Wolfsburg Samba

Volkswagen do Brasil – Wolfsburg’s younger, nimbler and more ingenious Latin cousin repeatedly showed up its more torpid German counterpart. Here’s another example.  

1968 Volkswagen 1.600. (c) autoarkiv.dk

Volkswagen’s Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff has repeatedly and justifiably been criticised over the years for his tardiness in sanctioning a replacement to the eternal and best-selling Beetle, before sales collapsed by the tail-end of the 1960s. It was not for the want of trying however, and as far back as 1955, with the Käfer selling in still-increasing quantities, Nordhoff, realising its success alone would not sustain VW indefinitely, put in train a series of Beetle-based prototypes – some to sit alongside, others to succeed it, but none came to fruition.

In 1957, Nordhoff enacted the EA 97 programme. Begun in parallel with the Type 3, EA 97 would employ the Beetle chassis, and would be powered by its 30 bhp 1192 cc engine. The more upmarket Type 3 on the other hand used a wider track version of the same platform, but with a redesigned front torsion bar suspension design, a wider bodyshell and the larger capacity pancake engine, which was compact enough for an additional luggage compartment overhead. The wheelbase however was unchanged.

1960 EA 97 pre-production prototype. (c) automuseum-volkswagen.de

Stylistically, EA 97 closely resembled its larger cousin, although whether any body panels were shared is unclear. Work on this model proceeded until 1960, but with the model believed to be very close to production, Nordhoff, it seems, got cold feet, with around 200 pre-production prototypes being built before the programme was cancelled. The party line on this was that EA 97 was too close in size (and appearance) to the production Type 3, and would have adversely affected the latter’s prospects, although quite why it took so long for VW’s supervisory board to recognise this remains unclear.

The following year, Volkswagen introduced the Type 3 as the 1500 saloon, initially across European markets only, Nordhoff clearly of the view that a more upmarket model was of more immediate benefit to the business.

This really ought to have been it as far as EA 97 was concerned, and probably would have been had it not been for Brazilian subsidiary, VW do Brasil, who made representations to Nordhoff for a supplementary model which could be built at its São Bernardo do Campo facility. Owing to its wider body and technical differences, the Type 3 would not have been a suitable transplant, so it appears that Wolfsburg simply dusted down EA 97, handing the blueprints and it’s alleged, the tooling to the Brazilians to do with as they pleased.

While a subsidiary of the Wolfsburg mothership, VW do Brasil operated with a good deal of independence, hence EA 97 underwent considerable alteration before it was introduced in 1968, as a ’69 model. Restyled under the leadership of Marcio Piancastelli (who it’s believed oversaw the bulk of VW do Brasil designs), the car received a remodelled nose with (rather awkward looking) rectangular headlamps – quickly altered in ADO61 style to twin round units – (no less awkward), and most notably, two additional doors.

Wolfsburg had already upped the capacity of their long-running air-cooled flat four to 1600 cc, which was introduced in time for the Type 3 to make its US market debut in 1966. The Brazilian version however was not (initially) in pancake format, but was offered in two power outputs, both of which were slightly in excess of European market offerings.

The saloon was quickly followed by a two-door TL fastback saloon and Variant estate models, both of which while similar looking to their Type 3 siblings, were in fact markedly different. The three volume model, which had not been a sales success, was phased out in 1970. Mechanically, both new models used a variation of the pancake unit, with the fuel tank moved from the rear to the front compartment.

In 1972, VW do Brasil shook the kaleidoscope once more, offering the 1600 with a heavily restyled nose, closely reflecting that of both the Brasila and 412 models. The fastback meanwhile was joined by a four-door model, which received the rear doors of the previously unloved saloon, creating a not unattractive confection which resembled a cross between 412 fastback and Saab 99.

