Volkswagen Magazine


cheerio, campervan!

For 56 years the iconic T2 Transporter – better known in the UK as a “campervan” – was built in Brazil. The final Last Edition T2 models have now rolled off the assembly line, and it’s time for a farewell trip to Ilhabela, Brazil’s “Beautiful Island”. A father-and-son weekend in paradise.

Text Karen Naundorf
Photos Lianne Milton

Paulo Borges didn’t hesitate for a second when the phone call came from Volkswagen. Did he want to test a Last Edition bus that was just rolling off the assembly line? “Next week? Two days? You’re on!”

Borges, 48, has been a fan of the Volkswagen “bus”, as it’s known in the US, for as long as he can remember. He learned to drive aged nine. With a campervan, of course; in secret, on a side street, his feet barely reaching the pedals. Today he is a member of the Brazilian Bus Fan Club – and currently the proud owner of 21 models of the kombi van, all stored in various garages. The oldest one is a 1953 model, while the most luxurious was specially equipped with air-conditioning for the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro. Borges collected his “Kombis”, as they call Transporter Vans in Brazil (in Germany they call it a “Bulli”), with painstaking effort. Most of them came from auctions in mainland / the inland of Brazil, where cars remain in good condition despite being decades old, as they aren’t affected by the damp and salty sea air as they would be in Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza or Recife, for example. Or on Ilhabela, or “Beautiful Island”, Brazil’s epitome of a paradise island.

Volkswagen’s T2 Transporter was built in Brazil for 56 years without interruption. Now it’s over. It would have been necessary to alter the body too much to satisfy new regulations – for example, ABS and airbags for new cars that are produced in Brazil. The campervan is the favoured companion of many Brazilians, who utilise it exactly as it was meant to be when the T1 first rolled off the assembly line in Germany in 1950 – as a combination vehicle, or indeed a “Kombi”. During the week it was used for work. On weekends it became a vehicle for family outings.

The Last Edition is a collector’s item that Paulo Borges would also like to own. Yet right now, while the last T2 Transporter vans anywhere are being manufactured in the Volkswagen plant at São Bernardo do Campo near São Paulo, just a few kilometres from his house, he cannot buy one. He made a promise to his wife: no new cars anymore, and definitely no new campervans. Word of honour. So, a farewell trip to Brazil’s “beautiful island” is an extremely welcome gift. For him, and for his five-year-old son Joaquín, who is also a Kombi fan. “Many collectors aren’t successful in passing on their passion to their children,” says Borges, delighted that it’s different in his case.

“Hands over your eyes!” the father calls out to his son. The campervan is standing ready at the Volkswagen works grounds, and Joaquín is about to experience a big surprise. “One, two, now look over there!” “Woooww!” shouts Joaquín, running around the bus once, stroking the light-blue paint with his fingers, then he jumps onto the back seat through the side door, clambers into the driver's seat, and puts his hands on the steering wheel. “I want to have one just like this, Papa!” Then he climbs over the two rows of white-and-blue-striped bench seats to the cargo area, and starts arranging the luggage: the small child’s surf board at the bottom, bags on top, the football tucked under the bench seat.

Surprise! Just before departure, Paulo reveals to his son which vehicle they are taking to the island of dreams.

Last Edition

Concluding the 56-year-long T2 production
era in Brazil, Volkswagen is publishing the Last Edition in a limited edition of 1,200 vehicles – each with its own model badge and designed in a 1960s lookalike style with two-colour paintwork, whitewall tyres, vinyl upholstery and fabric curtains. Price: Reais 85,000 (€26,300)

The biggest concession to modernity is the T2’s Sound System with an MP3 option and USB port. Apart from the 1.4-litre Total Flex engine (78 hp), the technology is largely the same as it was in 1967, which is why the “Kombi” cannot be cannot be licensed with major conversions in many Western countries.

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» Many collectors aren’t successful in passing on their passion to their children. «

Paulo Borges is delighted that it’s a different story with him and his son – and the T2.

Joaquín loves most of all the side windows and the trunk, which has plenty of room for his bodyboard.

