How the iconic Kombi van went from kitsch to cool
Forget 1960s flower power. The classic VW Kombi has entered a new era of cool.
A car is a mere machine, borne of practicality and not possessed of a personality, right? Someone forgot to hand that memo to the designers of the iconic Volkswagen Kombi.
It’s 40 years since the last examples of the Volkswagen Transporter models popularly referred to as the Kombi – the T1 and T2 – rolled off a German production line. And yet the marque has never been more popular, nor good examples so valuable.
Pristine split-windscreen T1 models now change hands for six-figure sums, and a perusal of Instagram (see #vanlife or #kombi) reveals an array of lovingly restored Kombis snapped at some of the world’s most scenic locations. Not bad for a vehicle conceived in post-war Germany as a practical delivery van, little more than an afterthought to the wildly popular Beetle released 12 years earlier by Volkswagen.
The quirky Volkswagen Kombi has become an iconic – and expensive – collectors’ item.
Is it the huge headlights that resemble big friendly eyes? The giant VW symbol that came to symbolise the peace-loving Flower Power movement of the ’60s and ’70s? The unique loaf-of-bread shape? Or, true to its roots, the utilitarian body that could be a people mover, camper van, ambulance or even a ute? No one seems quite sure what’s behind the Kombi’s appeal, but there’s no doubt it endures. You only have to look at the human traits owners tend to bestow on their beloved vehicles.
A Kombi just needs a name, insists Alyce Georgievski, co-owner of Hire A Kombi on the Bellarine Peninsula. “All ours have a name. As soon as we get a Kombi, we’re like, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ And we’ll sit on it for a while, and we’ll walk past, and names will pop into our heads,” she says, pointing out Applejack, Harriet and Agatha parked in her yard.
“They do have a character, anyone that has a Kombi will tell you. It’s a Hendrix or it’s a Bob or a Bill. Some of them just feel like a girl and some feel like a boy, but I cannot imagine not having a name for our Kombis.”
Mentone masseur Jerome Dean has been driving his 1977 Kombi, Betsy, for 18 years. And they’ve been everywhere, man, clocking up around 300,000 kilometres visiting almost every significant Australian landmark with his partner, Suzanne. “It’s the only car I own, so we’ve done a few big trips,” he says.
“It’s a car for people who don’t like cars. It’s not sporty, it’s not a performance thing, but it’s really handy for going camping, it feels like having a caravan.”
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the VW Kombi, which in its heyday from the 1950s through to the 1970s was both unique and wildly popular in Australia. In an era before people-movers, it was often the logical choice for big or blended families.
Alyce and George’s shared affection for Kombis culminated in a wedding, two children and a business.
Campervan variants – cleverly decked out with beds and other mod-cons for life on the road – were a must-have for adventurous young families, grey nomads, hippies and surfers.
The arrival of more sophisticated competitors saw the Kombi slide from favour. Many were left to perish in garages and scrapyards, with sound examples changing hands for paltry sums. But the 21st century, with its rise of social media and a growing appetite for nostalgia, has illuminated the Kombi’s charms and sent values soaring.
A spokesman for Shannons Auctions, Christophe Boribon, says the Kombi retains “a special place for the different generations for many different reasons”.
These include fond memories for former owners or their families, the unique design, practical needs, or their head-turning ability as a marketing tool. This has continued to drive demand and high prices in the second-hand market.
He says there have been sales of 23-window Kombis in the $150,000 to $180,000 range, with some of the very early 1950s right-hand-drive examples attracting more than $200,000. Twenty-one-window versions have sold for $100,000 to $150,000.
“Some of the other rare variants have proved popular also, like utes and windowless panel vans for businesses or advertising. The standard split-window buses have proved more attainable for other buyers, selling in the $60,000 to $90,000 range.”
For Alyce Georgievski and the Kombi rental business she runs with husband George, a mechanic who specialises in Kombis and Beetles, every year gets busier. They’re working to add more vehicles to their fleet.
It was even a Kombi that brought them together, when Alyce travelled from her home on a farm in outback Queensland to buy her first one from Melbourne-based George. Their shared affection for that van, Applejack, culminated in a wedding, two children and a business strategically parked near the start of one of the world’s most beloved touring routes, the Great Ocean Road.
A Kombi is not an easy vehicle to drive – there’s no power steering, a deft hand is required for the tricky manual gearshift, and mechanical breakdowns are a distinct possibility on any given day.
“If you’re not prepared to have a delay of some sort, possibly this is not a vehicle for you,” Alyce says. “Most people think, ‘Oh, Kombis are awful to drive,’ but we don’t think so. If you’ve got your gear shifts right and you’ve got it running well, they’re not bad to drive. They’re quite nice. It’s a comfy seat. You’ve got a big steering wheel.
“When you’re driving a Kombi, everyone’s smiling at you. You could be in peak-hour traffic and you’re not actually part of that traffic. Everything just slows down. It just feels, I don’t know, a lot more peaceful than when you’re in a normal car.”
“When you’re driving a Kombi, everyone’s smiling at you.”
‘The Kombi is a symbol of optimism’
There’s nothing like serious illness to put your priorities into perspective. When former psychologist Paul Mutimer was diagnosed with blood cancer, a life-long dream suddenly came into sharp focus: to buy a Kombi and take an iconic road trip while he was still well enough to do so.
But sourcing and fixing up a Kombi is an expensive and time-consuming business, and the Beaumaris man’s simple wish became an odyssey that caught the attention of an old friend, filmmaker Jeff Bird and, ultimately, RACV.
The journey of Paul and his good mate Mark Teiermanis, who suffers from a chronic back condition, to each buy a Kombi has been chronicled by Jeff. The acclaimed documentary maker, assisted by a donation from RACV, is producing a feature-length film that veers from comedic to inspirational.
“I’d just had chemo, Mark had a back operation and was doubled over. It was laughable, really,” says Paul of the decision to make that Kombi dream a reality. [Buying a Kombi] was the most irrational decision I could ever make in my life. You can’t adjust the seat, there’s no power steering, no heating or cooling, but I love it,” he says.
“To me, the Kombi is a symbol of optimism, of spirituality and religion. I suppose it represents the hippie part of me that’s stayed alive all these years.”
Themes of mateship and men’s health emerge in the film against the backdrop of Paul’s illness. Will his mustard-yellow 1973 Kombi go the distance? Could a blood clot, diagnosed the day before a pilgrimage to the Twelve Apostles, scupper the whole plan?
The road-trip portion of the film, which carries the working title of Kombi Man, was financed via the RACV donation but Jeff is seeking further funding to complete editing and production.
“The cancer hasn’t killed me quickly and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream,” says Paul. “I just hope we can achieve something with the film.”