Countless South Africans have fond memories of the Volkswagen Kombi, an icon that’s synonymous with long-haul holiday travel and lazy days at the beach. Five decades on, here’s why we still love The People's Bus.
The beach and the venerable Volkswagen Kombi go hand-in-hand, a notion we’ve seen adopted across the globe from as early as the 1950s. And what’s not to like? The early models were appreciably affable-looking things that featured side windows and removable seats – a boon which endeared it to many families and outdoorsy types.
While many enthusiasts have a soft spot for the original models, including those of the split windscreen variety, it was the famous David Kramer Volksiebus advert that popularised the contemporary Kombi or Microbus here in South Africa. The Microbus and Caravelle went on to sell in big numbers and continue to overshadow many newer iterations on our roads.
Of all the models, the T4 Transporter (2003) took the Kombi recipe to another level in terms of styling and engine layouts. Its modern design represented a big departure for the Volksiebus as did its front-engine layout, the latter of which would form the crux of the contemporary Kombi.
We love Kombis so much, we found an owner in KZN who has the coolest collection of busses including this split-window Panel Van:
1. A friendly face
One attribute that Volkswagen has managed to retain throughout its documented history is the Kombi’s affable demeanour. From the rounded, smiley-faced designs of the original series to the "big window" Microbuses of the Nineties, the Kombi has always represented adventure and holidaying up the coast - elements that many purists feel were lost when the modernised T4 Transporter arrived on the scene here in 2003.
Despite its foibles, the T4 introduced the current Kombi’s shape and raised the bar by taking it into a contemporary space – and we’re talking elevated levels in everything from safety standards and aesthetics to fuel efficiency and comfort.
2. Made for travelling. And the beach...
Think back to your fondest childhood memories of Kombi life and I’m sure you’ll recall fighting with your brothers, sisters and friends for the best spot in the "house", which usually took the form of the rear compartment. It always felt massive inside. The T6 Series still feels rather commodious, which can be attributed to the seating arrangement that can swivel and slide to suit your desires. The luggage bay can also be enlarged by moving the benches forward. Of all the derivatives in the current range, it’s the California Beach that rekindles all those nostalgic feelings and memories of holiday adventures. There’s no need for checking in to B&Bs here... Oh no, the California Beach comes equipped with all the creature comforts of a premium camper van, with such amenities as a pop-up roof tent and fold-down seat mattress (both sleeping 2) included in the package.
3. Retro-inspired aesthetics
While some of the original Kombi's essence has been lost in translation over the years, the core ethos and zeitgeist of the original Volksiebus are still present. Despite the modern appearance of the new T6 Kombi several tasteful touches and optional garnishes pay homage to the original concept, such as the 2-tone paint (a must-have in our opinion), glasshouse arrangement and sliding door. There’s only one perplexing omission on the local options sheet: the retro-style-hubcap-look alloy wheels, which would have added another nostalgic and tasteful addition to the visuals.
4. Back to front
Remember the early offerings and their rear (air-cooled) engine rear-wheel-drive layouts? These were quickly culled with the introduction of the T4 Series when the development of more efficient and environmentally friendly engines prompted VW to move everything from the engine and drive layout to the front. Save for the Kombi (which utilises a single 2.0-litre turbodiesel motor in two states of tune: 75 kW/250 Nm and 103 kW/340 Nm), Volkswagen’s broadly employed 2.0-litre bi-turbodiesel units do duty across the Caravelle, PanAmericana and California ranges.
Available in different states of tune, power and torque outputs range from 132 kW and 400 Nm (Caravelle and PanAmericana) to 110 kW and 350 Nm or 150 kW and 450 Nm (California). While there are subtle performance differences between each derivative, you need to remember the Kombi has always been more about the journey and less about the destination.
5. Safer than ever
The modern Kombi sets itself apart from its predecessors when it comes to integral safety features. The current line-up boasts a throng of safety acronyms such as ESP, ABS, MCB, ASR, EDL and TSC as well as automatic post-collision braking, the latter of which aims to prevent a secondary collision after an accident. There’s also adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist and hill hold assist. Both driver and passenger have airbags and the options list includes high-beam assist and front fog lights with integrated cornering lights. Those looking for superlative traction levels, or who regularly have to deal with poor road surfaces or gravel, can spec it with 4Motion four-wheel drive system, including a mechanical differential lock.