The 21-window Volkswagen Samba bus from the popular television sitcom That 70s Show (1998 to 2006) is heading for auction at Barrett-Jackson's Palm Beach Auction on Saturday, April 14, and the world record for a Volkswagen at auction might well fall.
The Volkswagen Microbus (also known as Samba, Kombi, Bulli ... almost every country had a fond "nickname" for the much-loved van) is almost a manifestation of 1970s culture in its own right, and appeared in the show driven by Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) which he regularly referred to as his "Love Wagon" or "Shaggin' Wagon," and the van played a central role during the height of the show's popularity.
The Volkswagen was hence one of the key features of the hit sitcom, which was themed around seventies culture and the characteristic technologies of the period (the video recorder, cassette tape, TV remote, television reruns, Pong and Space Invaders video games etc.) plus the myriad social complexities of the era, to create a show that appeared to have been fashioned to be a 1970s time-frame copy of the 1950s Happy Days television show sitcom.
Running over eight seasons, That 70s Show launched the careers of superstars Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher (both pictured above), Laura Prepon, Topher Grace, Danny Masterson and Wilmer Valderrama. As one of the stars of the show, the VW Samba appeared on screen in most shows between episode four of season four where Kelso (Kutcher) wins it in a contest (pictured below), through to the episode 11 of season 6 when the van runs off a cliff.
Such a spectacular celebrity/television provenance generally adds a significant multiplication factor on the auction block (as evidenced by our feature The 50 most expensive movie & TV cars ), but there are a number of other factors beyond its on-screen resume that suggest the 21-window Volkswagen Samba van to be auctioned will push the auction record to new heights.
It went to auction once before
The first indication that this sale may fetch a new record price is that a Volkswagen Samba Van with provenance has never before appeared at auction. This car did sell at auction while the show was still running (see above), but that was well before Volkswagen Samba vans were even on the collector car radar and the collector car prices databases of the period were not even keeping track of Volkswagen bus prices at that time. Though Volkswagen enthusiasts coveted them closely, the US$28,000 figure was well above the prices fetched by Volkswagen Samba vans at that time.
Since then there are dozens of Samba vans that have sold for more than $100,000, and the entire collectible car industry has seen an extraordinary rise in values.
The Volkswagen Samba and Beetle are still the exceptions to the collector car rule, though.
Whereas most cars that fetch more than a quarter million dollars on the auction block these days were prestige cars to begin with, a sprinkling of these prestige cars were sold new to celebrities or people of public prominence. Hence, on the auction block, at least a handful of any prestige car model has a celebrity provenance, the Volkswagen Kombi/Samba/Bulli is a car of the proletariat, and hence its greatest claim is exactly where the model's name was derived from – "Volkswagen" means the "peoples' car" in German – it was so reliable, simple and dependable that it engendered great affection on a grand scale.
This is the vehicle of unacclaimed celebrities – you and I. So there's no telling what effect this car's hit TV show provenance might do to the price on the auction block, particularly given that the television show celebrates 1970s nostalgia and the youth of the baby boomers – the people who have now accumulated the majority of the world's wealth, and the same people who pay millions of dollars for the artifacts of their youth at auctions.
It's just over 12 months since we highlighted to the world the recent spectacular and sustained appreciation of Volkswagen Microbus values in a feature article entitled "How the Volkswagen Kombi/Samba became a family heirloom," and just as we were preparing to publish that article on January 23, 2017, a 21-window Volkswagen Samba sold for $302,500, creating a new world record.
The earlier 23-window vans had been considered the most popular until then, but both 21-window and 23-window vans are now in the hot zone, and our records show that all of the top 20 highest prices ever recorded for a Volkswagen microbus of any variant are either 21-window Deluxe Samba vans, or 23-window Deluxe Samba vans. Both models had eight panoramic windows in the roof and the earlier 23 window version had two additional curved windows in the rear corners.
Though the production of the Volkswagen Microbus in its myriad forms exceeded 6.9 million units, there were only around 110,000 Deluxe Samba vans produced, making them the rarest of the many formats in which the Microbus was produced. In automotive terms though, 110,000 is not exactly rare.
Scarcity is usually inversely related to value on the auction block
It is hence extraordinary that a car produced in such large numbers should be so sought-after on the auction block where scarcity and price are inversely proportional.
In order to illustrate this, let's compare the Volkswagen Microbus with a car from the same era. The much vaunted Mercedes two-seat 300SL (W198 – pictured above) was a derivation of the world's fastest racing car, and fastest production car of its day when it was introduced in 1954 as a coupé with distinctive gull-wing doors, and later as an open top roadster.
You can't buy a 300SL of either configuration for less than $1 million these days and collectible car experts consider this remarkable because when you add the 1400 Gullwing Coupés and 1858 open top Roadsters, there were 3,258 300 SLs built – far more than the extremely limited numbers normally associated with million dollar cars.
The car I wish to use as a comparison to the Volkswagen Samba is not the Mercedes 300 SL, but its smaller brother, the Mercedes-Benz 190SL. For a definitive rundown on the history of the 190 SL, Hagerty's Market Spotlight of the Mercedes-Benz 190SL explains things succinctly.
Quoting from the Hagerty report, As Gullwing and 300SL Roadster prices began climbing, eventually reaching seven figures a few years ago, people began searching for what some saw as the next best thing. It resulted in tremendous returns both at auction and in the private market as well as a doubling in value over the course of 2013 and 2014. Suddenly, the 190SL was a six-figure car, and subsequent SLs', like the W113 "Pagoda" cars, values began rising too.
When new, the 190SL initially sold in the US at over $4,000 with prices rising to $5,000 towards the end of the model run. At the same time, the Volkswagen bus sold for about half that figure, with an additional $220 for the Samba Deluxe version.
Today, the prices at market for an extraordinary specimen of either are quite similar, with the Samba's record price at $302,500 and the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL record at $341,000.
One is a peoples car, the other a sports car which, quoting from the Hagerty report, was "constructed when Mercedes-Benz's build quality was among the highest in the world."
What's more, the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL was widely produced with 25,881 units.
The TOP 11 most valuable
Volkswagen Samba/Kombi/Bulli sales
11 | $143,000 | 1967 21-window Samba
10 | $143,347 (£91,100) | 1960 23-window Samba
Bonhams | Goodwood, June, 2015 | Auction Link
9 | $148,500 | 1961 23-window Samba
Barrett-Jackson | Scottsdale, January, 2014 | Auction Link
8 | $157,690 (AUD$202,000) | 1960 23-window Samba
Shannons | Melbourne, Australia, March, 2015 Auction Link
6 | $159,500 | 1963 23-window Samba
RM-Sothebys | Amelia Island, March, 2016 | Auction Link
6 | $159,500 | 1963 23-window Samba
Barrett-Jackson | Scottsdale, 2018 | Auction Link
5 | $207,200 | 1960 23-window Samba
RM-Sothebys | New York, 2017 | Auction Link
4 | $217,800 | 1963 23-window Samba
Barrett-Jackson | Orange County, June, 2011 | Auction Link
3 | $236,639 (€190,000) | 1955 23-window Samba
Auctionata (Germany), Berlin, November, 2014 | No Link (auctioneer defunct)
2 | $291,500 | 1961 23-window Samba
Barrett-Jackson | Palm Beach, April, 2017 | Auction Link
1 | $302,500 | 1965 21-window Samba
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