Wolfsburg Wanderings

A rogue sporty Beetle, a not entirely successful Asian alliance and an aborted attempt at conquering the WRC crown: meet three Volkswagen oddities.

Images: Mike Walravens and vau.max.de

Mach 1: the word will produce a glint in the eye of muscle car aficionados, reminded as they are of manly Mustangs in lively hues powered by a good old fashioned big V8 burbling on premium leaded fuel instead of the watered down stuff that passes for gasoline nowadays.

There was however another Mach 1 which preceded the first so-badged Mustang by four years, and the vehicle first adorned with the moniker could almost not have been further removed from the Mustang in any knowable dimension; meet the Volkswagen Beetle Mach 1.

The Volkswagen distributor for Belgium since 1948, D’Ieteren Frères S.A., wanted to capitalise on the class victory by an Okrasa/Oettinger tuned Volkswagen Beetle at the 1964 Liège-Sofia-Liège rallye as well as the advent of the VW-powered Formula Vee single seater open wheel racing series.

Images: wolfsburgrs.blogspot.com and drivr.be

In D’Ieteren’s assembly plant in Vorst, just outside of Brussels, a tuned VW Beetle named Mach 1 was first produced alongside regular Beetles from the autumn of 1964. The standard 1.2-litre engine was enlarged by Oettinger’s specialists to 1.3 litres and fitted with a counterbalanced crankshaft, two Solex carburettors, reinforced sodium-filled exhaust valves and a clutch sourced from the Type 2 Kombi.

With just 50bhp, this Beetle wouldn’t worry any American musclecar worth its salt of course, but it produced a noticeably more capable Volkswagen nevertheless with a maximum speed of 94mph (152km/h) and a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 16 seconds. The underpinnings also received upgrades: a front stabilizer bar was fitted as well as stronger dampers. Wheels were five-stud Porsche 356 items, enabling wider tyres to be mounted.

Images: blog.bbt4vw.com, Ebay and Mike Walravens

Only available in two colours (Ruby red or Java green) and adorned with special Mach 1 badges and an optional white central stripe, the Beetle Mach 1’s interior modifications were limited to a black dashboard with 160 Km/h speedometer, a tachometer and an oil temperature meter. The steering wheel, which was normally white, was replaced by a black one from the Type 3 1500. Once Wolfsburg got wind of these modified Volkswagens by early 1965, they ordered D’Ieteren to stop making them, under threat of the cancellation of its distribution deal for Belgium.

Unwilling to risk ending the profitable relationship, D’Ieteren complied and, as a result, less than thirty Mach 1 Beetles were produced. Today there are only three known survivors, making it one of the rarest VWs ever made.

Image: Nissan Motor Company

In general, it can be argued that the German and Japanese share the traits of meticulous attention to detail and pursuit of quality in manufacture, even – or perhaps especially – in the places nobody normally checks. In 1981 Volkswagen and Nissan started negotiating a business alliance that was expected to be beneficial for both parties: VW aimed to bypass the high import taxes imposed on cars built outside of Japan, while Nissan in turn saw an opportunity to learn and gain experience in manufacturing a western executive sedan, with the ultimate aim of itself producing a vehicle specifically aimed at the overseas executive car market in the future.

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In February 1984 the result, produced in Nissan’s Kanagawa plant, was launched as the Nissan-Volkswagen Santana. Wanting to emphasise the European aspect of the car, it featured the normal VW badging, except for a small extra “Nissan Autosun” badge on the rear. Oddly enough, even the television commercials for the car shown on Japanese TV were in the German language. The Santana was proudly displayed in Nissan’s flagship showroom on the famous Ginza crossing in Tokyo.

Nissan adopted the Santana as if it were its own, and even gave it a true Nissan-specific internal production code of M30. A unique modification applied to the Japanese-built Santana was the narrowing of the vehicle by 5mm (0.2 inches) in order to avoid a tax on vehicles having a width exceeding 1,690mm (66.5 inches). This change also necessitated a slightly different grille and headlights. Under the bonnet resided familiar engines: a 1.6-litre 72bhp turbodiesel, a 1.8-litre 100bhp petrol unit and the five-cylinder DOHC 2.0-litre unit producing either 107 or 140bhp in the Xi5 Autobahn.

Despite the attractive pricing, the Nissan-Volkswagen Santana never came close to achieving its sales targets; the plan was to produce about 48,000 cars per year, but the reality proved to be in stark contrast to that: over its six years in production, slightly fewer than 50,000 Santanas were sold in Japan. This disappointing performance caused Nissan to end production of the car in October 1989.

However, even though the Japanese Santana was not a commercial success, Nissan undoubtedly learned a few things along the way to facilitate the launch of their Infiniti luxury division in the USA, and the fact that the large flagship Q45’s V6 powered coupé companion (based on the Nissan Leopard) was also badged M30 may not be entirely coincidental. Of course, a people capable of producing things like a Hinoki bark roof or Kirikane gold decoration was always bound to succeed at manufacturing a complex, high quality item such as a luxury car.

