Volkswagen runs two museums in its home town of Wolfsburg.
Called ZeitHaus, the first collection is like a book of the 100 most emblematic cars brought to life. It’s where you’ll find a Lamborghini Miura, an Austin Mini, a Cadillac Eldorado and, of course, a diverse selection of classic Volkswagen models. Dubbed Stiftung, the second museum is like walking through the minds of the brightest, most daring engineers Volkswagen has ever employed.
Obscure one-offs, significant production cars, prototypes never shown to the public and once-popular concept cars all retire under the same roof. Join us as we explore the forgotten side of the company’s history:
1955 EA 48
Though it never reached production, Volkswagen’s 1955 EA 48 prototype was shockingly similar to the Mini that Austin released in 1959. It stemmed from Volkswagen’s effort to develop a car positioned below the Beetle in terms of size, performance and price. While sharing components between the two model lines would have kept costs in check, the EA 48’s designers started with a blank slate.
The EA 48 stood out as Volkswagen’s first small car and the first model it designed on its own with no input from Porsche. It featured unibody construction, a front-mounted engine which spun the front wheels and a McPherson-type front suspension. This combination was unheard of at the time. The prototype had no rear windows but Volkswagen planned to add them before the car went on sale.
1955 EA 48
The EA 48’s engine was essentially a Beetle-sourced flat-four cut in half. The air-cooled, 0.7-liter flat-twin made 18 HP, which was enough to send the EA 48 to 50mph. It shifted through a four-speed manual in an era when many similarly-sized cars still offered a three-speed.
Volkswagen tested the EA 48 on public roads, ironed out its kinks and planned to start production until officials raised serious questions about the effect it would have on Beetle sales. The firm’s bread-and-butter model was barely starting to attract buyers and some justifiably worried releasing a smaller, cheaper car would have a disastrous effect on its career.
Interestingly, Carl F. Borgward also urged the West German government to ask Volkswagen to cancel the project. Ludwig Erhard, the minister of economy, warned Volkswagen boss Heinz Nordhoff that thousands of jobs would be lost at rival brands if the EA 48 saw the light at the end of a production line. The project was sent to the pantheon of automotive history in 1956.
1961 Type 3 Cabriolet
The Type 3 released in 1961 gave motorists a more upmarket alternative to the Beetle, so introducing a topless variant for buyers who wanted a nicer convertible made a lot of sense. Volkswagen built an elegant prototype that likely would have sold well in the United States but it shelved the project out of fear the model would create internal competition with the Karmann Ghia convertible.
1963 EA 128
Easily one of the most captivating cars in the Volkswagen collection, the EA 128 came to life in 1963 as the company explored ways to deep its ties with Porsche while moving upmarket. It was a four-door, rear-engined family car developed with Porsche’s input and powered by a detuned version of the 911’s 2.0-liter, air-cooled flat-six engine. It made 90 HP, enough to send the EA 128 to 100mph. It could have become the first Volkswagen that allowed its driver to cruise in the left lane of the autobahn.
1963 EA 128
The rear suspension was similar in design to the 911’s. If built, the EA 128 would have competed directly against the Chevrolet Corvair in the United States. It remained a prototype, partly because officials worried about how motorists would react to a luxury car from the people’s car brand. Decision-makers didn’t solve this dilemma until they approved the Phaeton project in the late 1990s.
1969 EA 276
The 1969 EA 276 is one of the prototypes that led to the original Golf. It was much boxier than many of the design studies Volkswagen built as it searched for a way to replace the Beetle, and it featured a front-mounted engine that spun the front wheels, but the grille between its headlights was misleading.
While Volkswagen had already started experimenting with water-cooling, the EA 276 carried on with the Beetle’s time-tested air-cooled flat-four engine. It bridges the visual and technical gap between the Beetle and the original Golf.
