The “long, strange trip” is coming to an end for the Volkswagen bus. Brazil, the world’s last producer of the iconic van, will cease manufacturing in December.
A symbol of the 1960s, hippies, and surfers in North America and Europe, the VW bus is used as a workhorse and people-carrier in Latin America and the developing world. After production ceased in Germany in 1979 and Mexico in 1995, Brazil became the sole maker of the classic vehicle. It turned out more than 1.5 million of the 10 million made worldwide in the past 57 years. Starting in 2014, Brazilian safety regulations dictate all vehicles must have airbags and anti-lock braking systems. Volkswagen says it cannot adjust its production plant to comply.
“The van represents freedom,” said Damon Ristau, of Missoula, Mont., director of the documentary The Bus. It tells the story of VW bus fanatics and why they love their machine. “It has a magic and charm lacking in other vehicles,” Ristau said.
The bus is also easy to fix because the engine is so simple. Even their tendency to break down doesn’t deter van fans, who say the fix-it-yourself aspect imparts a deeper sense of ownership.
In Brazil the VW bus is known affectionately as the “Kombi,” abbreviating the German “Kombinationsfahrzeug,” loosely translated “cargo-passenger van.” It’s used for hauling commuters, mail, soldiers, and even as a hearse. Brazilians are familiar with the vans as mobile food stalls parked on city streets to serve lunchtime crowds.
In Sao Paulo, Jorge and Anna Hanashiro use a light green 1974 Kombi to sell “pastéis,” deep-fried, meat-filled pastries. “For me the Kombi is the best vehicle to transport my stall and products to the six open-air markets I visit each week,” the 77-year-old said. “It is economical, rugged and easy to repair.”
Cleber França bought a Kombi to make a business—and a better life for himself—on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. When municipal buses were in shortage, his Kombi began shuttling kids to school and commuters downtown. A stock secretary who commuted 2.5 hours each way to the Barra da Tijuca district, he knew well the need for decent transport. “It’s such a versatile vehicle,” he said. “You use it for work as well as transport. Other vans are available but cost double what a Kombi sells for.”
Now with three Kombis—2007, 2009, and 2010 models—his vehicles travel 55,000 miles each year with six employed drivers. On good days he earns as much as $280, equal to the official monthly minimum salary.
Echoing many Brazilians and fans across the world, França said: “I’m sad Volkswagen will stop production. The Kombi is so useful ... it’s been a source of income for many families. Mine gave me a lot of happiness and prosperity.”