Most people in the U.S. have no idea who Marcio Piancastelli is, and few are really all that aware of his designs. But to either Brazilians or geeky VW-philes, the man is a design legend, penning both the VW Brasilia and the SP-2. He passed yesterday at 79, and I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the man and his work.
Piancastelli was born in 1936 to a father who had a furniture factory, where young Marcio had his first hand at design. When he was 26, he won a design contest with drawings of a little sportscar named Itapuan. The jury for the contest included such greats as Brooks Stevens, and the prize was a year’s internship at Ghia in Italy. That’s a hell of a prize.
While at Ghia, Piancastelli designed an amazing little concept car called the Pian GT. The only images I’ve been able to find are a 3D recreation by Dan Palatnik, but they’re good enough to see what a striking, well-proportioned little car it was, and at this early stage you can see the clean, crisp approach to auto design that would show up later in Piancastelli’s work.
After his stint at Ghia, Piancastelli went back to Brazil to work for Willys-Overland, and when Willys-Overland was bought out by Ford, Piancastelli moved to Volkswagen, where he made some of his most important designs.
His first VW project was in 1969 to Brazil-ify the VW Type III. Piancastelli took the almost-British, slightly dowdy look of the Type III and gave it dual lights, a somewhat more determined-looking face, somewhat cleaner lines, and what sure looks a lot like a Hofmeister kink on the rear quarter windows. Many thought it had a better look than the Fatherland’s own Type III Fastback, including VW Brazil head Rudolf Leiding, who gave Piancastelli’s team a bonus out of his own pocket.
Next, VW decided they wanted a sportscar to compete with the also VW-based Brazilian Puma. Like almost everything VW Brazil did, this had to be accomplished using an existing VW platform. Piancastelli was up to the challenge, and on a stock Type III chassis he designed a low, sleek, dramatic-looking sportscar called the SP, which some say stands for Sao Paulo and some say Sports Prototype. It really doesn’t matter, because the car looked incredible no matter what the acronym.
It may be the most dramatic sportscar VW ever built on an air-cooled chassis. (Yeah, yeah. Keep your 911 jokes to yourselves, please.) Well, at least in looks — the SP, using the exact drivetrain as the stock 1600cc Type III, made only 65HP. It was writing so many beautiful checks its butt had no hope of cashing. After building 88 of these, VW Brazil adjusted their collective ties and put in a 1700cc dual-carb engine to make a staggering 75HP. They called this one the SP2. Better, sure, but still no monster.
Most of the time, though, barely mattered. The car looked fast as hell, with Piancastelli’s trademark clean lined-look, and a dual-headlight, grille-less front end that came to be called the ‘Leiding Nose’ because the VW Brazil chief liked it so much. It also showcased Piancastelli remarkable skill for repackaging the somewhat archaic and idiosyncratic rear-engined VW platform in novel ways.
While the SP2 is probably Piancastelli’s most attention-getting design, I think his real triumph is the VW Brasilia. The Brasilia was designed to be a modernized Beetle, ready to compete with new cars from Fiat and Chevrolet that were appearing in the early 1970s.
Piancastelli had to take the 1930s-designed VW platform and somehow make something that would viably compete with cars designed 40 years later. And, incredibly, he did.
The Brasilia was the only air-cooled, rear-engined Beetle replacement to ever be successful, even though VW certainly tried before. The Brasilia, based on the slightly wider Karmann-Ghia chassis, was still old-school VW underneath, but from the outside seemed like a modern car.
Clean-lined, unashamedly rectilinear, and with handsome, small-wagon proportions, the Brasilia looked, really, nothing at all like the Beetle it was based on. Inside, the space utilization was absolutely masterful, even rivaling the Mini. The engine — keep in mind, this is the tall VW Type I engine, not the flattened ‘pancake’ of the Type III — was set under the floor in the rear, allowing the car to be a station wagon, with a decent-sized rear cargo area and a hatch.
Up front there was a good-sized trunk as well, the boxier shape of the car freeing up much more cargo volume than the Beetle’s curvy snout. The car was available in 2 and 4-door configurations, and the 4-door was even assembled in Nigeria as the Igala.
It’s a wonderfully rational and practical design, built on a platform that was designed for a radically different sort of car. Over a million Brasilias were made, and it was clearly a successful everyperson’s family car all over Brazil.
So, rest in peace, Marcio. You did good work.
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