1971 ESVW I
In the early 1970s, Volkswagen joined the list of automakers working with the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop a death-proof car. Automakers were challenged to come up with solutions – no matter how expensive and/or unsightly – to keep passengers alive in a high-speed crash. The assumption was that some features would later trickle into production models.
Called ESVW I, the prototype Volkswagen presented in 1971 wore a front end made with impact-absorbing plastic and it came with a padded instrument cluster, among other innovations. Volkswagen fitted it with a rear-mounted, 1.8-liter flat-four engine tuned to make 100 HP.
1972 T2 GT70
The GT acronym normally denotes a quick, high-performance car. When it’s on a Volkswagen Bus, however, it announces the presence of an experimental gas turbine where the air-cooled flat-four normally resides. Volkswagen built this prototype with the help of an American company named Williams Research Corporation to explore the feasibility of bringing it to mass production.
The 75 HP gas turbine was markedly more efficient than a piston engine and it took up less space. It was also much heavier and more expensive to build so the project was quickly canceled.
Volkswagen imagined the Basis-Transporter as a budget-priced truck for emerging nations. It had to be cheap to build and simple to mend with only basic tools. It was consequently built on a ladder frame that could be easily stretched, shrunk or fitted with different bodies and it used the company’s familiar air-cooled flat-four. The engine was mounted in the front, directly under the cab, to make the back part of the truck as practical as possible.
The Basis-Transporter in the Volkswagen museum is a prototype but it spawned a production model called EA 489 internally in 1976. More commonly known as the Hormiga (Spanish for ant), the pickup was manufactured in Hanover, Germany, and sold as complete knock-down (CKD) kits and in Puebla, Mexico for the local market. About 6200 units were made.
Workers in Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg factory cleverly built the first Plattenwagen in 1946 because they didn’t have forklifts. They started with a Beetle chassis, topped it with a metal platform and added a cab (sometimes closed, sometimes open) over the rear axle. These rudimentary pickups performed a variety of tasks including carrying components around the plant and distributing tea to workers.
Dozens of Plattenwagens were made between 1946 and 1973 and Volkswagen’s archives department credits this ingenious vehicle for spawning the Bus. The one displayed in the Volkswagen museum was built in 1973. It’s equipped with a 50 HP, 1.6-liter air-cooled flat-four engine.
1973 T2b Open Air
Structural rigidity be damned, Volkswagen chopped the top off a Bus in 1973 to create a convertible model called Open Air. It was never sold to the general public, for better or worse. Instead, the Open Air was built for a German television show called Ein Platz an der Sonne (a place in the sun).
The Chicco illustrated Volkswagen’s vision of a compact yet spacious city car. It stretched 129in from bumper to bumper yet its interior offered space for four passengers in relative comfort. Seemingly impossible, this feat was accomplished using the technology Volkswagen developed for the 1970s.
Power for the Chicco came from a 0.9-liter, three-cylinder engine rated at 40 HP. It was essentially a water-cooled straight-four with a cylinder lopped off. It was mounted transversally and it spun the front wheels so engineers were able to keep the size of the engine compartment in check. The Chicco remained a prototype but it influenced Volkswagen’s subsequent city cars.
This streamlined, fiberglass-bodied coupe started life in West Germany as a 1949 Beetle. It likely led an uneventful life until it moved to East Germany and ended up in the hands of enthusiasts Eberhardt Scharnowski and Burg Giebichenstein. In 1976, they removed the Beetle’s body and used the platform to create a one-of-a-kind sports car using the components and materials they were able to get their hands on.
The Rovomobil’s windshield, wipers and seats come from a Wartburg 353 while the lights are from a Trabant 601. The 34 HP, 1.2-liter flat-four is the original Beetle engine.
1977 Passat GTI
It didn’t take long for Volkswagen to look into expanding its range of GTI-badged cars. In 1977, two years after the Golf GTI made its debut, the company built an experimental Passat powered by the familiar 1.6-liter, 110 HP four-cylinder. It had more weight to carry in the Passat than in the Golf but it nonetheless delivered impressive performance. Suspension modifications improved handling while the now-familiar assortment of red accents added a finishing touch to the look.
