Volkswagen unveiled its now legendary Transporter (T1) in right-hand drive mode in 1954 at the Earls Court Motor Show, and six decades on a VW spokesman claims: “It has been the blueprint for the panel van ever since.”

UK sales of the Transporter have risen from a modest 786 in its first year to 18,350 in 2013. In total, the brand claims more than 300,000 units of the van it acknowledges has been the backbone of its LCV business have been sold in the UK.

The German manufacturer had harboured the idea of creating an LCV based on its Beetle car
for several years before it had the resources to put it into production in 1949, by which time it had a beefed up chassis to cope with its 750kg payload. The van went into mass production in 1950 before making it to the UK four years later.

The T1 was so successful during its 17-year run that the T2 that replaced it in 1967 retained most of its underpinnings. Even 1979’s T3 kept the original’s rear engine layout.

It was in 1990 with the T4 that VW switched to the front-engine, front-wheel drive layout.

The fifth-generation T5 appeared in 2003 and raised the bar in terms of load-lugging capability, with top payload going up from the T4’s 1165kg to 1340kg and the maximum load cube increasing from 7.8m3 to 9.3m3.

But it is perhaps in its cult camper van mode that the Transporter is held in most affection by the British public, because in the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, it helped to satisfy the burgeoning appetite for outdoor holidays and leisure activities in a society discovering a sense of freedom after the conservatism and austerity of the post-war years.

These models introduced such wonders as sleeping facilities in pop-up roofs, bench seats surrounding a central table that convert into beds, and in-vehicle kitchen units.

What Van? attended an event last month to celebrate the Transporter’s 60th anniversary where we were able to try out half a dozen historical models. These included a 30hp 1192cc 1954-registered T1 panel van with a four-speed manual gearbox, barn doors on the left-hand side and a safari split-screen windscreen so you can feel the wind in your hair when rattling along at 30mph.

Next up was a T2 split-screen Westfalia pop-top walk-through campervan from 1967 with a 50hp

1594cc twinport engine and a four- speed manual ‘box. Features include a dinette with table that folds flat against the sidewall, vinyl upholstery and a coolbox unit and water tap.

We also drove a 50hp 1600, four-speed 1976 T2 double-cab pick-up that spent its life as a working van until it was retired in 2009. There was a lot of play in the horizontal steering but the disc brakes were surprisingly good.

A 1985-registered Devon Camper has five manual gears that aren’t easy to find. Power comes from a 110hp 1600cc turbo-diesel engine and the model features rack-and-pinion steering.

A rear-wheel drive Caravelle from 1989 was hugely impressive with a relatively slick five-speed transmission and far more precise rack-and-pinion steering than its 1985 stablemate. Power comes from a 110hp 2100cc engine.

The newest model we drove was a 2002 T4 panel van with a 2500cc TDI engine with a power output of 110hp. While the drive is consistent with what one would expect from a modern van, the lacklustre air-conditioning obliged us to keep the windows open, and the cabin is outmoded by today’s standards – right down to a Nokia- sized mobile phone holder.

Driving the old models gives an insight into the huge advances made in light commercial vehicle manufacturing over the years in terms of engines, ride, handling, and cabin design. Gone are upright, stick-like handbrakes and the need to bend at the waist to reach the gears. Also vanished into the mists of time is the sense of your life flashing before your eyes when you have to rely on the brakes to halt runaway downhill progress.

Far from the ‘mobile offices’ of today, many older vans provided next to no in-cab stowage, and if you didn’t like the fixed seating position well, you had to lump it.

But for all that these Transporters, going back six decades, were all ground-breakingly cutting edge in their day.

VW is remaining coy about when the next generation will appear, but we can expect the T6 to arrive on UK roads around the middle of next year.