The best products, Steve Jobs always said, are the ones people don’t know they want. That’s why introducing a new and retro version of that 1960s legend, the Volkswagen Microbus, is a great idea — no matter whether VW’s buttoned-down market indicates otherwise. I think VW is missing a great opportunity here, and I can prove it.
The reason we’re talking about the Microbus now is that, believe it or not, the final 600 of this perennial patchouli-fueled people mover are finally rolling off an assembly line in Brazil. And despite showing some really cool retro concept cars, VW isn’t inclined to bring back the Microbus back anytime soon. Minivans are slow sellers, the automaker says, and Americans are looking for crossovers with three rows of seats. After 63 years, Cheech and Chong’s bus, known as the Type 2, is finally headed for the great mandala in the sky.
I went to a nice local car show earlier this week, and among the high-end Ferraris and Maseratis was a car that got tons of attention, even though it wasn’t even in the competition — a relatively late period VW Microbus, with a huge peace symbol where the Volkswagen logo usually goes. It’s such an iconic period piece, how could people not give this avatar of peace a proper love-in?
Yes, the 1960s were a long time ago, and it’s OK if you don’t remember them. Me, I have perfectly fine memories of Woodstock, underground newspapers, “elephant bells,” incense, peace marches, the Vietnam War, and the rest of it. And VW vans, too, though I never owned one — they were everywhere back in the “peace, man” era.
I’m sure when VW first produced a van version of its people’s car back in 1950, it had no concept that hippies would end up buying them. The market, of course, didn’t exist. On paper, there probably isn’t much demand for small vans now. But why did the SUV takeoff? Because people needed them? Nope, their needs could have been easily met by station wagons and minivans. They wanted them, because of a (in my view, misguided) notion that they somehow represented the freedom of the open road and gave the owner off-road cachet.
So what other image screams freedom? Hippies, right? They believed in “doing their own thing,” no matter what the Establishment thought about it. The concept of the hippie has sufficiently mellowed so the image is probably not a turn-off for middle-class buyers today. Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” is the soundtrack for hitting the road in a new VW camper van.
Retro Bus concepts have gotten near production a couple of times. The Bulli above was the most recent one. Check out this announcement that one was hitting the American market by 2014 — but VW keeps pulling back, despite its triumph with the reborn Bug. Time to be bold, I say! Built it, and they will come, carrying their Grateful Dead albums.
Even now, people are still building counter-cultural vans from used VW vans. Here's a 1969 model as a work in progress:
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