Despite every other new car on the road being a crossover and cabriolets holding a certain romantic appeal, crossover cabriolets have yet to take off. It would be easy to brush it off by saying nobody wants the efficiency of an SUV and the practicality of a car, but BMW sells every X6 it can push out of Spartanburg. Still, that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from trying to make crossover cabriolets happen, but who was the first? Well, there’s a strong possibility that the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, Range Rover Evoque Convertible, and Volkswagen T-Roc Cabriolet all owe something to a weird Italian chimera of Volkswagen parts. I’m talking about the Biagini Passo, one of the weirder residents of the crossover’s primordial ooze. Oh, and did I mention it was built by a guy who was allegedly on the lam for a while?
Yep. Biagini, the man behind the name, allegedly briefly became a fugitive, albeit before the Passo was so much as a twinkle in his eye. See, Livio Biagini was one of the minds behind IAP-Honda, a company set up to build Honda motorcycles in Italy from domestic and imported parts. According to L’Unita, a popular communist Italian newspaper at the time, IAP-Honda’s business dealings attracted the scrutiny of prosecutors, and Biagini may have taken some time in Venezuela waiting for everything to blow over. Hey, it was Italy in the 1970s — this sort of thing just happened.
After the choppy seas smoothed, Biagini did some distribution for Chrysler before his company ACM SpA brought in an Italian-market version of the ARO 10 off-roader from Romania. Sold as a Dacia Duster in the U.K., the ARO 10 was a rugged, compact four-by-four perfect for zipping around farms. Alright, zipping is perhaps too strong of an adjective. A 1985 Autocar road test contains this gem:
Acceleration is quite pedestrian, with 60 mph coming up in 22.7 seconds after a lurching standing start. The standing quarter mile took 22.6 seconds, but we didn’t bother to time a standing kilometre because the Duster GLX stopped accelerating long before the kilometre post showed up.
Ouch. Still, sales weren’t greatly affected, partly thanks to a later injection of Volkswagen power, and the ARO 10’s success served as a leap-pad for Automobili Biagini SpA, the company that made the Passo. After all, when you’re used to small off-roaders, why deviate from the norm?
In fact, the Biagini Passo carries some DNA from later VW-powered ARO 10s because it’s actually a Golf. This isn’t a huge surprise in 2023, when everything from the Volkswagen Atlas to the Audi RS3 are built on platforms shard with Golfs, but it was unusual for the early ’90s. However, it all makes sense when you remember that Volkswagens are a bit like plastic toy building blocks and the automotive world was in the midst of an all-wheel-drive crave when Biagini built the Passo, and the Golf Country was Volkswagen’s way of getting in on it. That’s this:
This niche Golf constructed by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Austria followed a simple recipe: Sling an all-wheel-drive system underneath a familiar bodyshell, jack the ride height up to 8.3 inches, add underbody protection, and slather in plastic cladding. Conceptually, it’s not unlike the Subaru Outback, although the Golf Country’s more serious nature meant that just 7,735 were built.
However, the Golf Country presents a problem when it comes to cabriolet conversion. All Country models were based on the Mk2 Golf, and Volkswagen never made a Mk2 Golf Cabriolet. Volkswagen stuck with the original drop-top Golf for so long that you could at one point buy a Mk1 Golf Cabriolet and a Mk3 Golf hatchback new from the same showroom while Volkswagen was readying the Mk3 Golf Cabriolet. However, this mismatch of generations was deemed a small obstacle by Biagini. The Italian firm simply built its own rear subframe to fit the Golf Country rear differential in the Mk1 Cabriolet bodyshell, as if that isn’t some feat of engineering or something.
Yes, look really closely and you’ll find Mk1 Golf doors, modified Golf quarter panels, and a Golf roll bar under those pretty trim caps. Biagini did a decent job disguising the Passo’s origins, partly thanks to revised trim and cladding, and partly thanks to an entirely new front end.
If the Passo’s headlights look familiar, that’s because they’re from a Fiat Panda. While a marked departure from the Golf’s round units, it’s worth noting that several early Golf prototypes were fitted with sleek, rectangular headlamps. In its own way, the Biagini Passo pays tribute to a future that never panned out. To complement the Panda headlamps, the Passo also got an egg-crate grille, side markers from a Fiat Ritmo, and a new front clip to make it all work together. Weirdly, this leads to the Passo having squared-off front wheel arches and semi-circular rear wheel arches, a truly odd combination.
Around the back, the Golf Cabriolet’s lift-up trunk flap was replaced by a drop-down tailgate. This change necessitated a new rear window, so instead of the Golf Cabriolet’s lovely rear glass, the Passo gets a plastic rear window. Hey, you can’t have everything. Speaking of rear alterations, those definitely aren’t Golf tail lamps, and some sources point to the Opel Kadett D as a donor. I’m still trying to find a Kadett D with a singular reversing lamp, so perhaps these are actually from something else entirely. Regardless, the weirdness of these taillamps is quickly overshadowed by the swing-out spare tire carrier that’s impractical, bulky, and yet oh-so-’90s.
Power primarily came from Volkswagen’s familiar 1.8-liter EA827 single-cam four-cylinder engine. With between 88 and 98 horsepower on tap depending on variant, the Biagini Passo wasn’t quick, but at least a five-speed manual gearbox let it make the most of its modest output. As you’d probably expect, power goes to all four wheels thanks to a viscous center differential, making the Passo more like modern crossover than you might expect.
Tragically, the Passo never really caught on. It had a relatively short production run from 1990 until 1993 and production estimates range from fewer than 300 to fewer than 100. Volkswagen noted in 2020 that “lack of rustproofing doomed many to the junk heap,” so these crossover cabriolet pioneers are exceedingly rare sights today. Then again, it’s not like the bulk of crossover cabriolets caught on either. Outside of the original Toyota RAV4, the segment as a whole remains fairly obscure. However, what are we Autopians but champions of the obscure? Long live the Biagini Passo, in all its unrepentant weirdness. It feels like the sort of crossover we can all get behind.
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