the war, the relatively new yet heavily damaged KdF-Wagen factory found itself located in the zone of Germany that would be administered by the British. Without sufficient small transports to move its high ranking personnel about within the zone, the Royal Army made a rather logical choice to utilize the factory to assemble new Volkswagen vehicles for use by the ground troops. Gradually, production switched from military-type Kubelwagens and off-road Beetles to standard, Type 1 Beetles that were in immediate demand in car starved Germany. By 1948, the need for a true management by a person with automotive experience grew obvious and the British brought in Heinz Nordhoff, a former Opel chief, to head the company. With the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Royal Army bequeathed control of the surprisingly successful enterprise to the German state.
In the interim, the Royal Army had adapted several Type 1 chassis for use as flatbed trucks to transport part around the factory. Upon a visit to the plant, Ben Pon, the Dutch distributor for Volkswagen, saw the vehicles and was inspired to draw up plans for a production transporter based on the Type 1's chassis. Pon discussed his idea with the directors at Volkswagen and Nordhoff liked the idea enough to proceed with design work on the Volkswagen Type 2. Engineered completely in house and mechanically identical to the Type 1 except for slightly wider tracks, the Type 2 made its debut in 1950. Small on the outside yet voluminous on the inside, none of the other, crude European vans then on the market could match the space and fuel efficient Type 2; that it had a certain flare to its styling was simply a pleasant bonus. The first Type 2 produced, the panel van, was quickly given an affectionate name by an admiring public and the 'Bull' joined the Kafer (German for 'Beetle') at Volkswagen sales depots.
The Type 2 grew several variants and eventually, there were panel vans, Kombis (which were designed to accommodate both passengers and cargo), single cab pickups, crew cab pickups, camper conversions (the best known by Westfalia) and even a near-luxurious station wagon called the Samba. Early Type 2s had a split-windshield yet some of the van's most readily recognizable characteristics were deleted in the name of safety when the new Type 2 was introduced for 1968. A single piece windshield was installed and the model range was rationalized and sadly, the stylish Samba with its 21 or 23 windows and sliding canvas roof was discontinued. The bay window Type 2 carried on for another 12 years until the final rear-engined transporter made its debut in 1980.
Undoubtedly safer and eventually cooled by water rather than air, the Vanagon as it was know in the U.S. never captured the heart of buyers as the previous Transporters had. Still available in a wide range of body styles and even offered with four-wheel drive, the new van was expensive and out-of-step with current automotive trends. Although it had created the minivan market, the elder statesman was upstaged by a revolutionary new vehicle produced by Chrysler and sold as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. The handwriting was on the wall and after VW replaced the Vanagon, all future Transporters switched to front engines and front wheel drive. The current retro-trend in styling and the success of the New Beetle have convinced VW to offer a retro van, soon to be in production, so the story continues.
As with any popular vehicle, diecast manufacturers were keen to produce miniatures of the Volkswagen Type 2. Unexpectedly, England generated more models of this vehicle than any other country, even outpacing Germany by a wide margin. Keeping this in mind, let's review Volkswagen Microbus models country by country.
Germany and France
One of the final new castings to appear in Schuco's 1:66 scale range of miniatures, the Bay Window Volkswagen transporter was offered in both a panel van and bus configurations. The bus appeared in civilian and police liveries while the panel van featured advertising logos representing a number of different and well-known German companies. A dignified model of extreme accuracy and detail, it is truly a shame that Schuco's financial woes and eventual bankruptcy forced these handsome miniatures to be pulled from production after a very brief and limited run.
Early Siku models were produced in plastic to a scale of around 1:55
and during the plastic period, the company injection molded a nice complement
of Split Window transporters than included a panel van, a pickup, a Kombi
as well as a Kombi pressed into service as an ambulance. Molded in two colors
and exhibiting the high levels of quality and detail that are expected from
Siku's products, any such plastic models are now extremely rare, costly,
and infrequently encountered on today's antique toy market. The good news
for collectors is that Siku's later metal castings of the Bay Window transporter
are considerably more common and were offered in a prolific array of liveries.
The Bay Window bus featured the obligatory sliding side door and is noted
for its remarkably solid build; numerous variants were produced and any
complete listing of Siku models will detail them thoroughly. Many collectors
enjoy the sight of something different, and Siku provided just that with
its model of the Crew Cab Bay Window pickup. As with the related bus model,
this miniature was also heavily cast and available in a wide range of sometimes
novel decorations. Siku's final rear-engined Volkswagen transporter was
a model of the third generation van that went out of production as recently
as eight years ago; as with other Siku miniatures, it was decorated in a
fairly extensive range liveries to coincide with actual German service vehicles.
Unquestionably the most prolific producer of Volkswagen Transporter and Bus models, British diecast companies continue to supply collectors with miniatures of this beloved vehicle to the present day.
