I’ll admit, when it comes to cars, I often find myself drawn to the outlier designs, the weirder engineering, the trends that didn’t catch on just because, well, that’s what’s interesting to me. Sometimes, though, an example of one of these engineering roads-not-taken surprises me in how, well, rational it seems, even when compared to the current orthodoxy in automotive design. I think the biggest example of this can be seen in an obsolete Volkswagen of Brazil design from the 1970s, especially when compared with the modern transverse/FWD designs that dominate automotive design today.
I know I’ve referenced these ideas before, especially when I talk about my fetish for efficient packaging in automotive design. There’s just something about really maximizing the usable volume of a given space that just, you know, gets me going.
Volkswagen was very good at this; their development of the Type 3 in the early ‘60s, which compressed their flat-four engine into a compact suitcase and crammed it under the floor at the rear created a line of cars with two luggage compartments, front and rear, packaging that was likely best realised in the Squareback wagon version.
This concept was further refined with the Type 4, which used an all-new engine and a full unibody construction, but ended up a relative flop, sales-wise, and was pretty much the end of the road for “mainstream” Volkswagen’s attempts to build mass-market cars with underfloor rear-engines.
Volkswagen did have some bold plans to continue this fundamental engineering principle into a whole new era with their partially Porsche-designed prototype run of cars known as the EA266, which were, essentially, modernised versions of this underfloor-engine design using all-new water-cooled, inline-four engines, laid flat under the rear seat.
Illustration: Car Design Archives/VW
In Brazil, though, Volkswagen didn’t give up this idea quite so easily. The Brasilia became the only truly successful Beetle replacement that used the original Beetle’s basic engineering, and it was a rear-underfloor engine design, even if it used the fairly tall Type I engine that limited rear cargo room.
Illustration: VW do Brasil
That’s not the example I want to focus on, though, even if it looks almost identical from the outside. The version of this concept that I want to focus on is the last one Volkswagen ever developed, a version of this design that was built all the way up to 1980, well after Volkswagen’s switch to transverse water-cooled front-engine/front-wheel drive designs from Auto-Union/Audi were well underway.
That car is the Volkswagen Variant II.
Illustration: VW do Brasil
The Variant II was a development of the Type 3s that were being built in Brazil, but significantly modernised, inside and out. The exterior design — while not exactly a full unibody like the Type 4 (it was a semi-unibody still, being still based on a modified Type 3 pan) had updated styling that felt very 1980s, all clean and rectilinear, a far cry from the curvy, cushiony first Type 3s from the 1960s.
The Variant II still used the Type 3 suitcase engine with twin carbs — Type 3s had also used electronic fuel injection, the first production cars to do so — but in Brazil I think twin carbs were preferable as they facilitated versions that could run on the local sugar cane alcohol fuel. These cars were also a bit like a Type 3 and 4 hybrid in that they used the MacPherson front suspension from the Type 4, which gave a lot more front luggage room.
Here’s a nice detailed walk-around of a Variant II:
Look how useful that thing is! So many people will take a sedan over a hatchback, despite the hatchback’s inherently greater flexibility and adaptability because they want the security of a metal, sealed cargo area that hides belongings from unsavoury belonging-peepers. Well, the Variant II has both! A hatch with a folding rear seat that can be used to haul all kinds of bulky, weird-shaped crap, from lawnmowers to bicycles to strange sports gear, and it still has a good-sized trunk up front for your velveteen bags of Fabérge eggs or whatever it is people so into trunks haul around.
Just from a living with it/daily use/adaptability standpoint, the Variant II’s design seems like an absolute winner when compared to the ubiquitous transverse FWD designs that came to dominate so much of the automotive market for decades.
But it wasn’t really a winner! It didn’t sell all that well, and the next year VW replaced it with the car we knew as the two-door wagon version of the VW Fox, known in Brazil as the Parati.
Photo: VW do Brasil
The Parati was far more modern car, with roots in the water-cooled, transverse cars VW was developing and having so much success with like the Golf and Passat.
The Parati/first-gen Fox was a bit unusual in that it was a longitudinal FWD car, later becoming a transverse design with subsequent updates.
Now, here’s my real point, finally: why did they make this switch? Why did VW — and, really, the world — decide that front-engine/FWD cars like this were “better” than something like the Variant II?
To me, it makes no sense, and I can best explain why with this image:
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky
I get that the Variant II was built on an outdated platform with an outdated engine, but the packaging advantages seem so clear to me, and that makes me wonder why VW abandoned this idea they’d invested decades of development into so quickly.
The FWD Parati was basically like what everyone else was doing, which you would think would make it harder for VW to compete. Really, given the way the industry was going, it’s surprising the Variant II was built at all, though some suggest that the rear engine/rear drive combo still provided better traction in the rougher parts of Brazil.
Photo: VW do Brasil
Did VW not decide to pursue the tighter packaging model because basic FWD was cheaper? Was the understeer-prone handling more acceptable than the oversteer-prone rear-weight-bias handling? Did not enough people care about having two distinct types of cargo areas, and a more flexible overall design?
Was it ease of servicing? The underfloor engine actually had pretty good access from inside the car, but I can still see people feeling a conventional hood is easier, even though tinkering on a Variant II’s engine would at least keep you in the shade, no matter what.
I can imagine a then-modern Variant III with one of VW’s water-cooled inline fours laid flat under there, in basically the same package as the Parati, but with much more usable room.
I’m still haunted by this a bit, decades later, because part of me just respects the tight, no-wasted-space design of that Variant II so much, but, this battle is likely already lost.
Or is it? Modern electric cars, like all the Teslas, are all using underfloor motors and batteries, allowing for this kind of wonderful packaging once again. So maybe we’ll get to see that Variant IIIe after all, some day.