Was developed to tame the dunes
by Ronan Glon
Had it been built, Volkswagen’s experimental four-wheel-drive Transporter would be celebrated by enthusiasts and adventurers as the holy grail of bay-window Buses. It remained a prototype, one executives initially wanted nothing to do with, but the miles it logged dune-hopping in the Sahara had a lasting influence on Volkswagen’s lineup.
Released in 1967, the bay-window Bus worked hundreds of different jobs all over the world. It was a delivery van, a people-mover, a tour bus, a camper, a mobile workshop, and an ambulance for the West German army, among many other things; but it was not an off-roader and it never pretended to be one. And yet, Gustav Mayer, the head of Transporter development, was convinced there was space on the van’s resume for one more gig.
An avid travel enthusiast, Mayer spent a lot of time exploring Africa in his personal Transporter. He was curious to find out how much farther into the Sahara he could go with four driven wheels and a few additional inches of ground clearance. He started building his dream van in 1975. He raided the Volkswagen parts bin, recycled bits he found in the company’s prototype division, and milled his own parts when absolutely necessary. Then-company boss Toni Schmücker cited financial issues in his refusal to back the project, but Mayer pressed on with the help of Henning Duckstein, one of his colleagues in the research and development department. While he couldn’t tap into the Volkswagen corporate coffer, nothing prevented Mayer from building the van in his spare time for his own use.
Mayer didn’t hide his intention to take the Transporter into off-roader territory. When Schmücker casually asked him what he planned to do for Christmas in 1975, he matter-of-factly responded, “Drive into the Sahara in the now-completed four-wheel-drive Transporter that you have banned,” according to Volkswagen’s archives department.