Among the first diecasters in the world to capture the Transporter in small scale, Matchbox has offered a wide ranging number of variants over the years. The very first Matchbox assigned the number of 34 was a Transporter Panel Van: like most early Matchbox miniatures, it was equipped at first with metal wheels and later switched to couple of different plastic types, yet, unusually for a Lesney model, appeared in only one color with 'Matchbox International Express' decals. This model was replaced in the lineup with a Kombi 'Camper' model that, again, was painted only one color yet was fitted window glazing, opening side doors, an interior and came with at least two different wheel types. This model was once more replaced with another casting that featured the now familiar extended, pop-top roof and again one color and a single wheel variation. After a couple of seasons, the casting was modified again to depict a lowered roof yet the wheels and color remained unchanged; this model lasted until the arrival of the new 'Superfast' models in 1969/70. By this time, Volkswagen itself had replaced the Split-window vehicles with the new Bay-window type; however, a model of this new VW Transporter, in Camper form, would not join the Matchbox range for another year.
The fourth #23 in the 1-75 series was the Superfast-equipped Bay Window Volkswagen Camper that was initially supplied with a side-hinged, pop-top sleeper. After deletion from the premier Matchbox range, this miniature was lived on as a twin-pack, military ambulance offering that was striped of its interior, fitted with darkly tinted green window glazing and retooled with a solid, diecast roof sans the pop-top. Later still, this modified bus casting reappeared yet again as a 'limited edition' model wearing red and green Pizza Van tampos on a white body. Curiously, this model was resurrected in Hungary and was uniquely produced there with both the earlier pop-top and later 'Pizza Van' graphics of the former English miniatures.
Matchboxís new owner, Hong Kong-based Universal continued the tradition of selling a rear-engined, Volkswagen transporter when it debuted a scale model of the third generation vehicle in an ambulance livery. Unfortunately for American collectors, this miniature was never included as a member of the North American 1-75 range and, consequently, can pose quite a challenge for collectors outside of Europe to locate.
Finally, after Mattel's takeover of Tyco and its securing of rights to the Matchbox range and trade name, two more Split-widow Volkswagen transporters appeared: the brand's first Samba miniature and yet another Panel Van. Marketed as members of both the standard 1-75 lineup and a bewildering array of special and limited edition models, the Samba and Panel Van can be found in both plastic and rubber-tired versions and in restrained and tasteful colors as well as loud paint-schemes with gaudy graphics.
Often viewed as Matchbox imitators and sometimes rivals, the Morestone range of Budgie miniatures included a well-proportioned Volkswagen Kombi. Invariably painted light blue, this simple yet effective model had no interior and consisted merely a body casting, a baseplate, two axles and four wheels. Despite its accuracy, all Budgie Kombis suffer from a decided ride-height problem caused by the manner in which the baseplate was attached to the body and the small wheels fitted to the model.
The only non-British vehicle to appear within the 1:72 scale Dinky Dublo series was a miniature of the Volkswagen Split Window transporter. Bearing a striking resemblance to Matchboxís model of the same period, the Dublo miniature's construction differed in its use of a sheet metal, rather than diecast, baseplate. Only painted a yellowish orange with red Honby Dublo decals applied, this once relatively abundant model has steadily climbed in value and apparent rarity over the past decade and a half.
Corgi first attempted to tackle Lesney head-on with its successful and highly varied Husky miniatures during the mid-1960s. Giving children and collectors a wide range of miniaturized British, American and European vehicles to select from, an early favorite was the Spit-window pickup that was offered as a low-side 'platform' truck from which politicians could give a speeches (#12), a high-side pickup with rear tilt for general transport duties (#15) and finally a low-side, airport ramp vehicle with a rubber conveyor belt that extended over the cab and carried luggage into the bellies of awaiting aircraft (#32). Growing increasingly rare on today's antique toy market, it is important to watch for two faults that afflict all and one variants of this model to varying degrees: the chrome-plated, plastic bases have a tendency to 'flake' and the rubber conveyor belt on the ramp truck often dry-rots and becomes brittle with age.
Perhaps the most intricate miniature of the Volkswagen Samba, Lone Star initially unveiled this model in their over-the-top Impy series. As was typical in this range of models, early versions of the Samba was equipped with operating directional steering, jeweled headlamps, a two-piece wheel and tire combination, and an opening rear hatch, engine cover and side doors. In response to Mattel's Hot Wheels and Lesney's Superfast miniatures, Lone Star fitted new frictionless wheels throughout its Impy lineup, renamed the series Flyers and deleted many of the functional gimmicks. Interestingly, the earlier Impy castings were sold in both civilian and police versions.
Despite Japan's love affair with Volkswagen products, only one 1:64 scale Transporter miniature has appeared, so far. Tomica conjured up another outstanding model for its F-series with its Bay Window bus that was equipped with a sliding side door. Unfortunately painted in usually dull, utilitarian colors, Tomy's bus was a miniature that easily ranked with Schuco's among the best Bay Window buses to have been offered over the years.
Hong Kong and China
Something of an anachronism within Playart's otherwise current line of models, this Hong Kong-based toymaker tooled up a miniature of the Split-Window Samba several years after the actual vehicle had been phased out of production. Patterned after 21-window Samba, this nicely detailed model featured opening side doors, an accurate interior molding and separate chromed bumpers while riding on the standard Fuchs-style Playart wheels and frequently appearing in a bright green coat of paint.
