Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The end of the line for VW camper vans ?

Sadly, VW do Brasil has announced its plan to terminate production of the iconic type 2 bus.

Boasting the longest commercial production line of any vehicle, manufacture having started in Hannover, Germany in 1957, this truly marks a milestone ending for what has become a modern day style icon.  News, in my humble opinion, probably worthy of wider media coverage.

Initially conceived as a utility vehicle based on the innards of the Beetle, a simple box on wheels solution that came from a napkin sketch by Dutchman Ben Pon solving a problem for a cost effective light goods vehicle to help much needed economic activity following the devastation of the Second World War.  Its versatility has seen it utilised in a wide range of roles from ice cream vans, ambulances, minibus, goods vehicles and because of its low cost and reliability, a popular choice as a camping and surfing transporter. 

Splittie with starring role at Hampton Court flower show 2013
Of course platform sharing is these days considered an important scale economy requirement in the industry and the Volkswagen group routinely do this across both their model ranges and brands (including Audi, SEAT and Skoda badges). 

The concept was pooh-poohed by Lord Rootes, legend of the UK car industry when the Wolfsburg factory was under British military control. History has clearly proven him wrong.  (And what happened to the British auto industry ?) It was also targeted by the US auto workers union (UAW) for a special import tax, which exists still today....Land of the Free and all that.  The eventual end of line decision, forced by environmental and considerations according to The Telegraph (Aug 2013), has finally come.  Other media sources site a different justification, that of the cost of implementing modern safety requirements. 

In auto manufacturing the announcement of ceasing production would usually result in lower demand, and require price discounting, as consumers consider challenges they are likely to face in maintaining and reselling their vehicle.  (Food manufacturer Heinz cleverly used a line closure notice to boost demand for its ever so old fashioned sandwich spread product, a quaintly British mix of salad cream mayonnaise and chopped veg)  A ploy used by the German auto giant when it stopped European production of the Porche designed and Hitler inspired peoples car, the Beetle, was to offer limited edition end of line models in just silver and gold.  For a short while back in the day our family motor was indeed a golden 1303 Special which was eventually sold on to become a drag racer in Australia. The golden Beetle memories remain strong. 

A similar strategy is being adopted for the last of the infamous buses, having also been produced in Hannover, Germany,  Australia and South Africa and a total production run in excess of 2 million units.  600 blue and white commemorative edition vehicles will be produced to mark the event and undoubtedly see demand exceed supply.

The final production run of 600 in two tone colouration
There has been much speculation over a replacement Type 2. Two concept cars have been demonstrated at the industry shows, one in 2001 (deemed too expensive) and the second in 2012 (boxy, boasting fold flat seats and iPad technology), although VW remain tight lipped about their plans for any commercial release. 

The modern day retro styled Beetle (or Type 1) has enjoyed some commercial success, particularly in UK and USA with its Golf platform based reprise of the original concept. Now in its third mark, and boasting a fatter, flatter rear and pokey engine ranges, a clear attempt has been made to bolster its desirability amongst male consumers with visible product changes and subtle promotion focussed on the PS, German short hand for horse power.   Even though I have driven mark 1 and 2 new Beetles for over ten years now, it has been very much the choice of a middle aged woman, only recently are decade old cars now cheap enough for youngsters to pick up in the used car market. 

Great care needs to be taken with any re-launch, as it would seem an important part of the allure of the original VW bus range was its out of the ordinary looks, boasting curved panels and circular eye like head lights that saw many name their buses and talk about them with human qualities.  A design which is too sophisticated and too expensive will cannibalise the existing and reasonably successful California range in a highly diversified and competitive market segment that needs to include consideration of caravans and variants such as the Dub Box (pictured below).   

Now call me a wise old bird, or at very least a little bit to long in the tooth, but if I were a marketing manager looking to launch a new retro styled VW bus, I think I might seek to avoid the Coca Cola error of letting consumers prefer the old version.  I would want to look to concentrate media coverage on the new and not the old and just take this out of the picture altogether.  So, does the decision to terminate production really have to be on environmental grounds or as more widely mentioned in the press due to the costs of implementing contemporary safety measures (air bags and alike) ?  Surely you can put catalytic converters and newer engines to address this issue ?  Perhaps environmental and safety grounds better than boring hard economics, the cost of re-invigorating the Brazilian line is not sufficiently commercial ?  Or is this merely a smoke screen for clearing the decks for a big bang re-launch next year ? 

But take a look at this YouTube hosted ad (above) from 2011/12 celebrating 60 years of VW heritage in the working van market.  Centre stage a lovingly cared for Type 2 splittie, the wide and deep (?) emotional attachment and tremendous cultural capital the camper van holds surely makes this a prime contender for a re-launch some time soon ?   Or perhaps "God only knows ?"
Thanks to Peter Jukes for the first photo, flower power@Hampton Court Flower Show.