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