The VW Kombi is the perfect passenger-service invention. It’s not as expensive as a taxi and it doesn’t take as long as a bus ride. This precursor to the modern van has been barrelling down Brazilian streets since 1957. In a deviation away from VW’s 1967 reconfiguration of the Kombi, the Brazilian variety stayed true to its extremely durable engine up until 1996 when a newer engine replaced the original in new models. Sometimes one might see a Kombi with a rusted or missing outer panel yet a perfectly-running engine. Now you know why.
The name Kombi comes from the German Kombinationfahrzeug (Multi-Use Vehicle), yet by VW standards the term does not include other like-models which officially carry different names. The VW term Kombi refers to the version with 11 windows. Brazil is the only place in the world where the vehicle is still being made with a rear motor and the Kombi also happens to be the longest-produced vehicle in Brazil and because of this, the name Kombi has come to encompass all models. In bigger cities, Vans (more modern and equiped with air-conditioning) are starting to be more widely seen.
Up until recently, when a Kombi-variant called the Standard (or Lotação) was legalized, the Kombi was not a government-sanctioned mode of transportation…not that such a ‘minor’ detail would impede its popularity. In addition, the multi-use implication of the vehicle is no longer legal in Brazil.
As far as the way it works, its pretty simple. Flag down the Kombi going in the direction you are headed (you’ll know by the city or neighborhood names listed in the front-window plaque). If not sure, use your best Portuguese to ask or just say the name of the place you want to go. The money-collector will slide open the side door and you hop in where ever there is room to sit, usually between or next to other people. The money-collector will most likely stand as to not take up passenger space and when getting close to the next stop, he’ll start yelling out the final destinations of the Kombi. The price can differ based on how far you are going and you usually pay when you get out. The good part is you can ask the driver or money-collector to stop along their route at any given point if that’s where you want to get out. All in all, its my preferred way of travel and I recommend trying it out!
For the history behind the Kombi, check out this site (in Portuguese).
Here’s a propaganda (advertisement) for the Kombi in which one kid says to the other ‘when I grow up I want a convertible car’ and the other responds by saying when he grows up he wants a kombi.