Engineers extensively tested the Passat GTI on public roads and loved it but Volkswagen officials shot down the project. The Passat was a family car, they argued, not a hot rod. The 110 HP engine nonetheless ended up in the range-topping GLI model developed with an eye on comfort.
1984 Polo-powered Beetle
Volkswagen knew emissions regulations would kill the Beetle’s air-cooled flat-four engine sooner or later, though no one expected it would live until 2003. Efforts to develop a water-cooled Beetle started during the 1970s and led to this Polo-powered model built and tested in 1984.
Starting with a Mexican-built Beetle, engineers stuffed a 45 HP, 1.0-liter four-cylinder engine longitudinally in the space normally occupied by the flat-four. Getting it to fit required resorting to unusual packaging solutions; the radiator was installed under the car and protected by a thick skid plate, for example. The Polo’s engine later equipped the Bus but the Beetle kept its flat-four until the end of its production run.
1984 IRVW III
Made in 1984, this second-generation Jetta-based prototype was a rolling test bed of new technologies. It looked nearly stock with the exception of a lower ride height but it was fitted with a turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-cylinder diesel engine tuned to develop 180 HP. To add context, the most powerful turbodiesel offered in the regular-production Jetta generated 79 HP. Releasing 100 additional horses into the Jetta’s driveline allowed it to cruise on the Autobahn at up to 124mph.
1987 T3 Magma
Volkswagen introduced the Magma prototype in 1987 to gauge how customers would react if it made interior and exterior changes to the venerable T3. It stood out with a specific grille that featured integrated driving lights, more rounded wheel arch flares and a two-tone paint job, among other changes. Off-road-ready equipment like a winch and a front bull bar was added to get the public’s attention and power came from a 112 HP, 2.1-liter four-cylinder engine.
None of the major changes previewed by the Magma made it onto the production line. Either they were not very well received by its target audience or Volkswagen decided not to spend money updating a model nearing the end of its life cycle in Europe and in North America.
1990 Biagini Passo
Volkswagen-based cars are eligible for a spot in the company’s collection. This Italian-built Biagini Passo is one of the latest additions to the museum. It’s a first-generation Golf Cabriolet fitted with a new-look body kit, headlights from a Fiat Panda, and the Golf Country’s Syncro four-wheel drive system. The result looks like the precursor to Land Rover’s convertible Evoque.
65 examples of the Biagini Passo were made between 1990 and 1993. Most were sold on the Italian market but a handful were distributed in Germany. Rust claimed a majority of the production run in both countries.
1990 Vario I
The Vario I concept presented in 1990 stands out as one of the missing links between the Beetle-based Meyers Manx and the ID Buggy concept car presented in 2019. It shared its platform and its 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine with the second-generation Golf but it wore a buggy-like body made of plastic. There were no doors so the passengers had to hop over the body to get in. The Manx and the ID Buggy don’t have doors, either.
Designers integrated a removable Sony boom box into the dashboard instead of installing a conventional radio in the dashboard. The Vario I was fully functional, and it turned heads everywhere it went, but there’s little indication that Volkswagen seriously considered producing it.
1995 Balloon Beetle
The Beetle has conquered every continent – even Antarctica. Several examples became boats, including a few powered by an outboard motor, and this 1995 model took to the skies above Switzerland by adopting hardware normally developed for hot-air balloons.
Turning an unsuspecting Beetle into a hot-air balloon required cutting a sizeable hole through the roof. It drove like a normal Beetle when its four wheels were on the ground and it carried on with a 1.2-liter, 34 HP flat-four. The stock fuel tank (normally mounted in front of the firewall) was replaced by a smaller unit crammed into the engine compartment for weight distribution reasons.