Every good idea has its time in the sun, but the trick is to get out of it before skin cancer appears. The rear engine configuration was once a sensation, especially in the form of the ground-breaking and wind-splitting Tatra 77 in 1934. Ferdinand Porsche adopted it as his own for his various VW prototypes that led to the seminal Beetle of 1938. But by the late sixties, the Europeans’ interest was rapidly shifting to FWD. Not VW. Quite lost and confused amidst all the excitement about FWD, and becoming dangerously conservative, VW developed and built what would be the final blowout of the rear-engined sedan: the 411/412. It has been referred to as VW’s Edsel.
To get a little history and perspective on the 411/412, one only needs to look at…the 311 (above). A prototype (EA 142) designed to replace the Type 3 (1500/1600), it was, for conservative VW, a big step. The 311 had a unitized body, instead of the platform frame of the Beetle and Type 3. And it was styled with the help of Pininfarina. But VW chickened out, and instead just grafted a longer nose on the cramped and obsolete Type 3. But having come this far, and needing a bigger sedan to compete against the very popular Opel Rekord, the basic design was blown up a bit and became the the 411.
Introduced in Europe in 1968, the 411 (above) quickly fell on its long face. It was (finally) roomy, and solidly built, like all VWs, but the rear engine concept now showed its limitations. The air-cooled 1.7 L boxer four was slow and thirsty. Despite the big schnozz, luggage space still wasn’t up to par. And it was priced too high. Sales never took off, which alarmed VW. It undoubtedly led to the decision to quickly rebadge the very advanced FWD NSU K70 as a Volkswagen, after VW bought that foundering company. But even that was a stop-gap, until VW wised up and just adopted the very successful B1 Audi 80/Fox platform for its Passat (CC here).
Well, at least it did have four doors, which alone was revolutionary for a VW. That gave rise to a popular saying about the 411’s name: four doors, eleven years too late.
Starting out with only 68 hp didn’t help either; the following year a somewhat more potent 80 hp fuel injected engine came along. But even that was modest, for a car that was exactly the size and weight of the Corvair, which had a much larger six cylinder engine. For whatever reason, the 411/412 didn’t make it to the US until 1971, two years after the Corvair’s demise, to take up the banner for the genre.
Even if the 411 was conservative for European standards, it did introduce a host of new design/build elements to VW. The unitized body, MacPherson strut front suspension, non-swing axle rear suspension, automatic transmission and disc brakes came out of the 311/411 development, and soon showed up in other VW products, with varying degrees of success. But after Fiat’s brilliant 128 appeared in 1969, the template for modern FWD cars was set, and VW efforts really all amounted to rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs.
The 412 appeared in 1972, with a revised nose and a slightly bigger 1.8 L engine. Not that it really made any difference. The 412’s reputation for being underpowered and thirsty was now cemented in the public’s mind. And the sales numbers confirmed it: In its six year run, VW managed to sell a total of 368k of them globally, of which only 117k went to the US. This is during a time when VW was used to selling almost a half-million Beetles to eager Americans annually.
Like the smaller squareback, the Variant/Wagon was by far the most successful 411/412 version, IMHO. The very low and flat engine meant that there was a considerable amount of room above it in the rear. And then there was still that fairly decent sized trunk up front. And the rear engine gave it superb traction, of course. The fact that the sedans didn’t have a hatchback made its configuration less versatile. Now if only VW had made a four-door wagon version, it would have been a true successor to the remarkable but equally unloved Corvair wagon.
If you’ve noticed that the sedan I shot seems to be sitting nose high, you’re right. It is, by design: In typical Germanic fashion, VW wanted to make sure the 411 had plenty of front luggage capacity (weight wise) to counter any critics. It’s rated for 220kg (almost 500 lbs), hence the big springs. The owner of the wagon above did what many 411/412 owners do: cut down the front spring and have that nose be pointing back at the earth instead of the sun.
The 411/412 shares quite a bit in common with the VW/Porsche 914, which recently earned Deadly Sin status here by JB. Ironically, I find the 914 a much more successful concept than the 411/412, and I’ll do a rebuttal on one soon. But what would have been interesting is a 911-powered 411/412, to take up the rear-engined battle where the Corvair Corsa left off. Then the 411 name would have had some real meaning.