Recalling two conceptually close but geographically distant relatives of the Volkswagen Type 181.
Country Buggy, Australia
In early 1964, Volkswagen Australasia Pty Ltd (or simply VWA) began development of a vehicle primarily intended for use by the Australian army that at the same time might also be offered to civilians. In order to be considered for military use in the demanding Australian environment, the vehicle had to be simple, tough, easy to service and have amphibious capability. The German managing director of VWA, Rudi Herzmer, already had previous experience in this field as he had been part of the engineering team that developed the Kübelwagen for the German army in World War 2. Initially christened Kurierwagen, a few prototypes were ready to undergo testing in 1965.
Clothed in very simple doorless bodywork with flat steel panels, the Kurierwagen used the Australian built Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle) platform with some elements replaced by those from the Type 2 (Bus) and Type 3 (1500/1600). Its overhangs were very short, to ensure high approach and departure angles when venturing off the road, and the exhaust was routed above the rear bumper in the interest of maximising ground clearance. The proven VW 1,300cc air-cooled flat-four provided the motive power.
After having covered over 30,000 miles in testing on Australian soil, two prototypes, accompanied by Rudi Herzmer himself, were sent to Wolfsburg for evaluation purposes. To his surprise, Herzmer was shown another vehicle then being developed at Volkswagen’s headquarters that in both concept and appearance was quite similar to his: the Type 181(1). Despite this (coïncidental?) duplication in development, VWA received permission from Wolfsburg to produce their version in and for Australia.
By the time the Australian VW dealers were presented with VWA’s new car in 1967, it had lost the vaguely Wehrmacht-like Kurierwagen moniker and had been renamed Country Buggy(2). Its public debut was at that year’s Melbourne Motor Show; actual orders were however not honoured until April 1968 as several teething issues delayed production. More bad news for VWA was that the Australian military had nixed the Country Buggy, mainly because the end product ended up having no amphibious capability- leaving domestic civilian sales the Country Buggy’s only commercial lifeline.
On top of this, dark clouds were gathering, not only over the Country Buggy but also over VWA itself, which posted a loss of AU$ 2.6 million for 1967, the company’s second loss-making year in a row. An important factor contributing to VWA’s problems was the Australian Government’s ‘Plan A’ requirement of 95% local content for the Beetles produced by VWA; this meant that the Australian Beetles did not benefit from the continuous incremental improvements regular Beetles enjoyed as the years went by. VWA consulted Wolfsburg and were advised to switch to building the Beetle in Australia from CKD kits- thus conforming to the less stringent ‘SV Plan’ that required just 60% local content.
In july of 1968, VWA announced that local manufacturing would end, and that VWA would be dissolved, to be replaced by a new company wholly owned by Wolfsburg named Motor Products Limited. As before, production would take place in the Clayton plant.
Public demand for the Country Buggy proved to be virtually nonexistent, resulting in production being halted just eight months after its introduction(3) with only 842 cars built. VWA / Motor Products Limited would struggle on until 1977 when the last Australian assembled VW rolled out of the gates, after which the Clayton plant was closed and eventually sold to Nissan.
The majority of Phillipinos speak Tagalog as a second language next to English; the standardized form of this Austronesian language is officially called Filipino. Sakbayan is a combination of the Tagalog words Sasakayan (vehicle) and Bayan (country or people), so roughly translates to people’s vehicle, which isn’t too far off the German Volkswagen.
The Sakbayan was the first car to be designed and built in the Phillipines, although the ‘designed’ claim is tenuous as it was clearly – with a few minor changes – their version of Australia’s Country Buggy. Diesel Motors of Germany, or DMG in short, was established in 1955 as the representative in the Phillipines for Henschel and Hanomag commercial vehicles but, beginning in 1958, DMG began assembling CKD kits of Type 1 and 2 Volkswagens.
After the Country Buggy had run its short course in Australia, production of examples for export continued for about one further year; some of these went to the Phillipines. When supply from down under had dried up, DMG purchased the components needed direct from Wolfsburg and developed their own copy of the Country Buggy body, which was not that challenging, given its straightforward, simple shapes.
The few visible differences between the LHD Sakbayan introduced in 1969 and its RHD Australian cousin were just one horizontal reinforcement ridge on the side instead of two, an exhaust not routed above the rear bumper (though some Sakbayans deviate from this), in some cases, side apertures with a different shape and a slightly modified headlight treatment. A notable feature of the Sakbayan was the optional availability of a hardtop version with doors, never offered on the Country Buggy.
The Phillipine army was also offered the Sakbayan by DMG but, like their colleagues from down under, they said “thanks, but no thanks”. Sakbayans did see official service as police cars, while the national telephone company employed them as service vehicles in rural areas.
In contrast to the Country Buggy’s short and unhappy life, the Sakbayan remained in production until 1980. There were almost no visible changes along the way although, in the early seventies, DMG stopped importing platforms and parts from Germany and from then on purchased them from Volkswagen do Brasil instead. The slightly different dimensions of the Brazilian base meant that the ground clearance was reduced, resulting in a reduction of the possible maximum angles of approach and departure. The engines used, also sourced from Brazil, were larger 1,500cc and, from 1974 onwards, 1,600cc units.
(1) Also known as the “Thing” in North America
(2) The Country Buggy received the internal code ‘Type 197’.
(3) 181 more Country Buggys were manufactured for export after regular production was stopped, the last one completed in 1970.