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Finding The 'Holy Grail' Of Volkswagen Microbuses

VW's 'hippie' buses are more than just cult classics. They're also valuable collectors items, especially the luxury Samba model, with its special roof windows and two-tone paint job.

A collector's dream
A collector's dream
Felix Reek

BERLIN — The old VW Microbus isn't much to look at these days. The entire underbody has been eaten away over the years by rust, and one of its doors looks like it was attacked by mice who mistook the metal for cheese. The hubcaps and gas pedal are ruined too. The seat covers are torn apart, and the engine, needless to say, doesn't run anymore.

Most people looking at this hunk of junk would assume it belongs in a scrap metal yard. And yet, for Lucas Kohlruss, who was able to sell it a few weeks ago to a new owner — and for a tidy sum — this rare Samba T1 model Microbus is "the Holy Grail."

Kohlruss would know. He owns eight of the old buses, which also go by the name Transporter or, in German, Bulli. His vehicles appear in commercials, on television, in movies, and he manages them through his company, called Old Bulli Berlin. He also does city tours and bachelor parties in the German capital.

In addition, the entrepreneur is always on the lookout to buy (and sell) other classic Volkswagen buses and Beetles. He mostly finds them in United States, where the climate is milder. In Germany, harsh winters and salted roads can be tough on vintage cars.

Most people assume it belongs in a scrap metal yard.

Imagine Kohlruss's surprise, then, when he got a phone call about an original Samba T1 — built in 1965, with the characteristic 21 windows — located not just in Europe, but in its country of origin. The caller explained that the old Samba had been parked for over 30 years in a barn near Hanover. The vehicle had been wrapped in paper, and had fewer than 25,000 kilometers on the odometer. It even had its last registration sticker, from February 1987.

This, Kohlruss realized, really was Holy Grail.

A dream come true

The news quickly made the rounds. "Within two days, the whole Bulli scene knew that this car existed," explains Kohlruss.

Volkswagen's first generation of Microbuses, manufactured between 1950 and 1967, have increased in value more in recent years than any other classic car. Well-preserved vehicles can cost up to 50,000 euros. A Samba — a special luxury version Microbus that debuted in 1951 — can go for higher still.

The Samba, or Sunroof Deluxe, as it's known in the United States, differs from the standard T1 due to its two-tone paint finish, chrome-plated hubcaps, folding sunroof and small windows along the roof edge. The vehicles are so rare and sought after that some unscrupulous car sellers have made imaginative forgeries.

Photo: Voogd075

"They saw off the roof of a traditional Microbus, put windows in and sell it for twice the price," Kohlruss explains.

As a result, there are now more Sambas on the market than were originally built. And so, if one of the rare originals turns up, collectors will shell out 100,000 euros and more for it. And that doesn't even include the cost of restoration.

The new owner of the Samba from Hanover, a certain Martin Dreher, didn't have to pay nearly that much. Kohlruss says only that he sold it for a "high five-figure amount." He also says that the Samba had four previous owners. It was first bought in Braunschweig and spent most of its active life in Lower Saxony. The last owner parked the VW bus in a barn and eventually gave it to his nephew, who remembered it only when he needed money to build a house.

Collectors will shell out 100,000 euros and more for it.

For Dreher, an ambulance driver whose father worked for VW for 25 years, it was a real stroke of luck. "I've had a passion for Bullis since I was a child," he says. This, after all, is the vehicle that shaped entire generations and subcultures: Hippies, surfers, musicians, the anti-nuclear movement, they all drove Bullis. And the car was always loved for its versatility and unpretentious appearance.

Dreher is still looking for a garage capable of restoring his Samba. The car will be completely disassembled, prepared and reassembled using as many original parts as possible. The restoration will take at least a year and push the total cost of the vehicle into six-figure territory. Once it's done, though, Dreher's Samba will be as good as new — no different than when it first rolled off the assembly line in 1965.

Unlike the Microbus's last owner, Dreher won't let the vintage vehicle rot away for decades in a drafty barn. "Of course I want to drive the car," he says. "But only in good weather." This Samba, at least, is way too valuable to risk another rust attack.

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