Volkswagen has always had a strange relationship with luxury cars. The very idea of them is sort of counter to the whole “people’s car” genesis of the brand, but, like all forbidden things, VW seems to have been drawn to the idea for decades. Even before the impressive-but-unsold Phaeton, VW was toying with some amazing things. Like EA 128, a big, four-door Porsche 911 in a conservative, tailored suit.
I saw this incredible prototype first in books and on the web, and finally in person when I got the chance to finally visit the VW Foundation’s Museum in Wolfsburg. It’s the collection I’ve been dreaming of visiting since I was a kid, and it’s full of incredible cars. I’ll be doing a comprehensive post on it very soon, but first I want to focus on one particularly interesting and exciting car in the collection.
The car is officially known as EA 128 — those ‘EA’ letters are the prefix for all of VW’s prototypes. EA 128 dates from 1965, and as you can see is quite different from the usual VWs of the era. There’s certainly a family resemblance in much of the basic design vocabulary and some of the parts-bin stuff (though, really, there’s hardly any of that), but beyond that this is a totally new class of car for 1960s Volkswagen.
This is a full-sized car. Maybe not exactly fully American-scale full-sized, but pretty damn big nonetheless. It’s straightforward and quite conventional in its large sedan, three-box proportions, though the ultra-clean design, with its smooth flanks, chamfered edges and crisp creases feels advanced enough that you could have told me this was a design from the 1980s or so and I’d have bought it, no problem.
The lighting is slightly unusual in one detail — the indicators are set on the sides of the car, front and rear, and are the identical amber unit at all four corners. Perhaps this was a cost-saving idea, but I think the result actually works pretty well.
But what’s really remarkable about this car is what’s under the front hood. Nothing.
In this case, it’s a big, empty volume waiting for your sloppily-packed suitcases and zip-tied stacks of ‘70s pornography, because it’s a huge trunk. Around back, though, sits a Porsche 911 flat-6 engine and drivetrain. In fact, all the suspension is from a 911 as well.
If the very idea of this car — and what this car could have been — don’t get you at least a little trouser-turgid, then I suppose all I can feel for you is pity. Everything the Panamera wants to do and be — a roomy, luxury way for four (or maybe even a couple more) people to have a true Porsche experience — the EA 128 could have done it.
Sure, Porsche themselves played with this idea with their stillborn 989 prototype. It was a four-door rear-engined, stretch 911 that many consider to be the urPanamera. But it was made nearly three decades after EA 128 here. If you want to trace the lineage of what the Panamera is, I’m pretty certain your search will end right here.
The inside of EA 128 is as impressive as what’s under its understated skin. Full, three-person bench seats, front and rear, Porsche instruments, and everything slathered in warm, rich, honey-brown leather. There’s a custom steering wheel with the VW embossed in the leather and accented with stainless steel.
In fact, this whole interior reminds me very much of a true 1960s design icon, the Polaroid SX-70. It has the same palette of materials, the same clean, modernist’s eye, and feels sophisticated and premium in a very similar way. It’s a real masterpiece.
This car floods your mind with a torrent of whats and ifs. What was this thing like to drive? With all 911 working bits, it had to be something pretty special, even with the extra bulk, right? A 1963 911 engine was about 1900cc and made around 120HP — not bad for a car of that era.
Incredibly, VW built this prototype in 1963, the first official year of Porsche 911 production, meaning that they either saw a potential for a luxury, family-sized Porsche or they saw the production of a suitable engine they had access to for their luxury, family-sized Volkswagen.
It actually reminds me a lot of a Tatra 613, a full-sized, rear-engined luxury sedan that started production in 1974. I think the similarities are just a case of covergent evolution, as the 613 was a direct descendant of the Tatra 603.
The project, of course, never moved forward (though an equally amazing wagon was built, too), so I guess we’ll never know how much better our world could have been if your family car growing up was a 1980s Volkswagen Aeolus, with the 3-liter flat-six turbo growling away in back.
The project was probably deemed way too expensive for Volkswagen, who was doing just fine cranking out Beetles, and if the idea was even offered to Porsche (and I have zero evidence it ever was) chances are they would have found it too far removed from their core work building sports cars.
This is what I love so much about prototypes. Just by existing, they can suggest a whole course of history that never actually happened, and yet here they are, in our world, refugees from a future that never was.
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