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Cars you didn’t know you want: Volkswagen Brasilia

When Brazil tried to build a better Beetle

Remember when Volkswagen of Brazil thought they could build a better Beetle? No neither do I, yet here we are.

Introducing the Volkswagen Brasilia, a rear-engined compact car designed to replace the Beetle. In Brazil. And Nigeria.

Produced by Volkswagen do Brasil from 1974-82, the Brasilia was available as either a three- or five-door hatchback.

It was a bit of a chimera, with an air-cooled engine sourced from the Beetle, the chassis of the Karmann Ghia and styling borrowed from the German-produced Volkswagen Type 412.

Known internally as Type 321, the Brasilia was the brainchild of then VW do Brasil boss Rudolf Leiding who had asked his team of designers to come up with a more practical Beetle exclusively for the domestic market. Thus, the Brasilia was born.

Named after Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, the little VW just might be the most successful car you’ve never heard of. How successful? Try one million produced over its nine years in production.

When the Brasilia first went on sale in its native Brazil, it was marketed and sold as a small van, thus attracting lower taxes than passenger cars. That helped keep the Brasilia affordable, although there’s some evidence to suggest it also hindered sales, people not wanting to be seen in a ‘van’.

Yet, despite its patriotic name, the Brasilia wasn’t really a success in its homeland. Instead, the bulk of production was exported to Chile, Portugal, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, and the Philippines. Additionally, knock-down kits were exported to Nigeria where the Brasilia was assembled locally and rebadged as the Volkswagen Igala.

One accusation that could not be levelled at the Brasilia was that it was too quick for Brazil’s roads. With its 1600cc flat-four engine making around 28kW and 98Nm, the Brasilia wasn’t exactly a hot hatch. That was backed by a local motoring magazine, Quatro Rodas, which independently tested the Brasilia’s acceleration for its March, 1980 issue.

So how glacial was the little VW? Well, the run from standstill to 100km/h took 23 seconds while top speed wasn’t far beyond that triple figure at 129km/h.

Where the Brasilia did deliver on its promise was as a more practical Beetle. Thanks to its hatchback layout – whether three- or five-door versions – the Brasilia offered the type of load-lugging space the Beetle could only dream of. And, thanks to its rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, that large front boot, or ‘frunk’ added even more cargo capacity.

In 1980, Volkswagen Brazil introduced the Gol to its line-up, a more modern take on the same idea. With more than a passing resemblance to its ‘Golf’ stablemate, the Gol has become one of the most successful nameplates ever in South America. Still in production, and now in its third generation, around 10 million Volkswagen Gols have rolled off the production line.

Meanwhile, the car it replaced has become a cult classic, with enthusiasts the world over. Decent examples command anywhere from €12,000 to €16,000 (AUD$20,000 to AUD$26,000).

But, perhaps the most interesting thing about the Brasilia is that Volkswagen Brazil once fired live ammunition at a journalist because of this car. In other words, they tried to kill him.

The story goes that a young enterprising Brazilian freelance motoring journalist by the name of Cláudio Larangeira was hanging out near VW’s factory when he noticed a previously unseen model driving out of the factory gates. Keen to get some spy shots, Larangeira started reeling off a few photos only to be met by gunfire from VW’s security guards who didn’t take kindly to his snooping.

Larangeira escaped injury – and being killed – got the photos which he sold to the country’s leading automotive magazine, Quatro Rodas. The magazine hired him immediately, Larangeira eventually working his way up the ladder to become editor-in-chief. No word on whether he has a Brasilia in his garage as the car that started it all.

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