Peace, Love and Energy – KEV The Kombi Electric Vehicle
Volkswagen revolutionised the transport world, not just once with the launch of the people’s car, the Beetle, but a second time around with the Type 2. Initially launched in 1950, the Type 2, more commonly known in this part of the world as the Kombi, took the concept of a forward control vehicle and made it affordable for the masses. The design and price weren’t the only success stories for Volkswagen though, the marketing was a hit too.
It was likely a combination, or perhaps a kombi-nation, of these three things that set the Kombi on a path to becoming the global automotive icon it is today. It was so successful that production continued in various forms right up until 1975. In today’s world where manufacturers run models
for an average of six years before re-tooling, a 25-year production run is almost incomprehensible. That run was no doubt in part due to the vehicle’s popularity which ramped up throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The hippy movement was closely aligned with the Kombi thanks to their easy to work on design, low
cost, and people-carrying capability. So aligned were the Kombi and the peace, love, and freedom movement, that the vehicles became a symbol of the time. That symbolism continues today where it’s not uncommon to see a peace sign, flowers, or other similar iconography on Kombis around the
globe. Even Volkswagen New Zealand are in on the act, coming up with the concept of highlighting the Kombi’s carefree roots to help market the recently released successor, the VW IDBuzz.
The IDBuzz has all the hallmarks of the Kombi, including a unique design, great engineering, a focus on working to suit any lifestyle choice, and of course great marketing to match. The IDBuzz is also VW’s first foray into an all-electric van, and while it’s far from VW’s first electric vehicle, it may soon become their most popular.
To coincide with the local launch of the IDBuzz, Volkswagen New Zealand decided to play on the Kombi’s long and successful history by creating a unique Kombi of its own. The plan was to craft a vehicle that embodied the spirit of the original vehicles but with a modern twist to show how far the company has come, and to encourage fellow VW owners to do the same. The big twist – pun intended – is an electric motor powerplant, and VW would open-source the method of the steps required.
In VW’s words: “From the moment it was born, the Kombi has been a symbol of hope for a better world. Now, 65 years later, leaving the world
a better place for future generations is more important than ever. That’s why Volkswagen is making a shift to a more sustainable future by starting our journey into electric vehicles. And what better way to hit the road on our journey than by bringing back an icon from the past, so it can lead us into the future.”
For this epic transformation, they enlisted the help of one of the country’s foremost restoration shops, which also happens to be the business that has likely converted more classics to electric power than any other, Wellington’s
The Surgery. Business owner John Stevenson-Galvin states that there was no plan for the business to become classic EV specialists; the business simply evolved with the times and in the direction customers wanted.
Of course, the advantage for the customers, VW NZ included, is that The Surgery can take care of full builds like this in house, rather than just the engine side or the panel restoration aspects of car building/ restoration. With a deadline of just 12 months away, the build was a big ask, but John and the team at The Surgery are no strangers to pressure, and thankfully their years of experience and robust processes helped to make the seemingly impossible, possible.
The 1960 Kombi they started with is remarkably rare, being just one of 500 made with both a split screen and a sliding door, which adds weight to the story that it started life as an ambulance. In the years since being on duty the vehicle has changed hands a few times, as well as the subject of a left-hand drive to right-hand drive standard dash configuration except for the battery level indicator conversion.
Of course, the conversion wasn’t up to the standard required by VW NZ nor the standard that would be let out of The Surgery’s doors. The starting point for the build was stripping it down to a shell before rolling it next door to Metal Immersions to be dipped. This exposed the usual rust expected in a vehicle of this age, as well as a few unexpected repairs from days gone by.
Masters at their trade, repairing this sort of stuff is bread and butter work for The Surgery’s team, and having worked on countless Kombis before, they knew exactly what was required. While this was being undertaken, a comprehensive parts list was being put together, much of which was sourced through VW specialist parts supplier The Metric Nut.
