April 1951 was a significant month in automotive history. Postwar Germany was divided, the East falling under communist rule while in the West, the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) was in full swing.
Capitalising on the economic boom, the Frankfurt motor show (officially, Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, or plain old International Motor Show) opened its doors for the first time. And taking centre stage was a vehicle that has since become an automotive icon.
A year earlier, Volkswagen released its innovative Transporter – or ‘Bulli’ – which would go on to fame over 70 years of continuous production, a utilitarian van designed to serve as a delivery vehicle for Germany’s burgeoning businesses.
But, when the doors of the IAA opened in Frankfurt just a year later, show attendees were greeted by something else again – the Volkswagen ‘Special Edition’, which turns 70 this week.
Taking the Transporter as its base, the Volkswagen Special Edition was a luxurious minibus, capable of seating eight people in style.
While it may look like a humble Transporter with more seats and windows, the Special Edition was anything but. Externally, the Special Edition was distinguished by exclusive two-tone paint, white on top and a striking colour below separated by a decorative aluminium strip.
The interior received the Special Edition treatment too, with covered side panels and chrome trim while a concertina-style sliding sunroof could be optioned, as could a valve radio – model ‘Auto Super’ – mounted in the dashboard.
But, perhaps the Special Edition’s most striking feature were the windows mounted high into the roof that turned the Transporter into what Volkswagen dubbed a ‘Glazed Sightseeing Bus’.
It didn’t come cheap, however, the Special Edition commanding a DM3000 premium over regular Transporters. Still, despite a price tag equal to almost three times the annual average wage in Germany at the time, the Special Edition proved a hit, with around 100,000 produced between 1951 and the end of its production run in 1967.
Today, the Special Edition is commonly known by another name, Samba. However, that honorific was never officially bestowed upon Volkswagen’s minibus. While the origins of the Samba name remain under a cloud, it’s likely customers of the minibus came up with the name.
But again, any ideas the name was derived from the joyous Brazilian dance of the same name, can be put to rest, the most likely genesis far less exotic.
According to Volkswagen, although the German brand isn’t 100 per cent sure either, ‘Samba’ could have been derived from the German ‘Sonnendach-Ausführung mit besonderem Armaturenbrett’ (sunroof version with special dashboard) or maybe ‘Sonder Ausführung mit besonderer Ausstattung’ (special version with special features).
The first semi-official appearance of the colloquial name came in 1954, a Dutch Volkswagen dealer listing the minibus on its price list as a ‘Samba’.
Today, Sambas are highly-desired by collectors, reaching eye-watering prices around the world. The record for an original Samba was achieved by Barret-Jackson, reaching US$302,500 (AUD$388,000) at auction in 2017.
That’s far cry from the DM9025 (approx. AUD$7150) paid for the earliest known Special Edition back in the 1950s, owned by a private German collector.
Some ‘Samba’ facts
- The ‘Special Edition’ was called that only in its first model year. By 1952, VW gave it the equally as exciting ‘Special Model’ nameplate
- The paintwork was almost always two-tone
- It was available only with decorative trim
- The total length of the trim strips is 1112 cm
- It always had a clock in the dashboard.
- With option M 130, it came ex-factory with no skylights or sunroof
- A Samba from the period June 1951 to the start of August 1963 is a so-called 23 window – the sliding window in the driver’s cab doors is counted as one window
- A Samba from the period August 1963 to July 1967 is a so-called 21 window – corner windows gone due to the new wider rear hatch
- The first Samba featured a 1.1-litre engine with 18 kW and had a top speed of 75km/h
- By the end of its life in 1967, the now 1.5-litre engine made 32kW and top speed had increased to 105km/h
- In 1953 the Samba became the first Type 2 Volkswagen to have a proper rear bumper
- It was only in February 1955 that the Plexiglas corner windows were replaced by safety glass windows – In Switzerland it was therefore sometimes also called the ‘Plexibus’