Was VW’s I.D. Buzz, the Reincarnation of Its Iconic Microbus, Destined to Be Electric?

Automaker's new line will put it in competition with Tesla

Engineers couldn’t use an internal-combustion engine in the I.D. Buzz while also retaining the profile of the classic VW microbus.
Courtesy of Volkswagen

Over the weekend, Volkswagen delivered a piece of news that went straight to the hearts of aging hippies and their corresponding millennial aspirants: The legendary VW bus is coming back. And not only that, it’s going to be electric.

Hold your horsepower—the bus won’t be back until the 2020 model year, and there’s no word yet on the price. But one thing’s clear: In its decision to put the I.D. Buzz, as the new bus is known, on the assembly line, VW is angling to pass Tesla for dominance in the electric-vehicle segment. VW’s I.D. line, starting with its Crozz crossover, will put the German automaker squarely in contention with Elon Musk’s pet motor company, whose much-delayed Model 3, priced at $35,000, has yet to make good on its promise to make electric cars affordable. But while the drama plays out, it’s the I.D. Buzz that’s grabbed headlines—and for good reason. Not since VW reintroduced its legendary Beetle in July of 1997 has a piece of news this cool come out of Wolfsburg.

But while the new VW bus promises all the bells and whistles of a 21st-century electric vehicle, including a 369-horsepower power plant, a 300-mile range and stylistic touches like two-tone paint and LED headlight “eyes” that blink, the relevant footnote is that VW didn’t just make this an electric vehicle because it saw a demand in the marketplace. Its designers pretty much had no choice.

According to Mark Gillies, VW’s senior manager of product and technology, it would have been impossible for VW engineers to use an internal-combustion engine in the new I.D. Buzz and hope to retain the profile of the classic VW microbus, which is integral to the vehicle’s appeal.

“The thinking behind doing it on an electric platform was purely and simply it’s the only way you can keep the proportions of the old bus,” Gillies said. “A bus has a very long wheel base, short overhangs, and the driving position is close to the front wheels. With a conventional vehicle, it’s impossible to come up with that because of the regulations. When you put it on an electric platform, you don’t have an engine. It makes it possible to get the proportions back.”

Those proportions have been embedded in the American motoring psyche for 67 years, ever since Volkswagen introduced the Type 2, whose novelty and boxy dimensions were quickly embraced by California surfers and the sorts of Americans given to following the Grateful Dead.

It also didn’t hurt that VW’s existing EV technology fit very nicely into the microbus’s profile.

“If you look at the the original buses, they’re rear engine,” Gillies said. “One thing interesting about the electric-vehicle architecture we have is the drive motor for the rear-wheel drive [already] has the engine in the back. So, one of the things about doing electric architecture is it frees up a load of space relative to what you can do in a conventional, internal-combustion engine.”

Another little-known fact about VW’s new electric bus is that the automaker has toyed with the idea before.

Courtesy of Volkswagen

Forty-four years ago, OPEC, angry over U.S. support of the Israeli military, levied an embargo against the United States and several of its allies. Seemingly overnight, the price of oil quadrupled. Lines formed at gas stations. Motorists were furious and miserable. Into these tumultuous times rolled something called the Elektro-Bus.

From the outside, it looked exactly like a Type 2. The big difference was that in place of an internal-combustion engine, VW engineers put in 72 lead-acid cells.

Volkswagen didn’t make the Elektro-Bus available in the U.S. and, even if it had, the vehicle likely wouldn’t have sold very well. In those days, before the development of lithium-ion battery packs, the bus’s performance was lacking, especially by Autobahn standards. The lead-acid batteries produced a top speed of only 43 mph and took half a minute to get there. Worse, the Elektro-Bus’s range was a mere 25 miles. Before taking it off the market in 1976, VW sold a mere 70 of the things.