“There’s a huge culture and aftermarket parts network for these things now, but there’s also a lot of poor-quality parts out there,” says John.
“From our own experience, and through working with The Metric Nut, we know exactly what works and what doesn’t.”
Getting things to production car build standards is one of the things that sets businesses like The Surgery apart from most home builds, and for a car that will be driven by countless people – many with no old car experience – that was even more important in this instance.
Helping with that drivability is a narrowed front end that has been rebuilt with all new bushes seals and bearings, while the old drum brakes have been replaced with a Metric Nut disc brake conversion setup. One requirement of the electric powertrain conversion was an aftermarket electric brake booster to compensate for the electric motor’s absence of vacuum. Of course, the big talking point
is the EV conversion, and while that too aids with drivability, that wasn’t the main driver. Having converted a number of other VWs to EVs, the team knew what components were required, the main one being a Net Gain HyPer 9 motor that produces 112kW peak power and 235Nm. That’s plenty of performance in a lightweight Kombi and, thanks to the torque being the same from zero RPM, the van is easy to drive.
With that torque, there’s no need for the gearbox but, as John pointed out, keeping it also makes sense as the engine installation is simplified.
It also allows for reverse to still be used without the addition of any complex electronic controllers. To enable this, the shifter mechanism of the box has been modified to lock out all gears besides third and reverse and, handily, the original speedo drive is still in place to twist the speedometer.
RECHARGING AND RECYCLING
Throughout the build, VW NZ was keen to reuse what wasn’t broken, both the original components of the vehicle, and whatever else they had available, which in this case were batteries. Rather than purchase new batteries, they used a number of 1.6kWh/108AH battery modules traditionally found in the company’s e-Golf models. Eight of these are in the position of the standard fuel tank, while eight more sit beneath the centre of the vehicle between the chassis rails. Although there’s no official measurement on the vehicle’s range, John estimates it to be between 150 to 200km, which is more than most classics will generally travel between stops.
As the build came together the team enlisted the services of Kerry’s Upholstery for the soft furnishings. That included trimming the custom L-shaped rear seating arrangement that had been fabricated in-house along with the original but refurbished front seats. The remainder of the interior looks as if the car just rolled off the production line in 1960, which was all part of the plan. The exterior is pure Kombi too; the hippy-inspired artwork adorning the sides of it is a clever mix of retro-modernism, complete with plenty of subtle details hinting at what lies within.
The engine bay also looks like it could have been created at the factory, such is the attention to
detail. It includes a custom plate to seal off the electric motor from the undercarriage. It’s details such as this that elevate the build far beyond what an off-the-shelf conversion kit could offer. John has well-earned scepticism about conversions sold as bolt-in. In reality, they have only a fraction of the components required, and none of the expertise. If you’re thinking that performing an EV conversion is a great way to save money, he cautions you’ll be very mistaken.
The cheapest way into an EV is to buy a production vehicle, but a conversion such as this is a great way to get another classic back on the road and have some fun in the process. Don’t get sucked into all the misinformation about batteries killing the world or bursting into flames all the time and you’ll have every bit as much fun as the drivers of combustion engined vehicles, if not more. Instant torque and zero maintenance are just two of the selling points for a vehicle that costs next to nothing to run, and produces no harmful emissions in the process.
VW NZ successfully unveiled the Kombi, celebrating both its revered history and continued relevance
on their stand at National Fieldays earlier this year, where it was met with much applause. Understandably the certification process for a conversion like this is thorough, but that’s nothing that the team haven’t been through before, and there’s never any question about The Surgery’s workmanship.
Driving the car is every bit as much fun as it looks promise. No wide-gated offset gears to grind through, no carbs to tune or points to change, just jump in, push the start button, and go. Just like the original marketing when the Kombi was launched in 1960, this rolling publicity stunt has been a huge hit, showcasing the vehicle’s versatility to a whole new generation of fans. Except this time around, it’s not about flower power, but battery power.