Classic vehicles go electric

Increasing numbers of owners of an historic VW Transporter also known as Bulli, Combi or Microbus dream of being able to drive a classic car emission-free with a modern electric drive system. With the new e-BULLI, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (VWCV) is now showing what such a classic vehicle of the future could look like. VWCV is thus linking this iconic vehicle with the allure of zero-emission driving. Volkswagen already had its first electric Transporter way back in 1972: it was based back then on the T2. The e-BULLI of 2020 is now based on the T1: a ‘Samba Bus’, produced in 1966, exported to Los Angeles and later brought back to Europe. It has now been rebuilt and fitted with a modern electric drive system. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles will be showing the e-BULLI to the public for the first time at this year’s Techno Classica in Essen (25 to 29 March).

In big cities like Paris or London it is becoming increasingly complicated and sometimes more expensive to drive a classic car due to restrictions. Across the board more people than ever before are wishing for classic or vintage vehicles with an electric motor. This is where Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is stepping in with the e-BULLI: a crossover made up of historic base vehicle and electric drive technology, designed to open a window into the classic models’ future.

The electric drive system in the ‘Samba Bus’ is based on the drive-train and battery technology from Volkswagen Group Components. It consists of original components from the latest Volkswagen electric vehicles. It is thus the most advanced development stage of zero-emission technology that is being used in the e-BULLI. In addition, the show car has been given a modern, safer chassis.

In parallel with the engineering side, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles Design developed an exterior and interior concept that is both avant-garde and stylish in cooperation with VWCV Oldtimer and the Communications department. The e-BULLI thus bridges the gap between the historic T2 electric van (1972-1979) and the future ID. BUZZ (due to launch in 2022). A fascinating symbiosis of tradition and modernity – in looks, engineering and handling.

Early sketches show what has been created at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ design centre: the e-BULLI is a high-tech classic vehicle for time travellers! The designers have modernised the exterior of the iconic vehicle with sensitivity and finesse. It is details such as the new round LED headlights, via which the transformation into the modern era is outwardly communicated. It is only when you look through the windows into the interior that you notice that a few things are not as you might assume them to be in a T1.

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ interior designers have re-imagined a lot of the interior, without, however, for a second losing sight of the original concept. The leather seats are one of the new features and the automatic gear lever positioned between driver and front passenger seat is completely new. Solid wood in the look of a ship’s deck is used for the floor. Combined with a large folding roof, this ‘Samba Bus’ of the modern era takes on an almost maritime character. Feeling nature silently gliding by is without doubt one of the best experiences when out on the road with the e-BULLI.

The cockpit too has been sensitively modernised. One feature here based on the original is the new speedometer, which now has LEDs to show the gear selected for the automatic transmission (P, R, N or D). There is a small but lovely detail in the centre of the speedometer: a stylised Bulli symbol. Via a tablet integrated into the roof console all sorts of different functions of the e-BULLI can be controlled and a host of information accessed.

One vehicle that has already updated is a vehicle used from April 1978 by the Berlin Municipal Transport Services, it is now part of VWCV Oldtimer’ collection. This Bulli is more than a vintage van, it is one of very few zero-emission classic vehicles anywhere in the world. It is a leap of 50 years. Back to a time when Volkswagen in Wolfsburg laid the still frail foundations for the electric mobility of the future: in 1970 the inventors of the Bulli and Beetle set up a development division in Wolfsburg that came up with the first electrically powered Volkswagen. Even back then the aim was already to tap into alternative sources of energy in order to become less dependent on fossil fuels and to glide along the city streets with zero emissions.

In 1972, the company showed a first prototype at the Hannover Trade Fair. A short time later, a short production run of VW’s electric van began. It was offered not only as a pick-up, but also as a minibus and a panel van and had a payload of 800 kg. And that despite the battery weighing 880 kg itself. One of the participants in the fleet trial was the City of Berlin. In the years that followed the city authorities purchased seven electric vans. One of them was a T2, produced in 1972 and licensed on 14 April 1978 to Berlin Municipal Transport Services, Drains Division. Emblazoned on the van was the slogan: “Electrically powered - Environmentally friendly”.

Indeed, Berlin approached the trial very thoroughly: in the Tiergarten district a battery changing station was set up, where the empty battery unit could be switched over inside five minutes for a fully charged one. That was able to be done because the rechargeable battery integrated under the cargo bed could be simply pushed out. Volkswagen developed the battery charging and switching technology in collaboration with Rhenish-Westphalian Electricity (RWE) and the then General Electric Street Vehicles Co. (GES).

As an alternative, it was also possible to charge the lead traction battery from Varta via an interface in the back of the Bulli. More than four decades ago the van from the future also already had an energy recovery system on board, via which kinetic energy was stored when the brakes were applied. The amount of power the battery could hold was 21.6 kWh, enough for the electric VW van to cover distances of up to 85 kilometres. Forward propulsion was provided by a direct current shunt-wound motor from Bosch (later Siemens). It achieved a steady output of 16 kW (22 PS) and could briefly peak at 32 kW (44 PS). The maximum torque was a powerful 160 Nm.

Electrically powered in this way, the van, which weighed 2,170 kg, could reach a top speed of 75 km/h, which was fast enough, as it was mostly used within the city. And it achieved more than that, too: the electric VW van was the nucleus that set off a process of development that drove generations of engineers to try to create a zero emissions Bulli for mass production. But for decades what was lacking for that was a truly practical battery technology. Today things are different. Already being offered by Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is the eCrafter, a large, modern era, zero-emissions van. And in 2022 the ID. BUZZ and ID. BUZZ Cargo will be taking off. 

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