A quick look at VW’s ever popular van.
The Volkswagen Golf of the van world is also a Volkswagen – The Transporter. For the UK, at least, the Ford Transit might have remained the archetypal white van but social orders have changed and user expectations increased, and there’s now less chance of presenting a driver with the miserly and basic working environment that the old-school van offered. The default layout of shiny, hard, non-height-adjustable seat, semi-horizontal steering wheel and a long, wobbly gearstick, all housed in a tinny, boomy cab, was pretty mean for anyone whose experience of vans stretched beyond the occasional weekend’s hire when moving flats.
Bit by bit, those everyday car extravagances such as power steering, electric windows and air conditioning have become available on vans but, until recently, the upright seating position and closer to horizontal steering position have remained on many vehicles.
If we refer to the Transporter as the ‘T Series’, then its lineage goes back to 1950, the dark ages of van design. Back then, the rear-engined, Beetle-derived, Type 2 VW vans seemed a little more solid and civilised than the average load carrier, reflecting the fact that they were car-based but, by the late 1980s, cars had moved on and the fact that the Beetle was essentially noisy and archaic, with an engine positioned in the wrong place for a rear-access load carrier was a big issue. But just as their cars had managed an overdue clean break from all things air-cooled and rear-engined with the Golf in 1974 so, 16 years later, VW belatedly replaced the last Type 2 van, the T3, with a thoroughly logical, and well-designed successor and the FWD VW Transporter became the choice of people who wanted something a bit more civilised.
Even when Mercedes brought out a classy seeming competitor in 1996, the rear driven Vito,, the Transporter retained its throne through two generations, the T4 and T5, both sticking to crisp, good looking but logical styling and a compact but practical layout. But now Ford has finally produced their own contender with the 2012 Transit Custom, a heavily styled move away from the basic, simple Tranny, whose functionality, if not exactly simplicity, lives on more in its larger, snout-challenged sibling, and Volkswagen’s response to Ford’s new offering has been rather disappointing.
Although called the T6, it’s clearly more of a re-skin and mild reworking of the previous T5. A bit like the Golf Mark 5, it’s likely to be seen as one of the least convincing of the generations. Whether it’s timidity at the idea of moving away from a winning formula, or just a lack of funds (which bearing in mind VW’s current problems are unlikely to improve soon) it hardly seems enough and, whatever changes are apparent just move the T6 subtly further from the functional good looks of its predecessor, without appealing to those who are seduced by the Transit’s more fashionable appearance.
I feel that the previous T5 is the Golf Mark 4 of the Transporters. Just as the Golf has that perfect C pillar leading onto the rear wing, so the T5 has those four vertical shutlines flanking the left hand driver/passenger door, two defining the front wing and two defining the filler flap. This is all so pleasantly minimalist, especially when combined with silver perforated steel wheels and simple charcoal hubcaps. It really looks like the ultimate, quality, no-nonsense van. The only issue I have is with the front, where the overall simplicity is blighted slightly by the Passat type grille on the original version and the facelifted version, where those car type headlamps might be going just a bit too far.
Unfortunately, I like Transporters more from the outside than the inside. Company ownership of an early T5 disappointed with a miniscule glovebox, a single badly positioned cupholder and a power socket accessible only by opening the ashtray. As a load carrier it does its job well, but is too small to be truly flexible. My own preference has been for the PSA/Fiat Sevel range, such as the Ducato, with their own distinctive styling, purpose designed Iveco diesel engines, and whose logical use of front-wheel drive can be traced back before the VW to the short-lived Citroen TUB of 1939, itself a contender as the ancestor of most modern vans. That said, as I write, my back is still recovering from a 2,500 km trip at the wheel of a Ducato and I’m seriously considering finding a vehicle with a more natural driving position, which is another of the VW’s virtues.
Today’s Transporters, though, are not going to engender the long term affection that their Beetle-based ancestors have inspired. If you find a Mark 1 Ford Transit in good condition, a collector might give you mid four figures for it, but no other van approaches the figures that split screen T1s, particularly buses and campers, now command. VW, of course, were well aware of their cult status when they produced the 2001 Microbus show van and, 10 years later, the similar but smaller Bulli. Production was promised but never appeared – odd because the idea seems far more desirable than the New Beetle.
And, as an aside, here’s a sweet little video of a Type 2 splitty driving down a winding road in Belgium.