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Joc O’Donnell’s ‘holy grail’ vehicle

  • 7 August 2020

A 1954, 23 window, deluxe microbus Volkswagen Kombi has just been added to the ‘junkyard’ scene in the collection’s limited-time-only Volkswagen display, and for Transport World executive director Joc O’Donnell this is her holy grail.

In fact, Joc even goes so far as to say the Kombi is her equivalent to the 1940 Dodge Airflow Texaco tanker, affectionately known as Tex, so beloved by her father Bill Richardson that he once turned down an offer to “name his price” in exchange for the gleaming red beauty.

“This Kombi is my Tex. It’s an incredible find. It’s like I can stop looking now – this Volkswagen Kombi is my absolute pinnacle. It’s the holy grail for Volkswagen Kombi lovers,” Joc says.

“It’s an absolute diamond in the rough. I can’t wait for our talented workshop team to polish her up a little bit – but it’s going to be a big job.”


QUICK! Our Volkswagen display is one retro-tinged exhibit you won’t want to miss – but it’s only at Bill Richardson Transport World until 31 August.
Book your tickets here.


Adding to the air of excitement is that, for Joc, this style of deluxe microbus Volkswagen Kombi is one that she came achingly-close to owning before – but that particular vehicle has always been the one that got away.

“There was one of them in Christchurch – but it was sold to a collector over in Australia,” Joc says. “I always give the seller absolutely heaps about it leaving the country. It was the Kombi that got away.”

So, what exactly is it that makes this particular style of Volkswagen Kombi so special?

First, 23 windows is the maximum amount of windows a Volkswagen Kombi has ever had. This model is also right-hand drive, further adding to its rarity (most Volkswagen were constructed as left-hand drive vehicles).

Volkswagen Kombi enthusiasts will already know this, but for the uninitiated, there’s an easy way to tell if a retro-cool Kombi is among the crème de la crème.

This model also features the original ‘barndoor’ style design on its rear. From 1950 – when Kombis, deluxe microbuses or Type 2s, were first produced – until 1955, Kombis featured a large rear engine cover. Boasting the original rear design means this style of Kombi is considered much rarer in comparison to others that date from 1955 onwards.

(This one is from 1954 – so is among the last of the Volkswagen Kombis to roll off the production line featuring the iconic barndoor style.)

The story behind this particular vehicle is as impressive as its specifications: and it belies the vehicle’s rough exterior.

Discovered for sale in 2019 by Transport World team member Darren Robbie – himself a Volkswagen enthusiast – on an online message board, this vehicle has endured a multi-stage journey to reach the Bill Richardson Transport World collection since it was purchased in December last year.

It was transported across the Mexican border and shipped out of California: although border restrictions due to COVID-19 meant its journey was delayed by about five months. After three weeks at sea, it arrived at the port in Lyttleton. The Volkswagen Kombi was then transported south and arrived at Bill Richardson Transport World in bits earlier this week. It’s since been installed in the museum’s temporary Volkswagen display, which will close at the end of August.

But wait, there’s more!

This 1954 Volkswagen Kombi deluxe microbus has been the subject of plenty of intrigue in enthusiast circles for years and years.

The story really starts back in the mid-1990s, in the middle of a Swedish forest.

(Yes, really.)

A Volkswagen enthusiast by the name of Jonas Uhland reportedly found this 1954 vehicle, covered in snow, amid the trees. Although in a state of disrepair, he could see it for what it was: an incredibly rare find, the kind of vintage Volkswagen Kombi that makes aficionados dizzy.

He took some images of the Volkswagen Kombi where he found it, and they wound up on the internet. Anybody with even a fleeting interest in classic Kombis will know this type of vehicle has a huge following worldwide, and the internet is full of fan groups and message boards celebrating the glory of everything Kombi. The vehicle was sometimes referred to as ‘the Santa bus’ or ‘the Santa deluxe’, because of the wintry-looking images.

Uhland in turn sold the vehicle to well-known Volkswagen collector Charlie Hamill, before it ended up belonging to a Mexico-based collector by the name of Mario Calderon, who owned the vehicle for some 20-odd years.

Plenty of people have purported to own the vehicle known as “the Santa bus” or “the Santa deluxe”, but we’ve done some digging – and our research into the registration number marking the famed vehicle matches that of the number on the 1954 Volkswagen Kombi barndoor that we now have in our possession.

Darren, from the workshop team, is as excited as Joc to have this particular Kombi in our collection.

“If you’re into Kombis or even just Volkswagens in general, this model really is the pinnacle – it’s the ultimate,” he says.

“It’s going to need a fair bit of tidying up, but it’s very sound. The restoration work that has been done on it in the past is actually good work – they’ve done a good job, especially considering most of it has been made by hand. What’s been done, has been done well. I actually think gathering the parts will be the biggest challenge, and the most time-consuming aspect of it. It might take a couple of years to gather it all up.”

The vehicle doesn’t have an engine, so one will need to be sourced.

(Most of the 300+ vehicles here are ‘runners’ – in working order.)

Half of the upholstery has been recently crafted by an expert in Los Angeles, while a second expert is working on the remainder in San Francisco.

The Kombi is a once-in-a-lifetime find: and the whole Transport World team is looking forward to sharing updates on its progress. The Bill Richardson Transport World collection is a treasure trove celebrating everything wheels, and its connection to Bill’s wider family plays a huge role in what makes it so special. What started as one man’s passion has truly transformed into a family legacy.

Joc is a great lover of Volkswagen Kombis: her passion for the quirky German vehicle began when she was travelling around Europe with her now-husband, Scott O’Donnell, on their OE. Together they saw the sights of the Continent from the vantage point of a Volkswagen Kombi before eventually selling the vehicle to buy an engagement ring.

For Joc, like many, the Volkswagen Kombi represents some great memories – and it’s become her signature vehicle within our collection.

“I think this is number 13 – lucky, or unlucky, 13. I can stop now. Now that I have this one, I don’t feel I need to buy any more – this is the ultimate.”

Famous last words? We’ll see!


*The 1954, 23 window, deluxe microbus, barndoor Volkswagen Kombi can be seen as part of Bill Richardson Transport World’s limited-time-only Volkswagen display.
The temporary display, which has proven a huge hit with visitors post-lockdown, is set to close at the end of August. Get in quick – this is one retro-tinged display you won’t want to miss!
Access to the Volkswagen display is included in admission to the Bill Richardson Transport World collection.

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