Home » A Volkswagen Golf Called The Biagini Passo Built By An Alleged Fugitive Might Be The World’s First Modern Crossover Convertible

A Volkswagen Golf Called The Biagini Passo Built By An Alleged Fugitive Might Be The World’s First Modern Crossover Convertible

Biagini Passo Topshot
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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?

Biagini Passo 5

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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.

Aro 10 Ad

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:

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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:

Volkswagen Golf Country

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.

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Biagini Passo 1

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.

Biagini Passo 2

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.

Biagini Passo 3

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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.

Biagini Passo 4

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.

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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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(Photo credits: Volkswagen, ARO, Ymblanter – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Mr.choppers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
11 months ago

Thanks for crediting my photo; I was amazed to see one of these IRL (well, as IRL as a yacht club lawn in Greenwich, CT can get).
As for the taillights, the Opel Corsa TR look similar and only had one reversing light but there are subtle differences. I spent hours trying to figure out exactly what was going on there and remain none the wiser.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
11 months ago

That is certainly a unique offering from VW. The white one in the lead pic looks like it’s trying to lick it’s nose.

AlienProbe
AlienProbe
11 months ago

In case you have not had your fill… You can always watch plenty of weird offroad-sy Volkswagens in the Roger Moore classic “Fire Ice and Dynamite”

https://www.imcdb.org/m99564.html

Slirt
Slirt
11 months ago
Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
11 months ago
Reply to  Slirt

That’s the white one in the last photo. The owner is super nice and gave me a beer koozie.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 months ago

Well, this is a cool history footnote. I like Cabbies because they’re familiar and fairly easy to work on, and because they definitely embody the slow-car-fast theme of my life.

That second picture, though-I swear it looks like a modified Matchbox car. Talking about the first pic of the red one. Maybe it’s just the reflection of overhead lights, but I honestly checked the background cause it didn’t look real. Been a long day-could just be me

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
11 months ago

There are at least 5 fonts on the b-pillar plaque. eye searing stuff, and from an Italian nonetheless!

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
11 months ago

The Willys-Overland Jeepster sees the word Modern in there and gives the side-eye.

Martin Dollinger
Martin Dollinger
11 months ago

For the tail lights I would not look any further than at the Seat Terra, a small, Panda-based cargo van.

SparkySparkington
SparkySparkington
11 months ago

That’s beautiful – I actually had no idea these existed! On a side note, while this is stretching the definition of “modern” and the article is talking about crossovers, rather than honest-to-goodness SUVs, I have to mention that French coachbuilder Wassermann sold a convertible version of a Lada Niva back in 1983 as the Niva Plein Soleil. Automeccanica also sold convertible Nivas in the late 80s.

Goblin
Goblin
11 months ago

Beat me to the punch on that one 🙂

As much as I hate everything Lada, the Niva happened to be first in pretty much everything small-SUV related. It was like a decently nice flower growing out of the stinkiest manure in the bleakiest of fields.

And they were first on that one as well, even if it came from an importer, not from the factory. But Lada importers had pretty much carte blanche in doing anything they wanted to the cars they imported, as no matter what they did it ended up being an improvement 🙂

The Natasha was a convertible Samara made by the Belgian importer, the French had an actual factory (a small one, but large enough to have its own railroad) in Haguenau, where Ladas for the French market arrived to get mostly pulled apart and reassembled. They had a locally brewed 1100cc engine made out of the original 1300cc and 1500cc ones (the only thing that wasn’t an actual improvement, made to fit a specific tax bracket), they were sometimes adding front power windows, and – oh, the French dream – they also had a 1500cc Diesel Samara with a Peugeot engine (the thing vibrated enough to make your tooth fillings fall off).

SparkySparkington
SparkySparkington
11 months ago
Reply to  Goblin

That’s a good point: there’s little you can do to a Lada to make it worse! 🙂

Though now that you bring up the Samara, there’s one unlikely thing that Samara owners can brag about, and it’s that the 2108 engine family was developed in collaboration with none other than Porsche. And how can we forget the Samara T3, once famously driven by Jacky Ickx in the Dakar (back then still the Paris–Dakar) rally, with a 3.6 Porsche flat-six and a four-wheel-drive system straight out of the 959?

That said, if I were for some god-forsaken reason picking out a Samara for myself, it would likely be a Dorito-powered 415, just for the novelty factor. I don’t know how many have escaped the crusher, nor do I trust myself to keep one from meeting that fate, but 8 seconds to 100 and a top speed of ~125 mph in what is otherwise a plain-Jane Russian econobox sounds like a hell of a time.

The 1500cc diesel you mention is the TUD5, right? I’ve experienced it first-hand in the 106/Saxo and boy oh boy was that a tractor engine…

SparkySparkington
SparkySparkington
11 months ago

*0-100 km/h
The joys of being a European transplant in the States… you mix-and-match units sometimes 🙂

Goblin
Goblin
11 months ago

TUD5 indeed. I once got one for resale. It had power front windows, and it took me half an hour to find the buttons. Turned out they were on the vertical lip of the console in front of the shift lever.

As for the Porsche engineering – yes, but then again the Seat Ibiza and Ronda had that proud “System Porsche” etched on the valve covers, and my mechanic friend used to call them “System Merde”.

There were more important things on the Samara, such as a (common to all) Bulgarian-made cdi module (long live the COMECOM 🙂 ) which would pop into oblivion within a few thousands km (to be hapilly replaced by a forever lasting Bosch module if you were lucky enough to be in the West and under warranty).

As for wankel engines – I don’t think these went much further than the few units with an Opel Kadett Gti 16/ Astra Gsi 16 powertrains made in the mid 90’s, which were supposed to be used as patrol cars but didn’t make it much further than the car shows. Model number “ВАЗ-21010-06”, commonly known as the Yellow Shark. Not too ugly neither.

But all in all, the most interesting Samaras (if such a thing exists) were the ones built at Valmet in Finland, as these were also the ones that lasted…

As for racing ones – my guess is the yummiest ones besides the French Dakar prototypes with a Samara plastic shell were the things that the Estonians were assembling for the Soviet rallye championship. I remember reading as a kid that Stasys Brundza’s team used quite creative solutions to source what they needed, such as bribing guards (or crawling under the fence, depending on sources) at a military airplane junkyard to get Titanium aircraft parts to machine into rallye ones.
Incidentally, Estonians were also the ones who built the only Eastern Block open wheel racers worth talking about back in the time.

Last edited 11 months ago by Goblin
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
11 months ago

This is what you buy your daughter when you know she’s going to have to go off road to get to the prom.

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