Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines An Alternate Reality Where VW Continued Developing Rear-Engined Cars

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While I often play contrarian to our man Torch, there are times when I have to agree with his beliefs. One of those fringe opinions is that concept of cars with rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed engines never got a fair shake. Let’s think about this and see if he’s right, by imagining how Volkswagen could have continued their development of the rear-engined, horizontally-opposed motor setup they eventually abandoned after the Type 4, VW’s furthest development of the concept, which was discontinued in 1974. What would a VW Type 5 have been like?

Volkswagen really needs to take credit for not only the popularity of this layout for decades, but also for its demise. They pushed the rear engine format with a full line of cars- there was the Beetle on one end and the Transporter on the other, and they filled the middle with sedans, coupes and wagons like the Type 3 and Karmann Ghia.

1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Squareback (17106727491)

source: wikimedia, Fast Lane Cars, and Hemmings

However, Volkswagen’s last rear-engined car was sort of a disaster. The ‘Type 4’ 411/412 was a rather costly ‘luxury’ car that was in fact devoid of any luxury; they took the Type 3 and supposedly changed everything but the end result seemed quite similar to its very dated predecessor. What is worse is that the Type 4 came as a fastback with no hatch door or a station wagon with just two doors (Jason has reported on this before).


source: wikimedia, Pinterest, and California Streets

The Type 4’s relative failure in the market really put a stank on the ‘traditional’ VW layout and cleared the way for the front drive successors. The Golf and Passat took over and they never looked back.

This is really a shame, since the rear, flat engine format typically results in superb traction, fun-to-drive characteristics, and space efficiency that is almost equal to an electric car.  It makes you wonder why today this drivetrain configuration exists in essentially just one remaining car, and supposedly it isn’t that bad of a vehicle:

2022 Porsche 911 Carrera 4s Black O

source: Porsche

Full disclosure: my family had a 1973 VW 412 wagon when I was growing up, so I’m well aware of its positive aspects as well its pitfalls.

What if Volkswagen had a do-over with the format and came up with a better solution that capitalized on the benefits?

The Crazy Alternate Reality Of Air-Cooled VWs

You might be aware that in the early seventies, the Volkswagen group sold front wheel drive cars as NSUs and Audis. At the time, the Audi division was led by the famous taskmaster Ferdinand Piech, who would eventually go on to head the entire VW organization. Piech took Audi from a small player up the successful brand they are today. A domineering leader that usually got his way, he probably would have succeeded even if Dr. Porsche wasn’t his grandfather…which he was.

Volkswagen Chairman Of The Supervisory Board Ferdinand News Photo 143302970 1566932423

source: Road & Track and Volkswagen Newsroom

In this not-totally-improbable reality, Piech decides that front wheel drive cars were really Audi’s jam and that Volkswagen can just keep the hell of of his turf. Just look at that guy. That’s supposedly him smiling in that picture on the right. You gonna fuck with him? So we would have no Golf, no Passat; what would VW do? Well, after the Type 4 finally ran its course, Bug-and-Bus Volkswagen would have been rather adrift but working on Project Platzeffizienz (space efficiency) to create a series (coupe, sedan, wagon) of next generation rear-engined cars and new a van (the Type 2 Vanagon) to be released in late 1979. This car would correct the flaws of the Type 4 and, internally, attempt to kick the ass of the Audi group’s front wheel drive compacts.

As a starting point for the ‘Type 5’, I looked at an unlikely inspiration- the Volkswagen ESV safety vehicle of 1972. This car features all kinds of safety gear that Jason has described earlier, but here I’m focusing on the fact that this car, despite looking much like the front drive Audi 80 (Fox in the US), actually has a flat rear engine with a trunk front and back. The ESV is easily the most advanced rear drive VW ever conceived and showed the potential for the layout in a more modern car.


source: Tumblr

Using inspiration from the ESV, the Type 5 ‘VW Tapiro would be available as a two or four door hatchback, or a four door wagon, correcting the body style omissions and lack of doors (and opening rear windows!) of its predecessor. Here are some very rough sketches:

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source: The Bishop

The fuel injected Type 4 (also used in the Porsche 914) engine would be bored out slightly, and stick shift would be available unlike the automatic-only (in the US) VW 411/412. Rack and pinion steering and four wheel discs would add to the capabilities.

I am thinking that the styling would be done outside, likely something chunky and wedgy by the Ital Design studios (instead of the Golf that they actually created).  Like the first Golf, once the design parameters are set the thing kind of designs itself:

-A large trunk is over the engine so the tall back naturally creates a pronounced wedge shape.

-My mom was likely not the only person that complained about liftover on the ‘frunk’, so the hood would cut way low to allow easier access.

-The signature rear side engine vents would be slats that blend into the body.

-To visually blend in the side vents, there are black painted areas under the windows that also give the impression of bigger glass.

