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43 years trying, Volkswagen and segment A

When in 1998 it presented the Lupo, Volkswagen finally culminated the desire to have an access model in the lowest area of ​​the range. Something sought since 1955 with a good succession of prototypes.

From its own trademark, Volkswagen has always shown a clear vocation for popular cars. In this sense, after the Second World War he managed to turn the old KdF-Wagen into a global sales success under the name Type 1. something definitely worthwhile given the starting conditions represented by this utility. To begin with, although today he is found in the collective imagination in a cheerful and popular way, in the midst of the war it was still easy to associate him with the fascist horde from which he had emerged.

In fact, its genesis is in an official project of the Nazi regime entrusted to Ferdinand Porsche. Who, by the way, shamelessly used the design of the Tatra T97. Not only with a similar appearance, but especially with a four-cylinder boxer engine also installed in the rear. It's more, Tatra initiated legal action for plagiarism; interrupted by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Of course, after the dispute the case was reopened and the courts agreed with the manufacturer of the T97.

Also, from a technical point of view, the Volkswagen Type 1 did not boast a particularly advanced design for the forties and fifties. Even with the engine hanging behind the rear axle, losing cargo space while creating oversteer. In fact, from the 2CV to the Primula passing through the Mini, front-wheel drive was gaining importance among practical, economical and reliable cars.

Thus, what has been achieved by Volkswagen and its Type 1 could not be more meritorious in commercial terms. Turning into a global success what, originally, was nothing more than a mediocre design created by engineers and politicians surrounded by a sinister stench.

From here, the one known as "Beetle” gave affordable and popular mobility solutions to families, women and young people from countries as diverse as Germany, Mexico, the United States or Brazil. It's more, even today it is still a desirable vehicle in any developing country, boasting excellent reliability together with easy maintenance.

In addition, after one of the most complex replacement processes in the automotive world -with not a few failed prototypes along the way- the Volkswagen Golf managed to replace the Beetle in 1974. Completely different from its predecessor, this has been the reference for the C segment up to the present day, starting the transition to electric mobility with eight generations behind them. Reasons more than enough to point to the German house as a true reference in everything related to mass motoring and medium ranges. Now, what happened in relation to the access segments?


At the beginning of the fifties, the mobile fleet in Europe not only began to recover, but it even began to expand in the access segments thanks to the consumption boom. In this way, from microcars like the Isetta to the simplest cars like the FIAT 600 the cities added more and more circulation. At this point, many mainstream brands were drawn to launch even more affordable options in order to meet up-and-coming new audiences.

Those who, made up of young people and women, came to multiply the profile of drivers on the road. In this context, Volkswagen assigned the project of an access model - below the Type 1 - to Gustav Mayer and Heinrich Seibt. The first from Ford and the second from Gutbrod, where had already accumulated extensive experience in relation to small front-wheel drive vehicles. And it is that, contrary to everything represented by the old KdF, the new Volkswagen would have to put the accent on its front part.

In this way - and just as Alec Issigonis would do four years later with his Mini - the combination of front-wheel drive and mechanics would allow a fully open-plan cabin. In fact, even being about 60 centimeters shorter than the Type 1, the so-called EA-48 Concept exhibited a very similar interior space. Regarding the engine, being a car designed for the urban environment a simple two-cylinder boxer was chosen, the result of splitting the four-cylinder of the Beetle in two.

However, shortly after starting to shoot in its first tests, the EA-48 project was closed due to economic reasons. To begin with, Volkswagen anticipated that it could steal a certain number of sales from the Type 1. Something that it was not willing to tolerate, especially if we take into account how well the marketing of this flagship product was going. In addition, since in Germany there were still a certain number of factories dedicated to microcars, the local government was concerned about the possible arrival of the model in series.

With all this, Volkswagen decided to focus its efforts on expanding around the world with the Type 1 and its derivatives by flag. Something he did until the late sixties. When the stabilization of the market together with the wear of its range They set off the alarms in the German house. Based on this, the development of the future Golf took place. But, in parallel, the appearance of an option for the B segment was not neglected. Thanks to this, just one year after the Golf was presented -that is, in 1975- the first generation of the Polo arrived at dealerships.

Excellent not only as a second car, but also as a car for those new audiences mentioned above. However, since the market was expanding through the access segments, Volkswagen needed an even cheaper option.

Because of this, also in 1975 the design department of the brand created the Chicco Concept. Never shown in public until decades later, it served as a test to see how light, spartan and compact a car could be made.

All this, of course, with the concern to save fuel unleashed after the Oil Crisis. In fact, during the XNUMXs and XNUMXs Volkswagen returned to it on a recurring basis through other prototypes. Thus, 1982 seemed the right time to launch, this time, a model located below the Pole. Which, by the way, was evolving excellently, even presenting sports versions. For all these reasons, the possibility of taking the Student to series was seriously gambled.

Groundbreaking in its appearance compared to its predecessors, this design for segment A could easily accommodate four adults within its three meters and thirteen centimeters. Also, from plastics to mechanics everything in this prototype was designed with the ambition of saving costs in order to present the best sale price. Likewise, two engines were tested that, in that line based on economy, could be shared with the Polo range thanks to their 50CV and 72CV respectively.

However, market studies advised against the series production of the Volkswagen Student. And it is that, curiously, seen in a global perspective, it moved in a dangerous middle ground. To begin with, in the richest countries the segment A niche was not very wide. What's more, since most buyers could afford at least one Polo, the Urban only made sense in very specific cases. Like the first car for a young person or the urban car for a family that already had a saloon focused on long trips.

In addition, in the case of developing markets such as Argentina or Mexico, the studies did not advise the production of the Urban by Volkswagen's regional subsidiaries either. Not in vain, the middle classes of these countries, set to buy a new car, would be inclined towards a larger and more practical one. Reason why, in South American countries, FIAT has made a habit of launching local products suited to the mix of space and economy. At this point, although the Volkswagen Urban was ready to arrive at dealerships, it was finally left as an exhibition piece in the brand's museum.

After this, in 1992 the Chico was presented. This one is fully dedicated to being a laboratory of ideas without the possibility of reaching series. With elements that are too expensive for a segment A model such as its doors with an ingenious opening system perfect for small openings. Likewise, in the Chico Volkswagen experimented with hybridization just as Audi had done shortly before with its Duo. However, all this did not mean that the German house was giving up having a car for the lowest area of ​​the range.

What's more, this was finally about to happen. For this reason, in 1998 that process that began in 1955 with the EA-48 culminated with the appearance of the Lupo. Based on the same platform as SEAT's Arosa and, finally, responsible for raising the Volkswagen flag in the A segment. In fact, after it came the Up! Continuation of this bet in our days, now marked by electric mobility that, surely, will immediately mark the field of urban vehicles.

Photos: Volkswagen Classic

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Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.

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