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.
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 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By the early 1970’s, Volkswagen was struggling with its outdated rear-engined designs in Europe and the US, so set about a wholesale switch to front-engined FWD models.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.
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.
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.