Because I have a very specific sort of job, I was spending a good bit of time this afternoon trying to track down images of a certain feature of Volkswagen’s last air-cooled gasp, the Type 4. This is important work, and people were counting on me, yet I got derailed. The reason I was sidetracked has to do with a particular picture of a Type 4, one that shows up a lot in articles about the car, all over the web. But this picture is much more than it seems, and I want to know why.
You can see the picture in question at the top of this article. This picture is actually available on Volkswagen’s own media site.
Just in case you’re somehow unfamiliar with the Volkswagen Type 4, I’ll give a quick refresher. We’ve talked about them here in various articles, though strangely I don’t think I’ve done a full history of them yet. Huh.
Anyway, the Type 4, introduced in 1968, was VW’s attempt to make a real, upmarket premium car, while still keeping to the traditional VW rear-mounted-air-cooled-engine formula.
The Type 4 was also the most intense modernization of this 1930s-era recipe, being the first VW to be an actual unibody, and the air-cooled boxer four-cylinder got its most comprehensive redesign since, well, probably ever.
While VW re-worked the basic Type 1 engine for the Type 3 by relocating the fan and other ancillaries to make a more compact, suitcase-shaped unit, for the Type 4 everything was re-designed. The engine used an aluminum crankcase instead of magnesium (well, it seems they went back to magnesium?), it had twin carbs and then, later, electronic fuel injection, and was refined in all kinds of ways.
Really, the Type 4 engine was the most successful part of the whole project, as it got used (in up to a mind-blowing 100 horsepower form) in the Porsche 914 and 912e, as well as going on to power the Type 2 buses into the Vanagon era.
The Type 4 was a dramatic modernization for VW, and was the first real conventional four-door the company offered (not counting the Thing, or the Type 2 bus—that word “conventional” is working hard) but it was still kind of strange and austere by American standards, and the whole thing was a flop, sales-wise.
The Type 4 started as the 411, and was then updated to the 412 before being discontinued in 1974, in favor of VW’s new water-cooled, FWD cars acquired via tech from NSU and Auto-Union. Both 411 and 412 came in wagon (weirdly, two doors only!) and two-and four-door fastback sedans.
It’s the 412 four-door sedan that I want to talk about now, though.
Okay, so, another thing to know about the Type 4 is that luggage capacity was a big deal for this car, and the whole segment, really. The Type 4 actually did quite well here, as the MacPherson strut front suspension allowed for a huge front trunk, and the very compact, suitcase-shaped engine mounted under the floor at the rear allowed for good rear storage, too, accessible via a hatch in the Wagon and from inside, behind the back seat in the sedan.
The rear of a 1974 412 sedan looked like this:
As you can see, from the outside, there’s no way to access the surprisingly ample rear luggage area. You have to awkwardly load stuff from inside the car. All that opens there is the engine lid, with its two groups of vertical engine-cooling louvers.
Now, let’s look again at the picture that’s driving me crazy:
Do you see what’s going on here? That is not a normal 412. The rear window is larger, and hinged—it’s an openable hatch, giving fantastic access to that rear luggage well!
This, by the way, is something I’ve felt VW should have been doing for the Beetle since the 1960s, but nobody asked me, partially because I wasn’t born yet. Still, it would have been nice to have been consulted.
Let’s look at what else is going on in this image:
The car shown in the image is badged as a 412 LE, but there were no production 412 LEs like this. It has wheels that were used on Beetles (and Porsche 914s) from 1975 on, a year after Type 4 production stopped.
The engine lid has been reduced in size by a good four inches or so, down to the character/beltline of the car, and the engine lid air intakes have been relocated to the sides, above the rear wheel, where they are no longer simple stamped louvers, but now plastic black inset grilles.
The flow-through ventilation system exhaust ports, which used to be little units just behind that kink in the rearmost side window on the C-pillar, have now been moved to the sides of the opening glass hatch, and look to be the same units used on the Type 4 wagon.
Also, that rear seat looks like it was taken from the 412 Wagon, as it has a back that would work as a loading platform when folded.
What I think we’re looking at here was a last-ditch attempt to make the Type 4 work. I think this must be some sort of prototype for a styling update to the 412 sedan, one that finally gave real access to that good-sized cargo area at the rear, and modernized the look just a bit with the new wheels and the black air intake grilles.
These would have been pretty significant changes to the Type 4 sedan, ones that would have pretty dramatically increased the usefulness of the car. Was this an attempt to make it more competitive with the VW Passat/Dasher hatchback that was released in 1974? Was this the result of some internal competition to give the old air-cooled VWs one last shot?
The fact that this picture is on VW’s own media page and the look of everything in it suggests this was a genuine Wolfsburg factory project. It’s not some aftermarket kit, because it’s not just a new window dropped in—there are major body panel changes going on here.
I think this is a prototype of an improved Type 4, and I have no idea how it ended up on VW’s press page without comment, as though it was just a normal 412 LE. I’ll reach out to VW to see if I can get more information, but I was too excited about this to wait. I’ll write a follow-up when I find out from VW what exactly this strange 412 was.
If someone has noticed this before, I have not been able to find any mention of it online, even though this picture has been sitting, right there on VW’s own media site for who knows how long. I haven’t seen it on the few Type 4 fetishist sites, even.
It’s a dazzling reminder that there are always wonders and mysteries around us, if you just bother to look.
UPDATE: This was noticed by at least one other site, and similar conclusions reached.