Adios, Combi

Saturday, November 24, 2001

MEXICO CITY -- The era of peace and love really is over: the Volkswagen van that took a generation on long, strange trips is going out of production in Mexico at year's end.

Sales are scheduled to halt at the end of December. And in Brazil, the only other place where the boxy VW bus is still being made, union officials say they suspect Volkswagen is planning to end production soon as part of cost-cutting measures.

The van, known in Latin America as the Combi, was introduced in 1950. Distinctive because of its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, the van was last offered in 1982 in the United States as the Transporter.

It is being replaced in the VW lineup by the Eurovan, a more modern vehicle with a water-cooled front engine.

The demise of the old bus has saddened a lot of old hippies here, as Volkswagen conceded with full-page ads in Mexican newspapers that read "Adios, Combi" above a picture of a teary-eyed, aging flower-child in a tie-dye shirt.

"I think it's gonna be a big surprise for Volkswagen fans that they were still making them down there," said Ryan Price, editor of the magazine VW Trends. "In the same sentence, I think there will be some remorse.

"It's the end of an era. It came to symbolize a certain sense of freedom, as if they could go anywhere."

That was the basis of the bus' reputation in Latin America, which was a little different than in the United States, where it endures as a 1960s icon.

Multicolored paint jobs are uncommon here, and the vehicle is more prized for its sturdiness, seating capacity and high ground clearance -- a must for dirt roads and mountain villages.

Proof of the difference? In Brazil, one of the last big customers for the Combi is the army, which uses them to move personnel.

Volkswagen officially lists the Combi's capacity as "eight to 11 passengers." In some parts of Mexico, groaning microbuses are still used as buses, somehow carrying as many as 18 to 20 people, not always in strict adherence to safety rules.

Volkswagen said in a statement that the Eurovan would "offer the modernity, new technology and space that current customers demand."

The famous Volkswagen sedan -- the original Beetle, or "Bug" -- will continue to be produced at VW's Mexico plant. Green-painted Beetle taxis are as common in Mexico City as black cabs in Britain.

Brazil builds on

While Volkswagen officials in Brazil refuse to say when or if production of the Combi would end, unions there -- currently on strike at one VW plant to protest cost-cutting -- say the company is uninterested in keeping old production lines going.

For the last five years, production has been split, with Mexico manufacturing the Combi's engines and a Brazilian plant making the chassis. It is unclear where Brazil would get the motors to continue making the model.

"It's an absurd decision. I wish they wouldn't kill it," said Israel Gomez, 28, whose 1964 "panoramic" microbus -- which has 21 windows -- draws admiring glances on Mexico City streets. "It's made for road trips. It has great sight lines.

"I can't imagine Mexico without Combis," Gomez said. "It's a vehicle that's part of history here."

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