Reimagining a Legend

Volkswagen do Brasil used its creative independence to produce a car that, had it arrived a decade earlier, might have been a very credible replacement for the Beetle.

1973 Volkswagen Brasilia. (c) via wheelsage

The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the defining motor vehicles of the Twentieth Century. It remained in production for 65 years and a total of 21,529,464 were built. Although much changed over its lifetime, the distinctive profile remained largely the same, with its smoothly curved roof and bonnet, and separate front and rear wings connected by running boards. Anybody seeing a 1938 prototype parked next to a 2003 final year model would have little difficulty seeing the familial resemblance.

The Beetle’s enduring popularity was a function of its mechanical simplicity and robustness. Beetles would carry on uncomplainingly for many thousands of miles with minimal maintenance, all of which could be undertaken by any competent amateur mechanic. The engine was unbreakable, and there was no coolant to leak, boil or freeze. The Beetle fostered huge loyalty amongst its owners. Everyone else, however, found it slow, noisy, not especially pleasant to drive and impractical – and they were right.

The curved bonnet curtailed the already limited luggage space up front, which was largely filled by the fuel tank and vertically mounted spare wheel. Placing hard luggage into the additional space behind the rear seat required the skills of a contortionist. The strictly two-door format meant access to the rear seat was awkward, although there was reasonable enough space once you were in there.

Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback. (c)

Volkswagen attempted to address these weaknesses with the Type 3, launched in 1961 in two-door notchback and three-door estate versions, with a fastback version following in 1965. The Type 3 was certainly more modern looking and a little more capacious and practical, but still a two-door car, which ruled it out for many potential buyers. Moreover, it was offered with 1.5 then 1.6 litre engines and positioned as a larger and more expensive car than the Beetle, despite being built on the Beetle’s floorpan and sharing its 2,400mm wheelbase.

The Type 3 sold steadily, but never came close to matching the Beetle’s popularity. Most potential buyers decided that the price premium was not worth paying and stuck to the Beetle. A total of just over 2.5 million were manufactured in Germany over a twelve-year production run, with a further 400,000 manufactured in Brazil.

By the early 1970’s, Volkswagen was struggling with its outdated rear-engined designs in Europe and the US, so set about a wholesale switch to front-engined FWD models. This presented something of a problem for the South American markets, where arduous driving conditions and rudimentary maintenance standards still favoured the Beetle’s mechanical simplicity.

(c) favcars

Volkswagen do Brasil, which enjoyed considerable design independence from its German parent, decided that what was needed was a more modern and practical car that retained the Beetle’s underpinnings. Its designers came up with the Brasilia in 1973, a smart three and five-door hatchback design that looked very much like a scaled down Volkswagen 412 Variant*. The launch engine was a rear mounted 1.3 litre single-carburettor flat-four air-cooled unit that drove the rear wheels through a four-speed gearbox. Later, 1.6 litre and ethanol powered versions of the engine would be offered.

The Brasilia’s rear engine limited load space in the back and the loading lip was quite high, but it was still considerably more practical than the Beetle. The Brasilia was exported to a number of South American countries, including Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. Small numbers even made their way to Spain, Portugal and the Philippines. The three-door version was assembled by Volkswagen de México for the local market and CKD kits of the five-door version were exported to Nigeria, where it was assembled and sold as the Igala.

Just as was the case with the Brazilian and Mexican manufactured Beetles, the Brasilia was a strange cocktail of new and antiquated technologies. It had disc front brakes from launch but did not gain dual-circuit braking and a collapsible steering column until 1977.

The Brasilia remained in production for nine years until 1982, during which time a total of over one million units were manufactured. Even in the year of its launch, Volkswagen had already committed itself to an FWD future, but one cannot help wondering if a car like the Brasilia had been launched a decade earlier, how it might have fared in Europe and the US.

There were many devotees of air-cooled Volkswagens, including my late father, who would have jumped at the chance to buy a more modern and practical replacement for the Beetle. Had it been fitted with the more compact ‘pancake’ engine from the Type 4 (including a smaller capacity version) its practicality would have been further improved.

(c) stormoldcarmanualproject

Incidentally, the Brasilia was not Volkswagen do Brasil’s first solo project. In 1972 it launched the SP1 and SP2, a rakish three-door liftback coupé based on the floorpan of the VW Type 3 Variant. The SP1 had a standard 1.6 litre engine and was quickly discontinued because of its pedestrian performance. Even the SP2, with its uprated 1.7 litre engine, was very much more show than go, with a 0 to 100Km/h time of 16 seconds and a top speed of 160Km/h. It remained on sale for just three years, during which time around 10,000 were sold.

