Under the Knife – If the Wind Changes, You’ll Stay Like That

Concluding our micro-theme on Volkswagen, while continuing another one.

VW do Brasil’s 1984 Santana 2-door. (c) autogaleria.hu

There is (or ought to be) a rule which states that the longer a car remains in production, the less effective facelifting exercises become – in purely aesthetic terms at least. You will have noticed that Volkswagen (of Wolfsburg) has been in receipt of no small quantum of derisive commentary upon DTW’s pages of late, most of which was largely justified. By contrast, VW do Brasil has been portrayed as the more astute, more ingenious, and more commercially adept of the pair.

This was certainly the case when the mothership remained in hand-wringing mode as to the product-related course it should take in a post-Käfer landscape. But it does appear that as their German counterparts finally got a grip on both itself and its product, the Brazilians appeared to lose sight of theirs – at least from a creative standpoint. Certainly, by the 1980s, Volkswagen do Brasil’s output seemed to lack the distinctiveness and visual appeal which characterised its earlier iterations.

Given that the Brazilian outpost’s Marcio Piancastelli seemed to have been uncannily adept at taking contemporary VW styling cues and imbuing them with more stylistic verve than his Mittelandkanal counterparts, perhaps this was more an indictment of his source material than any falloff in stylistic ability on Piancastelli’s part – or simply that maestro Schäfer’s shapes, such as they were, didn’t translate all that well.

B2 Passat hatch. Europe-only. (c) classics-honestjohn

Volkswagen’s 1980 Passat B2-Series was, even by VW standards a highly successful model programme. Based, like its B1 predecessor on the concurrent Audi 80 platform, suspensions and powertrain, this commonality already allowed for significant economies of scale. Introduced across Europe as a five-door hatchback or estate (a three-door was also offered in some markets), the Euro-range was expanded in (possibly) 1984 by a three-volume saloon (the first in Passat terms), called Santana.

This bodystyle of Passat had previously been resisted by Volkswagen, presumably to avoid stepping on Audi’s toes; the incumbent hatchback’s slightly hunchbacked appearance seem by some as a deliberate ruse to place some visual distance between the mechanically similar VW in potential customer’s eyes. But some more eagle-eyed viewers have also discerned a faint resemblance between the Passat and its distant 411/412 predecessor. Hardly coincidental, given the fact that Herbert Schäfer, Volkswagen’s then design director, was believed to have worked on the Type 4 design during his earlier career.

1984 VW Santana (Japanese spec) (c) favcars

The Santana came therefore as something of a surprise – as was its name – most English speaking folk ascribing it to the synonymous and popular Latin American blues/rock band. The novelty went little further however, since the Santana was an entirely predictable (if well-executed) three-volume version of the existing somewhat staid Passat theme. Resembling (especially in high-spec versions) a slightly more compact version of the previous generation Audi 100, it was by mid-80s standards, somewhat regressive, but there remained a market for that.

More so elsewhere; the Santana it seems being created ostensibly for ’emerging markets’, especially China, where it spearheaded VW’s push into that previously impenetrable state, and quite naturally, America – both North and South of the border. VW do Brasil offered the Santana (uniquely?) with both 2-door and four-door bodies, the former (in the lead photo above at least) having something of a ‘Volvo 780 ES on a budget’ appearance.

In 1989, Wolfsburg introduced the B3, a radically different Passat, the first to be based on a transverse powertrain, owing nothing to its Ingolstadt equivalent. But in Latin America and China, the B2 Santana remained in production, VW do Brasil grafting on a new, more raked nose and taller tail in 1991. This version was also sold in Argentina, not only as the Volkswagen Carat, but also as the Ford Versailles, under an agreement between VW do Brasil and the Ford Motor Company. Production also took place in Mexico. Incidentally, North American versions of the B2 were marketed as Quantum. (Of what however, remains unclear – derision perhaps?).

In 1998, a further, more comprehensive facelift was enacted for the Brazilian market, and while competently executed in itself, seemed rooted in the worst of Herbie Schäfer’s Heidedesign excesses, which so characterised VW’s stylistic output throughout the early to mid-90s. These changes were largely (if not precisely) duplicated in China, where the B2 Santana continued in production until 2012.

It has not been possible (in the time available) to discern a definitive figure for total B2 production, but it, along with the return on investment, must have been considerable. But to return to the subject of facelifts, while not always visually satisfying, in the case of the Santana, a car which predominantly sold on qualities which probably sat well outside of showroom appeal and outright style, they maintained the car in the market well past the point it ought to have been retired.

Isn’t that really the point of the exercise?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Under the Knife – If the Wind Changes, You’ll Stay Like That”

  1. Good morning Eóin. The Santana really was an extraordinarily long-lived and, presumably, lucrative model for VW in China and Latin America. In China, the Santana 2000, 3000 and Vista were not only successive facelifts, but incorporated a 108mm (4″) stretch in its wheelbase, the extra length visible in longer rear doors:

    In Latin America the Santana was also sold under the names Carat and Corsar. There was even a Ford version, the Versailles (saloon) and Royale (estate):

    Your opening argument about facelifts becoming progressively less successful from an aesthetic perspective is certainly true in the case of the Santana. The original had an unusually slim profile, thanks to its low bonnet and boot lines, but the final Vista iteration had completely lost this quality with a very heavy looking tail.

    1. So here it is folks, the literal inspiration for the perennially controversial D-pillar treatment on Adam Hatton’s 2009-2019 X351 Jaguar XJ. You read it here first…

  2. Here’s a nice comparative photo of the original Brazilian two and four-door models:

    Note the opening front quarter-lights, and the (very) subtly curved lower DLO line, more apparent on the two-door.