Image: picuki.com

The somewhat underwhelming third generation of Golf could have received a useful image boost in the shape of the A59, a homologation special aimed at conquering the 1994 World Rally Championship. VW started the project in 1992 and enlisted specialists Schmidt Motor Sport (SMS) to develop and build a prototype, rather prosaically named A59 – that simply being the project code. In order to be eligible to compete in the WRC, a minimum of 2,500 roadgoing versions would have to be produced so this was not a minor undertaking.

The A59 was a serious piece of kit, SMS forgoing Volkswagen’s existing 1,984cc 16-valve engine and instead building its own ‘square’ (86mm bore x 86mm stroke) 1,998cc all-aluminium 16-valve turbocharged powerplant that delivered 275bhp at 7,000rpm.

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Likewise, for the transmission and drive, instead of utilising Volkswagen’s existing Syncro technology a bespoke electronically controlled four-wheel drive system was developed featuring a six speed manual transmission with transfer case.

Although outwardly still clearly recognisable as a Golf III, the A59 used carbon and kevlar for several of its body panels and its wheelarches front and rear were significantly widened to accommodate the larger wheels and tyres. An integral rollcage, digital dash (co-developed with Bosch) and Recaro seats complete the picture inside. One did not even need to open the bonnet to know this was not a normal Golf: its three large vents and prominent bulges left and right spoke more of Col de Turini than garden centre car park.

In the end, Volkswagen decided against realising the A59 project, even though an order for the necessary parts to build the required 2,500 road-legal A59’s was already in the works. The reason given: technologically, the A59 was too extreme, too far removed from the civilian Golf III and, above all, it was too expensive.

The Lancia Delta Integrale, Ford Escort Cosworth and Subaru Impreza WRX could have been joined by a potentially very serious rival but, unfortunately, we will never know how the A59 might have fared against the competition. Just two complete and functional A59’s are known to exist. One is in Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg museum, the other is the property of SMS. However, unsubstantiated rumours circulate about two more incomplete cars plus a wind tunnel prototype and a number of unused A59 bodykits in the possession of VW enthusiasts who wish to remain anonymous.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

19 thoughts on “Wolfsburg Wanderings”

  1. I was only aware of the “Nissan” Santana and always wondered why Nissan was interested in making and selling an already three year old, rather stark saloon, just when the Japanese buyer appreciated increasingly the novelty and sophistication of JDM offerings.
    And anyway, Japanese imports buyers were searching for the prestige of an European brand, so a “Nissan- Volkswagen” wasn´t going to cut it.

    What VW could get of this deal was a way to bypass import taxes but they were already doing very nicely in that market.

  2. VW later made a special edition of 3,500 Beetles called GSR (Gelb-Schwarzer Renner – yellow-black racer) of which about 200 have survived and fetch high prices.
    The GSR had a front valance with openings for an oil cooler (originally for the US version’s air conditioning), chassis modifications, cylinder heads with dual inlet ports instead of the Y shaped originals and a unique crankcase made from aluminium instead of the usual magnesium made a base for tunibg experiments which were certified by VW up to 100 PS. The GSR matketing brochure even showed a Mach 1.

  3. Good morning Bruno. Another interesting collection of curios, thank you. Imagine the effort involved in re-engineering the Santana to take 5mm off its width, and having to make bespoke headlamps made as a consequence. That was not money well spent!

    1. It remembers me the JDM Honda Ascot Innova. At first it seems a 1993 European Accord, but it´s a bit narrower, and it has frameless windows. How much money Honda spent in those almost unnoticeable differences?

  4. Unfortunate Volkswagen never went ahead with the Golf A59, nor got the chance to equip the engine into the Corrado and (less likely) Passat of the period.

    VW of Brazil also produced the 65 hp Super Fusca 1600S or Bizorrao.


    Was the lack of interest in making a more powerful engine for the Beetle, Type 2 along other pre-Type 4 and 914 models down to Volkswagen themselves or due to some unwritten agreement with Porsche not to encroach on each others territory?

    Did Porsche actually express such concerns because on the face of it they seemed pretty open to the idea about making sporty VWs or fitting Porsche engines in the likes of the EA128, etc (with VW appearing to want to create distance between it and Porsche)? If not and when Porsche were moving onto what became the original 911, was there room for Volkswagen pre-Type 4 to basically fit higher spec engines to its models approximately equivalent to non-Carrera 356s and early 912s or closer to about 75-95 hp?

    1. Hi Bob. I suspect the reason was more likely to be fears about the handling of a significantly more powerful Beetle in the hands of inexperienced drivers. My 1,200cc Beetle was more than adequately powerful in my inexperienced hands!

