Van Of The Centuries?

A quick look at VW’s ever popular van.

VW Transporter T6 - image honestjohn.co.uk
The Current VW Transporter T6 – image honestjohn.co.uk

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.

1967 Microbus image vwcampervanblog.com
A much sought-after Deluxe Microbus with skylight windows. image vwcampervanblog.com

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.

Facelifted T5 Transporter
Facelifted T5 Transporter

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.

2011 VW Bulli image plugincars.com
2011 VW Bulli image plugincars.com

And, as an aside, here’s a sweet little video of a Type 2 splitty driving down a winding road in Belgium.

18 thoughts on “Van Of The Centuries?”

    1. True Mark that I could have drawn attention to DTW’s introductory page and its “…..there is probably a slight, though certainly not complete, Eurocentric bias to the Editor’s knowledge”. The US too has not embraced the Transporter.

      I knew someone once who, in the admirable wish to respect other languages, pronounced the HiAce as Heee-Aah-Chay.

    2. “Heee-Aah-Chay” – that made me smile. Exactly the way I used to pronounce this van as a child, having no idea of English at the time, but a father who spoke Italian.

    3. Thanks Sean. We do get most of the Euro vans here too, and increasingly the Korean and Chinese brands. But the HiAce still seems to be the mainstay for delivery and trades users. There’s probably a nice story about how Toyota decided back in the ’60s that its light commercials would all be Hi-something, and that its Hi-van was Ace and its Hi-truck was Lux.

  1. Thanks Sean. I never knew what to do with this so-called T6. Is it a facelift, a re-skin or a new model? My feeling is that you can never be sure with VW at the moment. They seem to surf a wave of success – at least if you consider the figures in the German speaking world – and now it looks as if they’re afraid to do anything new that could alienate their customers. There seems to be a new Touran and Caddy – they look exactly like the old ones. The same goes with the new Audi A4. And, as discussed elsewhere, even the new Skodas become more VW/Audi-like.

    Speaking about your comparison with the Ducato, I think it’s a bit unfair. The equivalent of the T6 would rather be the Scudo/Dispatch/Expert, while the Ducato and its triplets have the size of an LT/Sprinter (though with a different concept, it’s true). Hence also your perception of the T6 being “too small”, I suspect.

    Regarding prices for classic vans, I’ve seen some really unbelievable figures for well-restored or super-original Citoën HYs. But it’s not quite the Samba league yet.

    1. Simon. I realise that the Ducato is a Passat to the Transporter’s Golf and that the Sprinter twin Crafter is the Ducato’s direct competitor. I was speaking of my personal preference for size as well as type – I just find the Transporter type vans too small to be flexible and, really, they aren’t any easier to drive. What I also could have clarified is that my Golf comparison is not so much in terms of sales as in perception. The Transporter is the van that non-van people tend to choose just as the Golf is the safe choice for many people who need, rather than want, a car.

  2. This sub-class of vehicle is split into two starkly different groups with one carbody trying to satisfy both. One group of users want a cheap vehicle to hurl as much stuff into as possible. Another group want a vehicle that supports a lifestyle. One function demands compromise of the other: make the car tough and cheap means it might deter families who are outdoorsy (Mr and Mrs Patagonia-Peak Performance). If the car has nice basic features it could be too expensive for Ms White Van driver.
    The T-series seems to be aimed at the family and private buyer. The Espace used to have a slice of this market before it became a monospace limousine. The lifestylers can also opt for a Kangoo/Berlingo which will leave money for doing things. Where is the core of this market, I ask. Is it the commercial user?

    1. There have always been smaller motorhomes based on the T Series, but I don’t think that many people buy them privately. We used to have a T4 at work with folding rear seats and windows, but sheet metal in the loading area behind. That was quite attractive, but didn’t work out as feeling like the larger scale Espace it might have been. It’s a good van if your delivery sizes are containable – say a florist.

    1. The Trafic does pretty well for itself. The easy answer is that it’s the Megane to the VW’s Golf but, in its last (Mk 2) iteration it was possibly more a Focus. The original (Mk 1) Trafic was an excellent package and I have a soft spot for the original Opron/Gandini Master.

    2. I like those Renaults from the ’80s, too. At least shape-wise. The Master was one of my worst driving experiences, ever. The current Trafic and its Opel and Nissan siblings are very popular around here when it comes to white vans. I’d say a close second after the VW and long before Sevel. But for private buyers, VW is much more dominating the market.

    3. I never drove a Master 1, I was only commenting on the styling, though Trafic 1 and Master 2 were both OK on the road. The worst van I’ve driven was a Bedford Midi, GM’s cheapskate use of the Isuzu Fargo to replace their decent CF van. With a forward cab, slippery seat, column change and mediocre handling it was truly horrid, though I admit the one I drove seemed to have had a hard life. Of course, the forward cab gave a good load length, but that vulnerability is potentially a bad price to pay. The Midi was, of course, popular in the UK because it was seen as a British vehicle (and they actually were assembled in Luton). For its (by then Vauxhall) replacement, GM were sensible enough to use a rebadged Trafic 1 and then let Renault develop a Trafic 2 for them to build at Luton – as well as the Vauxhall Vivaro, all Opel, Renault and Nissan versions were built at Luton too, though Trafic 3 production has reverted to France.

    4. Bedford CF! Closest we could get to a big American-style van. Good times.

    5. In Mark 1 form, the CF was a very good looking van, Of course in New Zealand and Australia you had the option of straight 6 power, whereas here we had to make do with clattery fours. And I knew someone from New Zealand who had a V8 conversion, which I think wasn’t uncommon.

  3. The T6 is very much the Passat of the van world, and I don’t mean that in a nice way,

    1. That’s not much of a comment. Come on, I’m sure you can do better – in what way comparing T6 and Passat is relevant, and what is that not-so-nice analogy you allude to?

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