    By the way, your title for the piece took me straight back to my childhood: I haven’t heard that expression in years!

  3. Thanks for this article on a -perhaps unwarrantedly so- long lived car; here are a few photos of a brochure I have of the Santana 3000 of around 2006/2007 vintage. VW China made efforts to keep the interior more or less up to date with the current VW idiom as well, with mixed results but not bad considering what they had to work with.

  4. What a highly interesting micro theme this has become., full marks all round to contributors and commentators, alike.
    To the pictures above, the side profile two door looks quite nice with a more Ingolstadt stance.
    Bruno’s catalogue imbues a more Rover-esque look.
    The blue, ‘99 version in Eóin”s piece, from that front 3/4 view just does not sit right to these eyes.
    And who couldn’t be impressed by driving a Ford Versailles? Well, perhaps the Sun King…

    1. Hi Andrew. You’re right: the front bumper is too large, rounded and featureless to sit comfortably against the crisp, linear body. It looks like a bad aftermarket item. It’s a common problem in facelifts, when they try to force a new style onto an old design.

  5. The Santana was a popular and we’ll regarded car back in the 80’s and early 90’s here in Chile, being VW’s first attempt at selling a more upscale model.
    We never got to see the facelift, as the local importer deviated from the standard Latin American VW model mix by replacing it with the German-made B3 Passat afterwards

  6. VW deliberately kept the Santana alive for China for the longest possible time. This was done to limit their Chinese partners’ access to VW IP because of the way JV contracts were/are formulated with fifty-one percent belonging to the Chinese partner that contribues little or nothing to the business but gets full access to the know how of the other partner.

    VW do Brasil’s creative high was the result of the same man’s work as bankrupt VW Germany’s resurrection after a thousand million Deutschmark Government grant – Rudolf Leiding. He was the man behind the model revolution of the early Seventies, masterminding the end of air cooled VWs and the way to Golf/Polo/Passat. Leiding was a car nut as his favourite projects show SP2, Scirocco, EA425 (Porsche 924). VW had pure administerial CEOs that did the company no good like Lotz and Hahn but it had car guys like Leiding and Piech that led to real quantum leaps after cleaning up the mess their predecessors had produced.

  7. After the rustbucket original Passat (and Audi 80 called the Fox), known as Dasher in North America, the rather dowdy Quantum/Santana didn’t do very well. Once bitten twice shy, and pricey. As usual, I find the Curbside Classics series cover the North American versions well due to that website owner’s background. Cars last in balmy Oregon, but the comments tell the true tale of what happened everywhere else! I was a fan of the second generation 80, owning both the Coupe and quattro sedan non-turbo versions over a twelve year period. They didn’t rust much at all and were obviously heavier built than the first generation. Just had naff electricals and HVAC in true German Bosch fashion.

    VW do Brasil exported a car called the VW Fox to North America for a few years., perhaps 1987 to 1993. There’s some pix and a story here:

    https://www.hagerty.com/media/opinion/avoidable-contact-68-a-housecat-falls-in-love-once-more-with-a-fox/

    The author says it was a version of the original 80, but they seemed much too narrow for that when you saw them on the street. Perhaps it was the ruler-edge box styling. They certainly had the Audi north-south engine layout, not a transverse engine, and were rust-prone when most decent cars were switching over to galvanized sheet metal, so when they were gone, they were gone, as it were. I don’t believe VW allowed them onto the European market, so here’s another VW do Brasil special to contemplate. Wikipedia says it was a Gol with a boot, and a mashup of B1 and B2 Passat underneath, which belies the US author’s account and uncouth opinions about the factory.

  8. Portugal got the Voyage four door sedan, sold as an ‘Amazon’. The Brasilia was sold there too. At least they wouldn’t have needed to translate the owner’s handbooks and workshop manuals.

    Those that I occasionally saw on trips to the Algarve hadn’t taken well to the Atlantic coastal air.

    As far as I can work out the BX platform is a shortened and narrowed mash-up of the BI and B2. Makes more sense than adapting a Polo or Golf plaform, as it had to accommodate the flat four, which was only ever going to fit longitudinally. Later on various Renault-legacy Ford engines were also fitted, with the EA827 reserved for top end versions.

  9. Find it rather fascinating Volkswagen not only found success with the B1/B2, but also managed to find success by creating a related longitudinal engined Golf-sized car in the BX/Gol/EA276.

    The only thing they missed out on aside from a 5-door hatchback version of the original Gol was developing the Polo-sized BY and a direct Scirocco 3-door coupe equivalent.

  10. The Santana/Passat reminds me of the Byzantine nature of some of GM´s product histories or the mess of the JDM “channels” for different but not that different models. It´s a mess worthy of an elaborate graphic diagram which could take hours to draw up. Some of the facelifts and reworkings are remarkably messy and fudged – rare examples of fairly obvious hacked-up design. That makes them all the more interesting. Nobody should aspire to bad design but VW have provided some examples to learn from and that´s a nice result. I am trying to think of another platform with as messy a history – could it be a Fiat of some type? A GM/Opel body like the J-car?

    1. During the J-car’s maligned long life in the US it at least received a new body (or top hat if you will), rather than just heavy facelifts that reached the point of Wildenstein plastic surgery.

      Thanks Dave, I hadn’t read that explanation for the VW China situation before; it makes a lot of sense.

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