The Brasilia was replaced by another solo Volkswagen do Brasil project, the 1980 Gol. This was an FWD three-door hatchback that sat between the Polo and Golf in size, with design cues similar to the Mk2 versions of the latter pair. It was initially powered by the Beetle’s air-cooled flat-four engine, albeit front mounted, but this would soon give way to water-cooled in-line units.

* Aside from the fact that the 412 Variant was, inexplicably, never produced in five-door form.


Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “Reimagining a Legend”

  1. The following picture gives an impression how high the Brasilia’s load lip really was. The boot flor was at the same level as the lower edge of the rear hatch so any luggage would have to go between the rear side windows.

    If the Porsche 924 got mocked for having an ‘obenliegender Kofferraum’ (overhead luggage area) then how would one call this?

    VW’s mantra of ‘air doesn’t boil and air doesn’t freeze up’ already was answered by ‘and air doesn’t heat’ at the time the Type 3 appeared on the market. The Type 3 was a whole class above the Beetle with prices to match. Around 5,000 Deutschmarks bought a Beetle and a Type 3 cost about 7,000 when an Opel Kadett B or a Ford 12M P6 was yours for around 6,300.
    Even in its home country people slowly got annoyed by the Beetle. Having a heater that worked only in summer, swing axle handling, no straight line stability and sensitivity to cross winds, no usable boot and very restricted interior space were things more and more customers disliked and this couldn’t be compensated by the loops instead of grab handles that came handy for some back seat activities…

  2. The Type 3 still had bolt-on rear fenders, whereas the Brasilia was all welded together as a monocoque like the Type 4. Why couldn’t they have done this in Wolfsburg in 1961? They were already making the Type 2 and Karmann Ghia all welded together. It seems like a monocoque Type 3 could have been made lighter and more space efficient and stiffer and perhaps quieter, therefore more fitting of its upmarket position and price, and consequently a smash hit. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a need for a Type 4 or even a Brasilia (retrofit the Type 1’s taller engine at the cost of rear boot space, simplify the interior, cut the price).

    1. Bolt on wings were an important sales proposition at that time and if the rear wings were bolt on items, too, that was even better. Audi F103, VW 411 Variant, some French cars had bolt on rear wings which could easily be replaced when they were perforated by corrosion. Wings that were welded up were expensive to replace, even if there was only a short line of brazing to be done like on 02 BMWs atop the front lights.
      The 411’s importance way that it was the first VW with more than 2,400 millimetres of wheelbase and it had a new engine with more capacity and power. Whether it was a good idea to make this new engine an air cooled one and to put it in the back is open to debate.

  3. Good morning, Daniel. A Brazilian ex-Fusca (Beetle) owner once claimed to me that it’s machanical simplicity gained it a reputation as a Hail Mary car – if it broke down, you got out, said a Hail Mary, got back in, and went on your way again… It has to be said she didn’t remember her Fusca with much affection, and was much happier with her then current Fiat Palio. That Palio, incidentally, didn’t even have a heated rear window, but it did have very powerful air-conditioning, which is a lot more useful in North eastern Brasil!

  4. Good morning gentlemen and thanks for your comments. Dave, that’s a great photo of the Brasilia’s rear load space. It’s a shame they didn’t use the ‘pancake’ engine from the Type 3 or Type 4, which would have improved matters considerably. In any event, the Brasilia still had a much more useable load space thsn the Beetle in its elongated square nose. VW really tested customer loyalty with the pricing of the Type 3. My dad looked at one in 1968 and quickly decided it wasn’t worth the premium, so bought a new Beetle instead.

    Gooddog, good point about (the lack of) monocoque construction. My ‘alternative universe’ VW model range in the late 1960’s would comprise Brasilia, Type 4 and EA128. The latter is VW’s abandoned large saloon project, about which there will be a DTW piece coming up shortly. Stay tuned!

    Michael, great story about the ‘Hail Mary’ car, although such was the Beetle’s inate reliability and mechanical simplicity that divine intervention was rarely needed. My dad drove Beetles for many years and I cannot recall a single breakdown. The only major problem he experienced related to the careless Irish assembly: the metal fold forming the roof gutter began to rust from the inside before the car was a couple of years old and was effectively irreparable. He discovered that the problem a small number of 1968 cars where the metal was not rust-protected.

    1. A Beetle can be started after any time in storege by simply turning the key

  5. Here’s the VW Gol that effectively replaced the Brasilia:

    It was launched in 1980 and actually predated the Mk2 versions of the European Polo, Golf, Passat by at least a year, so actually previewed VW’s new 1980’s style, if anybody was paying attention.

