History of the Volkswagen Gol (Parte Um) takes us from the BX project that gave rise to the Gol, to the late-90s when the Gol was almost unstoppable. However, chinks were being taken from both the Gol’s and VW’s armor. Which will become evident in Parte Dois, to follow tomorrow.
Many of you have asked me to do a history of the most sold car in the story of the Brazilian automobile. Be careful what you wish for. We will now (tach and) dwell on Volkswagen’s Gol history. The Gol is a singular car and very interesting. Many parallels can be drawn between its trajectory and VW’s. One thing is for sure: VW marches to the tone of the Gol in Brazil. As the Gol goes (or not), so does Volkswagen.
It all started back in the 70s. The Beetle was falling by the wayside and VW knew it. Trouble was, what car could substitute that old age favorite? What would fill the tire tracks of a car that had introduced whole generations of Brazilians to the motoring world? It was not an easy or light task. Like back in the Fatherland, the search had led to a series of setbacks. Most famous among them was the VW 1600, sedan and station wagon versions, the TL and the pretense sport cars SP1 and SP2. All of them were relatively successful and sold well enough until the arrival of the VW Brasilia and Passat. While the Passat would show the way for future VWs, the Brasilia was still an attempt at keeping traditional VW qualities alive. It was in essence a Beetle with a new shell. A fruit of Brazilian VW’s labor, its example (and success) would strongly support a Brazilian solution.
Why Volkswagen insisted on these solutions (rear-wheel drive, air-cooled engines) is open to debate. Many affirm that Brazilians had grown up with these solutions and would not let go easy. Others said that Brazilian conditions were so different, the German solutions just wouldn’t fly. The main argument was that the cars the Germans were coming up with (Polo and Golf) were just too weak. That however does not explain why more modern solutions were killing the Brasilia (like the front-wheel drive Ford Belina), while the Passat was cannibalizing TL and 1600 sales. Meanwhile, by 1980 the Beetle was hemorrhaging market share due to increased competition from, among others, Chevy’s Chevette and Fiat’s 147.
VW then decided to go with the Brazilian solution. Phillip Schmidt, then Director of R&D at VW do Brasil, used his experience in the development of the Polo and worked on a new structure on the first Polo’s platform. The BX project was born. Initially inspired by the Passat, the first studies already showed the preference for a hatchback. However, in the end, the prevailing influence was the Scirocco. This would mean the first Gol’s would have a back seat with little space. That wasn’t a problem in the sporting Scirocco, but in a car with pretensions to serve a family, this would be a definite compromise. Compromises would mark much of the Gol’s career.
In May 1980, the first Gol reached the marketplace. It came with a 1.3, air-cooled engine, good for 42 ponies. The engine was mounted transversely. This intermediary solution, never tried in Europe (though a prototype known as EA-276, from 1969, is now shown at VW’s Wolfsburg museum), proved not to be a hit in Brazil either. Its rather crude mechanical set-up contrasted sharply with the modern and pleasant design. Some say VW made a go at it to keep traditional Beetle owners in the fold. VW was fearful of their reaction. However, it was also true that at that time, VW was already producing its 1.5 and 1.6 at peak capacity. Putting it in the Gol would mean that the Brasilia and Passat would suffer. So, the mark of the Gol, again, showed itself, a compromise of Beetle-derived mechanicals in a modern, Brazilian-developed shell.
The public? Not impressed. Sales didn’t take off. But, VW acted quickly. In February 1981, a 1.6 Gol debuted. It had 51 hp, 10.5 m.kgf of torque. However, the engine was still air-cooled and longitudinal. But it had double carburation. As always, a compromise. Top speed improved to 143 km/h (the first Gol barely made 130 km/h). Acceleration was brisker and after 16 or so seconds it would reach 100 km/h. At this time the Gol started breeding. It originated a 2-door sedan called Voyage. This car debuted miles ahead of the Gol. It used the Passat’s 1.5 water-cooled engine. It was faster, more economical and much quieter than the “air” Gol.
For some reason though, the sedan never made it out of the hatch’s shadow. The Parati, launched in 1982, would shine though. It would sell more than the Voyage. In the 80s, Brazilians showed some good taste. They preferred the SW over the sedan (though over time this would be turned on its head). The Parati was so successful in fact that it even managed to steal sales from larger SWs and would become a car for urban playboys.
The Gol suddenly became a hit. So much so that the Brasilia was retired. The family though would not be complete until the arrival of the Saveiro pick-up in 1983. It used the same engine as the hatch, but urban playboys would fall in love with it. Slowly, but surely, more and more Saveiros were sold to city dwellers. Lots of them young, male and stupid. It would be (and still is) a hit among the tuner crowd.
In 1984 the “hot” Gol version came out. Using the German’s Golf valve command, it used a water-cooled 1.8, which made 90hp. As the car weighed only 930 kg, it would hustle to 100 km/h in under 10 seconds. From there it would go on accelerating until it topped out at 180 km/h. This car made up much of the fame of the Gol and gave VW that elusive halo effect. In the closed Brazilian market of the 80s, it was the stuff of dreams.
In 1985, finally!, all Gols and Saveiros received a water-cooled 1.6. Quieter, more economical and powerful than the air-cooled 1.6s, it makes one wonder how far behind the times Brazilians were in the 80s. Some protested the change, but most were ready to move on. In fact, it was this year that the Gol would take first place in sales. It would not relinquish that hold until 2011 (possibly).