    2. Daniel

      Concede something would need to be done about the suspension before any power increase was considered, at the same time Volkswagen on their end could have fitted their rear-engined cars with Macpherson Struts at the front like on the Brazilian Variant II, Type 4, Super Beetle and planned for the stillborn EA128 (the latter derived from the 911) if not other alternatives and solutions to make them cope with the envisaged slight power increases.

    3. The Beetle did exactly what it was designed for: potter down the autobahns at 100 kph for a whole day.
      Its engine was deliberately restricted in breathing and therefore had a built in rev limiter. The 356 engine’s main difference was that it was free revving because it had much better breathing from much bigger ports.
      For VW it wasn’r necessary to change this, not least because Nordhoff and Lotz firmly believed in keeping the Beetle as close to Ferdinand Porsche’s original design as possible.
      It took VW ages to at least provide cylinder heads with dual inlet ports for easier installation of twin carbs which only arrived with the GSR and became standard on the last 1,600 cc 1303s.
      Up to then VW didn’t support tuners except for Porsche Salzburg with their Group 2 racers with up tp 130 PS and dry sump engines. That VW officially approved tuned engines up top 100 PS with the GSR was a sensation just like the aluminium crankcase which finally put an end to the problems of the fragile magnesium item when used in more powerful engines. This change regrettably was limited to the GSR.

      The relation between VW and Porsche was very close. Porsche more or less was the R&D of Volkswagen which provided the money that Porsche freely spent on sometimes purely mad experiments like EA 266. POrche’s racing activities were mainly paid for by VW as kind of an advertising campaign for air cooled engines.
      It was quite bitter for Porsche when Rudolf Leiding decided that VW would do its own development.
      They had a common sales network (Porsche did not have single brand dealers but sold their goods through selected VW dealers) which culminated in the VW Porsche 914 and contracts like Porsche Salzburg being the exclusive VW importer for all countries east of Germany (Porsche Salzburg is the real source of wealth for the Porsche/Piech clan and worth thousands of millions of Euros which made it possible for Fugen-Ferdl to work for a salary of one Deutschmark in his first year as VW’s boss).
      How open Porsche was for the idea of fitting their engines into VW products you can tell by the fact that the 914/6 wasn’t made by Karmann but by Porsche, had different VINs and many details like an ignition key to the left of the steering wheel to make sure everybody noticed it was a Porsche.

    4. There was nothing wrong with the front suspension of the original Beetle, except maybe the manufacturing cost. The trailing links meant zero camber-change ( like a Tatra) which is what you want with a tail-heavy swing-axle car.

    5. Thanks for the background Dave.

      Could the upgrades on the GSR and 356/912 engines have easily been carried over to the Type 3 “Pancake” engine? Additionally how feasible would it have been for the production engine to grow from 1.6-litres to about 1.7-litres?

      Heard one option considered for the 912 during development receiving 1.6-1.8-litre engines with fuel-injection under the Type 801 codename, however it was not clear if it was a development of the Type 616 or a separate design somehow connected to the flawed experimental 2.0-2.2-litre Type 745 Six.

      Can understand wanting to keep things relatively sedate with the Beetle, perhaps 65-75 hp would be the most required for the former whilst aiming for more ambitious figures with the Type 3, Karmann Ghia (especially the TC) and SP1/2. Ideally to take over from the 356 in the case of the latter two or to remain something unique to South America to mitigate negatively impacting the 912 and 914.

  5. Thanks Bruno, none of these were known to me, so this was an interesting read. I did know about the GSR Dave mentions, but not the (somewhat hypebolically named) Mach 1. Every time I read about German cars from – say – before the 1980s, I marvel at their power outputs. The horsepower races that began around that time make a 50 bhp “sports” VW seem otherworldly. Incidentally and a propos of nothing at all: D’Ieteren also owns Moleskine, purveyors of premium notebooks.

    I’m sure Nissan learned something of the Santana, but they were building their own luxury products long before that. Not a criticism, just a flimsy excuse to post some picture of lovely Japanese cars like the Nissan Cedric (130, facelift):

    or the F31 Nissan Leopard (which was later than the Santana and a predecessor of the Leopard you mention):

    The A59 reminds me very much of the 4th generation Golf, so much so that I could imagine the designers for that generation had the A59 on their mood boards.

  6. I recently saw the A59 exhibited at SEMA 2022. It was proudly shown by VW and had a place of honor in its exhibit. The sound of it was truly amazing!

  7. I happened to be looking at a review of the 1967 Geneva Salon, and what did I find but the Blank 1600 RS.

    The work of Zurich-based racing driver Arthur Blank, it was no shrinking violet, with Abarth-inspired propped-open engine cover egregiousness and even an air scoop, presumably providing poor-man’s forced induction. All this for 84PS from 1600cc.

  8. How about the VW Santana
    in China hergestellt that goes by the millions?

  9. Daniel has mentioned Irish-built Beetles a few times in past articles and posts and I came across this brief history of the factory via the YouTube channel ‘Nobby On Cars’. I think his content is good in general.

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