Estate sales are great places to pick up household items you never knew you wanted, or at least to browse and see what unexpected treasures await. I expect surprises at these sales, but was unprepared to see this item: Wheeled out of the garage where it spent nearly all of its 45 years was a Volkswagen so uncommon, I can’t remember when I saw the last one. As a bonus, this is most likely the lowest-mileage example in North America. Behold: a 1971 Volkswagen 411 with 18,000 miles.
Most other shoppers ignored this aged VW, while others looked at it in puzzlement. Ironically, that’s the same scenario faced by Volkswagen when this car was introduced. The 411 was a car in search of a niche – not quite a VW and not quite a station wagon. Marketed as the best of both worlds, most consumers shrugged it off as overpriced Beetle. Even though these cars had their share of attributes, those qualities were overshadowed by the fact that few people wanted an air-cooled, rear-engine mid-size car. The 411’s failure to sell convinced VW of this, prompting Volkswagen to abandon the air-cooled concept once and for all. This perfectly preserved example well illustrates both the 411’s attributes and shortcomings.
In the 1960s, Volkswagen was regarded as The Beetle Company, having produced 11 million of the little Bugs by 1968. Although executives like president Karl Lotz publicly claimed that the Beetle would be produced “forever,” everyone knew that time was running short for the iconic economy car. Volkswagen needed to plan for a post-Beetle life.
VW’s first move towards a post-Beetle world was to diversify (with Beetle-based vehicles) into market segments beyond basic transportation. VW’s main effort at a slightly more upscale product offering was the 1500/1600, marketed as a mid-size family car. In hindsight, that car’s relative lack of success should have been a warning that most consumers were not interested in a noisy, slow, rear-engine car in a price category where other cars without those drawbacks were readily available. But that warning sign was not heeded.
Volkswagen prioritized developing a new mid-size offering in the 1960s, but early in the process made the fateful decision to design it as a rear-engine, air-cooled car. That format, it was thought, was VW’s distinguishing feature, and the company believed that the Volkswagen faithful would demand and appreciate continuing the air-cooled heritage.
The vehicle that emerged from this development was the 411 (it and the later 412 are collectively known as the ‘Type 4’). Before delving into what the 411 was, it’s important to consider what it was not: A Beetle.
That concept proved to be a tough sell. Yes, the 411 and the Beetle shared a VW badge, had offbeat styling, and featured an air-cooled engine in the back, but there were very few similarities between the two cars. However, from the beginning, people simply could not disassociate the 411 from the Beetle. In fact, many press articles of the day made some sort of reference to the 411 being an overgrown Beetle.
Beetle Brougham… VW executives must have cringed at this magazine cover.
The 411’s flat-four engine was in fact derived from the 1600’s, but was largely new, and slightly bigger at 1.7 liters. Featuring a strengthened block, an aluminum crankcase and completely redesigned cylinder heads, this was practically a new engine. European 411s were initially carbureted, but all US models received fuel injection – quite an advancement in 1971. For the US version, horsepower measured 85 @ 5,000 rpm.
While other Volkswagens were on their way to being classified as living fossils, the 411 was thoroughly modern in a number of respects. The car featured a unibody construction, and the suspension eschewed VW’s traditional torsion bars in favor of an independent suspension with MacPhearson struts up front, semi-trailing arms in the rear, and anti-roll bars at both ends.
Oddly, VW often marketed the 411 as a “luxury” car worldwide. Sometimes the references were sarcastic; sometimes they were not, but clearly this was a misnomer. The 411 had many attributes, but luxury was never one of them, and the whole concept likely misfired. Setting unrealistic expectations was not the marketing help that this car desperately needed.
The 411 came in two body styles, a 4-door sedan (VW’s first), and this version. It’s obviously a wagon, though VW called it a 3-door sedan in North America for 1971. For ’72, they faced reality and called it a wagon. In most other markets, the wagon was called the “Variant,” a name that is most often used when referring to the car today.
All 411s featured styling that was… unique. While the prominent headlights, a large, grille-less front end, and bathtub-inspired shape may have seemed uniquely Volkswagen, it wasn’t to the majority of buyers’ tastes. Furthermore, VW fitted stiff springs on the front end (presumably to keep the car balanced in case someone filled the front trunk with bricks), causing the 411’s front end to sit higher than the rear end.