The 1600 TL fastback remained in production until 1976, with the (apparently more successful) Variant model continuing a further year, when it received a full reskin, crossing the 412 style with that of the later front-drive models. Further developments included the adoption of the 412’s strut front and semi-trailing arm suspension designs. VW do Brasil produced this car, known as the Variant II until 1982.

Variant II. (c) vw-lifestyle.blogspot.com.br

In 1967, as Beetle sales were dropping alarmingly, VW are believed to have shown the auto press the vast array of prototypes created since 1952, in a vain attempt to illustrate good intent; a collection which not only represented a waste of millions of Deutschmarks, but the indecision of Volkswagen’s supervisory board when faced with the paradox of success. In retrospect, it also underlined the ingenuity of VW’s Brazilian counterparts, who were, in product terms at least, dancing rings around their Wolfsburg parent. Perhaps Herr. Nordhoff ought to have taken samba lessons.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Wolfsburg Samba”

  1. I’m sure that the development of those attractive Brazilian cars and the arrival of Rudolf Leiding as CEO of VW do Brasil in 1968 are not merely coincidental. The Brasilia and in particular the SP2 were Leiding’s personal pet projects.

  2. Good morning Eóin. VW’s product planning really was all over the place in the 1950’s and 60’s. EA97 and/or the Type 3 were always far too close in size to co-exist comfortably. How could it be otherwise when they shared the same 2,400mm wheelbase? Once again, those clever Brazilians managed to salvage something from the mess. The Variant II is a fascinating design for me. Side-on, it’s a dead ringer for the Passat Mk1 from the B-pillar forwards:

    From the rear, the clamshell hatch and those ribbed rear lights are very nicely done:

    As Dave said, Rudolf Leiding’s leadership was the driving force behind these designs. In researching the recent Brasilia piece I read that his wife was also influential in the development of the SP1 coupé.

  3. Is it just me, or does that EA97 prototype look like the result of an illicit relationship involving a Renault Dauphine?

  4. The ingenuity of Volkswagen’s Brazilian counterpart deserves much credit compared to the indecisiveness of Volkswagen HQ , really the latter under competent management should have followed the example of the former and sought to consolidate the ideas that found their way to Brazil from the outset.

    The earlier EA97 pre-production prototype and earlier production model’s simple styling looks like it belongs on a much smaller BMW 700 and NSU Prinz 4 type model.

    Not sure though how well the Type 3 Pancake engine would have translated in 596-792cc Flat-Twin form or in terms of power against similar rivals had Volkswagen actually considered such a model,despite Volkswagen’s earlier pre/post-war efforts at Flat-Twin engines (from some pre-war/war-time Porsche-designed Volkswagen Tractor to the EA48 prototype). Yet the Brazilian Gurgel BR-800 and Gurgel Supermini (along with the earlier Gurgel Cena and later Gurgel Delta prototypes) does give an approximate idea.

  5. I’m enjoying this series.

    I suppose the British parallel to VW do Brasil was BMC and BLMC Australia, who did all sorts of things on a shoestring budget which would have had validity and sales potential in the UK and Europe; LWB Minor-based cars, six cylinder midsize Farina saloons, E series-powered and hatchback ADO16s, 1800 pickup, X6 Tasman and Kimberley, and the P76. There was also a Marina sized car – but probably rather better – planned long before Stokes’ bright but regressive idea.

    On Frau Leiding and the SP1, I’m put in mind of the story – more than occasionally questioned – of the Isabella Coupe being developed because Elisabeth Borgward wanted a VW Karmann Ghia and Carl would not countenance her driving a rival’s product. The cost was met by using the budget for the almost-ready four door Isabella, which was never put into production.

    In the Borgward case, the Coupe was a far bigger seller than expected, despite high prices. The success was somewhat hollow as profits were eroded by the extent of hand-building required, since the Coupe was tooled for smaller scale production than the 100+ per week required at the peak of demand.

  6. This German site has a couple of pictures of the prototypes Volkswagen had been working on, lined up, together. It’s odd that they kept them for so long – manufacturers tend not to.


