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How can a headline like that possibly be justified?

In connection with another story related to the VW group, I found some additional facts, which indicated that as difficult as it was for VW to let go of the rear-mounted engine layout – equally difficult was it for the VW and Porsche family to let go of their mutual relationship. In the article below, I will dig deeper into this “love/hate relationship”.

The story of the Volkswagen Type 1, Ferdinand Porsche and about the recovery from the ruins left after World War II has been told and retold several times. We won’t revisit that story on this occasion. Instead, we will look into what can happen when the golden goose suddenly ages and lays fewer eggs – or even dies…

The writing on the wall at VW back in the late 1960s after nearly two decades of uninterrupted increase of VW Type 1 sales. For the majority of those two decades, Heinz Nordhoff had been in charge of VW, and even though he previously had been working at Opel – who barely knew about the existence of the rear-engine concept – he had somehow been “enchanted” by the concept. Under his leadership, both the VW Type 2 (the transporter), Type 3 and a few Ghia models were launched. All with one thing in common: they had rear-mounted engines and were basically all based on the VW Type 1.

It’s equally a part of the story, that VW – while managed by Nordhoff –  had already taken over Auto Union in 1964, but the incentive probably wasn’t to buy the technology, but rather an opportunity to expand production capacity. In 1968, Heinz Nordhoff suddenly died, but before his passing, Nordhoff had initiated the development of another rear-engine car – the VW 411, which was launched later that year. Even though the 411 model also featured a rear-mounted engine, it was a larger and more expensive car and as such it certainly wasn’t meant as a replacement for Type 1. After Nordhoff’s death, rather than promoting someone internally, the board entrusted an external profile to take over management: Kurt Lotz. As one of the first things, he addressed the increasingly urgent problem of finding a replacement for the VW Type 1.

Kurt Lotz chose to initiate two solutions:

  1. In 1969, VW acquired NSU and merged the company with Auto Union. Without diving deeper into this subject, it seemed to be quite a clever move, considering how innovative NSU had been during the years leading up to this. It should suffice to mention the Ro80 as an example…

  2. VW approached the R&D engineering firm in Stuttgart, Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche, which had previously been employed by VW as a consultant…

It is this second solution which we will look further into now.

At Porsche, founded by his grandfather, a young Ferdinand Piëch was employed as a development engineer and was made responsible for the VW project.

The Porsche family clearly had a preference for the name: Ferdinand. Not only was Ferdinand Piëch named after his grandfather… both his uncle and cousin were named Ferdinand as well!

Piëch was very passionate about his prestigious task of developing the successor to the VW Type 1, which his own grandfather had of course been in charge of in his time. The outcome was that Piëch and his team presented the prototype EA266 – and even delivered it with all the tools and machines it required to mass-produce the car. The appearance of the EA266 might have been debatable, but technically, it was quite advanced.

It was fitted with a 1.6-litre water-cooled 4-cylinder engine with a healthy 105hp, mounted horizontally under the rear seat. This was plenty to give the prototype very decent performance for a family car of the era. It was after all not without reason, that Ferdinand Piëch had been involved with several sportscar projects in the family business. The idea was that your average German family… mother and father in the front with “Heidi and Heino” cheering in the back seat – with the engine just underneath them… should finally have the privilege of experiencing some reasonable bang for the buck performance, as the Type 1 by now appeared both dated, cramped and somewhat dull.

In the meantime, Kurt Lotz got involved in fierce battles with the workers unions at VW. The late 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of the unions and social democratic parties in Europe, and Germany was no different with the Social Democrats (SPD) being quite powerful – not least in the state of Lower Saxony. The state was a major shareholder in VW and was therefore on the board. Kurt Lotz was a former officer in the German Army and had been in the General Staff of the Luftwaffe during the war. He was a skilled administrator and organizer and traditionally conservative… but without much strategic political insight – and not least, without the ability to use whatever little he had. The board therefore started questioning whether Lotz was the right man to lead VW into the future.

So after only a bit more than three years, Lotz was a thing of the past at VW and the new Chairman, Rudolf Leiding, was promoted internally from within the VW organization. After just three weeks in charge of VW, Rudolf Leiding shut down the EA266 project on the grounds that the car was too complicated and the engine, positioned under the floor, would be too difficult to service.

The decision sounded rational and sensible (for some), but Ferdinand Piëch was furious to say the least… and Piëch was reknown – and still is – for being hot-tempered.

His grandfather was equally famous for having a bit of a temper. It’s often claimed that temperamental people often prefer – and gain – the most by being self-employed. After this episode, Piëch therefore worked independently for a while during which time he, among other things, developed the 5-cylinder OM617 diesel engine for Mercedes-Benz. However, after a while he calmed down sufficiently, so when he was suddenly offered a job as development manager at Audi – which had become the name of the merged NSU and Auto Union – he accepted the offer. Rudolf Leiding likewise decided that VW should invest in the technology from Audi, which would eventually find its way into the new VW Passat, Polo and not least Golf. The rest is history so to speak, and today we know that VW – despite a slow and challenging transition – managed to change its model program completely and with great success.

Ferdinand Piëch deserves a considerable share of the credit for this, but “the revolving door” issue during Piëch’s management period, with the many frequent changes in the senior management of VW, did of course also have an impact on the total share of credit. Nevertheless, he definitely played a great part in the success of VW during their front-engined era. But while Piëch became less hotheaded with age, there was always one thing which could ignite his temper, which was employees making the same mistake twice. Do that with Piëch and you would soon find yourself out of a job!

On that note, we will now fast-forward to 2007 – while Piëch was still chairman of the board for VW. The incident in question is the reason behind the headline of this article. In 2007, the concept of the new VW Up! was presented for the first time… and now hang on tight: it was a rear-engined concept!

We can of course only guess at what went through Piëch’s head at the time: “What on Earth were they thinking?! And were the conditions all that different from when the EA266 project failed??” I imagine – or rather, I prefer – to visualise Piëch resolutely addressing the presumptuous management: “You shut the f… Up! And get that Up! changed to a front-engined car… promptly!

But might the rear-engined concept finally find its second lease of life now that more and more cars rely on batteries and electric engines? What say you dear reader?

 

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One Response

  1. Dave Leadbetter
    An interesting article about an interesting little car. I visited the museum at Wolfsburg earlier this year (the report can be found on these pages) and I was quite enchanted some of the prototypes. In fact, many of them appealed more than the eventual production VWs but that may just be due to the novelty factor.

    This little EA 266 really appeals to me. I think it looks great, especially the Datsun 240z-esque deep set headlamps and those pronounced wheel arches. The squat footprint bodes well for handling, especially with the knowledge that the engine location must have delivered a low centre of gravity. Rear wheel drive too. I like the sound of a 1.6-litre water-cooled 4-cylinder engine with 105hp too; the kerb weight must be pretty minimal so I bet it flew. It looks like it has real purpose to me and I can imagine a breathed-on version would have been a proper hoot. An EA 266 GTi anyone? I’m really quite considerably disappointed the VW knocked it back! What could have been…

    Of course, small rear engined cars have latterly made a minor impression on the market with the various Smarts and the closely related latest generation Renault Twingo, but they’re certified no-fun moderns so I’ll move along with no further comment.

    Reply

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