In these tough times, let me put a VW eBulli smile on your face!
While hardly a money-no-object exercise, writes Iain Robertson, sourcing a clean, original VW campervan, notably of the rare 20-window type, and then converting it from flat-four to all-electric engineering, is a task governed as much by love, as it is by business wisdom!
Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has created the e-Bulli, an all-electric vehicle that produces a notional zero on-road emissions. Freshly equipped with VW’s I.D.3 drive system, it is based on a T1 Samba Bus produced in 1966 but restored comprehensively. As a publicity generating machine, not just for VW’s broader entry to the EV car scene but also its future in the light van market, the Samba Bus, known more affectionately as ‘Bulli’, has received the ‘e-treatment’.
The Samba had spent half a century on the roads of California, which meant it was tired but dry and almost rot-free. Powered originally by a 1.5-litre, 41bhp ‘boxer’ engine, as fitted to millions of original VW Beetles, the oily old rattler has been replaced by a clean 80bhp VW electric power unit that develops twice the torque. Of course, the ancient van’s substructure needed to be strengthened somewhat, to cope with the extra urge and to accommodate the new drivetrain.
Mind you, with the horizontally-opposed engine, famous for its low-revving punches, having been replaced by a quiet electric ‘engine’, still in the same place, beneath the rear of the body, a new transmission was also needed. The single-speed gearbox (it does not need any more gears!) is operated by an ‘automatic’ selector sited between the pair of front seats. It has a fairly traditional ‘P, R, N, D and B’ layout, with ‘B’ allowing the driver to vary the amount of brake energy recovery, which is not a feature of the original van.
In terms of performance, e-Bulli can reach an electronically restricted top speed of 80mph; the original would barely top 65mph. Located beneath eBulli’s floor, a 45kWh lithium-ion battery is responsible for supplying the electric motor with its power. Customised for the e-Bulli by eClassics, a Renningen-based EV converter, a power electronics system in the back of the vehicle controls the high-voltage energy flow between the electric motor and the battery and, in the process, converts the stored direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC). In addition, the on-board electronics are supplied with 12 volts via a so-called DC/DC converter. Charging to 80% power in 40 minutes is feasible at fast-charging points and the combined charging system can be carried out using either alternating, or direct current. Its projected maximum range is around 125-miles.
Unsurprisingly, a new chassis has enhanced comfort and safety, while providing more dynamic handling capabilities. Multi-link front and rear axles, with adjustable dampers and coil-over suspension struts, plus a completely new rack-and-pinion steering system and four internally ventilated disc brakes, contribute heavily to the eBulli’s vastly improved poise and stability.
Both exterior and interior designs were created for the van that manage to be stylish and avant-garde. The new look was developed by the VW Commercial Vehicles design centre, working closely with the firm’s vintage vehicles and communications departments at Wolfsburg. The designers modernised the exterior with great sensitivity and finesse, including giving it a two-tone paint finish in ‘Energetic Orange Metallic’ and ‘Golden Sand Metallic Matte’. New round LED headlamps, with daytime running lights signature, modernise the frontal elevation. At the rear, there is also a bank of LED charge indicators, which are visible to the approaching driver.
eBulli’s eight-seat interior is re-imagined comprehensively, all without losing a vital design link to the original van. The seating, finished in both ‘Saint Tropez’ and ‘Saffrano Orange’ leather, has been restructured for slightly more comfort, while every customiser’s dream of a wooden ship’s deck for its floor, enhanced by a massive, panoramic folding roof, gifts a beach-wise appeal.
The new speedometer, complete with ‘Bulli’ logo, is based on the original, while an integrated two-digit display creates a link to the modern era. It provides the driver with a mix of information, including range. LEDs indicate whether the parking brake is on, or the charging connector is plugged in. Further information is shown via a tablet integrated into the roof console. Using VW’s ‘We Connect’ system, the e-Bulli driver can call up online information by smartphone app, or via a PC and a corresponding web portal for items such as remaining charge time, current range, kilometres travelled, trip times, energy consumption and recuperation. Music on board comes from a retro-style radio that is equipped with the latest DAB+, Bluetooth and USB.
At prices starting from Euros64,900, replica T1, T2 and T3 conversions are being offered by eClassics, to ensure that eBulli is not just an expensive one-off (firstname.lastname@example.org / www.e-classics.eu).
The original cheap and cheerful Samba became beloved by the California surfing set during the late-1950s, developing further during the ‘hippie’ era, when customising of both it and the Beetle, as well as an era of VW-based beach buggies, was all the rage. Although not accompanied by the same levels of enthusiasm and passion, hopped-up VeeDubs of all types enjoyed a flurry of fame in the UK during the 1960s and early-1970s. The fascination continues in spiritual form with today’s desire to customise and personalise current light vans. However, none of them can supplant the value of the original Samba, mint original examples of which can command king’s ransoms at US car auctions. The multi-window models are by far the most sought after. The Bulli continued to be produced at VW’s Brazilian plant, until just a few years ago, when it was discontinued finally.
Conclusion: Eminently desirable as a classic van, whether windowed, or not, the Bulli appears to have made the transition to electric power most successfully. VW’s showpiece example is worth a cool Euros250,000, although replicas should be available for much less money.