October 2, 2022


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Why all the buzz? Volkswagen already built an electric Kombi 50 years ago


While the world is abuzz waiting for the arrival of the all-new Volkswagen ID.Buzz, the brand’s modern take on its iconic ‘Kombi’, it’s worth remembering this isn’t exactly new territory for the German carmaker.

In 1972 Volkswagen lifted the veil on an electric prototype of its popular T2 ‘Kombi’. The brainchild of then Head of the Future Research Department, Adolf Karlberlah, the first electric Kombi – officially called T2 Elektro Transporter – featured a 21.6kWh lead-acid battery providing about 85km of range.

The project was a joint development between Volkswagen, Bosch, battery manufacturer Varta and German energy supplier RWE.

A single DC motor fitted at the rear of what started life as a regular T2 Transporter was good for 16kW. Top speed was around 70km/h. Not exactly Tesla levels of performance then, especially considering the battery alone at 850kg, weighed more than a contemporary Volkswagen Beetle.

All up the T2 Elektro Transporter tipped the scales at 2.2 tons. Yikes. Recharging that hefty battery took about five minutes! Sounds impossible, right? Not so.

Thanks to the 1972 electric ‘Kombi’ being based on the regular Volkswagen T2 platform, the only place the battery could live was on the loading floor. And that meant it could be easily removed and replaced, prompting Volkswagen to conduct a trial in 1978.

A fleet of seven electric T2s plied their trade in Berlin, with a charging station located in Tiergarten. Once there, it took engineers just five minutes to remove the depleted battery and replace it with a fully charged one, sending the juiced-up Kombi back on its way. With no rapid chargers at the time, the battery would have taken around 10 hours to recharge using a regular household socket.

It’s a far cry from today’s charging infrastructure where the ID.Buzz’s maximum 170kW charging capacity will replenish the battery from five to 80 per cent in around 30 minutes.

And while modern electric vehicles benefit from energy regeneration under braking and coasting, it’s not exactly new technology.

Volkswagen fitted the electric T2 with an energy recovery system which harnessed the kinetic energy generated under brakes and used it to add some charge to 21.6kWh battery. It was ground-breaking stuff for the time.

Nowadays, of course, energy regeneration is commonplace and according to Volkswagen, can add as much as 20 to 30 per cent driving range under optimal conditions.

The T2 Elektro Transporter, not content with being a future mobility testbed in the 1970s, actually went into limited production. Volkswagen built around 120 Transporters with various body styles over a period of several years and sold them to the public with the rather catchy “Zero litres per 100 kilometres!” advertising slogan.

It was followed in 1976 by the Elektro Golf, limited to a few test vehicles and featuring a DC motor fed by lead-acid battery that could be recharged via a regular household plug in around d 12 hours.

As a proof of concept, it worked. In 1981, Volkswagen, in conjunction with GES (Gesellschaft für elektrischen Straßenverkehr) or the Electric Road Transport Corporation, built around 25 of the Golf 1 CitySTROMer used primarily by employees of German energy provider RWE. It’s widely regarded as one of the first electric cars suitable for everyday use, despite its limiting 60km range.

The Volkswagen ID.Buzz is set to go on sale in Europe later this year. Volkswagen Australia has previously stated the modern-day Kombi remains on its “wish list”.

Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.

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