The most collectable Volkswagen Kombis were built between 1950 and 1967, and these are nowadays known as split-window versions. They came in a number of guises, such as buses with varying numbers of windows, panel vans, and pick-ups. Officially, within Volkswagen manufacturing circles, they were known as the Type 2 Volkswagens, because this was the second “type” of Volkswagen, designed and built in Germany, and later in other parts of the world. The Type 1 Volkswagen, of course, was the Beetle, which has a history going back to the late 1930s. And the Type 3 is what we know as the VW 1500 (later 1600) of the 1960s, that came in notch back, square back Variant and fastback styles.

Nowadays, if you refer to the 1958 Kombi photographed and shown here in a Man Cave somewhere on the East Rand – the owner is not particularly keen on publicity – and you are well-up on classic VW inner-circle jargon, you might well call this a German bus. This is to differentiate it from other VW Type 2s that came to be assembled in numerous parts of the world. For instance, many of the split-window buses and vans we see in South Africa at old car meetings, and occasionally undertaking a road trip to some landscape far from the city, are the so-called Fleetline Kombis, a slight-redesign of the Type 2 that had its origins in Brazil. The Fleetlines were built here in the 1970s to fill a need for a lower cost Kombi, after the launch of the more-sophisticated and expensive bay window Kombis were launched here in 1968, to replace the original Kombi.

The final bit of confusion to be cleared up is that while the Kombi was launched in Germany in 1950, the majority of so-called German split-window Kombis that still survive here, were in fact assembled in Uitenhage by Volkswagen South Africa from 1955 to 1967. So, they are thoroughly South African versions, being right-hand-drive, and as time went on the Kombis, like all other cars in the late 1950s and 1960s gained more and more local content. The first Volkswagen sedans (Beetles) to be assembled in South Africa rolled off the Uitenhage production line in 1951.

With that pre-amble out of the way, this particular 63-year-old SA-built “splitty” re-emerged on South African soil a couple of years ago, having spent much of its life in Zimbabwe. According to Wynand Strydom of Generation Old School of Benoni, who managed the restoration project, it arrived here in a sorry state.

It was in effect just a shell on wheels. It had front wheels and suspension, and a gearbox and rear suspension, but that was about it. Even the steering column, the seats, everything had gone missing, so we had to set about finding all that stuff for our client. The floor pan had been replaced and was in good shape, but that was about all.

We sourced a lot of our second-hand parts from east Coast Classic in South Broom, KZN, run by a chap called Oliver Broom. I think his name and the fact that he operates from South Broom is purely co-incidental.  A lot of the newer parts came from Volkspares in Jet Park.

Being a 1958 model VW, it was originally fitted with the 1 192cc flat-four air-cooled motor used in the Beetle at that time. It was only in 1963 that the Kombi was upgraded to 1500 cc, and that was a good thing, because, man, they were slow!

Generation Old School, Benoni, does any kind of re-build on pretty much any kind of old car. In a recent issue we featured the restoration this company did on the ultra-rare Toyota 2000 GT, on behalf of Toyota South Africa. The brief on this particular Kombi was to keep it as original as possible in most visual aspects. But definitely to give it a performance and handling upgrade.

Instead of trying to source a wheezy old 22 kW 1200 motor, Strydom and his team ended up fitting a 1600 single-port Beetle motor, rated at around 37 kW, a huge improvement on the original. The motor is reconditioned and also runs a free-breathing four-into-two exhaust system, which liberates a fair degree of power on these old VW flat-four motors. At the same time Strydom sourced and fitted a SFSA 1600 gearbox, which gives it much longer legs than the original. However, the original reduction gears used on the old split window Kombis are still used in the back axles.

The bodywork was so bad that when Strydom delivered the shell to Dino’s Auto Body in Germiston for restoration, it was feared that it was a no-go, because the roof had rusted so badly in the gutter area. The solution here was to cut off the old roof and find a second-hand roof, which obviously took some doing. This roof was then fitted to the original 1958 split-window shell, which incidentally is known as an 11-window model.

The restoration on the bodywork alone took about 13 months to complete,” says Wynand, “and we had to source just about everything. We managed to get original seat frames, which were repaired and repainted, and then recovered in leather.  While we were thinking about upholstery, we went for a carpeted interior, using a recreation of the German course-weave carpeting as originally used in some Volkswagen sedans. Originally this Kombi would have had rubber mats, but the carpets look so cool, which was the main idea.

Looking cool but sticking to a strict formula of originality and subtle custom detailing. That was the idea throughout. Fans of old Kombis will note that the bumpers front and rear have been chromed (Kombis always had white-painted bumpers), and that the hubcaps have a nipple design, which is also a resto-mod detail popular amongst VW freaks today. The taillights are of the original round design but feature non-domed lenses and a flat mounting rim that also looks cool.

In fact the coolest aspect of this Kombi, as far as being midly customed, may well be that its ride-height has been lowered by about 60 mm all round. Together with the fact that it runs old-school 15-inch wheels and caps and subtle white-wall tyres gives it that classic look that is so desired.

Many would argue that its paint colour scheme is its finest feature. It’s an original Volkswagen green colour used on early split-window Beetles (the cars had the split in the rear window; Kombi splitties have the split in the windscreen). The white roof and white detailing on the wheels is easy on the eye, and the fact that the main body colour is a pastel shade adds to its air of 1950s originality. The paint used to achieve this brilliant finish was PPG.

While Wynand installed an original Kombi steering column and indicator stalk, when it came to the steering wheel, he was battling to find an original one and ended up fitting a slightly smaller wheel sourced from an Alfa 1500 Sprint from the late 1970s. The splines just happened to match, but the owner also liked the slight sportiness of the polished alloy spokes, and the fact it is now leather covered. Die-hard Kombi fans (like the writer) would argue that nothing beat the relaxed slouch you adapted driving an old Kombi with a massive steering wheel mounted nearly in the horizontal plane!

We went for the 1600 single-port engine because in appearance it looks much closer to the original than the later twin port engines, with their more complex inlet manifold.  And with the new gearbox we are extremely happy with the way the bus runs. You can cruise at 120 km/h no problem, whereas 90 to 95 km/h was about the maximum with the old 1200 motor and short final drive.” The engine is stock but runs some mild custom items like an aftermarket crank pulley, and a pancake airfilter.

As a final custom touch Wynand fitted some recreations of the old flip-up Safari windows for the windscreen area. These are reproductions but perfectly mimic this special option fitted in period to Kombis like these in the 1950s. They are great source of extra fresh air in an original Kombi, which never came with air-conditioning! New flip-out side windows, with smart polished metal frame were also specified.

Other touches that Wynand is proud of include a hidden radio with hidden speakers, because, like he says, you can’t go on a Kombi road trip without sound. Generation Old School also fitted lots of sound deadening in the interior, which has given this Type 2 an usually plush, silent ride. Close the doors on this baby and there is a classy, muffled “thunk”, not the usual tinny sound you’d expect.

The finish on this 1958 split-window Kombi is superb from any angle, and a tribute to Dino’s Auto Body and also to the fitment work done by Wynand and his crew.

Kombis are not for everyone, because you have to be in the mood to go somewhere (or nowhere) very slowly, even with a 1600 cc engine! But the general public love them, and everyone who rides in them loves them too, because they offer such a different experience, with an elevated ride height and space for nine people!

To pass a Kombi on the road nowadays, you glance across and you envy the occupants. Because whether they are cruising in a quite suburb or pottering along sedately on some country back road, you just know those guys in there are having FUN!

By Stuart Johnston, pics by Jay Groat

Published in January 2023 edition of Automotive Refinisher.