Cold Start: Here’s My Not-Really-Insider’s Auction Tip/Guess About VW Buses

Cs Vwbusbrasil

See that lovely Volkswagen pop-top Type 2 camper there? In a color that I believe is known as Revisionist Nostalgia Green? It’s amazing, right? It absolutely is. The interior was immaculate, the exterior just right, this thing looks like an ideal 1960s or 1970s VW camper, which means it became inaccessible to people who can’t poop Krugerrands for years now. But, this one has a bit of a secret: it’s a 1989 bus, a Brazilian model. And, from what I saw at the Mecum auction, the Brazilian ones don’t seem to go for the huge numbers we’ve sadly become used to for these. I’m not really sure why, but I can at least explain how to spot a Brazilian bus.

Cs Buscomp

The best way to tell if a (1975 and up) Bus is Brazilian is to look at the rear. If it has the long taillights of a 1972 and later US-spec bus and a Bay Window (as in, not split) front end along with traits from the pre-Bay Window buses (below the beltline engine air intakes on the sides, smaller windows with the corner windows, and hinged instead of sliding side doors) then it’s a Brazilian Type 2.

See, where in America and much of the world the bus changed significantly from 1967 (last Split Window year) to 1968 (first Bay Window year), in Brazil the Split Window design was built from 1959 to 1974, and 1975 had a sort of half-Bay Window change, with the front end matching the rest of the world but the rest only partially changed, with the differences shown in the pic up there, with the expected Bay Window style inset.

The result is a bus that has a lot of appealing early bus design traits (those rear corner windows!) with the more updated front end. I really like these Brazilian ones, and it allows a classic look with a much newer bus – case in point, that 1989 model above.

Mexican-built buses switched to a liquid-cooled engine in 1991, so those sprouted a radiator, and are easy to identify: Cs Mexibus

I say it seems the Brazilian buses aren’t commanding the same absurd prices as their German counterparts because I saw this bus go on the block:

Cs Brazilbus2

…which looks like a normal mid-’60s 21-window  bus, complete with plenty of desirable options like the opening front “safari” windshields, roof racks, and that great extra cyclopean light on the roof. This sort of thing has been selling for over $100,000 for a while now, but this one went for about half that, and as far as I can tell, it’s because it’s a Brazilian-built (pre-1975, though) one.

Based on this example and some idle chatter, it seems Brazilian buses aren’t going for as much, which I think makes them a hell of A Deal. Who cares if it’s Brazilian? These are fantastic, and it’s not like you’re really risking sacrificing reliability or anything.

So, there’s my tip, based on some limited observations and some talk. Use it at your own risk.

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55 Responses

  1. We had a 1964 – 21 window version my dad bought it new, when he found out my mom was having twins (me and my sister) and he would soon have a family of 5 kids, it was terrible. Living in NH we always had blankets in it for the winter days. Getting the bus to highway speeds was impossible with 7 of us in it, was always in the shop. We lived on a hill and he used to park it so he could roll it down the hill to jump start it. In 69 he bought a new Vista Cruiser wagon, he said the only one sorry to see the bus go was Ernie the mechanic. It sat in our garage for almost 2 years and we used it as a club house until someone finally bought it and rolled it a week later. He was amazed at the prices people are paying for them now and only wished kept it so he could’ve cashed in on it. He loved the Vista Cruiser and wished he kept that longer as well as those command high prices now. He said the Vista Cruiser was a reliable car that he felt safe driving his family in, the bus was none of those things.

  2. As a former owner of a 72 and 75 I feel qualified to nominate these as “The worlds most disappointing nostalgia ride”

    I can’t think of another vehicle where the gap between the imagined and actual ownership experience is larger.

    Unless all you plan on doing is put-putting to the farmers market on side streets, these are frustration-mobiles.

    1. Ehhh… Buses just aren’t for everybody, I guess. I’ve owned a bunch over the years, and have had my ’79 Westy for nearly 18 years now. It’s been all over hell, and remarkably reliable and steadfast that entire time. That said, bus ownership is a maintenance-heavy relationship that requires regular communion between pilot and vessel. If you’re not mechanically inclined and philosophically aligned, you’re going to have a bad time.

    2. Being old enough to have spent a lot of hours behind the wheel of an old VW van, and even more as a passenger (although I never actually owned the keys to one), I have to agree that these are much better when parked than on a road, any road, even without that fancy camper interior. These vans roar, they shake, and go (almost) nowhere. They are easily and literally blown off the road by passing semi’s. If you have ever tried to defrost the windshield in a VW Beetle, you can imagine futility of trying it in the van where the distance from the engine to the windshield is much, much farther. Same for heat. You will want a pair of warm boots for winter driving, ideally with steel toes for the added crash protection.