-The tall trunk sort of hurts visibility so the vents would wrap around the back of the car where they cover a supplementary back window like on a Prius today.

-No grille so the license plate would go dead center in front.

The end result inadvertently turned out very Isuzu Impulse like (or other Ital creations), so it sort of works as a fake Giugiaro design. Here is a two door hatch performance GTI model, rolling on Fuchs alloys and in VW’s famous Mars Red.

Img20221008 20204171 2

source: The Bishop and zero260

Needless to say, the Euro nose would be ten times cooler than what crossed the pond. Americans would get the expected sealed beams and shrunken number plate recess, and unfortunate but not horrendous change. When the Wasserboxer (water cooled) flat motor would have been ready by the mid-eighties, the license plate recess would likely be replaced by a radiator opening.

Img20221009 20315082

source: The Bishop

The rear seat could fold down to create an immense cargo space, but part of the safety ‘knee bar’ below the upper dashboard could fold down to reveal a pass-through to the frunk. That’s right- recline the passenger’s seat and you could carry twelve foot long planks back from the lumber yard IN THE CAR. It would also be unsafe, but I don’t doubt that some passengers would shove their feet through the hole on long trips.

Img20221006 22223174 3

source: The Bishop

The dash features modular gauges, with extra ones on the sporty GTI. You might recall that back then tilt steering wheels were not a big thing in Germany (“nein- we had ten engineers spend ten years determining the PERFECT SPOT for it”) but VW would at least offer height and tilt adjustable gauge pods so tall or short drivers could see the instruments (see knob on side of main pod).

Img20221009 21201554

source: The Bishop

Would the Type 5 have been a valid entry in the compact market? The design certainly takes advantage of the best, most unique qualities of the earlier Type 3 and 4 cars, while adding modern touches and correcting the flaws. It would have had as much cargo space as TWO Civics combined, offered great traction, and be an understeer-free blast to drive. Some people wonder what a modern Porsche 356 would have driven like; not a lot of power, but lightweight, and small. This is their car here.

However, the added challenges and cost once you had to add water cooling (long radiator lines) and the issue of possible tail happiness for inexperienced drivers mean that front wheel drive cars would likely ultimately still win the day.

Sorry, Jason. I tried.

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45 Responses

  1. +1 for the Renault Fuego crowd. It really does look like an imaginary, Fuego-inspired mid-80s Renault lineup. Which to be clear I’m fine with. I get that some people see a bit of Alfa 75 in that raised rear end, but for me that’s the rear of a Tatra 613/700.

    Love that you included a sketch of the EU-spec fascia. Both look great.

  2. This… this is great! I didn’t expect to have any interest in it, in part because I never had any interest in either the Type 3 or Type 4, and I’m just not a huge fan of late ’70s Euro car design to begin with, but this right here somehow manages to both nail the aesthetic AND be something I actually really want to own.

    Hell of a thing, Bishop. Hell of a thing.

    1. Donald- confession…I’m not a big rear engined VW fan either (still haven’t forgiven it for too many hot summers as a little kid on that black vinyl in the back of a 412 with no opening rear windows and cold winters with no heat) but I respect the design so I’m happy that Jason encouraged me to see the positive aspects. Glad you like it too!

  3. Love the idea. I grew up in gold 412 and always loved that car. You certainly nailed the period esthetics, I see a period resemblance to the Volvo 343, but sleeker and more elegant. Really like the clean front, which also reminds me of the Volvo LCP 2000 concept from 1983.

    1. andehans- it really did pretty much design itself once the space and detail parameters (engine cooling, visibility, license plate location) were set which, interestingly enough, is likely why the Golf and other cars got designed.

  4. Suggestion Box Fodder for a future Bishop project: MG Missing Links.
    As we know, the Austin-Morris wing of British Leyland refused to let MG develop replacements for the MGB and Midget till well after their “freshness dates”–and the situation was made even worse by changing safety and emissions/fuel economy standards. But what if MG didn’t need Austin-Morris’ “permission”? My thoughts:
    * MG Jubilee (replaces the Midget; model years ’77~’82)
    * MG J-Turbo (replaces the Jubilee; ’83~’90)
    * a third link to bridge between J-Turbo and the MG F
    * MGO/MG GO (roadster and GT cars to replace the MGB and MGB-GT; model years ’78~’84)
    * MGMi/MG GMi (replacements for the MGO and MG GO; some styling from the EX-E concept car but not a direct port)
    * MGT20/MG GT20 (1990s update to the Mi/GMi family)

    1. Stephen- Thank you! I’ll take any suggestions I can get, or else Jason will have to chime in and you can imagine the crazy assed shit he’ll come up with.

      There were some interesting MG replacements that were floated, including a William Towns (Lagonda guy) suggestion and a facelifted TR7 (pretty bad). This is a good one.

