Modern cars are enormous. Even our “small” family hatchbacks are giants compared to the urban cars that graced the streets in the 50s, 60s and 70s. As you read this, somewhere in the world a small child is being driven to school in an SUV that would hold its own against a World War II tank.
As we approach the irresistible two-tone splitty (named after the iconic front windscreen which doubles up as the air-conditioning system), it seems almost impossible that six people will fit in there. This is the first time our better halves have tagged along for a feature and disaster seemed imminent.
Or not, as it turned out. Based on the ear-to-ear smiles around us, everyone was already in love.
The Volkswagen Type 2 may have the most boring official name in history, but the clever design on the Type 1 chassis means that all of us managed to fit comfortably in a car that barely fills a modern parking space.
In case you don’t know, the Type 1 is the much-loved Beetle. The Type 2 is the equally iconic Hippiemobile, known as the Microbus, Kombi or Splitty. “Microbus” is probably the best description of the lot, but “Kombi” is the name that sits in the hearts of most South African families.
Decades before hideous sloping-roof SUVs were introduced to empty the world’s oil reserves, scare dogs walking on the pavement and ruin your retirement savings, Kombis were the cars of choice for South African families escaping their urban lives in favour of our coastlines.
This was well before our time and these were dark days for South Africa in the throes of Apartheid, but we can safely speculate that brightly-coloured Kombis must have created some cheer wherever they went.
The first models were bestowed with the 1100 air-cooled engine producing a blistering 18kW, or about as much as the skinny guy next door generates on his expensive bicycle. In 1953, the performance upgrade of the century took place as the 1200 engine was introduced with 22kW.
These air-cooled engines may have been the genesis of Porsche, but 22kW is less than we have in our CRG 2-stroke karts and they weigh 170kgs (driver included). Hmmm.
Thankfully, the owner of this car realised that even the most beautiful cars need some power. This project is a ground-up restoration from a badly rusted shell and the 1600 twin-port engine (introduced in the 1970s) has been fitted to this car as part of the process.
With power output of 43kW (cue heavy breathing), this could possibly be considered an outlaw Kombi. Ok, maybe not an outlaw – this is no firecracker, but 43kW is a lot better than 22kW.
So, if not an outlaw, what is it? It’s the coolest way to drive along the beach, end of story. We’ve been in plenty of interesting and special cars, but the amount of attention this diminutive people-mover gets on the road is unbelievable.
The streamlined shape is incredibly eye-catching and the front headlights give the car cartoon characteristics. The semaphore indicators are huge entertainment for people who haven’t spent time in ‘50s VWs, as the car appears to flap its ears in anticipation (or fear) as we approach a corner.
Cornering is…an experience. With the profile of a toaster, this flappy-eared car corners like an excitable Great Dane on a slippery floor. Surfers are often accused of being too chilled, but this is possibly due to inherent genetic programming. Their surfing parents had to drive slowly in Kombis in the interests of self-preservation.
It doesn’t really matter though, because absolutely nothing about the driving position will inspire spirited driving. The steering wheel sits horizontally like a bus. If you are used to making stir-fry in a wok, you will feel right at home. The driver sits on top of the front wheels, which means you feel like you are on a unicycle rather than in a car.
But again, who cares? This car isn’t about the driver. It’s about everyone sharing the experience. It’s about piling your friends in for a Sunday drive that they won’t forget. This is the ultimate roadtrip machine.
If the purpose of a classic car is to bring smiles to people’s faces and help them escape their daily stresses, then this car is literally motoring perfection. The joy is shared with every parking attendant and onlooker. Don’t even get us started on how kids react when they see this car.
A splitty won’t win you any robot races, but it will win your heart. That’s all that really matters.
(this car is available for sale from Road and Race)