VW Kombi: The end of a motoring era

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Media captionThe BBC's Wyre Davies says this is the end of the line for the Volkswagen Kombi

You can always hear a VW Kombi van coming before you can see it.

Beauty, in the case of the Kombi, really is in the eye of the beholder - or the driver.

With the unmistakable sound of its air-cooled engine, if the Kombi ever had the motoring equivalent of sex appeal in its youth, that allure has faded with old age.

Practically made for the streets and beaches of Brazil, thousands of beat-up old Kombis are still the modern-day version of the horse and cart.

Engines and chassis that should have been retired years ago keeping thousands of small businesses afloat.

I watched from the shade of a palm tree as beach vendor Paulo Enrique Veras emptied 90 beach chairs, 60 umbrellas, several sacks of coconuts and a volleyball net from the back of his vehicle on Rio's Ipanema beach.

"Without my Kombi, I'd be lost," he said. "I've been using it for years and there's nothing else that can really do the same job."

Mr Veras' old white Kombi, with its dented bodywork, might not be the sleekest thing on Ipanema, but it is very practical.

As soon as he has finished unloading for a tough day's graft on the beach, the Kombi rattles off down the seafront to pick up another load for another vendor.

Time warp

At Volkswagen Brazil's sprawling factory at Sao Bernardo, on the edge of Sao Paulo, visiting the Kombi production line is like stepping back in time.

Image caption Kombis are still largely built by hand

Elsewhere on the site, smaller and newer cars are largely built by robots in an increasingly high-tech operation.

The Kombi, somewhat reassuringly, is still largely built by hand.

The vehicle is pretty much based on the same model that was first built here in 1957, having been launched in Germany seven years earlier.

The rattling old air-cooled engine was replaced with a water-cooled version in 2005, and there have been some modifications to the vehicle's height and performance.

But overall, the box on wheels that used to take me and thousands of other children to school here in the 1970s has not changed much.

Final Kombi

And now it is all now coming to an end.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The last edition model is powder blue with a white trim

After more than 1.5 million vehicles, from camper vans to pick-up versions to cargo models, Volkswagen will no longer make the Kombi, here or anywhere else in the world.

Franck Sowade is the production manager at the Sao Bernardo VW factory. He says legislation has finally got the better of the company's most famous product.

"It was one of the very first cars to be developed by the company," he explains.

"But to add the airbags, abs braking system and emissions modification that legislation now require would be too expensive and time consuming."

Ageing hippies and surfers from California to Cornwall will bemoan the passing of an iconic vehicle that appealed to people who were not really meant to care about cars.

Clunky ride

While this is a purely commercial decision for VW, it is not without risk.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Kombis are the workhorses of Brazilian businesses

"We still sell more than 2,000 units a month," says Volkswagen's Marketing Manager Carlos Leite. He adds that the company is losing an icon while not really replacing it with anything new.

But not to miss an opportunity, Volkswagen is releasing a "last edition" model. For a few thousand extra dollars you get powder-blue paintwork and a trim evoking the 60s.

However fond those distant memories may be, the Volkswagen Kombi is not the smoothest car to drive.

It is clunky, pretty uncomfortable on long journeys, and it feels like a very basic vehicle.

But that was, perhaps, always part of the attraction.

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