The history of the Transporter
It's been on British roads for nearly 60 years, and 11.5 million examples have been produced.
The Transporter van is one of a small handful of vehicles that transcends the world of the enthusiast and is immediately recognised by the general public. You don't even need to call it by name – say “campervan” and most will immediately think of the classic Westfalia Transporter.
For such an iconic vehicle, its origins are a little unusual. The first Transporter design was penned by a Dutch businessman, Ben Pon, after a trip to the Wolfsburg factory in 1947. There he saw a number of small flatbed vehicles being used to ferry parts around the factory floor. These “Plattenwagens” were little more than converted Beetle chassis, with a flat load bay on the front and a cab on the back, above the air-cooled engine. Pon realised that with the cab moved to the front and a covered load area, these would make excellent commercial vans and within three years the Transporter was on the road in Europe.
The T1 Transporter, or “Bulli”, first arrived in the UK in 1954 and by that time Volkswagen had produced 100,000 Transporters in van, Kombi, bus and pickup variants – already the T1 was proving a versatile vehicle! A new plant was opened in Hanover just for Transporter production.
Although the T2 looks very similar to the untrained eye – just the wraparound windscreen in place of the split-window gives it away – it was an all-new vehicle. Production started in 1967 in Hanover, with around 2 million T1s already on the road. The T2 was longer than the T1, and came with more powerful engines, a one-tonne payload capacity and larger openings on enclosed models for better access. The T2 eventually ended up as the best-selling Transporter version, though it was made in Brazil right up until 2013 as the Kombi.
The 1970s saw new requirements for vehicle safety introduced and the T3 generation of Transporter – introduced in 1979 – reflected these. It was a much more boxy and chiselled design than before, but retained the rear-engined format that had seen 5 million Transporters sold already. It also kept the one-tonne payload, but with load space increased to 5.7m3 it was more practical than rivals. 1986 saw the first four-wheel drive Transporter, named “Syncro” alongside its 4WD Golf sibling, adding some go-anywhere toughness to the mix.
More impending regulations saw 1990's T4 make the radical change to front-wheel drive. Having the engine at the front meant that the Transporter was no longer slab-fronted and brought an improvement to the drag coefficient, improving performance and fuel efficiency, while the load bay was now long, low and flat with the bump for the rear-mounted engine removed. Demand for the Transporter saw a second factory open in Poznan, Poland
2003 saw the introduction of the most recent generation of Transporter, the T5. Practicality was again improved, with up to 1.3 tonne payloads and up to 9.3m3 of load space in the high-roof option. The variety of shapes and sizes – medium and long wheelbase, low and high roof, panel van and windowed bus – was as broad as ever and VW introduced its first ever factory-built camper version of the Transporter, the California.
From an initial production rate of 10 per day at Wolfsburg in 1950, the Commercial Vehicle plants in Poznan and Hanover now produce almost 1,400 vehicles a day, with around 200,000 T5 Transporter variants sold every year.