RoadTrip: Celebrating 70 years of the Volksiebus and its rich heritage in South Africa

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2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
Ryan Abbott / RoadTrip

• VW's Volksiebus has been on sale for seven decades.

• In 1955, the first T1 Transporter rolled off the production line in South Africa.

• One of the most infamous Volksiebuses is 'Sophie', a bus with a rich history.

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The city of Hanover in Germany is home to Bulli (colloquially known in Mzansi as the Volkswagen Microbus, Kombi, or Volksiebus) and Conti - the German tyre giant Continental AG. To celebrate 70 years of VW Bus and its association with Conti, we journeyed to the dusty Northern Cape town of Hanover in a T6 Caravelle.

The first Volkswagen Type 2, universally recognised as the Transporter, rolled off the assembly line seven decades ago. Since then, the Bulli, or Kombi Bus, has become an icon of the motoring world. So, to celebrate its 70th anniversary, as well as the nearly 150 years of Continental (founded in Hanover in 1871), we decided to undertake a road trip to the small Karoo town named after the German city.

After attending the recent launch of the latest VW T6.1 Caravelle at Kuzuko Lodge in the Eastern Cape, we took custody of a T6 Caravelle BiTDI Highline 4Motion DSG from Volkswagen South Africa, splendidly presented with a California-style two-tone blue and white paint coat, for our journey. We duly named her "Sophie", as a tribute to Sofie, one of the oldest T1 Transporters still around (she was built in August 1950 in Wolfsburg) and nowadays a proud possession of the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (VWCV) Oldtimer collection in Hanover, Germany.

Much like in Hanover - where the VW Commercial Vehicles plant at Hannover-Stöcken even shares a power-plant with the Continental tyre factory - the local VW works in Uitenhage is not far from the Conti plant in Port Elizabeth. 

Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle

The Conti collaboration

Interestingly, Continental tyres were first fitted as Original Equipment to the Volkswagen T1 "Splitti" in the 1950s. These diagonal ply tyres were known as the Continental 6.40-15, and since then VW has been an original equipment customer of Continental in various forms over the decades that followed; and still is today.

The local tyre company, originally called General Tire and Rubber Company SA, was established in 1947 - a year after the SAMAD plant (now Volkswagen) was opened, and 35 years ago, in 1985, the first Continental branded the local plant produced tyres. Continental Tyre SA is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Continental Group.

The ContiCrossContact LX Sport rubber on our Caravelle - with a 90% road, 10% off-road bias and explicitly designed for mid-sized and large SUVs - was purposely chosen, as we anticipated many a gravel road on our way to the wide-open plains of the Karoo. 

Shod with the new Conti tyres, Sophie first made her way to Uitenhage for a visit the AutoPavilion at the Volkswagen plant. Here we were met by curator Buyile Gqubule, an iconic T1 split-windscreen "Micro Bus De Luxe" – unofficially known as the "Samba bus" – with its all-round windows, distinctive roof windows, and a folding sunroof,  and one of the very last T3 Caravelle models produced in South Africa. 

Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle

A rich South African heritage

The first T1 Transporter assembled in Uitenhage came off the line in 1955, and for 47 years local production of the legendary Microbus (later also dubbed the Volksiebus) continued uninterrupted until June 2002. In total, 264 934 Transporters were assembled locally. The T3 (also available with Syncro all-wheel-drivetrain) was the last to be built locally and also the last rear-engine Volkswagen model. It was produced here for 24 years and became a particular favourite with South Africans. Facelifted after 1991 (when German production of this model came to an end), the exclusively South African Microbus and Caravelle models received 2.5-litre five-cylinder Audi-power, upgraded to 2.6-litre five-cylinder units in 1995.

While manoeuvring the vehicles into position for our heritage photoshoot, one could again admire that distinctive five-cylinder engine sound of the T3 and be reminded as to why the versatile Volksiebus and its famous predecessors became deeply entrenched in local automotive folklore. Leaving Uitenhage, we followed the undulating R72 - passing places with names like Hamburg and Kayser's Beach, reminders of the period when early German settlers inhabited this region of the Eastern Cape - on our way to East London. What immediately caught our attention on this stretch of road was how quiet the ContiCrossContacts were. There was no road or tyre noise to speak of, aiding our smooth and serene progress.

