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'HIPPIE VAN' GETS NEW LOOK VW unveils sleek version of legendary bus


ANNAPOLIS -- A bit of automotive history was made here yesterday when Volkswagen unveiled its EuroVan -- the first all-new version of its legendary VW bus since it was introduced in 1949.

Gone is the classic boxy shape. The engine has been moved to the front and there is nearly five times as much horsepower tucked under the hood than in the company's original Microbus, which began showing up on the road in this country in the early 1950s.

"This is the evolution of what started 43 years ago," VW spokesman Tony Fouladpour said of the aerodynamically designed vehicle, which looks more like GM's Astro minivan than its German ancestor.

Gone also, it could be argued, is the personality of a vehicle that was used by some owners to make a personal statement about their values and lifestyle.

In the 1960s, the bus was the vehicle of choice among college professors and intellectuals, who used their mode of transportation as a symbolic protest against the motoring masses' romance with big cars powered by gas-guzzling V-8 engines.

Nicknamed "Hippie Vans," they were the transportation of choice by many on their way to Woodstock in 1969 as they sat behind the wheel of an aged and wiggly bus.

More recently, the bus was featured with Kevin Costner, who as Ray Kinsella, the '60s radical turned Iowa corn farmer in "Field of Dreams," drove a VW bus.

"We still think of it as somewhat of a cult vehicle," VW's public relations manager, Lawrence Nutson, said. He noted that they ++ are extremely popular among so-called "Deadheads" -- fans of the Grateful Dead -- who follow the rock group during concert tours.

PTC Despite their reputation for breakdowns, heaters that made winter driving barely tolerable and scary battles with crosswinds, the bus also has a strong and loyal following among a wide variety of motorists, says Desmond Glynn, the owner of a Parkville garage that specializes in VW repairs.

"One customer, a guy from Glen Burnie, put 500,000 miles on his bus," said Mr. Glynn. "He would get 150,000 from an engine and rebuild it. Eventually, the body just rusted away."

Wilhelm Henters of Dundalk has driven Volkswagen buses since 1966, not long after he came to this country from Hanover, Germany, where he worked in the factory that made them.

Is it the best car on the road? Mr. Henters, 72 and retired, ponders the question for a few seconds, then answers in his German accent:

"The best car, no. That's probably the Rolls-Royce. But it's the best car you can get for the money."

Mr. Henters still remembers when he and other frugal buyers could drive home a shiny new Beetle for $1,400 and a bus for about $1,800.

This is a far cry from the price of the vehicles on display at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium here yesterday.

The EuroVan, powered by a five-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine, is priced from $16,640 to more than $24,000 for the top-of-the-line model with the weekender camping package.

Volkswagen is counting on its new EuroVan, along with the upgraded Passat GLX sedan, to pump new life in its sagging U.S. sales.

Sales are off more than 20 percent this year compared with 1991, during which it sold 96,723 vehicles in the United States. That was down from 136,000 in 1990.

VW once held nearly 5 percent of the U.S. market, and sales peaked at nearly 570,000 vehicles in 1970. Today, it has less than 1 percent of this market.

William Pyle, sales manager of Cook Motor Cars Ltd. a VW dealership in Aberdeen, said the introduction of the popular minivans in the mid 1980s "killed bus sales. It probably cut them in half," he added.

Mr. Pyle says the new EuroVan is already "generating a tremendous amount of shopper interest" even though it is not expected to arrive at East Coast dealerships for another couple of weeks.

He wondered aloud why it took VW so long to adjust to changes in the marketplace.

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