DETROIT - Volkswagen AG, flush with the success of the New Beetle and the payoff from its gamble on nostalgia, is working hard to come up with a modern version of the '60s-era Microbus.
The automaker wants to accomplish with a new Microbus what it did so successfully with the New Beetle: wrap the spirit of the original vehicle in a thoroughly modern package.
'We have been trying to create a vehicle that resembles the Microbus as much as the New Beetle resembles the old one, because that would make sense on the emotional side,' said Jens Neumann, Volkswagen AG board member in charge of North American strategy. 'We have tried three times with studies.'
Unlike today's minivans, which have the engine in front, the Microbus had a nearly flat nose and had its engine in the rear. That is a barrier preventing Volkswagen from getting beyond the design stage.
'The downside of all of these studies came out pretty clearly - safety issues,' Neumann said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show.
'If you have a steep nose, then you always run into these safety issues. The safety regulations practically require you to have some sort of a nose, whether it's shaped this way or that way.'
NEW NOSE = NO NEWS
Get rid of the original design, and 'then the whole idea of the Microbus is gone,' Neumann said.
Design studies for a new Microbus too closely resemble Volkswagen's T5 - an internal code for the next-generation EuroVan, he said.
But Volkswagen will continue to try, he said, and the reason is clear: Nostalgia sells. The automaker sold 83,434 New Beetles in the United States in 1999, its first full year of production. Indeed, sales of the New Beetle ran second only to the Volkswagen Jetta sedan, which sold 130,054 units last year.
'You can't turn around physics,' Neumann said. 'And the looks, this retro feeling together with some futuristic design, can only be done if that nose is really flat.'
Volkswagen produced three generations of the Microbus, also known as the Type II, between 1950 and 1992. In its third generation it was called the Vanagon, but it remained true to the original in design. Sales peaked at 66,069 in 1970.
Bob Kissick, who has a Volkswagen franchise at Boardwalk Auto Center in Redwood City, Calif., says a new Microbus could become a popular niche vehicle. Young families would be attracted to the product, he said.
'Some of these parents probably remember being driven around in a Microbus as kids,' Kissick said. 'I can't see this being as popular as the New Beetle, but I think there is a definite market for it. It just has to be different than anything on the market.'
Kissick remembers selling the Microbus in the 1950s and 1960s.
'It was well built, extremely agile, very inexpensive, noisy - and there was nothing like it in town,' Kissick said.
It could carry up to eight people.
The Microbus was popular because of its unique look, its price and its versatility, said Jeff Williams, general manager of Williams Auto World, a multibrand dealership that carries Volkswagen in Lansing, Mich.
'Volkswagen really was the creator of the minivan with its Microbus,' Williams said. 'It was the hippie generation of the 1960s that really boosted the popularity of the vehicle.'