That’s the translated answer to a joke which originally – in German – asked: “Wie kommt der VW 411 zu seinem Namen? Endlich ein Käfer mit vier Türen, aber elf Jahre zu spät!” Despite the joke claiming that the VW 411 debuted 11 years too late, the VW 411 is still one of the 50-year anniversary cars of 2018.
The joke can be found in the article, 50 Jahre VW 411 – Das war der Käfer im Kingsize-Format from the Berliner Morgenpost about the 50th anniversary of the VW 411. The article also speculates that it’s probably not a birthday which VW will do too much to celebrate – no merchandise, no glamorous receptions, no feature articles – just the sound of silence… Why then write about it on ViaRETRO one may ask? Because the odd and inadequate, for all their peculiarities, are also is part of the ViaRETRO repertoire. Furthermore, because parts from the VW 411 could be found utilised elsewhere – and last but not least – it gives me another chance to mention Porsche…
The VW 411 was a car with a rear-mounted engine – a 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine located behind the rear axle; resulting in a weight distribution of 45/55.
Before we go more into the technical details of the VW 411, it’s worth taking a step back to 1968 – and the years just prior to it – in order to help us view the VW 411, and even VW in general, in the right context. The VW Type 1 – or “the Beetle” – was the goose which laid the golden eggs. But geese have, like everything else in the world, their time. This was a fact which was becoming increasingly clear to VW, then managed by the famous Heinrich Nordhoff: VW had been practising a much too laid back attitude in regards of product development, for much too long. Admittedly, VW had launched the Type 3 1500 in 1961, which was a larger car, with a full-size cabin, but technically it was still based on the Beetle.
They had launched the Type 3 to better match the local competition from Ford and Opel with their P1 Taunus 12M and Olympia 1200 respectively, but also the non-German cars, such as the FIAT 1100 and the Renault Dauphine. But in 1962, Ford and Opel both applied further pressure on VW. Ford launched its Taunus P4 12M, “The Cardinal Project”, which they had taken over from Ford USA, where it got axed after Robert McNamara left Ford to become Secretary of Defence as a member of the JFK government. At the same time, Opel launched its Kadett A, which from the start was a smaller car rather than just a Rekord model with an underpowered engine, like the Olympia 1200 had been. The P4 Taunus 12M, with its V4 engine and front wheel drive, was the most advanced of them, but both appeared as smaller family cars with full-size cabins and competitively priced compared to VW.
The economy had gained momentum in the 1960s, not only in Western Germany, but in all of Western Europe. This meant that the entire automobile market grew, and not only in the broad middle class segment which the VW Beetle addressed, but also in the upper middle class segment specifically.
To exemplify this: BMW achieved huge success with their “New Class” 1500 model, finding that they could sell more cars than they were capable of producing. Seeing this, both Ford and Opel upped their game too and attempted moving further up class into the upper middle class segment as well. Ford launched their P5 Taunus 20M and Opel launched their increasingly refined Rekord models, which eventually led to the 6-cylinder Commodore model as well. From abroad, Renault had launched their forward-thinking R16 model in 1965, which inevitably made VW appear decidedly inadequate – not only in the export markets, but also in the domestic market in Western Germany. While British cars didn’t play a major role in the West German domestic market, it was clear that the competition was increasing. VW was also aware of the higher profit margins which could be achieved on upper middle class cars, and now they wanted their share of the cake.
That brings us to the VW 411, which was the result of a development project initiated while Heinrich Nordhoff was managing VW, which aimed to develop a car for the upper middle class segment on both the domestic German market as well as various export markets.
Interestingly, it’s certainly also worth mentioning that VW had already acquired Auto Union in 1964, and the parallel development of another upper middle class car, the Audi 100, led to its debut equally in 1968.
However, Nordhoff never did experience the launch of the VW 411 in October 1968, since he had passed away earlier that year. As already mentioned, the VW 411 was equipped with a 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine mounted behind the rear axle. This will obviously sound like a rather familiar layout for VW, but since it was thought of as an upper middle class car, both the car itself and engine had grown – e.g. the engine was all of 1.7-litres. And as a further must within the middle class segment – and as mentioned in the headline – this new VW was available in a four-door version. Looking “under the skin” of VW 411, it becomes clear that it was constructed in an up-to-date and modern fashion: Fully independent suspension on all four corners; trailing wishbone rear suspension and with McPherson struts in front – all sprung with coil springs.