Our route from Buffalo City the next morning initially hugged the N2 towards King William's Town and included a visit to the village of Berlin. Rundown, with a graveyard of dilapidated toilets and potholed roads greeting you on entry, the little town is a huge disappointment compared to its European namesake. We then followed the R63 through Adelaide and Bedford before turning on to the N10 towards Cradock and Hanover. With 132kW and 400Nm of torque available (against 146kW and 450Nm in the new T6.1), Sophie quietly and contently devoured the long ribbon of tar. 

However, on inclines and when overtaking, the power difference compared to the T6.1 was perceptible, with the DSG sometimes hunting to find the right ratio, but the CrossContact LX Sport rubber continued to impress on the broken tar roads. Close to the mountainous Blomfontein area near Cradock, we also found our own "Tierkloof Pass" (for those who remember the Bus and 'vellies' ads with David Kramer). Here, the 4Motion system proved a welcome addition on the slippery, rough gravel surface, and the Conti rubber provided more than enough grip to overcome some mild obstacles.

The choice of CrossContact tyres for the road conditions encountered on our journey was the correct one, but for those who do not plan to travel on dirt, the correct tyre for the Caravelle would be the ContiPremiumContact 5 - a purely road-biased tyre with a rating of 100% tar surface.

Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle

On the 'higher ridge'

In German, Hanover means "on the higher ridge", and Trappieskop, towering over the flat Karoo landscape, offers a panoramic view of the dusty little town. Claimed to be the most central place in the country, Hanover is fed by The Fountain, a powerful spring in town that releases about 205 000 litres of water per day. The name of the town originated from a request from a local farmer, Gert Johannes Wilhelm Gouws, the grandson of Sterren Gauche, to name the village Hanover as his grandfather, who had come to Africa in search of his fortune, came from that city in Germany.

Sophie looked quite "at home" parked in front of the tall church in the centre of the town to pay homage to Hanover and the legacy of two companies from the German city that has become household names in South Africa, and still contribute hugely to the ongoing industrialisation of the country.

Our experience with Sophie on the road to Hanover again substantiated why the versatile, comfortable, and very competent Kombi Bus has, over the last 70 years, become a firm South African favourite. And with its latest updates, it will indeed remain a faithful road trip companion for the foreseeable future. Preparations for this future has already started in Hanover with arrangements to produce the ID.BUZZ already in full swing, starting from 2022. In addition to the T-model range and the ID. BUZZ, the Hanover plant will also produce three fully electric D-SUV models for other brands within the VW Group. 

Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
2021 Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle

The tale of Sofie

Seventy years ago, a first-generation (T1) dove-blue panel van with chassis number 20-1880 rolled off the production line in the Wolfsburg plant. It was delivered to Hildesheim, and for 23 years it dashed around the roads and narrow lanes of the plant in the small town before going into (early) retirement when the company sold the vehicle to a collector.

For nearly 23 years, the Transporter spent time in the collections of various VW enthusiasts. The last owner tried to sell the vehicle via a German magazine, without success until a Danish collector became aware of the advertisement. After learning that the vehicle has the lowest Bulli chassis number known at that time, he bought it sight unseen.

Volkswagen T6.1 Caravelle
Volkswagen Kombi, aka Sophie

So, in 1992, at the proud old age of 42 and with less than 100 000km on the clock, the van was taken to Demark. It also got a name; with a nod to the first T1 ever delivered to the Danish state, christened 'Sofie'. From 2000 to 2003 Sofie was fully restored and covered 20 000km driving around Europe. 

However, the collector was getting old and wanted to sell Sofie. Offers from collectors swamped him, but a 2014 visit by the Crown Prince of Denmark, accompanied by the Danish VW importer, to the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles plant in Hanover changed the course of Sofie's future.

The importer in passing mentioned there was a 1950 van in Denmark looking for a new home, and the VWCV Oldtimer department immediately contacted the Danish collector. He was thrilled by the idea of Sofie potentially becoming an essential part of the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles collection, and so Sofie "came home" the same year. 

Since then, Sofie has made countless people happy and brought back many memories. Be it at the Wolfsburg plant, in Hildesheim or in Hanover, as soon as Sofie drives up people clamour for selfies. She is now an undisputed star of the Kombi Bus cult.

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