I’m well aware that if you even realize the Brazilian Volkswagen Fastback was weird at all, you’re already in kind of a minority, human-being-wise. But that’s okay—I’m here to walk you through this, and through it we will get, together. We’re going to start with this premise: though the Brazilian Fastback certainly looked like the Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback we all know and love, under the skin it was far stranger than even most hardcore air-cooled VW geeks suspect. Let’s dig in.
First, it’s important to recall something I’ve stated before: what Australia was to marsupials, Brazil was to air-cooled Volkswagens. The unique closed-market economy caused so many strange Volkswagen variations and mutations to grow and thrive that the tried-and-true categories normally used in air-cooled Volkswagen taxonomy, Types 1, 2, 3, and 4, no longer really apply.
The Brazilian take on the Type 3 fastback is a great example of this. I’ve talked about this car’s brother before, the odd, four-door, three-box sedan known to Brazilians as the Coffin Joe, but I don’t know if I really conveyed the under-the-skin oddness of it then.
To understand a bit why this car is odd, a little explanation of what the Type 3 was is probably in order. The Type 3 was VW’s first attempt at making an upmarket Beetle, and as such was a little bigger, a little more powerful, and had a lot more luggage room thanks to the new engine for the Type 3, essentially the same basic flat-four engine but with a re-designed cooling system that packaged the whole thing as a flat “suitcase,” allowing for a trunk above it as well as one up front.
The German Type 3, while based on the same principles as the Beetle, had its own unique chassis and front suspension and, of course, drivetrain, even though that drivetrain was really just a re-packaged version of the Type 1 engine. The crazy thing about the Brazilian Fastback, though, is that while most people think of these as Type 3 variations, they’re really not.
No, what they are, under the skin, are normal Beetle-and-Ghia-Type 1s, with just significantly different bodies that are close to what was being done on the Type 3. Well, sort of normal; the Brazilian Fastback (officially known as the 1600 TL) used the wider Type 1 chassis from the Ghia, but with the Type 3 engine.
So, really, it’s an extensively re-bodied Beetle with a Type 3 engine, and as such it exposes a pretty huge mistake on Volkswagen’s part: they didn’t do enough to make the Type 3 bigger or better.
The Type 3 was a modest success, but very likely could have been more successful if VW really committed to what they were doing—making an upmarket car.
As it was, the Type 3 was really just a refined Beetle, better and little bigger, but just not enough. Why didn’t VW lengthen the Type 3's wheelbase, for example, which was the exact same as the Beetle’s 95 inches? That could have opened up more rear legroom, and made a real four-door possible, which would have likely been appreciated in the American market.
What the Brazilian 1600 showed was that there may not have been any real need to develop the Type 3 platform at all, not when the Brazilians were able to get a car of almost exactly the same size and benefits of the Type 3 on the same old Type I chassis.
I mean, look how close the Type 1-based Brazilian Fastback was to the Type 3 one:
Dimensionally, they’re almost the exact same. Because the Brazilians used the flat Type 3 engine with the Type 1 chassis, they were still able to get the two luggage compartments, front and rear, and the interiors were finished about as well as the Type 3's, too.
Plus, check this out:
VW Brazil built four-door fastbacks (along with the four-door Coffin Joe that, for some reason, retained the taller Type 1 engine and as such had only one trunk) which is something VW never managed to do for the Type 3, except in prototypes.
I’ve always considered the Type 3s to be triumphs of clever packaging with their underfloor engines and dual trunks, but the truth is that same trick was accomplished on the normal Type 1 chassis, as you can see here:
For a smallish family car, it’s really pretty amazing. And, just like the German Type 3s had a wagon variant, the Squareback, the Brazilian not-quite Type 3 had a wagon variant as well called, um, the Variant (and, later, the Variant II):
This all brings up the very baffling question of What Was Volkswagen Thinking? After really thinking about the 1600 TL and Variant and the other Type 1-chassis’d larger Brazilian VWs, it makes VW’s design of the Type 3 quite baffling.
After all, it’s not like VW Germany wasn’t aware that the basic Type 1 pan couldn’t be rebodied into cars like this before the Brazilians proved it—their own internal project, EA97, had been experimenting with modernized Beetle designs since the late 1950s, and had even come up with designs that were basically like what Brazil ended up building, like this one:
So, VW was certainly aware of what could be done on the platform they already had—why did they bother to develop a whole new one for the Type 3, especially one that was as dimensionally similar to the Type 1? Why didn’t they save all that time and money and just do what the Brazilians eventually did, make newer, bigger cars on the existing platform, and put that money and time into developing an actually larger, upmarket platform?
Eventually, VW did just that, with the Type 4, which had a wheelbase about four inches longer and offered four doors, though, bafflingly, not for the wagon version. This was a pretty radical change, more so than the Type 3 ever was, since the Type 4 was the first VW to go to a unibody design.
The Type 4 still wasn’t a big hit, though, despite being a little bigger. I feel like if VW had gone the Brazilian route and used the Type 1 platform for a slightly larger and upmarket car, they would have learned a lot more about what the market wanted and expended a lot less resources, so when they would have decided to make the Type 4, they’d have come into it with a much better idea of what people would buy, and would perhaps have had more resources that weren’t expended developing the Type 3.
I suppose when I finally get my time machine out of hock, I’ll head back to the 1960s and try to talk VW into going with this alternate plan. That seems like a good use of a time machine.