In other words, completely different from previous VW practice, where trailing arms had been used on the front and a simple swing axle on the rear – all sprung with torsion springs. Finally, dangerous oversteering caused by big camber angle variations, which simple swing axles are notoriously known for, was eliminated. What the cutaway drawing might show less clearly – but which really completed the design – is that the VW 411 was the first unibody car from VW. Gone was the base plate with its central tube and the “bolted-on” body. The only feature the VW 411 had in common with previous VW models, was the use of an air-cooled boxer engine behind the rear wheels – which both physically and metaphorically pointed backwards.
More than ever before, the VW 411 had an emphasis on comfort in order to satisfy the more demanding customers – and one of the features was a petrol heater from Eberspächer as standard equipment. As generally known, air-cooled engines are not the most reliable heat source for cabin heating, as the heat output varies with the load seeing as there is no water with a higher heat capacity to level it out. A further advantage of the petrol heater was that pre-heating of the car was possible – convenient in the winter.
Already in 1969, only one year after the launch, the engine even received fuel injection with the introduction of Bosch D-Jetronic, and power subsequently increased to 80hp. That quite conveniently gives me the opportunity to bring Porsche into the picture, as 1969 was the year where the Porsche 914 with its mid-mounted engine was launched. The stories are undeniably linked, but I’ll try my hardest to refrain from diving too deep into the many details of the 914 until next year where it can celebrate its own 50th anniversary…
The Porsche 914 – or the VW-Porsche 914 – was originally intended as a joint project which, on the one hand, was the successor to the VW Karmann-Ghia Type 34 by using the VW 411 engine, and on the other hand was meant to replace the Porsche 912 with the old 356 engine, by using the 2.0-liter six-cylinder 911 engine. The agreement, which was made between the Porsche management with Ferry Porsche at the forefront and Heinrich Nordhoff before his sudden death, left the formal side of the deal somewhat lacking.
But it should be seen in light of the relationship between VW and Porsche at the time. During the transformation of the KdF-Wagen to the VW Beetle, there was a very close cooperation between the Nordhoff and the Porsche family. Step by step, they had built up an industrial adventure which contributed hugely to the image of the West German “Wirtschaftswunder”. This relationship disappeared abruptly with the death of Nordhoff. His successor, Kurt Lotz, was recruited from outside of the VW company and he was – with his former Luftwaffe Major background – a CEO who wanted to do things “by the book”. There should have been – but wasn’t – a formally agreed contract and an agreement which wasn’t to any disadvantage to VW, and where VW would bear the full cost of the production equipment. As a result, the expected profit margin was significantly reduced for Porsche, who subsequently had to raise the price significantly on their 914 version with the 911 engine (the 914/6), to an extent where it almost cost as much as the 911T. Consequently, sales of 914/6 was sluggish and after less than 3,500 produced cars, production of the 6-cylinder ended in 1972. Still the 4-cylinder 914 soldiered on until 1976 with a 2.0-litre, 100hp version of the VW 412 engine (the VW 411 had in the meantime been updated to become the 412).
Porsche had by now begun development of their front-engined 924 model with an Audi engine, but until it was completed in 1977, Porsche needed an entry level model which could slot in below the 911 on their all-important US market. The answer was to revive the 912, but this time based on the newer 911 G-model. And hold on… the engine was the 2-litre from the VW 412, the same one used in the later 914 model.
The VW 411 thus came to act as an engine donor for both the VW-Porsche 914 and not least the second incarnation of the Porsche 912. But the VW 411 and 412 never became the sales success which VW had hoped for. There are several explanations… and one of them is that rear-engined cars were considered old fashioned by the late 1960s, but the 411 also received a tougher reception from the market than it really deserved. Apart from the rear-mounted engine, it was simply not correct nor fair to view it as merely an overgrown VW Beetle. The problem is that once the market has decided on such an opinion, it is very difficult if not impossible to change it.
Another explanation is that VW were foolishly competing against themselves within the same segment. In parallel, VW-owned Audi had launched their new flagship Audi 100 the very same year and it immediately sold well. Furthermore, in 1970 the VW K70 model was introduced too, when it was inherited through the acquisition of NSU.
These three models were completely separate constructions and did not share so much as a single component – thus, cost efficient manufacturing was practically impossible.
The last explanation might be that the 1960s, which from an financial and growth perspective had been astonishing, was now over. The decade culminated with the first man on the moon in 1969. The 1970s were about to take over and it was suddenly a rather different ball game – with the first oil crisis in 1973 and economic slowdown – a decade which was going to become a significant challenge for VW.