Air-cooling was a hallmark of Volkswagen since it began in the late 1930s. Throughout most of the 20th century, VW was motoring free from the cruel, wet tyranny of water—heavy, leaky radiators, and winter’s cold, looming threat of ice. The whole atmosphere was coolant for a VW, and all was good. Until it wasn’t. Right at the very end of the air-cooled era, VW made one last air-cooled car: it’s barely known in the U.S., and has a tricky-to-Google name.
The car is the Volkswgaen Gol. That missing ‘f’ on the end is what makes it tricky to Google, since everyone just assumes you meant to type “Golf.” But it’s not Golf, it’s Gol, as in Portuguese for goal, because of course this interesting VW is Brazilian.
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It wasn’t the last air-cooled VW made, not by a long shot: the Beetle was made up until 2003 in Mexico, and the VW Type 2 Kombi, which was made up until 2013, switched to water-cooling in 2005. These cars, though, were designed decades before the Gol, which was released in 1980.
The Gol is actually very unlike nearly every other air-cooled VW made, in that it uses a front-mounted engine, in a body that looks far more like the first generation of water-cooled VWs like the Passat/Dasher and Golf/Rabbit than any of the old, generally rounder air-cooled VWs.
It’s not the first time VW ever put the air-cooled flat-four up front, either: the very crude and utilitarian Basistransporter/Hormiga truck has that honor.
The technical origins of the VW Gol come from a one-off prototype made by Volkswagen back in 1969, called EA 276. This was an especially interesting time at Volkswagen, because it was clear that the iconic and increasingly archaic Beetle was going to need a replacement, and there were several schools of thought about what this should be.
One path was the EA 266, a revolutionary and fascinating mid-engined car, co-developed with Porsche. As fascinating as it was, this was not the path that Volkswagen would travel.
Instead, Volkswagen’s future came with the purchase, in 1965, of Auto Union, and then, in 1969, NSU. These companies had a lot of experience with water-cooled, front-engine designs, and that proved to be VW’s ride to modernity.
Still, nothing was really certain in 1969, which is why EA 276 was built: a modern-looking, unibody hatchback design, front-engined, with front-wheel drive, but to hedge the bets a little, that engine was the same old air-cooled flat-four right out of the Beetle.
When the Auto Union/NSU water-cooled FWD path took over, a half-measure like EA276 just wasn’t needed, so it stayed a forgotten and lonely little one-off.
But EA 276 was remembered, by Volkswagen’s Brazilian branch in the early 1970s. By then the Passat and Golf were out, and VW’s future was clear. VW Brazil also saw the need to replace the aging Beetle (they called it the Fusca), and they actually came closest of anyone to actually doing so, with the Brasilia.
The Brasilia was pretty successful as a Beetle replacement, but it was really just a new, more modern suit on the bones of the Beetle. The chassis was just the slightly wider Ghia chassis, and the car was still rear-engine/rear-drive, using all the usual Beetle mechanicals.
It wasn’t quite enough for a real replacement, so VW Brazil looked to the new generation of Volkswagens for inspiration. They took the Audi 80/Audi Fox platform and shortened it a bit, turning it into what they called the BX platform.
The new body was clean, airy, and handsome, in the same understated way as VW’s new watercooled cars. It utilized the space quite well, and with the spare tire stuck in the engine bay, there was a good amount of room in the hatch.
So now VW Brazil had a modern hatchback body that was styled in the same crisp, angular vocabulary as the Passat and Golf, but they didn’t have a new inline, water-cooled, maybe transverse engine to throw in it, nor the resources to actually develop one.
What they did have was plenty of air-cooled flat-four engines, so that’s what they used, flipping it around and having it drive the front wheels of the Gol.
The engine was tweaked a bit from its usual configuration in the rear. Since airflow would be coming in hard and fast right from a grille directly in front of the engine, the fan was moved from its traditional location behind the generator/alternator and hidden in a shroud to a new place, up front and proud, in front of the alternator.
This new fan was plastic and often yellow and hard to miss, and a whole new fan shroud and air ducting system was developed to maximize all this air. The cooling up front proved to be so effective that the need for an oil cooler was gone, so gone was the oil cooler.
The Gol at first just got the smaller 1.3-liter flat-four, which only made about 42 horsepower, but it was clear people wanted something less pokey, so the next year, 1981, the 1600cc engine was offered, with twin carbs and making a truly skull-scorching 51 hp.
There was even a fantastic little pickup-truck version, the Saveiro, Volkswagen’s third production air-cooled pickup truck, after the Type 2 pickup and the Basistransporter.
The resulting car is a fascinating missing link of Volkswagens. It’s possibly the only true transitionary car VW developed during their dramatic architectural shift from air-cooled, rear-mounted, RWD opposed engines to water-cooled, front-mounted FWD inline engines. Other Volkswagens have made transitions of technology, too—the Type 2 has gone from air- to water-cooling twice (once with the Vanagon and the Wasserboxer engines in the 1980s, and then later with the previous-gen bay-window buses getting inline water-cooled engines and radiators in Mexico, and later Brazil).
The Gol eventually proved its status as a vehicle of transition by metamorphosing into a modern-era, water-cooled VW in 1984, when tooling from Germany allowed the production of a water-cooled, inline four for the Gol.
With the switch to water-cooling, the Gol arguably became more viable and practical, but, to me, a lot less interesting. We got the water-cooled Gol here later on as the VW Fox, which has the distinction of being both the first Brazilian-built VW sold in the U.S., and one of the most boring VWs ever sold in the U.S. Though the shooting-brake wagon version was pretty cool.
The last holdout of air-cooling was Porsche, another descendant of the venerable Beetle, and Porsche managed to keep using the atmosphere as coolant until 1998. Emissions regulations were the primary reason to switch to liquid cooling, and today I can’t think of a single mass-market car that’s cooled by air.
That just makes the first-gen VW Gol all the more special, then. It’s the swan song of Volkswagen’s air-cooled engineering, and that makes me, however irrationally, a bit sad.
Don’t be down, though: motorcycles still like to be air-cooled, and maybe if we end up in some water-starved Mad Max-like future distopia, the one bright spot may be the return of that familiar air-cooled clatter as we haul ass, trying to outrun those filthy cannibals.