  6. Really enjoying your recent VW articles, Daniel, thank you. I’d no idea the Beetle chassis was so extensively used.

    Regarding the heater in the Beetle, I always found the heat exchanger around the exhaust to be a very effective system. The only problem I encountered was a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel on long trips one Winter… until I discovered a tiny perforation in the exhaust within the heat exchanger was causing the interior to gradually fill with CO, putting me to sleep!

    1. Hello vwmeister and thank you for your kind words. Glad you’re enjoying this series on obscure VWs. There’s one (or two, possibly) more pieces to come.

      That was a scary situation with your Beetle heater. Well done for spotting the problem. I remember when the heater was on in my Beetle, there was always a faint smell of exhaust gases, even though the exhaust and heat exchanger were fine, as far as I was aware.

  7. Is it known if the Type 4 engine’s could have been further reduced from 1.7-litres?

    Agree a car like the Brasilia should have appeared in the early-60s with Type 3 (possibly even Type 4) Pancake engines, 3/5-door hatchback along with EA128 prototype-like 2/4-door notchback saloon bodystyles as well as Variant II and Type 4 updates / suspension.

    Also of the view for those preferring the original Beetle styling that the internal improvements regarding the Pancake engines and more sophisticated suspension / etc could have been used on a updated version of the existing Beetle like an early 60s Super Beetle 4-door or even a 3/5-door via a Type 3 Pancake engine as below.

    1. Why should VW have tried to produce a smaller Type 4 engine?
      For capacities up to 1.6 litres they had the Type 1/Beetle engine that could be used in any car suitable for the Type 4 engine. Think of Type 2 T3 but in any other TYpe 4 based car an even less powerful engine wouldn’t have made sense.

    2. Because while not exactly expecting the Type 4 engine to directly replace the existing VW air-cooled engine, do seem to vaguely recall reading the Type 4 engine was originally conceived as a 1600cc engine before being enlarged to a 1679cc engine.

      It is not unusual for carmakers to suddenly enlarge an engine during development as with yesterday’s article on the Toyota Corolla where the E10’s engine grew from 1000cc to 1100cc.

    3. It’s a good question, because a 1,300cc version of the ‘pancake’ Type 3 or 4 engine would have been perfect for the Brasilia, which could have been designed so it fitted.

    4. The ‘pancake’ engine would have made sense in the Brasilia and it would have been available.
      A smaller version of the Type 4 would not have made sense because the Type 1 already covered the size range up to 1,600 cc. Not to forget that the Type 4 was considerably bigger (longer) than the Type 1 engine and needed some effort to fit an engine bay designed for the smaller engine.
      Look no further than Riechert’s Beetle with 914 2,0 engine

    5. Wow, that’s a tight squeeze. I like the three-dimensional fan-belt.

      I can think of one other mainstream European car that had a similar ’round the corner’ arrangement. That’s today’s DTW trivia question. I’m tempted to ban Dave and Bob from replying, as they’re bound to know the answer. Instead I’ll ask them very politely to hold back until 20.00hrs BST. If nobody else gets it beforehand, then they can supply the answer. Bon Chance!

    6. The Riechert Beetle (914 2.0 engine converted to carburettors, 100PS) was legendary for its non-existant straight line stability and lethal oversteer under any conditions, let alone in the wet. Definitely not for the faint hearted.
      Only this one was better (Nordstadt/Artz Beetle Carrera, 2.7 litre Porsche engine, 210 PS, mid mounted engine, based on 914/6 chassis.

    7. It would have probably been feasible for an early 60s Brasilia to feature 1200-1500cc later 1300-1600cc Type Pancake engines, that just leaves the question of improving the output a shade or so above the 65 hp 1600cc unit in the Brazilian Beetle 1600S Bizorrao and Volkswagen SP1 prototype.

      Have read elsewhere of Type 4 powered Type 3 conversions being a much easier swap compared to a Type 4 powered Beetle. It is possible the more radical 4-door Super Beetle proposal would have required a Type 4 engine to adequately power the 4-door body, though the Type 3 Pancake engine may have been what Volkswagen intended for the radical 4-door Super Beetle proposal.

