Parkers Guide to the Volkswagen Transporter

  • Best-selling van of all time
  • Five generation over 65 years
  • T6 earmarked for 2016

Also read: Parkers Guide to the Ford Transit

With almost 12 million examples produced worldwide, the Volkswagen Transporter is not only the best-selling van of all time; it also narrowly misses out on the Top 10 most popular cars of all time.

Such a feat isn’t achieve through good fortune, Volkswagen has achieved this accolade by using the same fundamental principles from Day One; affordability, reliability and productivity. In this short article, we look back at the history of this iconic vehicle.


The first generation Transporter, also known as the Type 2 or (confusingly) the T1, was developed in the late-forties by a Volkswagen importer from the Netherlands, called Ben Pon. Pon, backed by the Volkswagen board, was very innovative during the design stage, and used a wind tunnel at a local university to make the new van more streamline and help operators keep their running costs down.

He used a ladder chassis, rather than the traditional monocoque design of the time, to help improve the payload to 750kg and positioned the drive in front of the front axle to free up more load space and reduce the turning circle.

Volkswagen Transporter T1

Volkswagen Transporter T1

Originally, only a panel van and kombi were available, although this was shortly followed by an ambulance (1950), a minibus (1951) and a pickup (1952). By 1953, the Transporter had gone into production in Brazil to reduce the lead times for customers in South America.

The popularity of the product caught Volkswagen by surprise, and by the time the 100,000th Transporter had been manufactured four years later, the company had started construction of an all-new factory in Hanover.

Within two years, the new, dedicated factory at Hanover was also at full capacity but the backlog of orders continued to build higher and led to additional factories and assembly lines in South Africa (1956), Kassel, Germany (1957), Australia (1959), Mexico (1964), Emden, Germany (1964).

By 1964, well over 1,000,000 Transporters had been manufactured and Volkswagen had the largest private sea fleet in the world, with more than 80 ships for transporting vehicles.

Volkswagen Transporter T2

Volkswagen Transporter T2

In 1967, the all-new Transporter, named the T2, was launched but Volkswagen didn’t change much as the T1 was still selling well. The new model retained the same wheelbase, height, width and overall design, although it was considerably (300mm) longer and heavier (500kg).

They were also a number of key component changes. The divide was removed in the split windscreen to increase visibility and productivity was improved with a greater payload of up to 900kg, a much wider tailgate and the option of a side loading door.

However, the most important change for many was the ride and handling. The replacement of the swing axle rear suspension and transfer boxes with double jointed semi-trailing arm axles fitted with constant velocity joints greatly improved the driving characteristics and a more power 1.6-litre (47bhp) increased the top speed to 110mph.

The 3,000,000 milestone is reached by 1971, and work begins on additional plants in Brazil, Argentina and Yugoslavia. This model of Transporter continued to be manufactured in Brazil until 2013.

Volkswagen Transporter T3

Volkswagen Transporter T3

The 1979 Transporter, or T3, was a complete transformation in terms of style, size, handling, and productivity. Volkswagen was facing increasingly stiff competition in the sector, particularly from the Ford Transit, and the designers and engineers of the next generation Transporter had to step up to the mark.

Sales of the T3 were lethargic to start with, with the much heavier model retaining the humble, air-cooled engines of the previous generation. Despite being widely viewed as underpowered, the wider body catered for three seats in the cab and a larger load volume, and payload was now up to 995kg.

The early 80’s witnessed a number of manufacturers up their van game, with Renault launching the Trafic, Mercedes-Benz launching the MB100, and Peugeot with the J9. This prompted Volkswagen to introduce two, more power water-cooled engines and two diesel engines, and sales of the T3 quickly picked up.

The early-eighties saw continued global expansion, and the Transporter was sold in 180 different markets by 1985, and the following year saw the 6,000,000th Volkswagen Transporter roll off the Hanover line.

Volkswagen Transporter T4

Volkswagen Transporter T4

After just eleven years, production of the T3 was relocated to Austria to make way for the new T4. The T4 was the first VW van to feature front mounted, water cooled engines, which allowed for greater power, payload and load volume.

The two wheelbases offered customers more versatility, along with the tailgate option and a second side loading door, while the double wishbone suspension allowed for a greater ride. A 1.9 diesel engine was available from the start for the first time, and by 1995, the first turbo-diesel was available.

Volkswagen Transporter T5

Volkswagen Transporter T5

By the time of the T5 launch in 2003, the number of manufacturers vying for their share of the European medium panel van market has increased to at least ten. Manufacturers who traditionally ‘dabbled’ in with vans with outdated products, and those who had never competed, were now joining forces to offer very capable products at competitive prices.

The T5 increased its versatility yet again, with the number of variants increasing to well over 100. There are three load lengths and three roof height, but since 2009, the only engine available has been Volkswagen’s renowned 2-litre diesel, available in either single or twin turbo format.  

Today, the T5 is the oldest van in its segment but remains firm favourite amongst owner-drivers, famous for its build quality, relatability, ride and comfort. The successor to the T5, the T6, has been earmarked for next year. Click here to browse all the latest offers on Volkswagen’s iconic van.

Volkswagen Transporter T6

Volkswagen Transporter T6

Launched in 2015, the Volkswagen Transporter T6 shared many of the same underpinnings as the previous generation. Payload and load volumes remained relatively untouched (two wheelbases, three roof heights), and the difference in looks and styling are minimal.

Big improvements, however, were made with regard to safety, driver comfort and running costs. The 2-litre TDi unit was offered in the same power ratings as the previous generation, but modifications meant it could now achieve a combined fuel economy of up to 42.2mpg.

The Volkswagen Transporter T6 continues to be one of the most expensive vans on the market, but high build quality and high residual values mean that it will remain at the top of every medium van buyers’ wish list.

Read the Volkswagen Transporter T6 review.