      You can’t listen to music in one because any stereo loud enough to hear over the noise requires too much power for the alternator to keep up.

      Gas mileage ain’t all that great either – *maybe* 20 mpg because you run the engine flat out, all the time.
      The only reason they were popular back in the day was that we were all tripping our brains out rather young and naive and knew no better.

      TL/DR – never actually drive your heros.

        1. Lol. They suck. I grew up in a 1964 stripper, learned to drive in a 1973 Westfalia. I spent the first 22 years of my life either being transported in, or driving Type II’s.
          The 64 couldn’t even go the highway speed limit, and we got passed by semis going across the mountains east of LA.
          The 73 was much better, but it went through 6 engines, the last one caught fire(Mechanics fault, not the car). It had front disk brakes, which was very rare then, and was it’s only real redeeming feature. At least we won most races with semis with this one. Also, it could go 80 with a tail wind, which was 20 mph faster than the 64 which could barely do 60 loaded up.
          I don’t even want to think how fast and hard you would die if you hit something, especially the 64 that was almost all bare exposed metal inside.
          Of course, tbf, cars in general sucked back then.

      1. Owned a ’68, a ’72 & a ’75. We’d take the whole family to our daughter’s winter swim meets an hour or so away — kids all bundled in snow suits and the driver swabbing the windshield with a towel. We’d start to feel heat just about the time we’d arrive, and repeat on the ride home.

        Our puchase of a new(!) ’89 Plymouth Voyager was a life-changing revelation!

    3. I had a ’74 Westy for about 10 years, and couldn’t agree more. Spent a lot of $ and many, many hours wrenching on it, and while I don’t regret any of it, getting rid of it was a huge relief. Every single camping trip with my growing family was preceded with about a week’s worth of checking things over and making sure it would make the trip reliably and safely.

      After I’d decided I just didnt have time for that anymore, I listed it on The Samba, got a call an hour later, and a guy flew out from California (I’m in Colorado) to buy it. What he paid for it bought me a brand new A-frame pop-up trailer to camp in plus about 80% of a kitchen remodel.

      I loved that bus and it’s a fun ‘club’ to belong to, but what the things go for now vs. what they actually offer, just leaves me shaking my head.

    4. My parents had a Type 2 Microbus that managed to avoid the problem of finding them underpowered – it was a relatively uncommon 1976 automatic 2 litre model that had been an outpatient ambulance in its first few years before we got it. 2 1/2 carburettors (one per bank and a weird cold start enrichment device mounted in a crossover pipe between the 2 banks) and a surprisingly decent power output, when running through the auto box it would launch surprisingly hard at a green light, certainly faster than anyone in the lanes beside you would expect.

  3. Well, the beige one probably isn’t worth as much as an original 21 window because those models were never really made or offered in the BRDM (Brazilian market) – it’s a conversion. I also heard from collectors that since brazilian buses were used really hard, and the rust fixes along the vehicle’s life cycle were made just to keep them running, their undercarrieges aren’t so well kept, so that was one of the reasons they didn’t command the highest prices, although I´m not sure I buy this argument.
    It´s also worth mentioning that in 1997 the Brazilian buses (VW Kombi) got the sliding door and higher vents, losing the corner window, also getting the higher roof in the same year, and lost the air cooled engines in 2005, which meant they also had to have the ungainly radiator upfront.

  4. Ah, I wondered what that combination of baywindow & splittie characteristics was!

    There’s one that lives in North Seattle. I figured it for a bastardization by someone with decent bodywork skills & a mishmash of carcasses to work with.

  5. I get it. I’m not sure if the Brazilian ones are actually worse or not, but I can see why the German ones sell for more. I wouldn’t make fun of or think less of a person that chooses to take advantage of that; smart to me. But again, I can see why German ones would go for more.

    If I’m buying a Ferrari, I want it built by a bunch of Italians. But, since Ray Ban moved production from the USA to Italy, they lost a piece of their appeal to me. When an item is so bathed in the culture it originally stemmed from, it picks up some indescribable trait when it’s actually built there, that can’t be recreated when it’s built elsewhere. See, it’s not a dig against where it’s made, it’s more of what’s lost compared to the “original”. It’s some unidentifiable trait that can’t really be measured, seen, or touched.

