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VW Type 2 Splitscreen History

VW Type 2 Splitscreen History

VW Type 2 Splitscreen History

It's one of the most iconic Volkswagen models ever, alongside the legendary VW Beetle (whose history we told in a blog here). If you'd like to know more about where the VW Transporter came from, read on...

Solving the problem

The origins of the Type 2 are credited to Ben Pon, the Dutch VW importer, who in 1946 had visited the Wolfsburg factory with a view to importing Beetles (or KDF Wagens as they were then) to the Netherlands. However, on his trip, he saw something that interested him more.

It was a homemade parts mover based on a Beetle chassis, but with the driver and controls sitting atop the engine and a large flat load bed in front of them, this little vehicle was called the Plattenwagen. Pon made a quick sketch and returned to Holland, but returned to Wolfsburg in 1947 with more detailed sketches of his new concept, and a few criteria it had to meet. Namely; it had to carry a load of 1500kg, and the driver and controls should be mounted at the front of the vehicle.

Development began on the project in 1948, and 3 short months later the prototype had been made. After initial testing, it became apparent that the modified T1 chassis wasn’t going to be sufficient for the job, so a heavy-duty ladder chassis was employed. Find Type 2 Split chassis parts here. 

Upon looking at a Split Screen bus you’d be hard-pressed to believe any consideration had been given to aerodynamics during its conception, however, after the initial prototypes had achieved very poor drag coefficients, around 0.75, the wind tunnel at the Technical University in Braunschweig was used to refine the shape, and the Cd was reduced to around 0.48. This was largely thanks to the now iconic V-shape of the Splitscreen front panel and windscreen area. Heinz Nordhoff approved the new vehicle for production in 1949, and the first production model left the production line in November of 1949. A total of 8 vehicles were made in 1949; 6 panel vans, 1 Kombi and 1 Microbus. By the end of 1950 production was over 8000 units, rising to nearly 50,000 for the last year of Barndoor production.

What is a Barndoor VW Bus?

The term “Barndoor” refers to buses made between 1949 – March 1955, and is believed to be coined by Jeff Walters in the 1980s. Barndoor buses appear to look similar to the later Split buses on initial inspection, but there are quite a few differences once you start to dig a little deeper.

The Barndoor bus has no “peak” above the windscreen, no tailgate, in most cases there's a small rear windscreen, and a much larger engine lid which is what the “Barndoor” refers to, not as many believe the side cargo doors. The petrol tank sits in the engine compartment to the left of the engine (when viewed from the rear) and the spare wheel is stowed on a shelf above. Barndoor pickups and ambulances are slightly different in this respect as ambulances feature a rear hatch (see ambulance section) and pickups have a smaller engine cover, however, both of these models use a cut-down version of the original engine cover. Whilst there are a lot of Barndoor parts that will fit a later Split, and Splitscreen parts that will fit the Barndoor models, there are quite a few parts that are specific to the Barndoor; pedal box, reduction boxes, 3-post badge, spare tyre rack, front windscreens, seats, roof, dashboard and instruments, engine lid, rear apron, front suspension and steering.

Barndoor buses also came with a 16” road wheel, not the 15” or 14” that later buses came with. The Commercial was the most basic of the buses offered by VW, a simple panel van, with no tailgate, no side windows and two opening cargo doors on the respective passenger side. Panelvans were also used as a basis for some of the camper conversions such as the EZ Camper and the Sundial. The Kombi was the next level up, still basic, with no headliner, carpet and very sparse door panels, and featured 3 side windows on each side of the cargo area, and two rows of seats, in the middle and rear, these were easily removed by one person. Kombis were also popular with camper converters.

Aurelie visited the European Barndoor Gathering in 2023. Check out the blog here

Standard and Deluxe models

The Standard was based on the Kombi and was considered the entry-level passenger vehicle, with slightly better levels of interior trim than the Kombi. Standards were typically finished in a two-tone paint scheme.

The Deluxe was the premium model in the range. The exterior was fitted with polished aluminium waistline trim, and 4 more windows had been added. 2 on each side, and 2 wraparound windows which spanned the gap between the tailgate and the side glass on models up until 1963, these Deluxes were known as 15 windows, the later models with a larger tailgate and no corner glass were known as 13 windows.

It was possible to order both the 15 and 13-window Deluxes with Skylight windows, (AKA the Samba) bringing the glass totals up to 23 and 21 windows respectively. Sambas also came with a full-length canvas sunroof, though they could be ordered from the factory without. Early 15’s and 23’s featured corner windows and skylights made of Plexiglas, though from 1954 the Skylights were replaced with glass, and in 1955 the corner windows were also replaced with glass.

Pick Ups

The Single Cab Pick-up was first produced in August 1952, the fuel tank had been moved to just in front of the rear axle, the engine cooling vents had been lowered to further down the side panel, to make room for the drop-sides. Access doors for the “Treasure Chest” toolbox under the bed were available as an option along with a canvas tilt kit. Up until late 1953, the drop-sides were smooth with no pressings. The early double cab pick-ups (1953-58) were actually converted single cabs converted for VW by a company called Binz, these early double cabs are easily identified by the “suicide” rear door. Up until 1960 all double cab drop-sides had a seam in the middle of the side as they were in-fact shortened single-cab versions, rather than their own specific pressing.

