The launch of the new Golf Cabriolet reminded me of a piece of Volkswagen lore: The convertible that never was. A few calls to the Volkswagen History Department (now called “Volkswagen Classic”) later, here is the story:
It was the height of the German Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle. End of the 50s. People had money. People had cars. Volkswagen had one car, the Bug. Or “Typ 1” as it was called in Wolfsburg.
Wait, Volkswagen had two more: The Volkswagen Transporter (Typ 2). And the Karmann Ghia. The internal model code “Typ14” was a dead giveaway that the Karmann Ghia was nothing else than a Bug with a sleeker body. Volkswagen had one car, one van, and a Bug posing as a sports-car.
Slowly, the folks in Wolfsburg became convinced that you can’t live on a Bug alone. So they set out to create a new car. Kind of new. At the time, everybody at Volkswagen lived and worked according to a set dogma, and any deviation was heresy. The engine had to be air-cooled. Air-cooled good, water-cooled bad. The engine had to be in the back. Back good, front bad. Cars had to have roundish shapes. Round good, corners bad.
And so, the VW 1500 was born, a car that celebrates its 50th birthday this year, in the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg. The VW 1500 (internally called “Typ 3”) was a classic 3box sedan, with a twist. The engine was a bigger bore, 1.5 liter engine from the Bug, but it was a bug engine that was squashed.
Known as “Flachmotor”, the engine was flattened, only 40 cm (16 inches) high. This way, the VW 1500 could have two trunks. One in the front, one in the back. The engine did its thing below the rear trunk. To get to it, you had to remove all your trunk junk in the rear, and open a lid.
The VW 1500 received something unheard of. A station wagon model. It was called “Variant”, a moniker that graces Volkswagen wagons to this day. The initial VW 1500 Variant was targeted at tradesmen, but soon it became the darling of families who used it to vacation at Lake Garda or in Rimini – steeled by the knowledge that their air-cooled VW 1500 won’t boil over when crossing the Brenner Pass.
A hopped-up Typ 3, the 1500 S, had dual carburetors and breathtaking 54 hp. It was succeeded by a 1.6 liter model that didn’t offer more horses. The 1.6 liter engine followed the VW 1600 into its grave in 1973.
In 1965, the VW 1600 received its first fastback, called a “Fliessheck” in VW-speak. It would set the scene for many fastbacks at Volkswagen. For a long time, a real Volkswagen was either a “Fliessheck” fastback, or a “Steilheck” Variant. A 3 box sedan was considered a new act of heresy for a long time.
Right from the start, there was a Typ 3 with a body by Karmann, called the “Typ 34”, analogous to the Typ 1 / Typ 14. In public, it was called Karmann Ghia, just like the smaller, Bug-based one. The practical Germans simply called them “large Karmann” and “small Karmann”.
There nearly was another one, the large Karmann Ghia convertible. Several prototypes were built, one is still at the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg, one at Karmann in Osnabrück. According to lore, the catalogues for the Typ 34 ragtop were already printed when then decision came from above that a convertible Bug and a Typ 14 ragtop were enough of fresh air: No Typ 34 convertible.
In 1973, the history of the Typ 3 ended. It was replaced by a flagrant act of heresy, the Passat: Water-cooled, engine in the front, boxy shape. It was the beginning of a successful series of heresies, the Golf, the Scirocco, the Polo. They saved Volkswagen from certain obliteration, and laid the groundwork to Volkswagen’s success.
As someone who wrote, or directed the writing of, all Volkswagen catalogs from the Passat on out, I naturally was highly interested in the unprinted catalog for the ragtop that never was. Alas, nobody can find it at Volkswagen.
Maybe it’s just a good story, I thought, a story that became part of Volkswagen history, just like the Typ 3. Until …
Leave it to the Best and Brightest to unearth something that was lost in the sprawling Volkswagen archives. Roger628 found what could not be found in Wolfsburg. Not quite the catalog, but close: The American version of a flier, or “Streuer” as it was called in Wolfsburg. Trademark clean early Doyle Dane Bernbach design. All (not quite, 2 seem to be missing) pages are here.
But then, where is the German catalog of the ragtop that never saw the light?