    1. “it’s more of what’s lost compared to the “original”. It’s some unidentifiable trait that can’t really be measured, seen, or touched.”

      You know what I call such traits? “Imaginary.” My 1970 Mercury Cougar is one of fewer than 2,000 XR-7 convertibles made that year. The VIN indicates that it originally came with an H-code 2-barrel 351 cubic inch engine… but that H code does not differentiate between a 2-barrel 351 Cleveland and a 2-barrel 351 Windsor, even though they are very different engines with no interchangeable parts. I happen to know that the engine in my car is not original. I pulled the original Cleveland mostly because of parts availability and lack of wide aftermarket support, and replaced it with a Windsor that also came from a ’70 Cougar. Unless someone found some obscure paperwork from Dearborn that indicated otherwise, nobody would ever be able to tell that it’s not the original engine; all date codes and VIN information would support its imagined originality. But *I* know the truth, having performed the swap myself, and if I told a potential buyer, it might materially affect the sale cost, if they were more in love with the concept of an undisturbed original engine than they were the idea of being able to easily convert the car to EFI or adding a supercharger or whatever. The car has been made *potentially* better (both H-code engines were factory rated for 250hp, so the swap is more or less a wash in terms of performance) if one wanted to add power-adders in the future, but it has lost originality, even though nobody can really tell. So that lost quality is pretty much imaginary if even someone who worked on the Dearborn factory line in Fall 1969 can’t tell that my car has the “wrong” engine in it.

      We all love cars for a million subjective reasons, few of which make any logical sense, but those truly nebulous qualities like factory origin (if it doesn’t materially affect build quality or parts longevity) don’t matter at all to me.

      1. Ford did that with the 351C/M and 351W as late as the mid ’70s Gran Torinos. Never got into trouble for it like GM did with painting Chevy 350s Rocket Gold and putting them in Cutlasses at around the same time. But the only way to get the engine you wanted, even buying new, was to know the external differences between the Cleveland and Windsor blocks, buy off the lot and get the salesman to pop hoods.

  6. interesting detail notes. I had a 1978 bay window Westy in green. When I saw the pic, but before reading anything…I just knew something was off. shade of green was wrong, color of the pop-top canvas was wrong, interior was laid-out weird and had a different shade of wood grain (although they used several over time). But I didn’t even notice the exterior differences. As always, educational!

  7. Okay, so coming from someone who’s been deeply ensconced in the T2 world for nearly 20 years, Brazilian buses have become a point of contention for a few reasons.

    First, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Brazilian buses in their own right (and yes, some of the weird mashup configurations are pretty neat!), a number of shady importers/dealers have started trying to foist them upon unsuspecting buyers as “just same as a German bus.” Anyone familiar with Wolfsburg or Hannover buses who’s inspected even a really nice Brazilian example up close will attest that this is objectively not the case. The stampings, welding, and overall assembly quality are markedly lower quality than a German original.

    Next, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread, Brazilian buses tended to live very hard lives. They’ve spent the last four or five decades being flogged up and down rutted out jungle paths and cobblestone streets loaded down with God knows what, and bodged together by any means necessary to keep them in service. Now that demand has risen to sufficient levels, they’re being “restored” with more shoddy welding, pop rivets, and a generous slathering of poorly-prepped body filler and shipped off to the States.

    Finally, as I mentioned initially, these buses are coming ashore in the hands of a number of opportunist “importers” who would have you believe that a shiny Brazilian bus with a hacked-in 23-window Samba conversion is worth original German money (or at least close to it). Pay no attention to the wavy body panels, missing belly pans, odd shut lines, cobbled-in door hinges, etc. In fact, the two-tone “Samba” pictured above is an excellent illustration of this — No respectable restoration shop would turn out a 23-window looking that lumpy.

    All of this is to say that Brazilian buses are totally fine for what they are, and what they are is decidedly less desirable than a German bus. If you’re comfortable with the potential pitfalls and can find one for a price commensurate with the facts, then a Brazilian might be for you. Caveat emptor.

    1. Good analysis, but just a friendly reminder that Brazilians don’t live in jungles since 1500 ad. In fact, we’re kind of bummed when foreigners imply that we do, and it happens really, really often.

      1. I have part of my family in Diadema and spent quite some time there. Uptown Sao Paulo IS a jungle! Not a literal one, but still 🙂

        My uncle had a Combi for his business and I loved the bugger, quality be damned.

