Volkswagen persevered longer than most manufacturers with the rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout. The 1968 Type 4 was its last hurrah.
In the mid-1960’s, there was still a wide variety of mechanical layouts to be found in passenger cars. The so-called conventional layout, with a longitudinally mounted front engine and gearbox linked by a propshaft and live axle to driven rear wheels, was still predominant, and the wholesale switch to front-wheel-drive by mainstream manufacturers would not happen for another decade.
The attraction of this layout for manufacturers was easy to comprehend. It was mechanically straightforward, and separated the steered front from the driven rear wheels, reducing complexity, while aiding accessibility, engine cooling, and weight distribution. The only real drawbacks were that it was inefficient in the use of space, with a large transmission tunnel bisecting the interior.
UK manufacturers were in the main pretty conservative, possibly influenced by their American parentage in the case of Ford, Vauxhall, and Rootes Group. (The latter’s problematic rear-engined Imp model predated Chrysler’s involvement.) The exception was BMC, which had been building the transverse-engined FWD Mini from 1959 and its larger 1100 and 1800 siblings from 1962 and 1964 respectively.
In Western Europe, there was more variety to be found: Fiat manufactured small rear-engined RWD cars, larger conventionally engineered models, and was evaluating the transverse-engined FWD layout with the 1964 Autobianchi Primula. Renault still made the rear-engined Dauphine alongside its more modern range of FWD cars. Likewise, Simca made the rear-engined 1000 alongside the conventional 1301 and would soon launch the transverse-engined FWD 1100.
In Germany, things were rather less complicated. Mercedes-Benz and BMW models were wholly conventional, as befitted their conservative image. Audi models had FWD, albeit with longitudinally mounted engines, and Volkswagens were still wholly rear-engined and RWD, using air-cooled flat-four engines. Heinz Henrich Nordhoff, who had been Managing Director of Volkswagen since 1948, was still, at least in public*, wholly committed to the company’s classic mechanical layout and was keen to expand the model range upwards from the Type 1 (Beetle) and Type 3 into the more lucrative mid-size saloon segment.
The 1961 Type 3 model was, essentially, little more than a Beetle in a sharper and more modern suit. It shared the Beetle’s 2,400mm wheelbase, but was 146mm longer overall, employing the same body-on-floorpan construction. The Type 3, while usefully bigger than the Beetle, was still a pretty unsophisticated car to drive. Moreover, having just two passenger doors limited its practicality.
Nordhoff commissioned an all-new design, the Type 4, which would be built in two and four-door fastback saloon and three-door estate (Variant) formats. Oddly, there were no plans for what might have been the most practical version, a five-door estate. The new model would retain the Beetle’s mechanical layout but, like the Type 3, it would utilise a compact low-height flat-four engine to allow for additional rear luggage space in the estate version.
The Type 4 would also be Volkswagen’s first model to employ unitary construction. This considerably improved body rigidity and refinement. The flat-four 1,679ccc air-cooled engine, although conceptually identical to earlier Volkswagen units, was a new oversquare design that was smoother and quieter, and produced stronger torque at low revs. The wheelbase, at 2,500mm, was 100mm longer than the Beetle or Type 3. MacPherson strut front and trailing arm rear suspension with coil springs was employed, another first for Volkswagen.
The new model was launched at the Paris Salon in October 1968 as the VW 411. The design was credited to Pininfarina, and while clearly related to the Type 3, it also could be said to have imbued some influence from the design house’s 1963 Corvair Speciale concept. Nevertheless, one wonders how much latitude the Italian carrozzeria had been allowed.
In launch specification, the engine was equipped with twin carburettors and produced 68bhp. After less than a year, the engine was equipped instead with Bosch fuel injection, which increased power to 80bhp. The revised model was designated 411E and is identifiable by twin round headlamps in place of the original single oval units.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the 411 was introduced into the US – the fuel injected version being developed largely for the American market. Car and Driver characterised it as the “Beetle Brougham – the longer, lower, wider Beetle”, a description which probably wasn’t greeted with unmitigated joy along the banks of the Mittelandkanal. Sales reflected the implication.
The Type 4 received its only major overhaul in August 1972 when a new front end, designed by Brooks Stevens**, was grafted on. The twin headlamps were relocated to just above the front bumper and moved inboard, which allowed the front wings to be lowered so they were flush with a reprofiled, flatter bonnet. The new model was designated 412LE. A year later the engine capacity was raised to 1,795cc and reverted to twin carburettors with a new designation, 412LS.
Production of the Type 4 ended in July 1974 and it was replaced by the first-generation Passat, effectively a rebodied Audi 80. Over a six-year production run, a total of 367,728 Type 4 models were produced. This was far short of the initial sales projections for 1,000 models a day, which would have totalled over 1.4 million in six years. Moreover, 80% of Type 4 sales were to existing Volkswagen owners, so the model had limited success in attracting new customers to the marque.
Incidentally, the Type 4’s engine had been offered as an option in the Type 2 Transporter from 1971 and it became standard in 1973. It lived on for another decade before being replaced by a water-cooled boxer engine in 1983.
I had the relatively rare pleasure of travelling in and poking around a 411 Variant when a neighbour of my parents purchased one new in 1970. To a nine-year-old car-obsessed boy, it looked very smart in its gleaming metallic blue paintwork. It was positively plush compared to the austere Beetle, with twin-dial instrumentation (speedometer and matching clock with inset fuel gauge) proper ventilation outlets and that signifier of luxury, a strip of (plastic) wood on the padded vinyl dashboard.
Look more closely and you got a clue as to the underpinnings; the floor-hinged accelerator pedal, rearward placing of the vertical gear lever, and a VW peculiarity: a 3D isometric ‘map’ of the gearchange positions drawn on the dashboard. In the Beetle, this was on the ashtray immediately ahead of the gear lever but, in the 411, it was on the glovebox lid directly in front of the passenger! On the road, the car was certainly a lot quieter than the Beetle, but the distinctive metallic clatter, although less intrusive, was still there.
The Type 4 was a decent effort to update the company’s traditional mechanical layout, but it was outdated and destined to fail. Volkswagen’s 1965 acquisition of Auto-Union (Audi) gave the company access to FWD technology and knowhow, and its 1969 acquisition of NSU gave it a new and production-ready FWD saloon, the K70. The latter proved to be something of a false start for Volkswagen, selling just 210,082 units over its short, four-year lifespan, but the company used those years productively to create a whole new generation of modern FWD Volkswagens that would transform the carmaker’s image and fortunes.
For Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff, the Type 4 would be the last Volkswagen he commissioned and oversaw. After suffering a heart attack in the summer of 1967, he returned to work, only to die suddenly on 12th April 1968, aged 69. Nordhoff’s passing marked the end of an era for Volkswagen: the Beetle would continue in production for some time, but the future for the company’s passenger cars would be FWD and water-cooled.
* Volkswagen had secretly built prototypes with different mechanical layouts, but none made production.
** Brooks Stevens was also the designer of the highly influential 1963 Jeep Wagoneer and the entirely uninfluential 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid Concept.