Tuesday, November 27, 2001

MEXICO CITY The era of peace and love really is over: The Volkswagen van that has taken a generation on long, strange trips is going out of production in Mexico at year’s end.

Sales are scheduled to halt at the end of December. In Brazil, the only other place where the boxy VW bus still is made, union officials say they suspect Volkswagen is planning to end production soon as part of cost-cutting measures.

The van, known in Latin America as the Combi, was introduced in 1950. Distinctive for its air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, the van was last offered in the United States in 1982 as the Transporter. It is being replaced in the VW lineup by the Eurovan, a more modern vehicle with a water-cooled front engine.

The demise of the old bus has saddened a lot of old hippies here, as Volkswagen acknowledged with full-page ads in Mexican newspapers that read “Adios, Combi” above a picture of a teary-eyed, aging flower child in a tie-dyed shirt.

“I think it’s gonna be a big surprise for Volkswagen fans that they were still making them down there,” said Ryan Price, editor of the magazine VW Trends. “In the same sentence, I think there will be some remorse.

“It’s the end of an era. It came to symbolize a certain sense of freedom, as if they could go anywhere.”

That was the basis of the bus’ reputation in Latin America, which was a little different from that in the United States, where it endured as a 1960s icon.

Multicolored paint jobs are uncommon here, and the vehicle is more prized for its sturdiness, seating capacity and high ground clearance a must for dirt roads and mountain villages.

Volkswagen lists the Combi’s official capacity as “eight to 11 passengers.” In some parts of Mexico, groaning microbuses still are used as buses, somehow carrying as many as 18 to 20 persons, not always in strict adherence to safety rules.

Volkswagen said in a statement that the Eurovan would “offer the modernity, new technology and space that current customers demand.”

The famous Volkswagen sedan the original Beetle, or “Bug” will continue to be produced at VW’s Mexico plant. Green Beetle taxis are as common in Mexico City as black cabs in Britain.

While Volkswagen officials in Brazil refuse to say when or if production of the Combi would end, unions there currently on strike at one VW plant to protest cost-cutting say the company is not interested in keeping old production lines going.

For the past five years, production has been split, with Mexico manufacturing the Combi’s engines and a Brazilian plant making the chassis. It is unclear where Brazil would get the motors to continue making the model.

“It’s an absurd decision. I wish they wouldn’t kill it,” said Israel Gomez, 28, whose 1964 “panoramic” microbus which has 21 windows draws admiring glances on Mexico City streets. “It’s made for road trips. It has great sight lines.

“I can’t imagine Mexico without Combis,” Mr. Gomez said. “It’s a vehicle that’s part of history here.”

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