history lesson by pablo deferrari
by 1969 the VW Beetle was becoming a little unfashionable, and a bit long in the tooth…a replacement was in order. so Porsche, always willing to offer their expertise in such matters, offered a solution that was, at that time, cutting edge; the EA266.
the plan that they came up with was a two-door family car with a water-cooled, four-cylinder engine lying on its side under the rear seats. this configuration was pure genius…and revolutionary. you had space in the front trunk, like the Beetle, but there was also room in the back for luggage, unlike the Beetle.
"clearly this was the car VW needed; aside from being a worthy replacement to the legendary Beetle."
Piëch, who was in charge of the EA266's research and development, saw a bright future for the mid-engine configuration that, until this concept, had proven itself with a few of Porsche's legendary race cars; the 904, the 718, and the then new pinnacle of Zuffenhausen's technology, the 917. it was a culmination of the ideas borne from those legends along with contemporary automotive design concerns like space, neutral handling, and crash worthiness that began defining how the project would commence.
beginning with the engine, a drastic departure from the archaic Luftgekühlkt engine steeped in tradition would give way to a water-cooled lump, displacing 1.6 liters and producing around 100 bhp @ 5500 rpm pushing it to a top speed of 117 mph. the little car had nearly twice the horsepower of the then contemporary Beetle whose top speed was around 76-81 mph…depending on the direction of the wind.
the underpinnings were pretty avant-garde too. Macpherson struts up front, and bringing up the rear was a pretty slick multi-link set up. couple this with a near mid-engine/rear transaxle layout driving the rear wheels and you’ve got the makings of a very sophisticated and potent little machine.
clearly this was the car VW needed; aside from being a worthy replacement to the legendary Beetle.
the criterion for building the thing was simple. it had to be athletic, safe to drive, comfortable, spacious yet compact. It was up to Tony Lapine’s stylists to come up with nice little package producing what promised to be an icon in the making…the sort of design, like most under Herr Lapine’s direction, that took a little while to warm up to but would prove to be timeless; ageless even. they also had planned to design a series around this concept that include a four-door, a roadster, a sports car, and a minivan....they were taking this concept very seriously.
fifty prototypes were built and rigorously tested for three years. it was approved, the green light was given to order tooling, and soon enough, it would be ready for mass production. then something happened...
it wasn’t that the car had design and engineering issues like little headroom for the rear occupants, an engine difficult to access and service, and a radiator that sat flat to the right of the engine causing cooling problems. nor was it the heat, noise, and odors coming from the engine right under the passengers…no, it was none of these things that threatened the EA266.
something more sinister was happening.
a combination of Herr Lotz resigning and being replaced by former VW do Brasil captain, Rudolf Leiding, and the revaluation of the Deutsche Mark in 1971 spelled doom for the benevolent looking little EA266. for reasons still unclear, the minute Leiding took the throne at Volkswagenwerke, he reviewed all of the company’s projects and decided to cancel EA266 immediately. not delay, or redesign, or even reconsider…cancel.
the millions of Deutsche Marks spent, all the research and development, the late nights… it didn’t even matter that numerous contracts to begin production tooling were placed. the dedication of a team set out to create a new legend to replace a legend was all for naught.
the only thing left after the managerial Blitzkrieg was one prototype.
maybe Leiding, like a lion shacking up with a lioness and killing all her cubs that weren’t borne from his loins, decided he didn’t want to pick up where the old regime left off. perhaps he had a personal beef with the friendly little car disliking the determined, yet adorable look on its face. the only rationale that made any sense of the bloodbath was that Leiding was sick of the rear-engined, rear drive theme that VW and Porsche were known for and decided to swap ends…engineering every VW from that moment on front-engined, front wheel drive. ironically, this was all the rage in Europe during that time.
Leiding’s decision proved to be a sound one, but it left Porsche with its pants down….they were literally screwed. never mind the turmoil going on in Zuffenhausen where every member of the Porsche and Piëch clan were asked to look for work elsewhere to avoid internal problems that come with family run operations, Porsche was left without a plan. and it left Dr. Fuhrmann, Porsche's first CEO with no ties to the family, in a bad spot since he didn’t have a successor to the 911 as he intended; they almost didn’t make it in 1971.
it was at this point I had to call Jim Doerr of 928 Classics because he’s the only guy I know who not only relishes in Porsche history, it occupies a huge portion of storage in his brain…exactly like your author. what we both agreed on with much passion is that although 1971 was a decade Porsche would like to bury, we strongly felt that it was a major turning point for the company…a sort of golden period where out of the ashes came a new chapter, or new beginning if you like, in Porsche’s history. and the EA266 was the little ember that started it all.
the irony of it all was that the EA266 was found to be superior to the new Golf in loads of ways as journalists would come to find out when they stacked them up against each other in 1976 during a series of road tests. VW was pissed when they found this out. apparently, word leaked out of their praise for the EA266 before they went to ink and VW ordered the journalists to sign a non-publication agreement, forbade any more tests with the sole surviving EA266, and locked it away in their museum…forever.
that didn’t matter though, that demon little car had planted the seed; the birth of the front engined water-cooled Porsche revolution had begun…
image sources: http://forums.vwvortex.com/, http://www.smcars.net, http://commons.wikimedia.org, http://www.auto-news.de, http://www.automobilesreview.com, http://www.km77.com,