Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

| 8 Jan 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

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Perhaps this comes under the heading of ‘grim fascination’ rather than ‘guilty pleasure’, but I have always been intrigued by this final manifestation of the Beetle concept, an outward expression of the corporate anguish Volkswagen was experiencing as it struggled to come up with a concept to replace its multi-million selling people’s car.

First seen in 1968, but dead as soon as 1974, the Type 4, which started as the 411 before the 412 took over in ’72, came as two-door saloon and estate, and was also VW's first four door saloon model.

It pioneered MacPherson struts at Wolfsberg, too. Yes, I can hear the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from here…

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

If one were being generous it could be argued that shape looked airy and modern, but the suave effect was rather spoiled by the familiar dry rattle of an air-cooled flat-four emanating from the rear end.

It was an attempt to break into the medium-sized family-car market with a machine that offered all the ‘benefits’ of Beetle motoring.

But not even the promise of good build quality, dependable mechanics and simple maintenance could convince middle-class buyers of the 411’s merits in a market awash with competent, modern, front-drive designs like the Saab 99 and Renault 16, and proven conventional machines like the Fiat 124.

Here in the UK, import duty lifted the 411 into the six-cylinder Triumph 2000 and Vauxhall Ventora class, which didn’t help.

The fastback shape suggested a rear hatch where there wasn't one, but one benefit of the 411's bulbous nose was a spacious boot.

Indeed, it was roomy front and rear, and boasted a petrol-fuelled heater – with a timer switch – that addressed one of the main bugbears of air-cooled cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

In the ’60s, VW had enjoyed reasonable success with the notchback 1500 and fastback 1600, but the 411 was entirely new ground.

Not only that, it was a fairly expensive car in an area where buyers expected at least a whiff of glamour and some pretensions to performance.

Sadly this hefty ‘big Beetle’, with 68bhp in its lowest state of tune at launch, was flat-out at 85mph with acceleration that was the equivalent of watching paint dry.

Outwardly the boxy 411 – partly attributed to Pininfarina – was austerely functional with none of the flower-power hippy chic that had kept the evergreen Beetle alive way beyond its natural sell-by date.

It was born into a world where even small-car designers were turning away from rear engines and air cooling, with its implications of evil handling combined with unappealing engine sounds, water being a fine dampener of internal clatter.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

Of course, VW countered this by pointing out that its 1679cc flat-four could not freeze or boil and that, on the move, you left much of the engine noise in your wake.

Handling was not so much of an issue any longer thanks to the 411’s fiendishly modern semi-trailing arms, which all-but eliminated the lift-off oversteer associated with the former swing-axles.

But this was no family man’s Porsche – although the idea of a 911-engined 411 has an intriguing feel about it. 

There was a ‘Variant’ estate version for those who really needed the space (but even that was an oddity in that it only had two doors – well, three if you count the hatch), and latterly the option of an auto ’box, plus, on the 411E/LE, fuel injection.

The 412 was just a slightly bigger-engined 1.8-litre model, produced for the last two seasons as VW moved over to the front-drive hatchback Golf and Polo models that would define its future success.

There was also a 411 Cabriolet prototype, but it didn’t make production.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Volkswagen Type 4

In total, just over 367,000 411 and 412s were built, a drop in the ocean in VW terms, but enough to make them a fairly regular sight on British roads in the 1970s.

While working as a car cleaner in the early ’80s, I entertained a vague notion that a 411 might appear as a trade-in against a Hyundai Stellar, but it never happened. 

In fact, I only met one person who ever admitted to having anything to do with one, a young mechanic whose father owned a 411 and let him use it occasionally. 

“What's it like to drive?” I enquired enthusiastically. 

I was not expecting a particularly erudite overview, but his instant reply still makes me smile: “A f••king dickhead.”

Images: Volkswagen AG


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