In 1992, a Danish man known only as Tonny L, is keen to get his hands on an old Volkswagen Transporter, specifically the panel van version known affectionately as the ‘Bulli’.
He scours classifieds from all over Europe until he spots an ad in a German-based VW enthusiasts’ club’s magazine. Tonny calls the seller and soon learns the Bulli for sale has the lowest known chassis number of any Bulli in existence. He buys it, then and there, over the phone.
It’s an astute purchase, as the Dove Blue Volkswagen Transporter chassis number 20-1880 rolled off VW’s Wolfsburg production line on 5 August, 1950, making it the oldest Bulli in existence.
Production of the Type 2 VW Transporter started on 8 March, 1950, heralding a new era for the German carmaker which had, until then, only one model in production, the Type 1, aka Beetle.
But with Germany at the start of its post-war Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) as it continued to rebuild, the need for an affordable and capable delivery van arose. Enter the Type 2 Transporter, the brainchild not of Volkswagen engineers, but of Dutch VW distributor, Ben Pon, who envisaged a cab-forward, rear-engined light commercial vehicle built on VW’s existing Type 1 platform.
Pon first sketched his vision in April, 1947, little more than a doodle, really, but the concept is unmistakeable. Volkswagen liked the idea and took over design and engineering and by 1950, the Volkswagen Transporter was rolling out of the Wolfsburg plant.
Chassis 20-1880 started its life in the northern German town of Hildesheim, spending 23 years in active service shuttling goods throughout the region. But, like everything and everyone, after years of pounding local roads, the Dove Blue Bulli was tired and the company that owned chassis 20-1880 retired the van and sold it to a private owner in 1973.
Not much is known about chassis 20-1880 over the next 19 years, the Bulli changing hands several times. It’s only in 1992, when Tonny L is on his quest to find an original Bulli, that we can pick up the story again.
The now 42-year old Transporter with 100,000km on the clock begins its new life in Tonny’s native Denmark. He replaces parts, ensuring the van can be driven and so smitten is he with his purchase, her christens chassis 20-1880 ‘Sofie’, an homage to the first-ever Transporter delivered to Denmark, also known as Sofie.
In 2000, Tonny takes ‘Sofie’ off the road and starts a three-year long restoration project which ends in the spring of 2003. To celebrate, he drives her to a Volkswagen club meet in Bad Camberg, a small town near Frankfurt in Germany. Over the next decade, Tonny traverses Europe in ‘Sofie’ racking up around 20,000km in the rare and historic Bulli.
The time comes, however, in 2014, when Tonny feels he can no longer spend his days and weeks traversing Europe in his beloved Bulli. And so begins the process of finding a new home for ‘Sofie’.
Volkswagen Transporters are by now highly collectable, and early examples even more so. Tonny fields numerous offers from collectors around the world but the Dane is keen to see chassis 20-1880 continue her life in the public eye, and not stored away in a private collection.
In the spring of 2014, a Danish delegation led by the Crown Price of Denmark and accompanied by the Danish VW importer, are touring the VW commercial vehicle plant in Hannover, Germany. During the visit, the importer mentions to Volkswagen staff that he knows of an original 1950 Bulli in Denmark and that the owner is keen to sell.
Enter the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicle (VWCV) Oldtimer department which soon starts the conversation with Tonny about acquiring the historic Bulli. After several weeks of negotiations, ‘Sofie’ has a new home in the Volkswagen collection, with Tonny telling VW at the time, “I'd therefore prefer to sell Sofie to you, where she’ll still be able to make people smile .. :-)”.
‘Sofie’ arrived in Hannover late in 2014 and has since then made many public appearances, the undoubted star of the show as the world’s oldest street-legal Volkswagen Transporter.
Chassis 20-1880 turned 70 this week, and was feted with a cake and an oil change. Happy Birthday, ‘Sofie’.
|Year of manufacture||1950|
|Colour||Dove Blue L 31|
|Engine||1131cc air-cooled, boxer four-cylinder|
|Power||18kW at 3300rpm|