Overshadowed by the bigger and more heavily promoted companies, Zylmex created a number of 1:64 scale models that were considerably better than history has recorded and regarded them as being. Marketed as a less expensive alternative to Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Tomica, Zylmex toys were found everywhere from toy and hobby shops to small neighborhood groceries during the 1970s. Always a choice pick for kids and collectors was the Zylmex Bay Window Volkswagen bus. Sprayed in a flashy two-tone paint job and featuring an opening side door, the bus was one of Zylmexís finest moments and today this is reflected by the high prices that mint examples of this model command.
A prime example of the declining quality of Maisto's 1:64 scale miniatures is the Split-window Volkswagen Camper. Not only does this model use darkly tinted glazing to hide its lack of an interior, it also is a pirated copy of an old Matchbox casting from the mid-1960s. Although it does possess a certain amount of limited charm, more is expected from a company that produces some of the best 1:18 scale models currently available. Granted, many feel that 1:64 scale models are more directed toward the toy end of the market; however, it should also be remembered that not all collectors have room to store and/or display the 1:18 scale models that Maisto prides itself upon.
Supplying friction-motored miniatures to independent gift and toy shops,
Kinsmart has managed to carve out a unique, niche market for its highly
detailed models. While the scope of models provided to the trade depict
American makes, an obviously unlicensed Split Window Kombi is available
to represent Germany. Sadly, it suffers from its generic status since it
does not, and no doubt legally cannot, display the trademark encircled VW
logo on its nose that is such a stylistic hallmark of these vehicles. Otherwise,
it manages to present itself as a largely accurate miniature with a high
level of play value due to its powerful motor that quickly propels it across
any hard surface.
An amazingly influential product of the American-based Mattel company, Hot Wheels cars have been setting the trend for 1:64 scale toy cars since their introduction in 1968. Injected with a good amount of fantasy and play value, Hot Wheels' first model of the VW Transporter was a stylized Bay-window bus christened with the name of Volkswagen Beach Bomb. One of the most highly sought-after early Hot Wheels castings, Beach Bomb featured two compartments on both its port and starboard sides to carry miniature surfboards. Depending upon color variation, this model can command several hundred dollars on the collector market and even heavily play-worn examples seem to always command premium prices. Still, as one of the most novel Volkswagen models of its period, demand for this miniature seems destined to only increase. Hot Wheelsí second Transporter casting was a nicely executed miniature of the third generation Westfalia camper. Named 'Sunagon' by Mattel and invariably known in North America by its 'Vanagon' moniker, this handsome and tastefully reserved miniature features an operating roof panel and a motorcycle riding on the rear bumper. Becoming increasing rare these days, collectors are well advised to pick up an example of this model prior to it becoming nearly as expensive as its earlier Beach Bomb relative.
Although accuracy was clearly not a starting point, Hot Wheels' recent VW Bus casting has become a favorite with collectors throughout the world. With its upper body casting hinged to reveal a dragster beneath, this model was only briefly a regular production item and later versions of it have all appeared as special editions of one sort or another. If you already have one and you found it for the initial release price of about $1, consider yourself lucky; however, if you are just beginning to assemble a collection of Microbuses, be forewarned that this model has been subject to heavy hoarding and speculation by scalpers and collectors and it continually fetches obscene prices on the secondary collectible toy market.
A relatively new player on the diecast scene, Johnny Lightning has already
tooled up and offered three distinct transporter models during a seemingly
short time frame. The first casting to make it's debut was a limited edition
item produced, initially exclusively, for the now-defunct, St. Louis, Missouri-based
Venture discount chain during 1995 and patterned after the Spit-window transporter
van. Sprayed in a two-tone paint scheme that featured either a red and black
or light blue and white combination, this model was packaged in a special
window box and rode on rubber tires with chrome wheels that had a larger
diameter at the front than on the rear. Steeply priced, this model tended
to linger on Venture's toy department shelves until it was ungraciously
dumped into the clearance bin. Happily for collectors who were more concerned
with obtaining an example of the casting than the special limited edition
version, the model reappeared in a less appealing color as the 'Y2K Van'
as part of a commemorative issue to mark the new millennium. Recently, Johnny
Lightning has introduced an engaging six-car set of Volkswagen miniatures
that features the original Beetle, the New Beetle as well as a Split-windshield,
21-window Samba and a split-screen pickup. Outstanding models of these vehicles
except for their hideous wheels, these miniatures are among the few currently
available of the classic Volkswagen transporters and the Pickup is the first
scale model of this workhorse to enter production since the Husky version
of the 'single cab' was discontinued over three decades ago.
Thus we end our review of miniatures of the rear-engined Volkswagen Microbus.
As above text was derived from lists compiled by the author and the editor
of this publication, it is inevitable that a miniature or two was overlooked
or neglected in this discussion; furthermore, with Volkswagen currently
showing prototypes of a 'New Bus' inspired by the success of the 'New Beetle',
it is likely that additional models will appear of both the new and old
vehicles for years to come. If you feel that the author has failed to include
an important or favorite miniature that you have in your collection, please
mention it to the editor via email.