The VW Van Makes a Comeback Till Rust Do Us Part

The classic Volkswagen Type 2 mini-bus is experiencing a renaissance at the age of 57. Once every hippie's preferred form of transport, the curvaceous people-carrier is finding its way on to the big screen.


On the day of the 2007 Oscar awards, the Hollywood Reporter featured a full-page advertisement for the animated film "Cars." But far from boasting any of the film's swankier cars like a Porsche or Ferrari, the ad displayed a flower-painted Volkswagen Type 2 van called Fillmore.

The hippie-era icon is back with a vengeance. Never before have as many VW vans been seen in movies. Apart from "Cars," there is the comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," in which a family of six travel through the United States in a yellow van, and the political thriller "Blood Diamond," in which Leonardo DiCaprio bombs down the roads of Sierra Leone in a blue-and-white model. Even Nelson Mandela (played by Dennis Haysbert) is taking a seat in the Volkswagen van -- in the prison drama "Goodbye Bafana."

The VW van -- first produced in Volkswagen's Wolfsburg plant 57 years ago -- is experiencing a renaissance on TV as well. A red van is the star of a McDonald's ad, and the gourmet cooking show "Naked Chef" sees British star chef Jamie Oliver driving his ingredients through the country in the hippiemobile from Germany.

How can it be that an aerodynamic catastrophe with horrendous gas consumption rates and dangerously high noise levels is being celebrated as if it were the latest car show sensation? How can the VW micro-bus be perceived as an environmentally friendly vehicle when the facts prove the opposite? In "Cars," the gas-guzzling Volkswagen even gives a race car a guilty conscience and offers it some home-brewed bio-fuel.

Of course the film industry enjoys a special relationship with the VW van which allows young directors -- who are notoriously broke -- to transport their team and equipment to the film location. But even when those directors become successful they remain faithful to the van. Lars von Trier, the director of "Dogville" and "Breaking the Waves," drove from Denmark to Cannes in his van. Austrian director Hans Weingartner drove his own model down the Croisette in Cannes, blowing exhaust fumes over the upmarket crowd and their limos.

From revolution to consumerism

The Volkswagen Type 2 van has a history of being used as a mobile protest platform.

The classic VW van is making a comeback -- on the big screen at least.

The classic VW van is making a comeback -- on the big screen at least.

Arlo Guthrie's 1967 protest song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" featured a red VW bus whose passengers take "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and headed on toward the city dump." Guthrie couldn't have known a red Volkswagen would one day be used to advertise burgers and fries and other implements of nutrition. Is this the way of all metal -- from the revolution's race car to consumerism's delivery van?

The VW van developed out of the famed Beetle and was built in its original form until 1979. In the late 1960s it became the obvious alternative to the family car. It was the perfect vehicle for brothers and sisters united in the spirit of being on the move.

In the new German film "Das Wilde Leben" ("Eight Miles High!"), Natalia Avelon plays German 1960s sex icon Uschi Obermaier as she flees the cramped life she led in smalltown Bavaria. As soon as Obermaier stands by the side of the road to hitch a ride, a colorfully decorated VW stops and whisks her off to a Berlin commune.

But 40 years later, it turns out families of choice don't work quite as well as expected. What dominates today is the opposite -- a desire to save whatever is left of one's family. So Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's film "Little Miss Sunshine" is very much in the spirit of the times: it shows members of a large but broken family growing together in a VW even as the vehicle itself gradually falls apart. It's only when they all have to get out and push that they realize how much they can achieve together.

Like no other vehicle, the VW van is a symbol of globalization. Globetrotters traveled the planet in it as early as the 1970s, narrating their experiences in weighty tomes. Today the VW seems suited only to time travel. Hawaii-born Eric T. Hansen rattled from one German medieval town to the next, sleeping on straw and living off bread soup as he followed the trail of the Nibelungen for his 2004 book "Driving Through the Dark Ages."

So it's no wonder van fans like to evoke its power to overcome space and time. "When we move into our trusty bus, even if only for a brief time, a different and independent reality comes to life for us .. a reality of movement, strange smells and new experiences," the authors of the classic 1970s German travel guide "Around the World in a VW Bus" write in praise of their vehicle of choice. "We've learned to love a sheet metal box."


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