    8. Rest assured that at Volkswagen nobody thought about this Super Beetle. The integral bumpers place this photoshop wonder in an era where not even stubborn VW would have invested any money in the original Beetle – after Kutz Lotz’ demise nobody dared create a sentence containing a word starting with ‘Kä…’ without the risk of getting sacked immediately.
      It’s small wonder that a Type 4 engine gets into a Type 3 engine bay more easily because the ‘pancake’ engine has more room between engine and bumper for the crank mounted fan.
      Extracting more power from a Beetle engine wasn’t easy because the engine was deliberately restricted in gas flow to make it suitable for sustained high speeds (everything’s relative) on the new Autobahns. It got somewhat better when at the time of the 1302 LS the cylinder heads suddenly got separate inlet ports, making upgrades to big carburettors easier. With lots of work 75 PS were extracted from Type 1 engines by tuners like Oettinger or Riechert. With some redesign like exhaust valves set at an angle Porsche managed to get up to 90 PS from the same basic engine design- don’t know whether VW would have been allowed to use 356-style cylinder heads for their own products.
      But driving Beetles with that much power definitely isn’t harmless fun. The Riechert Beetle shown above reached 62 mph from a standstill in around eight seconds and topped out at nearly 120 mph but its road manners separated men from boys like an early 911. I know a guy whose sizeable Beetle collection contains a 1302 with Willibald engine – Type 4 taken to 2.7 litres and around 150 PS, Porsche gearbox, Porsche brakes and Fuchs wheels. This thing is pure madness and is not recommended for family men.

    9. From the article itself the radical modernized 1970 4-door Super Beetle concept designed by Herbert Schäfer is far from a photoshop wonder (unlike the Type 3 Beetle hatchback in the other article), only for the company in that period to understandably opt for taking the quickest, cheapest route to modernizing the Beetle with the existing Super Beetle.

      The point is Volkswagen could have embraced such an idea much earlier as a more familiar alternative to an early 60s Brasilia, either way the ideal for both along with featuring 1200-1600cc Type 3 Pancake engines would have been to receive the internal updates such as to the suspension and elsewhere that found their way in the Type 3, Type 4 and Variant II.

      The above changes would have allowed both an early 60s Brasilia or an early 60s version of the radical 1970 Super Beetle concept to be able to handle a moderate increase in power to around 75-80 hp via an updated 1600cc Type 3 Pancake engine, with the engine also benefiting the likes of alternate Type 3/Brasilia-based Karmann Ghia Type 34 and Karmann-Ghia TC (that feature the improvements to the suspension / etc mentioned above).

  8. The Latin American market is more price sensitive than Western Europe, so perhaps it would have been more expensive to put the pancake engine in the Brasilia? If VW do Brasil had production lines set up for the earlier engine, and none for the pancake one, that might well have clinched it…

    1. The ‘pancake’ is identical to the Beetle Type 1 except for the cooling fan which is mounted to the end of the crankshaft rather than sitting on top of the engine, belt driven. Any Type 1 engine can be converted from Beetle to pancake and vice versa.The pancake does away with the Type 1’s biggest fault, the oil cooler blocking the air stream to the left hand front cylinder, causing overheating, snapped valves and engine deaths.

  9. Re fan belts with tortured routes, I’d nominate the Peugeot 304 engine from Europe, and the Corvair engine from the US.

    1. Well done, Charles. It was the 304/305 I was thinking about. I wonder if the belts failed, or at least needed changing, more frequently because of increased stresses?

    2. Replacing the drive belt on my 1973 304 Coupé was not a straightforward job. Certainly not for an inexperienced home mechanic on a South London residential side street in a freezing 1996 November, armed with nothing but a basic tool set, a Haynes Manual, a set of axle stands, a replacement belt and a lot of swearing under his breath. I was ridiculously pleased with myself when the car started and ran. Mercifully, I had no further problems with it.

  10. Oh dear, I think I’ve had enough for today. I think I’ll hop in my Volkswagen and go… I dunno, somewhere!

  11. A título de curiosidade, VW brasileiros:
    Sp2, Brasília, Karmann Ghia TC, Variant2,Gol, Saveiro,Parati, Voyage,Santana e Quantum2,Pointer, Logus, Fox, SpaceFox, Nivus. Versões/restilização: Apollo, Polo Sedan, Virtus.

    Google translate:

    Out of curiosity, Brazilian VW:
    Sp2, Brasília, Karmann Ghia TC, Variant2,Gol, Saveiro,Parati, Voyage,Santana and Quantum2,Pointer, Logus, Fox, SpaceFox, Nivus. Versions/Restylization: Apollo, Polo Sedan, Virtus.

    1. Good evening, Maurício, and thank you for your comment. Yes, VW do Brasil has been the author of some very interesting and unique models over the years.

      Google translate:

      Boa noite, Maurício, e obrigado pelo seu comentário. Sim, a VW do Brasil foi autora de alguns modelos muito interessantes e únicos ao longo dos anos.

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