- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) — Brand-new classic Volkswagen minivans, with their unique air-cooled engines sputtering to life, chug off the assembly line after a manufacturing ritual barely changed since hippies turned the boxy vehicle into a counterculture icon.

Instead of heading on long, strange trips across Latin America’s largest country, these minivans go straight to work on the streets of Brazil’s largest cities for deliveries of all kinds, as ambulances, mobile convenience stores and even troop transports for soldiers.

But tomorrow, a long chapter in the history of Volkswagen AG ends when the last air-cooled motor will be hoisted into a vehicle seen as a museum piece almost everywhere else in the world.

Volkswagen is being forced to change the minivan’s historic rear-mounted engine because of a new Brazilian emissions law to reduce pollution that goes into effect in 2006. Production will continue next year, but the van known here as the “Kombi” will get a new water-cooled motor and a radiator for the first time.

The switch marks the last hurrah for the simple engine developed in the 1930s by famed German engineer Ferdinand Porsche, his key element of a “Volkswagen,” or “People’s Car” that anyone could afford.

“It’s the end of a very long era,” said Ivan McCutcheon, editor of Britain’s VolksWorld magazine for fans of the vans and now-out-of production VW traditional Beetles. “The VW air-cooled engine has been perhaps the greatest-produced engine in numbers the world has seen.”

The move comes three years after VW’s Mexican division stopped production of the minivan, and churned out its last two-door bug sedan with an air-cooled motor. All told, about 6 million of the minivans were built with the air-cooled engine worldwide, adding to the more than 20 million beetles manufactured.

VW Brasil said Kombi production is actually expected to increase next year from about 10,000 minivans annually to 12,000, because the new engine can run on gasoline or pure alcohol — widely used as fuel in Brazil, where it costs about half the price of gas.

The body of the minivan won’t change, and VW’s Sao Paulo factory will churn out Kombis in keeping with tradition, minus the high-tech robots that do most of the work in modern car factories.

The Kombi, by contrast, is made by workers who shove the windows into place by hand, use mallets to tap out imperfections in the vehicle’s body and do a final quality check on the doors by slamming them shut while listening to make sure they sound right.

VW isn’t concerned about losing market share with the new engine because executives believe the vehicle still has several advantages the competition can’t match: A list price of about $15,400 and capacity to carry a metric ton of goods.

Although the liquid-cooled motor could technically handle air conditioning, there are no plans to list it as an option. Brazilian Kombi buyers, market research shows, wouldn’t pay the extra cost. It will have a little more power, with a top speed of 81 miles per hour, as opposed to the 75 mph maximum with the air-cooled engine.

“There’s just no cheaper way to transport a ton of cargo,” said Hans-Cristian Maergner, president of VW’s Brazilian division.

To mark the engine changeover, VW is churning out about 200 Kombi “Silver Edition” models for collectors.



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