fifty years later, woodstock is usually remembered as the seminal music festival of the 1960s. but for those three days in august 1969, it was also a massive parking lot. sedans, station wagons, sports cars, trucks, and buses crammed the roads approaching max yasgur's farm in lines that stretched out beyond the horizon. but the only more or less authentic way to vehicularly experiences the psychedelic sixties was in a "hippie van." that is, a vw microbus of the era painted with freeform imagery, equipped for bohemian living, and stocked with illicit experimental psychopharmacology.
at woodstock, that happiest of hippie arks, the volkswagen van was the ideal personal base of super-groovy operation.
there were no hotels at woodstock. no breakfast buffets, wide-screen tvs, or king-size beds. people ate and slept in tents, under the stars, in the rain, or, very often, in vehicles. the vw type 2 transporter wasn’t designed as a counterculture icon, but in the 1960s used examples were plentiful, cheap, easy to fix, and fun to decorate. with its rear-mounted air-cooled engine, all-independent suspension, and skinny tires, the type 2 was also able to ride through woodstock's fallow alfalfa fields while domestic wallow wagons sank into the loam. of course, with only maybe 40 horsepower from the flat-four, the vw van was going to be slower across grass than grazing sheep.
from there to the 2022 volkswagen microbus pictured above, which will be an all-new, electrically powered version of the classic, it has been quite a story.
where it all began
to understand the substance of the vw microbus, start with understanding volkswagen in the years immediately following world war ii.
germany—defeated, de-nazified, and split into west and east—was a bombed-out husk after the war. but it was also the focus of the intense competition between the soviet bloc and western allies. the western powers wanted to prove the ideological superiority of representative democracy and more or less free enterprise, and the way to do that was by rebuilding west germany quickly and efficiently. there wasn't much industrial base left in the country, but there was volkswagen.
vw had only one massive assembly plant in wolfsburg and one increasingly popular product, the type 1 beetle. moving parts around that giant plant were improvised machines called plattenwagens that were essentially cut-down beetle chassis with decks bolted atop them. the legend goes that dutch vw importer ben pons saw the plattenwagens in the wolfsburg plant and, in a burst of creativity one day in 1947, drew up the basic dimensions of the vw transporter.
riding on the same wheelbase as the beetle, the van kept the engine in the back and pushed the driver up over the front wheels, where his or her feet could double as a crash structure. the genius of the thing was that everything between the driver and the engine could be filled with practically anything. by late 1949, production of the vw transporter had begun, and soon after that the transporter was a ubiquitous commercial presence in europe.
demand for the type 2 soon outstripped vw's ability to make them at the wolfsburg plant. so in 1956 a new factory dedicated to the type 2 in its ever expanding variants—pickups, passenger-carrying sambas, ambulances, and pop-top westfalia campers—opened in hanover, west germany. hanover was vw's second assembly plant, and it marked the company's expansion into the industrial behemoth it is today.
by the nature of its engineering, the type 2 was something distinctly different in america. its engine was tiny and in the wrong place, and it didn't look like anything else being sold as a truck in the 1950s. to own one meant that you were rejecting detroit conventional wisdom and embracing an alternate lifestyle.
car life magazine compared the vw bus to the ford econoline and the corvair-based chevrolet greenbrier in its september 1961 issue. with only 40 horsepower available from its 1.2-liter engine, the vw had issues with acceleration. according to that journal, the vw bus took 26.8 seconds to reach 50 mph, and it couldn't reach 60 mph in the quarter-mile. "maximum power is at 4000 rpm," car life reported about the vw. "top speed is just at 60 mph, which can be maintained for hours without harm. long, uphill grades, however, can become a bit annoying, although the vw is as nimble as a chamois on twisty mountain roads."
america has always had a counterculture: a strong minority of people looking to escape conformity, explore alternatives to materialism, and find happiness in overlooked corners of the country. for the most part, it was easy for the dominant culture to keep the malcontents marginalized and anonymous. that changed in the 1960s.
"suddenly in 1966, there were hippies," w.j. rorabaugh wrote in the 2015 book american hippies. “thousands of them, then tens of thousands, and within a couple of years, hundreds of thousands or even millions of long-haired youth of both sexes dressed in tight-fitting jeans or bright-colored pants accompanied by colorful tie-dyed t-shirts with or without printed slogans . . . the hippie counterculture is historically important for several reasons. first, this counterculture was a significant part of the massive upheavals of the 1960s, which included civil rights, black power, feminism, and gay liberation as well as looser sexual mores, the end of censorship, street protests, political radicalism, and environmentalism.”
the hippie movement arrived at just about the moment when used vw vans became cheap transportation. what better way to reject the conventional wisdom of american culture than with a slow, foreign-built van with enough room inside to facilitate all sorts of bad behavior?
"my bus was about consciousness, about how to elevate and get those symbols," dr. robert hieronimus told the baltimore sun on august 12, 2019, about the wildly painted vw transporter he drove to woodstock in 1969. "our whole philosophy is that we are one people on one planet. how corny that sounds, but how true it is. and some day, we're going to get there. we've got to get there." he called the van "light."
hieronimus and a group of friends re-created his van in order to relive the doctor’s trip from baltimore to the woodstock festival a half-century ago. a documentary about this, the woodstock bus, can be viewed on demand using the curiosity stream service. it's not free, but one of the lessons of the hippie era is that nothing truly is.
hippie culture has left its mark on the wider american culture. and as that generation has aged, the vw van in all its various guises has become a collector's item. auction prices for the "23-window" version of the microbus are almost invariably over $100,000 now. in 2011, one buyer paid $217,800 for one nice 1963 example at the barrett-jackson auction in orange county, california, after a bidding war. the current auction record is apparently for a modified 1965 21-window model that sold for $302,500 at barrett-jackson’s scottsdale auction in 2017. there's at least one listed for auction during this pebble beach week: rm sotheby's is offering the 1956 volkswagen deluxe 23-window microbus shown below, and it's expected to fetch as much as $195,000.
there are still a few hippies out there driving their vw buses with the same determination to live life on their own terms. it's just that now there are collectors tempting them to trade their bus in on a real house.
woodstock didn't change everything.