The Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Oldtimer Repair Shop in Hanover, in northern Germany, restores VW Microbus. When the vehicles arrive at the repair shop, rust has often eaten large holes in their side panels.
In German, the Microbus is known as the Bulli. Gerolf Thienel, the repair shop’s technical historian curates the collection and works hand in hand with the repair shop. Though it may sound simple, the facility’s mission is quite intricate: restoring Bulli vehicles to their original state. Extremely weather-worn in some cases, these old-timers are brought to the repair shop by their owners in the hope that the team of mechanics will work their magic. This type of restoration job can easily end up costing more than $100,000. At that price every last detail will be just right, even the stitching on the seat cushions.
Thienel is constantly adding classic models to the collection. The restoration repair shop has been hard at work for nearly several years, and Thienel has been working there the whole time. The department has collected almost 90 specimens since 2008, some originating from vehicle dealerships, others from private owners. Sometimes those stories become more than just vehicles for previous owners. For many, the VW Microbus was an attitude to life that allowed its owners to venture beyond their own horizons. It was a vehicle born for cruising, for sitting back, relaxing, and watching the world go by, taking it all in.
The Microbus’s History
The Transporter —a Bulli with a flatbad, resembling a pickup — was designed as a practical, versatile vehicle for the second half of the 20th century. It wasn’t just meant for transporting large and heavy loads. The designers hoped it would help larger groups of people get away from it all — even if just for a relaxing weekend of camping. If you were lucky enough to own a VW Microbus, it gave you the freedom to go traveling with your friends.
While not every Microbus has a spectacular history, some still have very interesting stories to tell. Like the collection’s cherry-blossom-pink Microbus — converted into a luxury van now — that belonged to a famous rock star. With 58 hp of engine power, the Microbus features flower-design brocade upholstery, and interior equipment that was state-of-the art for its time — in a T2, at least — including a gas hookup and cupboards with plenty of space.
All of the work at the Volkswagen repair shop in Hanover is done by hand. Body work is repaired using hammers and welding equipment, without a laser in sight. However, this means the repair process can take a while. If a vehicle is particularly run down, it can take up to a year before it is ready. Some customers call every week to check up on their vehicles, asking for photos.
When you’re dealing with a Microbus, it is always a very personal affair. Thienel admits that handing over the fully restored vehicle to its owner can be an emotional experience. “We don’t just give them a car; it’s a whole lot more than that,” he says.
There was, for example, one customer who wanted the same feeling driving his T1 as he would have had in 1961. So the repair shop fitted an original single-circuit brake system, along with diagonal tires in their original condition.
Rebuilding the Originals
In South America the Microbus is still revered as the most practical vehicle for transporting people and goods.
A beautiful model in the Hanover collection is a blue, white and turquoise Samba bus. The “Samba” model was a “limited-edition design with exclusive equipment.” In German this description produces the acronym “Samba.” The arched roof is surrounded by small windows, and features a sunroof on top.
Some owners come to the repair shop with a Microbus that is too far gone. There was the T1 platform truck, on loan because the owner didn’t want to sell. Left outside and exposed to the elements for decades, the loading platform first gathered a thick layer of leaves before wood was left stacked on top of the rusted panels. The decay had progressed too far for the Hanover repair shop to fix.
The owner’s single request was particularly heartwarming: “Please don’t exhibit my vehicle next to an ambulance.” He didn’t want his T1 to look like it needed a doctor.