1987 came and brought the first extensive re-design. Headlights and back-lights grew. Bumpers were made of plastic now and were integrated into the body. In this form (though heavily revised against the Brazilian-market version), both Voyage and Parati made it to America and Canada. There they were known as Fox and Quantum respectively.
In 1988, the Gol GTi was launched. This car firmly implanted in Brazilians minds that VW was the technology leader. It was the first Brazilian car to get electronic injection. As a result, its 2.0 mill produced a healthy herd of 112 horses and 17.5 m.kgf of torque. Compared to other cars of the time, it was a rocket ship. And it’s a collectable car today. It managed around 185 km/h as top speed and a 0-100 km/h time of 8.8 seconds.
In 1992, after another re-skin in 1991, using a Ford-engineered (result of Ford and VW’s brief and unholy alliance known as Autolatina) AE-1.0, VW launched its attack on Fiat’s Uno Mille. Owing to a tax policy favoring small-engines, Fiat had been quickest to respond to the government’s prodding. VW came in second. This segment would eventually reach more than 70 percent of the market (in 1997 or thereabouts) and still (to this day) commands around 50 percent of the market. VW’s 1.0, though offering only 50 hp and 7.3 m.kgf, was well received because it ran very smoothly and could rev very high without any undue drama. Revving became the name of the game.
In 1994, 14 years after its debut, the scenario had changed radically. The 1.0 car was fast becoming a mainstay. In this context, the Gol now competed against Fiat’s very economic Uno, Ford’s Escort Hobby and the sensation of the 90s, Chevy’s Corsa. Enter the soon and aptly nicknamed Gol “bolinha” (or little ball in English). Using most of the old mechanicals, stretching the wheelbase by 11 cm and softening and rounding off the until then characteristically square lines (from then on the first Gol would be known as the Gol “quadrado”, or square Gol), VW achieved a very pleasing design that effectively hid one of the car’s greatest compromises. Yes, the engine was still mounted North-South. This meant that in the interior, together with VW’s traditionally low seating position, the dashboard was an expanse of tall, drab, dark plastic. So much so that small pillows were often seen on the seats of parked Gols. The alignment of seats and pedals was made significantly worse in the new car (due to the compromises needed to fit the new shell onto the old platform). Not only were they misaligned, now the steering wheel itself was out of the proper alignment. To drive a Gol meant a weird S-shape of your spine. Thank God most of the Gol’s drivers were young (at least at heart) and blissfully ignored this. Or they thought, S-shaped spines were kinky.
This was of course offset by some of the Gol’s qualities. Did I mention that the 1.0 engine loved to rev? It was economical and very quiet and suave. The gearbox still had arguably the best linkage and throws in Brazil (though the competition was closing in quickly). The 1.6 engine stayed modern, efficient and economic throughout the 90s. Inside, higher trims received more modern lighting and instrumentation. Lesser versions sometimes had to do without back-lights for any lights in the car save those in the instrument cluster. Space in the back was much improved, as was access to the trunk.
At first VW, for some crazy reason, launched this new generation of the Gol Parati only with 3 doors. This undoubtedly helped the competition, being that Fiat’s Palio Weekend SW (available only in 5 doors) overtook the Parati and has held on to first place in sales until last year. The Saveiro pick-up also suffered intense heat and eventually let go of first place. Again, against a Fiat rival. The Strada, boasting a more modern engineering and extended cab and single cab body styles, reversed positions with the Saveiro and went on to take over 50 percent of this juicy little trucklet market in Brazil.
The insistence on only two doors is an example of VW’s inexplicable lack of sync with the market. If in the 80s VW slowly discarded market share, in the 90s, their share fell like a rock. Another example of VW’s apparent short-sightedness was its decision to drop the Voyage line. In this case, they handed the market over without a fight. This decision, though it made sense at the time, came back to bite them. As the 90s wore on and became the 00s, this market grew and grew and then grew some more. The compact sedan market is now the second largest in the Brazilian market. Among the victims of this trend is the compact SW. Few remain and might disappear in a year or two (but that’s another story). Hindsight of course is 20/20, but someone at Volkswagen must cry about this until now.
Engines remained the same. To wit: a 1.0 (50 hp), a 1.6 (76 hp), a 1.8 (91 hp) and a 2.0 (109 hp). Slowly this changed. In 1996 the GTi became GTI and using a German 2.0, became the first Brazilian car to boast 16v. This little beast had 145 horses and could run rings around most Brazilian cars of the times. It reached over 200 km/h. In 1997, with the end of Autolatina, VW had to forgo the most modest Gol’s Ford engine. To this effect, they reduced the German 1.6 AT engine and transformed it into a 1.0. In this iteration it was good for 54 hp. All engines slowly came to sport a multipoint injection and all increased horsepower and torque. Some of these changes were voluntary, some were effects of the government air quality control program (known as PROCONVE) as the multipoint injections were necessary to reduce emissions. Also in 1997 another first for VW. It launched the 1.0 with 16v and double command. This allowed it to market the Gol as the most potent 1.0 in the market.
Good times for Gol fans. In 1997, a special Parati was also launched. Also in GTI 16v guise, it too reach more than 200 km/h (206, 2 km/h slower than the hatch). Of all the station wagons ever produced in Brazil, only the Chevrolet Omega’s Suprema station wagon was ever faster (but it benefited from an I6). In 1998 the Saveiro got a TSi version. It too lives on in fanboy’s wet dreams.
Stay tuned for The History of the Gol (Parte Dois), to follow tomorrow.