Autobiography Of BS: The Senseless Car That Started Europe's Diesel Mania

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

47.2 percent of all cars bought in Germany last month don’t run on gas. They run on diesel. It wasn’t always that way. A quarter century ago, a diesel car was unheard of in Europe. Well, not quite: The Mercedes diesels had a characteristic tractor sound. The diesel Mercedes was popular with taxi drivers because it was so sturdy, and with farmers. Farmers could buy low-tax diesel for their tractors. Allegedly, some found its way illegally into their diesel-Benz.

Success is not built on lawbreaking farmers and taxi drivers. What made the diesel driven car so popular?

It was the Volkswagen Golf D. And it didn’t make sense at all.

Late 1975, I was briefed by Volkswagen on their diesel plans as the basis for the launch campaign in the coming spring. A Golf with a diesel engine! Why not, said I, I didn’t care. I didn’t have a driver’s license. Its consumption was amazing: Only 6.5 liter per 100 km, breathtaking at the time. For a diesel. The gasoline version: 8 liter.

Also, diesel was cheaper at the pump! So I came back with a campaign that exhorted the savings. Mr. Plamböck, the gentleman who had to vet the campaigns before the big boss would see them, looked at my grand savings plan, and said: “Let’s have lunch.”

Over a Currywurst (it was a Thursday, and Thursday was Currywurst Day in the VW cafeteria, probably still is) Mr. Plamböck said: “Bertel, did you check the added cost of that engine?” I forgot how much it was, but it was a lot. “You will have to drive 80,000 kilometers to get your money back!” said Mr. Plamböck and banged on the table. He looked around, lowered his voice and added: “And then, the engine will fall out of the car.”

At that time, Volkswagens had a bit of a corrosion problem.

Also, that engine did not last as long as the legendary indestructible diesel engines before. That secret was imparted on me by a real Volkswagen engineer. “As you hopefully know, a diesel needs a much higher compression ratio to initiate combustion,” the engineer said, knowing well that I was utterly clueless. “The problem was, we had no idea about what’s really going on in that diesel engine. We didn’t know when the engine would explode. So the engine was overbuilt.” Using a huge mainframe computer which probably had less computing power than your mobile phone today, Volkswagen found out what’s really going on in that cylinder when it goes bang.

Armed with that knowledge, Volkswagen could use a common gasoline engine, their run of the mill EA 827. The engine block was beefed-up slightly, sturdier pistons were used. The cylinder head was modified for the “Wirbelkammer-Einspritzverfahren.“ Voila, a diesel engine. Wait, a diesel doesn’t need a distributor. In its place, a pump created vacuum for the power brake. The engine made breathtaking 50 hp at 5,000 rpm and sounded nearly like a gasoline engine. Except when it was cold.

People soon found out that in real life, a diesel car used much less than a gasoline powered car according to the DIN-norm. Especially in city traffic. We weren’t allowed to talk about it. Word-of-mouth did it.

In 1982, there was another revolution: The diesel received a turbocharger. And diesel turned into a runaway success. In the early 80’s, Volkswagen was so swamped by diesel demand that there was an engine shortage. At that time, 45 percent of all Golfs already burned oil. Now, it’s nearly half of all cars all over Europe.

Diesel mania, started by a little car that didn’t make sense.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href="http://www.tomokoandbertel.com"> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href="http://www.offshoresuperseries.com"> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Chuck Goolsbee Chuck Goolsbee on Jun 12, 2011

    I had a used 1980 Rabbit Diesel as my college car in the mid 80s. I recall that in the western US, circa 83-84 that Diesel was around .65¢ while gasoline was around $1.20. The Rabbit routinely achieved 45—55 MPG. I remember driving from Boulder CO to Lubbock TX on a Ten Dollar bill - and that covered all my fuel AND a meal! Got me all the way through college, with many road trips all over the west, and I sold it a few years after I graduated and bought myself a GTI to replace it. All it ever did for me was rack up speeding tickets!

  • 406driver 406driver on Jun 12, 2011

    There were other diesel cars more than 50 years ago. The British Standard Vanguard in the mid 1950s was a mass produced model but in actual sales was really a niche product: http://www.motorbase.com/vehicle/by-id/1120/ For those that haven't heard of Standard, their better known brand was Triumph which completely replaced Standard in the early 1960s. Then in the 1960s the Austin A60 was produced in diesel form and was popular with Taxi drivers.

  • Ajla No, with a "classic" I want the entire experience, not just the styling exercise so I'd have zero desire to remove the period engine**. With a normal 3-7 year old used car such a conversion being economical while I'm still above ground seems unlikely. **If the car is already ripped apart then whatever but otherwise I lean heavily to no major alterations.
  • Jalop1991 Whole lotta EV hate here.
  • 28-Cars-Later They were mocked as whales in their time but the last B-bodies really were ideally suited for decades of family use and long distance travel.
  • 28-Cars-Later "Naturally, GM turned to its most tech-forward engineering team to work on the [Cadillac] Northstar: Oldsmobile."The most GM phrase I have seen yet.
  • Carson D The automotive equivalent of necrophilia appeals to people who have no redeeming social value.
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