    It’s revealing that many are roughly along the same lines, although not surprising; they all answer the question ‘What would an updated Beetle look like?’, rather than ‘What should our cars be like in future?’. Success can be very limiting, as we’re currently witnessing with the shift away from internal combustion engined vehicles.

    1. What a fantastic set of photos! Thanks for sharing, Charles. I had always thought BMC/BL wasted an inordinate amount of effort on designs that never made production, but it appears what VW was equally profligate and indecisive. If ever a company was held hostage by its history, it was VW. The company got it right in the end with the Golf, albeit only by embracing a design that owed nothing to the Beetle.

    2. Thanks for sharing the link Charles, lots of interesting information there despite not being a German speaker.

      It would seem EA266 was to not only feature a 4-door saloon bodystyle, but also a 50 hp 1-litre 3-cylinder engine that was presumably derived from the 65 hp 1.3-litre 4-cylinder engine.

      Interesting to note EA 53 appears to have started out as much smaller car beneath the Beetle at lengths of 146-155 inches before eventually evolving into the Type 3, even though the early prototypes featured 30-35 hp 0.9-1.1 Flat-Four engines followed by 42-54/60 hp 1.3-1.5-litre engines the link also makes mention of what appears to be 26-31 hp 792cc and 32.5 hp 887.7cc Flat-Four engines with the former sharing a similar displacement as a hypothetical 1584c Flat-Four derived Flat-Twin engine. There might have been some value in developing a sub-Beetle composite of the 141-inch 26.5 hp 992cc Volkswagen / Porsche Type 534 prototype and the early 146-inch EA 53 proposals.

      A pity the radical modernized Herbert Schäfer Super Beetle variant never entered production, at least outside of the US market.

      The South African Beetle rebody proposal is another fascinating what-if that could have benefited from early composite improvements from the Brazil and other upgrades.

      Not mentioned in the German link though can be found on Google under Volkswagen BY Projeto would be best described as a 1983-1987 Polo-sized analogue of the Golf-sized Volkswagen Gol / EA266 which may or may not have been based on a shortened Gol platform.

  7. Many thanks for the link Charles
    The is a very interesting quote, attributed to Porsche on that document, dated 15.03.1967, as what was to become EA 266 was in the concept phase. Porsche evaluated five layouts

    – FWD, transverse engine
    – FWD, longitudinal engine ahead of the front axle
    – FWD, longitudinal engine behind the front axle
    – RWD, transverse engine above the rear axle
    – RWD, longitudinal engine ahead of the rear axle, beneath the rear seat

    And came to this interesting conclusion

    “Die Fronttriebwagen haben zu große fahrtechnische Mängel und scheiden aus den weiteren Überlegungen aus”

    – The front wheel drive cars have too many driving (dynamics) deficiencies and are thus discarded from further evaluation

    I can’t help wonder if Porsche bothered to test a Mini or an Autobianchi Primula ? Or wether they were thinking too much about mid-engined Sportscars and too little about the poor soul who would have had to service the EA 266 engine from the bottom-up

    Leiding was right in sending the whole thing to the scrapyard, undoubtedly.

    1. Hi Charles. Yes, the Taigun concept was a rather nice looking small SUV:

      I would have seriously considered buying one of those, had it come to market looking like that. Unfortunately, it has mutated into this overwrought mess for the Indian market:

      What a lost opportunity.

    2. Hello Daniel – that’s shocking – it really does make me wonder what they’re doing. I hope the new Design Director will take things in a different direction.

    3. Charles, the new design director does indeed have his work cut out, but in his favour, not only has worked amid the VW mothership in the past, but also has a reputation of going the extra kilometre to fight for his styling team’s vision. VW should, in the fullness of time, benefit from Mr. Kaban’s influence, assuming he’s given a suitably free hand. Not necessarily the case at his previous employer, one is forced to assume…

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