It's The End Of The Road For VW's Iconic Van

Dec 11, 2013
Originally published on December 11, 2013 10:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's even more to talk about in the auto industry, because the VW van is coming to the end of its road. Volkswagen has announced the last one will roll off the assembly line in Brazil on December 20th.

NPR's Brazil Correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been talking to fans about the final days of the vehicle known in much of the world as the kombi.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: They may come off the assembly line in plain white with few frills but this weekend aficionados of the VW van showed off a rainbow of adaptations.

They're painted every single color you could imagine - green, blue turquoise, lime and they've been souped-up in all sorts of different ways. This is a convention that's been organized as a farewell to the Volkswagen bus - the kombi as it's known here in Brazil.

CARLOS LEITE: We have cars here since 1950, so this one is imported from Germany. It's one of the oldest in the world. We have the '58 model here, it's one of the first one produced in Brazil. We started production in 1957.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Carlos Leite from Volkswagen. He says Brazil's kombi fan club came together and put 160 different VW vans on display today. He says the reason people are passionate about their VW vans is simple.

LEITE: It's an icon, it's really an icon of freedom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil is the last place still producing the VW bus - the ride of choice for surfers, hippies and travelers.

In Brazil though, the kombi has a less romantic appeal. It's a relatively cheap vehicle that can be adapted for any situation. People sell food out of it, transport school children, sell cooking gas. Buy a kombi and you don't just have a ride, you have a business.

Brazil has produced over a million and a half of them since the late 1950s and they are ubiquitous.

At the kombi expo, Carlos Alberto de Valentim, who calls himself the kombi baby, says he has taken his VW bus all around the world.

CARLOS ALBERTO DE VALENTIM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He proudly displays pictures laminated to the inside door of his kombi at the pyramids in Egypt and other exotic locations. Inside his van, there are bunk beds, a fridge, a sink - pretty much everything you need on the road, he boasts.

VALENTIM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can do everything I need to do in this small car. There's nothing else like it, he says.

And that was also the feeling among the men who actually put together the VW van.

I'm now in the Volkswagen factory where the last VW vans are being made and the final edition has been in so much demand they've doubled that they've produced from 600 to 1,200.

MARCOS TEIXERIA: We are planning a lot of work and a celebration because this is an important car for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Marcos Teixeira, the VW engineering manager, talking about what's in store on the last day the VW bus rolls off the assembly line. The special edition VW van is here on display on the factory floor - it's baby blue and white with curtains and a decal on the side that says: kombi - 56 years.

The assembly line is old fashioned, which suits the bus' sensibilities. No robots. The VW van is mostly put together by hand. But it's also become a victim of technology. Starting January 1st, all new cars in Brazil must have air bags and anti-lock brakes. That would have required a complete redesign of the bus something that Teixeira says wasn't feasible.

And so workers like Sansao Cardoso are putting the final touches to the last kombis.

SANSAO CARDOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says because they are the last, we want them to come out perfect, with a little bit more of love. I've been working here since 1967, he says, and I've seen some of the first kombis and now I'm seeing the last. He says, it's no small thing.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR, News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.