Fat Freddy's Combi
What would infamous Sixties hippies, the Fabulous
Furry Freak Brothers make of VW's new Microbus?
Andrew English reports
AGAINST a backdrop of falling sales and profits, plus job losses in North
America, Volkswagen turned the clock back half a century this week with the
launch of its Microbus concept, a VW Combi with which to tour the new
This is no mere transport for the offspring of the Fabulous Furry Freak
Brothers and Fat Freddy's Cat, however. VW's new Microbus has been
carefully carved to cut a fine line between retro (to ensure it sells as
well as the new Beetle in America) and modern (in the hope that it will
sell in Europe, where the Beetle bombed because it was considered too retro).
New Beetle designer Charles Ellwood conceived the front-engined, six-seat
Microbus in VW's California design studio back in 1994. It was developed
alongside the new Beetle, which first appeared as Concept 1 at the Detroit
Show that same year. Since then, it has been given a makeover to dilute the
retro feel. Ellwood says VW is keen to build the Microbus and will be
watching reaction carefully over the coming months.
Although the VW Combi is more than 51 years old, it still arouses huge
interest. VW campers have provided transport for generations of surfers,
itinerant antipodeans and holidaying families. As anyone caught in the
traffic jams of clattering VW campers roaring down the M4 for Newquay's May
bank holiday Run for the Sun will attest, they remain popular despite their
advancing years. About four million have been built and, badged as the
Transporter, they are still in production. The modern version is about to
undergo its fifth styling change and the Microbus borrows the mechanical
underpinnings from this next-generation model.
Inside, the Microbus tips its hat to the original. There is a large, round
speedometer stuck in front of the driver and other control clusters echo
its styling. In the centre of the cabin, just below the dash, another
circular panel houses a joystick-style gearlever and the air-conditioning
controls. Sadly, there are no lampshade furbelows running around the top of
the windows a la Freak Brothers. Instead, the modern Microbus has a
high-tech mix of a plasma-screen television, translucent rubber flooring,
double xenon headlamps, electronically operated sliding side doors and
Unlike the original rear-engined, air-cooled VW Transporter, the new
Microbus has its 3.2-litre, 231bhp V6 ahead of the cabin and it drives the
front wheels via a five-speed automatic gearbox with Tiptronic control.
This, of course, would be be far too much power for impoverished Freak
Brother types and a smaller petrol version is likely to be built, along
with a diesel. The concept Microbus has 20in wheels, but these are likely
to shrink as and when it reaches production.
VW's first Microbus was called the Type 2 (the Beetle was the Type 1) and
was inspired by Britain's Major Ivan Hirst, who was appointed to run the
Wolfsburg factory after the Second World War. He asked for a simple
platform-style carrier to be made for factory use. Hirst's Plattenwagen
might have provided the inspiration, but it was Dr Ferdinand Porsche's
Beetle that supplied the horizontally opposed, four-cylinder powerplant.
The Type 2 was developed for three years on the worst roads that Lower
Saxony had to offer before going on sale in 1949. Its launch price was
5,850 marks - about 435 at contemporary rates.
The first Transporters were commercial vans, but pick-ups, campers and crew
buses followed. Its heyday came in the Sixties, when thousands of the
flower-power generation set off to explore the outer edges of
consciousness, and some nice beaches, from the driver's seat of a VW.
Mindful of this, VW went to the trouble of creating accurate scale models
of the new Microbus in the form of a crew-cab pick-up, camper and bus, all
of which were displayed beside the full-scale concept.
VW board member Dr Jens Neumann said: "We looked at nomads, surfers,
entrepreneurs and younger families. They all need lots of space for
friends, bikes, snowboards, kayaks, coolers, beach chairs, strollers and
"Many of you will remember how young folks travelled the world's highways
being free and easy."
Under his breath, one journalist added: "And stoned out of their minds".
It was significant that many of the world's leading designers came past the
VW stand, which was not exactly on a convenient route to anywhere else in
the show halls. Most seemed to agree that the Microbus was an assured piece
of work and, to a man and woman, they felt there would be an enormous
market for such a vehicle, always assuming it was priced correctly.
Brothers in armchairs
The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are Fat Freddy, Freewheelin Franklin and
Phineas - hilarious hippie survivors of the Sixties, idle loafers at life's
trough. As their creator Gilbert Shelton said: "The Freak Brothers
represent the anti-authoritarian spirit: the joker, the prankster, Huck
Finn. People enjoy reading them because they cannot be that way in real life."
The brothers made their first appearance in 1968 in The Rag in Austin,
Texas, where Shelton attended university, studying history and art. He
moved to San Francisco in 1969 to establish Rip Off Press with three other
Texans. From there the Freak Brothers strips were syndicated, borrowed (or
stolen!) by a host of American underground papers of the late Sixties and
by International Times and Oz magazine in Britain. The first collection was
published in 1971 by Rip Off Press; it is still being reprinted annually
and has been joined by nine further collections of Freak Brothers
adventures. The books have been translated into 12 languages and worldwide
sales are now a staggering 10 million copies.
Telegraph Motoring is grateful to Knockabout Comics of London, which
supplied the Freak Brothers artwork used in this article. Established in
1975, Knockabout specialises in publishing the best and most innovative
British, American and European graphic novels and comic art and has more
than 50 titles in print, including versions of Coleridge and Shakespeare
and the work of Robert Crumb. The Freak Brothers books, published under
licence from the US, are its best-selling line; more than two million
copies have been sold and 10 comics are reprinted each year.
Knockabout Comics, 10 Acklam Road, London W10 5QZ; tel 020 8969
2945, web site www:knockabout.com
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Jan 19 2001 - 15:41:27 EST