      1. ” I’ll take any suggestions I can get, or else Jason will have to chime in and you can imagine the crazy assed shit he’ll come up with.”

        Challenge, accepted!!!

        A modern dual-cowl Phaeton. You can make it an EV, gas, or hybrid, and SUV, CUV, pick-up, or sedan. Neo-classic, ultra-modern, or contemporary. So long as it has two windshields and a drop-top.

    1. Nf1nk- sorry I misunderstood your suggestion. I do think if you flipped the motor around the rear seat would have to sit too high to clear it.

      However, if you made a mid engined coupe version of this like a latter day 914/Scirocco stand in then we absolutely could. 1979 Ital Design means that it would probably look like a shrunken BMW M1 with different design details.

      Now I want to draw that. And drive it.

    2. Nf1nk- the motor is indeed in the back under the cargo area, and if I recall on the Type 4 the floor of the cargo area removed to access the motor. However, with many VWs (and Porsche) I thought the entire drivetrain could drop out if you removed like four bolts or so? Maybe someone can confirm.

    3. That is the way VW were going with their EA266 project in the early/mid ’70s. A more conventional (for VW) RWD car with a mid mounted pancake engine under the rear seat, was kind of an alternate/backup idea to hedge their bets in the event the Golf flopped.

    1. Rumor was VW planned to make the grill-less look their trademark, even on the Mk. 3 Golf, but the reception to the grill-less front was poor enough to make VW rethink that plan. This might have been the case, but then what would the Mk. 3 Jetta have looked like?

  5. I thank the Automation car designer/game as I was literally playing with this layout just this month, albeit in a modern car. A blast to drive in Beam.NG.
    Rear wheel wells are easier for the wide H4 to package between.
    ICE-only versions will suffer from weight distribution.
    No driveshaft or exhaust under the floor, could do either ICE (flat floor) or Hybrid (floor/tunnel pack, front motor(s) for regen/AWD, crank motor for start/regen/assist).

    P.S. when advertising long cargo for a euro car, the standard unit of measurement is skis, not lumber.

  6. Could I have my euro spec one with full glass covered front? Like the Citroën SM and Alpine A310?

    Funny how Alfa Romeo justed owned the tall rears in the 80ies, so anything with a tall rear automatically looks like an Alfa Romeo.

    The Fuego did it better, and took the black band all the way to the front.

    My 3 Citroën BX’es all had that rear side vent. Black on the Breaks, body coloured on the Berline. Never found out what it was for, other than cool looks:

      1. Yes, that was on seies one (1983 to 1986), on non poverty spec ones, like the 16TRS and upwards. It was made in some strange brown lexan and quite quicly got scratched and opaque by dust flying by.

        Wonderful car with enough quirkiness for an Autopian article some day. It had just as much strange experimental plastic material on it as the Trabant! Which just meant it was very light for it’s size, so you got fun performances even fron the 1360cc engine.

  7. Volkswagen got very, very close to re-visiting the rear engine/rear drive configuration with the Up Exclamation Point. All their early Up! prototypes and concept vehicles were RR, and they envisioned a modular platform that could underpin vans and commercial vehicles, in addition to the hatchback city car. It really seemed an awful lot like the second coming of the Beetle. But, fairly late in development, VAG decided that a rear engine small car simply required too many unique components, had too little commonality with their other models, and would be too expensive to produce, so the production Up! was reworked as a conventional front engine/FWD model.

    All happened during a brief comeback for the arrangement, what with the Tata Nano and Renault Twingo/Smart ForFour

    1. VAG decided that a rear engine small car simply required too many unique components, had too little commonality with their other models, and would be too expensive to produce

      This might explain why Mercedes-Benz tapped Renault’s shoulder to see if Renault was interested in using Smart platform for its Twingo as to amortise the development cost effectively.

      That didn’t stop Tata Motors from building Tata Nano, the India’s cheapest family car, whose platform wasn’t shared with other models or marquees. Of course, Nano wasn’t a roaring success so to speak.

  8. I’m all for this.

    As an interesting (to me, anyway) side note, the late Tom Kellogg (remember the Avanti?) once showed me a portfolio of drawings, commissioned by VW, for an “evolution” from the OG Beetle into a more modern design. Despite concessions to later regulations, aero concerns and style, he managed to retain a good amount of family resemblance. The later examples were downright elegant, but needed no badges to identify them.

    And they were all rear-engined.

      1. I don’t know if they ever made it online. Or, for that matter, where the rest of his vast assortment of drawings ended up after his passing. I would love to find out that they were preserved.

        We had mutual friends — and he actually liked something I wrote (imagine that!) — so I was lucky enough to get a chance to paw through his archive and hear some terrific stories that I’ve never seen in print.

        He was a class guy, and a helluva designer.

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