        1. Well, the quality was not an issue when we had nothing to compare it against. This was, in fact, how they got away with it, the Kombi was the first(ish) car built in Brazilian assembly lines, so it is not like we had better standards to hold them against…

    1. When I was a kid, all the Westies were green or orange. The green was much uglier than the color on that van. My father called it goose-shit green.

      Oddly enough, BMW seems to have had the same paint supplier as a lot of early 2002s came in the same green and orange.

  8. Not a bus guy, but good friends with a number of SERIOUS bus people – including a former barn-door owner and current split-window owners. Hours of conversation about this general topic have pretty much boiled down to this:
    There is a certain definition of automotive fun that looks like: cheap+simple>inconvenience. If it is cheap enough, and simple enough the inconvenience is either offset by those two, or even becomes part of the fun. Old Vespas were this way for a while. I suspect a lot of the cars Torch loves (and some of which I love) fall into this definition. But VW buses were almost the archetype. Sure they were slow and required a TON of maintenance. But the fact that they are simple to work on, and were (once upon a time) cheap ways to go camping, travel while living out of your ride, move a ton of stuff/people, join a community of like-mindeds, smoke whatever in the comfort of your van, etc., etc. meant that the slowness and maintenance just became inseparable from their charm. As soon as you remove the “cheap” from the equation, however, inconvenience dominates. Riding a cheap Vespa GS on California Highway 1 is a lark. Riding an immaculately restored Vespa GS that you paid $8K for is a pain in the ass and a hazard. And I am sure there is a component of age that goes with this as well. As soon as you are paying six figures for a Samba, or $8k for the Vespa, you are likely at a stage of life where you are trying to recover something from an earlier time of life – a time of life when you were likely far more tolerant of inconvenience and maintenance. My bus friends almost all still have one or two buses that are grail for them, but often because of the memories and experiences they had from before when they were cheap and simple – thus fun. And almost to a one, they don’t do a lot of the same adventures in their beloved buses because 1. they are less tolerant of inconvenience, 2. they have gotten interested in other stuff that offers the cheap+simple=fun, and 3 they are FED UP with people walking up to them and their bus and either asking how much it is worth, or giving them a low-ball offer in hopes of catching them unawares and flipping their bus.

  9. I have owned over the years about 8 VW busses. I still wish I had my first one, a ’64 sunfoor deluxe, even though top speed was only 54 MPH, but it was utterly reliable. Sold it for our honeymoon bus.
    Our honeymoon was spent in a ’76 ASI camper bus and we put 20k miles on it in 8 months. Wish we still had that one too, but after rolling it 1 1/4 times in a blizzard, thawing it out, putting a tire back on the rim and driving it 1000 miles home to be totalled by the insurance company, not feasible.
    Our replacement ’80 Vanagon Westfalia we had for 14 years and at about 300k miles finally sold it. I daily drove that one from about 3000 feet to the the Sacramento valley, in the heat. Kinda used up that bus.
    Anyway, no real point, but some VW busses are reliable and I would still like to have one.

  10. First vehicle I ever owned was a ‘72 Westfalia. Didn’t think to test-drive it up the mountain I lived on, so I did my first engine swap 2weeks later. What came out was a cute little single-port, apparently a vintage 1300. The dual-port I put in at least allowed me to maintain 2nd gear up the mountain

    A drunk hit&ran it a couple years later revealing exactly how much rust it really had: it became origami.

  11. I worked for an auto place that once bought a whole remade split window body out of Cambodia or Thailand or somewhere- it was cheap and badly made but the client was really happy- it was a 23 window and used inside a restaurant and then when it shut down was sold on- I suspect there was a vin swap on it after we sold it

  12. I remember reading about a company in California that was trying to make a go of importing restored-in-Brazil versions of these and reselling them. The quality appeared to be great, but because the buses were made-in-Brazil, the company was only able to get around 35K for one, for a profit of about 4 to 5K for no small amount of hassle.

    As fun as it would be to have one of these, I’d much rather import a Brasilia, SP2, or one of those bonkers Ford F-1000 2-door van-pickup outfits if I were actually to go to the trouble of doing such.

  13. Car Talk guys (Tom and Ray Magliozzi) used to talk about how unsafe these buses were.
    They’d say something like “yeah, they had front airbags. The driver’s lungs.”

    Cars are way safer today in every measurable way.

  14. You are dead on with this. I had a 1972 Westfalia camper and it was great. I would have been fine if it had been built in Mexico or Brazil. Same stuff, different factory. People have been swapping VINs on Mexican bugs for ages. Drive down old and drive back up with newer…

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