Barndoor Ambulance

Uniquely, the Ambulance tailgate was bottom-hinged and strengthened allowing stretchers to be slid in from the back. Ambulance models also featured a glass and metal divider between the cab and the cargo area, 1951-55 Ambulances featured a fresh air scoop mounted above the windscreen, with two fans mounted in it, an early effort at air-conditioning!

Other features unique to Ambulance models were; jump seats, grab rails on the ceiling, cargo area to cab buzzer, frosted side glass windows, additional sound deadening, shelving and cabinets for medical supplies and stretcher tables. Ambulance models also had the option to specify which side you wanted the cargo doors on.

Barndoor Ambulances also have the fuel tank moved in front of the gearbox/axle assembly and the spare wheel moved to between the cab and cargo area, 2 features which became standard on later Split buses.

Moving to Hannover

By 1954 production at the Wolfsburg factory was at its maximum, and VW needed a new factory to produce the Type2. VW moved fast and by early March 1955 the first bus rolled off the production line at VW’s new factory in Hannover. Just over a year later production of Type 2’s finished at Wolfsburg, and Type 2 production continued solely at Hannover. This move led to some unique features of buses made during the Wolfsburg to Hannover handover, specific to buses over the 1955-56 model years. Examples include; the fuel flap seal, fresh air vent, speedometer, cargo floor, rear transmission tunnel, front seat springs, 3 piece dog legs, Bakelite interior light, deck-lid bracing, and a rear hatch that could only be propped in one position.

VW Splitscreen engine options

Early Type 2’s were powered by the 1131cc air-cooled; flat 4 engine, mounted on a transaxle transmission. With the engine producing a heady 25hp, performance wasn’t what you’d call blistering, but the van was capable enough. VW used an ingenious method of reduction boxes on the bus to make the most out of the limited power available, these reduction boxes came on all Split screens; they effectively operated as another gearbox, and provided more torque at the expense of higher engine revs, and a slower top speed. However, these are often discarded when chasing higher performance or lowering a VW Splitscreen Bus. 

1953 saw VW upgrade the power plant to 1192cc 30hp unit, and then in 1955, the compression ratio was increased. In 1959 VW unveiled a new version of the 40hp engine, however, this proved to be so unreliable that the buses equipped with the engine were swiftly recalled and fitted with an earlier version. A few vans did escape the recall, and if you were to find a running example of one of these today, it would truly be a survivor!

Changes in the Sixties

In 1962, VW released a heavier-duty, updated version of the Type 2. The load capacity was increased from 750kg to 1000kg, the 15” wheels were replaced by wider 14” versions, and the engine was upgraded to a 42hp 1500cc engine. This model was such a success that the following year the 1200cc transporter was discontinued.

1962 onwards vehicles were fitted with the new “Fisheye” indicators replacing the “Bullet” indicators that had been used on the Bus and Beetle since VW switched from Semaphores in 1958. 1963’s Type 2 had a more powerful 1493cc 51bhp, the ’67 Beetle used a different variant of this engine which produced 54hp.

The 1963 model year was fitted with a larger tailgate, and in turn a larger rear window. Due to a lack of room on the slimmer D pillar, they could no longer feature rear corner windows, meaning the range-topping Samba went down from 23 to 21 windows and Deluxe models from 15 to 13 windows.

Rare factory high-top model is pictured below. 

The Brazilian, Fleetline and Australian models

Whilst VW stopped production of the Split-screen bus at Hannover in 1967, they continued elsewhere, and in this case, it was in Brazil. Production from CKD kits had been in place since 1953 but by 1957 50% of the vehicle parts were being made in Brazil too. Production of the Split remained at VW Brazil until 1975 when Bay Window parts manufacture took over. 

The Fleetline Bus is a 1950s spec split-screen bus that was produced in kit form in Brazil and then shipped to South Africa for assembly, as a complete knock-down kit. Essentially unchanged from the original spec, there are a few differences once you look a little closer. On later models the VW emblem on the front of the bus is pressed into the panel, as opposed to being a separate part, the cargo doors are similar to that of a barndoor bus (i.e. lighter in construction) they have pre ’64 style door handles with no indent on the outside, and pre ’64 style small rear tailgates. These vehicles were available in 3 different versions, a basic panel van, with a narrow tailgate, but a Deluxe type wide rear windscreen, a bus, which was very similar to a deluxe bus, but without a sunroof or skylights and a wide-bodied pickup. Fleetlines were only made from 1976 to 1978, and VWSA confirmed production numbers of 849.

Australian manufacture started around 1955 with the assembly of German-pressed CKD (Complete Knock Down) kits. This was completed at the Clayton Factory in Melbourne, and just like Brazilian production, VWA (VW Australasia) began to produce the parts in-house, and by the early 60's everything to assemble the vehicle was made in Australia.  

We hope you found this article interesting and informative. For similar stories regarding VW Golf Mk1 History, VW Karmann Ghia History and more, check out the rest of our blog.

Fancy getting behind the wheel of your very own VW Splitscreen Bus? Read our Type 2 Split Buying Guide next!


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