Automotive History: Volkswagen Gol – The Difficult Mission to Replace a Legend

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As I’ve written in the past, the first generation of automakers that landed in Brazil used to produce really crappy cars. Well, all of them but one: VW.

 

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The VW Beetle and the Micro Bus were the right car at the right time, just what we needed: they were affordable, tough as nails, fuel efficient, and even a monkey with couple days of training could fix them.

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In the late 50s, paved roads were a luxury around South America and the “Off Road” capability of the little Beetle was very much appreciated.

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So, the Brazilian VW established itself in a very comfortable position… at the top, thanks to the air cooled Beetle platform and all its variations.

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By the early 70s VW realized they couldn’t rely on this project forever, and in 1973 introduced the Passat, the first FWD, water-cooled car from the German brand. But the Passat was a car aimed to the middle class buyers, it was never meant to be an entry level car; this position still belonged to the aging Beetle. VW wanted to replace its air-cooled fleet starting from the top.

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VW was in a pickle, they had to replace the most beloved car of its portfolio for a modern project but how to do that without hurting the feelings of the (still) millions of loyal costumers of the Beetle? The teams of marketing and engineering came together and the solution they found was a very, very singular one.

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The idea was to produce a compact car with modern style, roomy interior, front wheel drive and all of that but, this new car has to be equipped with something that the Beetle customers really loved… why not the air cooled boxer engine?

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This idea was not entirely new; in 1969 VW had a prototype called EA 276 with this configuration, it was a desperate try to stretch the life spam of the flat four engine but the car never came into production. But in Brazil, the top VW CEOs gave their final approval in 1976 and the project, now called “BX”, was in full throttle.

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The “BX” had a huge goal to fulfill, and in order to perform it well, every detail should was carefully considered. The design, although not a true Giugiaro job, was deeply based in VW hatchbacks that were, like the Golf and the Sirocco.

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The engine position was, naturally, longitudinal, just like in the Passat. Under that new blower and housing, it was made of familiar parts. Which probably explains the biggest reason for its use and existence: VW do Brasil had a huge investment in building the air-cooled boxer, so it only made sense to re-use it in the Gol.

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The new car was named “Gol”,  that brings to memory the “Golf” a successful European VW and more important to the Brazilian customers, gol is a Portuguese word that means “goal” in our national sport, Soccer.

VW Gol ad

In 1980 the new VW debuted in the Brazilian market. The Gol was neatly built and it had some good features like modern style, comfortable interior and really good stability in curves. The new body with FWD was much more space efficient and roomier than the old Beetle.

Its only weakness was, obviously, the engine. In 1980 the oil crisis was at its peak and VW decided to offer the car with the 1.3 liter engine as only one option. With only 42 HP and 9,2 m.kgf, the Gol had very disappointing performance indeed. Of course some engineers at VW started to sing the “I Told You So” song for the stubbornness of the CEOs in not seriously considering the more powerful water cooled option, even with a small displacement of 1.3 L.

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The sales numbers of 1980 were not thrilling at all and to save the idea of the air cooled engine, an old recipe was adopted: “There’s no replacement for displacement”… yep, for 1981 we could buy a 1.6 L Gol, equipped with dual carbs. The power was now at 51 HP and 10.5 m kgf of torque.

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Here’s how that looked under the hood.

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By the end of the same year, the “BX” family got bigger with the debut of the “Voyage”, a 2 door sedan version of the Gol. The new car had the task to replace the Passat in the near future; that’s why it never came with the flat four engine, but instead, a water cooled 1.5L. Americans may recognize it as the VW Fox.

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In 1982 came the ute “Saveiro”, equipped with the air-cooled 1.6.

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To complete the “BX” family, in 1983 came the station wagon version, called “Parati” (a beach city in Rio de Janeiro), also equipped with the 1.5 L engine from the Passat. This was also sold as the Fox station wagon in the US.

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Amazing fact: the Parati immediately appealed as a “cool” car to young buyers, something like the SUV phenomena in North America. The one you see above is a 1996 Parati “second generation”.

 

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The bigger engine gave some new wind to the Gol, and VW was feeling comfortable enough to kill the successful rear-engine Brasilia, which should be the natural successor of the Beetle. By that time, only the Bug and the Bus (Kombi) were still in business using the old platform.

 

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In 1984, the Gol received for the first time a water cooled engine, in a very special version, the Gol GT. The car was a nice surprise in a market that had not many “performance oriented” models and was still against the law to buy a new imported car.

The new Gol was offered in three colors options, black, red and dark gray, it was equipped with cool 14″ alloy wheels, fog lights, Recaro seats and the most important: a 1.8 L water-cooled engine with a performance camshaft (imported from Germany) and double barrel carb. In the alcohol version it could break the 100 HP barrier. The GT could easily beat the crap out of its only nemesis, the 1.6 L Ford Escort XR3.

In 1985 the VW started to offer the water-cooled 1.6 engine for all the Gol versions (but the GT), making the air-cooled an option pretty much just for the corporate fleet cars. The last air-cooled Gol was built in 1986.

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In 1986 was the official year of the discontinuation of the venerable VW Beetle. Even if the Kombi was kept in production, it was the end of an era, but the Gol proved to be up to the task to replace the little Bug.

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In 1987 the Gol was the best selling car in Brazil, a top position it would keep for the next 26 years in a row, losing the first place in 2014 to the Fiat Palio for no more than 385 units.

The Gol was the first Brazilian car equipped with electronic fuel injection in 1988 and the first flex fuel car in 2003.

 

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In 2008 came the third generation of the Gol, and VW finally abandoned the original platform to adopt the modern Polo base with transverse mounted engine.

I don’t want to tell here the whole story of the car, with all the details of every single model, I just wanted to tell a little about this period of changes and uncertainties the Brazilian VW had to go through when came the time to find a substitute for the Beetle.

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The VW Gol is for the newer generations exactly what the Beetle was for my, and older, generations: affordable and reliable, a combination hard to beat.

 

More:

VW Brasilia: Another Alternative Brazilian VW

CC: VW Fox: This German Fox Has A Brazilian Accent