We seem to be in a golden age of automotive Lego, with Lego having deals with a number of carmakers, including Porsche, McLaren, Ford, Ferrari—it’s possible Lego has more licenses with automakers than some suppliers that make actual car parts. That wasn’t always the case, though. Decades ago, Lego’s car-based sets had to play things much more coy. Let’s see if we can figure out the cars their first two chassis sets were based on.
The Lego sets I want to focus on are 1977's 853-1 Car Chassis set, one of their first ‘technical’ sets, pre-dating the ‘Technic’ name used for these types of more complex, mechanical-focused sets by seven years, and the 8860 Car Chassis set of 1980.
While neither set makes any claim to be based on any particular car, it’s clear by looking at them, especially the 1980 set, that the designers had some specific cars in mind when making them. Even so, a lot of liberties were taken, making the resulting chassis especially compelling to imagine as actual cars.
Let’s start with the first one, the 1977 853-1 Car Chassis set. This one is a pretty conventional-seeming layout, a longitudinally-mounted inline-four driving the rear wheels. It’s a huge Lego structure when built, and suggests at the very least a mid-size family car would have ridden on this platform.
The bumpers are very Euro-looking, and I’ve always thought it could be something like a Ford Cortina or Volvo Amazon chassis; something European, but quite conventional.
Well, conventional until you take a really close look at the engine. Even if we make Lego-based exceptions for things like square pistons, the engine holds a big surprise because if you look on the sides of the block you can see what are clearly fins, like cooling fins, and that there is no radiator (or even fan) to be seen.
Was this intended to be an air-cooled car? A front-engined, rear-drive, longitudinal inline-4-powered car? The only cars I can think of that match that description would be Honda’s 1300 Coupe, but that used an unusual, non-finned air cooling system, or a Franklin, which seems close, except they quit making cars in the 1930s.
Maybe I’m reading too much into those fins, but it’s not like they had to put them in there. Someone chose to!
That first set, though, feels mostly like a pretty conventional and generic car. The next one, the 1980 8860 set, though, is anything but conventional, and at first glance seems to be a Lego version of a very specific car.
Looking it over, we see a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine on a backbone chassis; there’s no way not to think of a Volkswagen Beetle when looking at this set. The layout is the same, the proportions seem close, and the shape of the ‘firewall’ in the back looks a lot like a VW’s fan shroud.
But then, if we look more carefully, we see some interesting deviations from the VW template. Most notably, the VW’s trademark torsion-bar suspension is gone, replaced with an interesting quad-strut setup and swing axles at the rear. There’s no real suspension at the front, but, hey, this is Lego. There’s a cool, shiftable three-speed transmission as well, one less than Volkswagen used, but, again, that’s more likely due to Lego restrictions than a deliberate choice.
The rack and pinion steering is also unusual for a Beetle, but Super Beetles did have it from ‘75 to ‘79.
Still, the overall look of this chassis is just different enough from a Type I Volkswagen chassis to be interesting, and that large suspension bulkhead at the rear and the smaller bulkhead up front reminds me a lot of this chassis:
That’s a Tatra T97 chassis, the smaller brother to the V8 Tatra T87, and that car came out in 1936, a good two years before Porsche’s VW design was finalized. Porsche actually paid a settlement to Tatra back in the 1960s because of how close these designs were.
That’s not really related to the Lego set, and I’m not even willing to go so far to say the Lego set was based on the Tatra T97; but I do think the set was probably based on the ubiquitous Beetle, and tweaks and changes just happened to make it seem a lot like the chassis to this far more obscure car, proving that chance is a bigger fan of weird cars than I may have realized.