The trip to Ilhabela, about 200 kilometres east of São Paulo, is the first journey that father and son have ventured on alone. It’s the first time travelling without Joaquín’s mother, who is four months pregnant and could use a rest. Joaquín takes along a picture of her. As soon as the van starts humming along the motorway – the flex motor can run on either petrol or ethanol – Joaquín gives his mother a ring. “We are sitting in the Kombi! It is blue with a white roof. And it has blue curtains – not just on the sides but on the back window, too!” The rest of the day is spent as a blissful father-and-son country outing. They sing “A Marcha da Kombi”, the campervan march. The song’s lyrics say the car is so intelligent that it works in the market on its own, without a driver, because it doesn’t need one. Sometimes it runs off and makes a fool of its owner. Joaquín has known the first verse by heart for ages. Then it’s time for the guessing game “Vejo, vejo” – similar to “I Spy” in English. Papa Paulo goes through all the details in the bus: the light-blue-striped upholstery. The black window lifter. The red needle of the speedometer. Joaquín chooses yellow and green road signs, house roofs, banana stands at the road side. Or a particular tree that is, of course, well out of sight by the time Papa begins guessing. Joaquín always wins.

A ferry connects Ilhabela to the Brazilian mainland, just six kilometres away.
Paulo and Joaquín sip fresh coconut juice during their road trip to the island, which is famous as a beach, surfing and diving paradise.

Before they started on their journey, Paulo Borges had predicted that the people on the street would stare and marvel at the special bus model. It sounded like the over-optimistic gushing of a fan, but it actually happens. At every construction site, a workman raises his head to look. Right at the first stop, the owner of a snack stand comes over to Borges and starts talking shop. During the following two days, no stop goes by without a conversation about the bus. Even the police stop in a parking area beside Borges and son, and ask if the Last Edition will really be the last Transporter Van.

The answer is, sadly, yes. The final T2 rolled off the assembly line at the end of December. It was produced for 56 years just as it was in the old days, without robots. Even right until the end, the paint was still sprayed on manually.

It is the end of an era, of a legend on four wheels. The Transporter Van prototype first went into serial production on 8 May 1950. Designed for use as a reliable beast of burden, the Transporter became one of the engines of Germany’s economic miracle – and one of the world’s most successful vehicles ever. The T1 could transport eight people, and, at 25 PS, the small bus didn’t need much more room on the road than a Volkswagen Beetle. The windscreen was divided in two, “so that you always had to drive with your face stuck to the windscreen,” says Borges, who has a T1 of his own in his garage.

Ilhabela’s diversity was everywhere to see during the two days. The island has 368 waterfalls plus dense, biodiverse vegetation.

Fire departments, police, greengrocers, tradesmen – the flexible Transporter quickly advanced to become the darling of a wide variety of trades. “The perfect workhorse. As unassuming as a donkey in Sardinia,” wrote the well-known German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Anything that is loved by everyone is given a nickname. The German “Bulli” was a combination of “Bus” and “Lieferwagen” – or “delivery van”. Buli, of course, but it needed a second L. In Portugal it was soon called “Pão-de-Forma”, because it resembled a tin loaf of bread; in Finland “Junakeula’”– the front of a train. And in the English-speaking world it was christened Split Window, Splitty, Hippie Mobile – the list is long.

Some 1.8 million Transporters had already rolled off the assembly line when the T2 was launched in 1967. The new model was 20 centimetres longer, the 47-PS engine managed to achieve 110 km/h, the windscreen was no longer divided, the driver could see better. A complete success, even amongst the dropouts who took their Bulli and set off globetrotting. Workhorse or symbol of freedom, straightforward or glamorous – the campervan represents both. The Transporter continued to evolve over the subsequent decades, becoming a modern van, a “people carrier”. Yet the T2 has retained its cult status, as it has for Paulo Borges: to him, “la Kombi” is like “a lady that you can keep falling in love with over and over again.”

The ferry crossing takes scarcely 15 minutes, then the bus is rolling along Ilhabela’s narrow streets. Coconut palms, light sandy beaches, crystal clear water where you can see the fish on the ocean floor even when swimming without diving goggles. This paradise has only one blemish: the borrachudos, nasty, stinging black flies that inflict painful bites. Which is why Brazilians say this when they hear Ilhabela: “Beauuu-ti-ful! But take some insect repellent with you!”

The Transporter Van is allowed on the sand while father and son go swimming and play football. As the sun sets, its light cloaks the beach and palm trees in a surreal shade of blue grey. Borges turns on the parking lights. The familiar, good-natured Kombi face with the perfectly round eyes now shows up even more clearly. When the indicators are switched on, orange eyelashes are added to the eyes.
The next day, during the ferryboat ride to the mainland, Paulo photographs every detail: seats, floor mats, curtains. Yes, sure, he will keep his promise not to buy a Last Edition. But one thing is certain: the interior of the 2008 T2 that he is in the process of restoring will look exactly like the last T2.

» A lady that you can keep falling in love with over and over again. «

Paulo Borges his fascination for the Kombi.

Farewell, my love! For one last time, father and son enjoy the sand and sunset and the Last Edition.