Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
The subject of last week’s discussion was a potential successor to the Acura NSX that didn’t quite make it to production, but wound up a short-lived, successful racing car. This week’s concept ran multiple laps around the world’s auto show circuit, each time seeming closer to an assembly line than the last. While it never quite got there, it did inform a lineage of Volkswagen-produced performance and luxury cars that survives to this day.
Some concept cars are actually drivable, but many aren’t. For the Volkswagen W12 Syncro, the non-running design study route was never an option. The W12 project was commissioned by Ferdinand Piëch, then CEO of the German automaker, who envisioned a sports car as the perfect testbed for the company’s nascent technologies. This wasn’t one of those far-flung, aspirational concepts — the W12 was an engineering prototype that just so happened to be packaged in a gorgeous shell.
That shell was the product of Turin design house Italdesign — specifically Italdesign founder, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who previously gave Volkswagen the Mk1 Golf and Scirocco among the scores of models he penned for other manufacturers. With its short nose, pseudo-rectangular headlights pushed to the corners and long, sloping engine cover terminating at a flat rear deck, the W12 evoked a longtail McLaren F1 reimagined with a helping of Bauhaus.
Of course, the W12 owed its name and arguably entire reason for existence to what was shielded underneath that cover. Volkswagen’s W12 engine is essentially two of its VR6 motors mated to one crankshaft. As with the VR design, the narrow angle and offset stacking of the cylinders within the heads made for more compact packaging, and it was in this car where the company first put it to practice.
The first iteration of the W12 series, the W12 Syncro, debuted at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. The Syncro portion of the name referred to the vehicle’s all-wheel drive system, as Syncro predated Volkswagen’s 4Motion branding. The 5.6-liter naturally aspirated W12 engine in this initial concept produced produced 414 horsepower. That’s perhaps somewhat underwhelming compared to what you might expect from a modern 12-cylinder, though Volkswagen addressed that deficit in time.
Another manufacturer — hell, even Volkswagen at a different point in time — might’ve stopped there. But the W12 project wasn’t merely a one-and-done affair; it was to be an ongoing statement that Volkswagen would reaffirm several times over, continually refining to validate its engineering progress before bringing W-configuration engines to consumer cars.
The Syncro morphed into the the W12 Roadster at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show. Here, the Roadster was mechanically very similar to the earlier concept, but now obviously lacking a roof and sending all 414 horses to the rear wheels.
Then things got quiet for a minute, though they wouldn’t stay that way for long.
The Volkswagen W12 Nardo was the apex of the program. This screaming orange wedge premiered at the same venue the Syncro did — the Tokyo Motor Show — four years after the world first got to see what a Volkswagen supercar could look like.
The Nardo is likely the W12 in your mind’s eye, if and when you think about the W12. The design was evolutionary, sort of like a mid-cycle refresh for a car that was never dignified with a production cycle to begin with. The headlights were sharper and perhaps a little less friendly, the taillights recessed and the whole car that slight bit edgier, a bit leaner. This theme carried into the engine bay, where the old 5.6-liter unit grew to 6 liters, churning 591 horsepower and 458 lb-ft of torque.
Volkswagen claimed the Nardo could hit 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds — a pace right at the precipice of what the world’s top sports car makers were achieving at the time, except this one wore the same badge as your Passat. It was to be the W12's final public attendance — though, critically, not the end of its story.
Remember, Volkswagen didn’t bring the W12 to auto shows to merely dazzle the public with looks alone. This series presented the most exciting and attractive way for the automaker to publicize its radical engine designs. And while Volkswagen Group flirted with even more extreme W16 and W18 engines in a string of Bugatti concepts, the W12 was destined to prove itself on the track.
So Volkswagen did what nobody asked or expected it to do: It ran a matte black W12 — in magnificent gold BBS basket-weave rims, no less — around Italy’s Nardo ring not once but twice, for 24 hours straight. In its second run the car covered 4,815 miles at an average pace of 200.6 mph, a 24-hour speed record Volkswagen claims still stands to this day. Seven drivers were involved in the effort, and the W12 corralled nine other FIA-approved records in its career. You can see some footage from one of those campaigns below.
The W12 concept proved its mettle on the track and promptly retired, though its lineage can be traced through Volkswagen’s own W8- and W12-powered vehicles, like the Passat, Touareg and the Phaeton, as well as top-line models from Audi, Bentley and, of course, Bugatti.
Sure, the W8 might’ve been a very impressive sounding, very complicated money pit, but there’s still something admirable about Volkswagen’s complete lack of restraint around the turn of the century. Propelled by having more money than sense, it sought to stuff its wild new engines in everything from executive sedans to the fastest production car in the world. It’s exactly the kind of hubris that when left unchecked inevitably culminates in a $38 billion emissions scandal.
As for the Veyron, it was the only car that could’ve made the Nardo’s achievements look tame. With 16 cylinders, four turbochargers and 1,184 HP by the end of its run, Bugatti’s iconic hypercar owes a great deal of its legacy to the W12, as does the newer Chiron. And hitting those numbers certainly didn’t come easy.
Yes! In fact, out of all the vehicles I’ve brought up thus far in Cars Of Future Past, the W12 has appeared in the most number of titles. The Nardo was featured in Gran Turismo 4, 5, 6, the GT Concept series and even the PSP entry; it also made it to Project Gotham Racing 3, World Racing 2 and R:Racing Evolution, the somewhat underrated semi-realistic spinoff of the Ridge Racer franchise nobody thinks about anymore.
The W12 Syncro was included in one of Project Gotham Racing 2's DLC packs (good luck getting your hands on that in 2021) and in Test Drive Unlimited, where the W12 Roadster was also available. Hell, the W12 Roadster wound up in Roadsters, a game I vaguely remember renting from Blockbuster when I was too young to make good decisions. But the best appearance of the W12 in gaming might just have to be in Race Driver: Grid, which was the only title to include not any of the concept versions of Volkswagen’s supercar, but rather the test car that set all those records — perfect wheels intact.