The Volkswagen Transporter has been moving people and property around the streets of the world for 60 years, and in five generations it has been transformed from functional van to luxury people carrier. We take a trip through the history of this remarkable vehicle.
T1, 1.8 million produced – 1954 panel van
This is where it all began. The original Transporter and its timeless shape is one of the most recognisable vehicles of any age. Finished in a gorgeous Dove Blue with white detailing it’s easy to see why it’s still such a popular vehicle.
Perhaps more of a surprise is just how practical it is. Swing open the twin side doors and there’s stacks of load space, despite it being shorter than a contemporary Golf. Up front it’s the definition of utilitarian; one dial, a handful of warning lights and the most spindly steering wheel you’ve ever seen.
In the back there’s the Beetle-derived 1.2-litre flat four dishing out just 30bhp. It thrums along willingly but it’s all done by 56mph – which frankly is enough. But it’s dripping with charm and in a different age you can see why it was such a popular option.
T2, 3.9 million produced – 1976 Double-cab pick up
If you need proof that the Transporter is tough, then this is it. This particular T2 pick-up was bought new in 1976 and was only retired in 2009 from a life of hauling building materials and steel fabrications.
The T2 is a bit more forgiving to drive too. There’s a whopping 50bhp from the 1.6-litre flat four which is plenty to get it along smartly, and the steering is much more accurate and responsive than the T1 – if still a bit vague by modern standards.
In period orange and with the cute flat-bed arrangement and small double-cab seats it’s easy to see yourself mooching down to the south coast in the summer with a bunch of mates.
T3, 1.7 million produced – 1989 T25 Caravelle
After the ultra-cool design of the earlier models the T3 looks quite dour in comparison. It comes from the late 1970s-era Volkswagen and so function takes priority over form, but it is certainly now without its appeal.
This pristine 1989 Caravelle model is built to carry people in comfort, so there’s a deliciously 1980s blue-trimmed cabin with little luxuries like electric windows and a tilting sunroof. But it’s the driving experience that’s the real revelation.
This T25 has a watercooled 2.1-litre flat four engine and although the stats say just 112bhp it feels much more lusty than that. It’s smooth and pleasingly vocal with great torque, and the dogleg gearbox (with reverse and first in the left plane) is sweet little detail. It’s a gem to drive and this particular car has only covered 10,000 miles in 25 years with its lucky owner.
T4, 1.9 million produced – 2002 T4 panel van
The T4 was the first Transporter generation to switch to a more conventional layout, with a front-mounted engine and front-wheel-drive. But where the T4 makes an obvious step forward is how much more car-like it is to drive.
In the nose of this particular example is the five-cylinder 2.5-litre diesel unit and it only takes a few hundred yards to realise how much of an improvement it was over contemporary diesels. It’s smooth, powerful and has a characterful burble too.
It’s a big step forward inside too, with features like air conditioning and electric mirrors acknowledging the fact the van drivers are human beings too…
T5, - 2014 T5 Business
What an amazing thing progress is. This 2014-specification T5, in Business form at least, is a limousine for four people. There’s a 2.0-litre bi-turbo diesel engine linked to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox – a level of sophistication that wasn’t commonplace even five years ago.
Not only that but the level of luxury in the back is borderline hilarious. There’s Nappa leather on the seats, burr walnut trim and a drinks cooler between the electrically-adjustable seats. But it’s genuinely comfortable and quiet back there, with a ride smooth enough to work and make use of the built-in wifi.
It may seem like more than 60 years between T1 and T5 but whatever the generation it’s the versatility and honest charm that link them all and explain their enduring popularity. Here’s to another 60 years!