The mid-size wagon market tends not to be a great place to test out novel design concepts, and the 411 fell flat in that most important of all areas: Appearance.
Climbing aboard, one was treated to an austere interior typical of German cars of its era. Nothing unnecessary here, but for Volkswagen this was rather upscale. Volkswagen was proud of their seats that were adjustable in 3 directions, a standard rear window defroster, and full carpeting throughout the interior.
The dashboard featured minimal instrumentation, and most functions were controlled by firm-feeling plastic knobs. That green knob on the right operates the heater, and this is one of the automotive world’s most interesting heaters. 411s featured both a conventional engine-blower heater, and also an auxiliary gasoline-powered heater capable of producing instant heat, and of operating when the car’s engine was not running.
VW’s hallmark of good fit and finish was evident in this car, but still the overall feel was not quite up to the “luxury” description as promoted in Volkswagen’s ads. The interior was not a terribly welcoming place, with a cold feel and hard (but supportive and large) vinyl seats (ED: these are seat covers in this car, not the original upholstery). One wonders how many potential buyers (those that could look past the odd exterior) were turned off by the austere interior. For a vehicle marketed as an upmarket mid-size car, this missed the target.
The rear cargo area reveals a limitation of rear-engine wagons, as the engine sits underneath. Liftover is high and the floor-to-roof dimension is small. Even grocery bags would block some of the (normally excellent) outward visibility. Of course, there is a front trunk as well.
Clever touches abounded in this car. For example, the fuel filler included a rubber flap to protect the fender from damage. The windshield washer was powered by compressed air from the spare tire. Airflow was individually controlled to the driver and passenger side via levers between the seats. A lot of thought was put into these and other details, but they didn’t compensate for the obvious shortcomings in many buyers’ minds.
Europe received 411s in 1969, but US customers waited until 1971 because VW did not want to sell the car stateside without an automatic transmission. A 3-speed automatic became standard on US models – a selling point among some consumers, but not something that helped the 411’s already meager power.
A 2,500-lb. automatic 411 would attain 60 mph in 18 seconds and top speed of 95 mph – not unheard-of for an economy car of the day, but nothing to brag about for a mid-size car costing $3,000.
Once underway, the 411 rode comfortably. However, the car featured rather vague steering, and somewhat jittery handling – reminding the driver that it was a tail-heavy car on skinny tires. It was reasonably comfortable, but did not excel in any one area.
VW’s high hopes for the car are evidenced by it being produced both in Germany and South Africa. Worldwide, the car was marketed as a luxury car (French and South African ads are shown above), but sales fell short of expectations just about everywhere.
Responding to criticism of the car’s design, Volkswagen introduced an updated version, the 412, for 1973. The design was all-new in front of the windshield, and the 412 gained an almost-nautical appearance with headlights recessed into the front panel. In the rear, the tail lights were also slimmed down, and the sum of these styling changes enhanced the car’s appearance. By that time, though, the Type 4’s fate was already sealed.
A total of 367,728 Type 4’s were produced worldwide between 1969 and 1974. Estimates of US sales vary between 44,126 and 117,110, but I am inclined to believe the lower number, given the car’s scarcity on US roads, even in the 1970s. Regardless, this was a disappointment; at its US introduction, Volkswagen officials estimated the car would generate 45,000 annual sales.
The Type 4 was an evolutionary dead end for Volkswagen. Its eventual replacement, the Dasher, was a front-engine, front-wheel drive car, as was every new VW thereafter. Type 4s were quickly forgotten, although the few that were sold tended to stick around for a while due to the cars’ renowned durability.
Our featured car rarely had that durability tested, having been driven on average 400 miles per year. Its owner passed away several years ago, and the car had not been registered since 2010. The owner’s children, who were running the estate sale, couldn’t quite decide what to do with the car… should they sell it, or keep it as a memento of days gone by? Given that it’s unlikely that the car sold on the day I saw it, I hope they chose the latter. Although the 411 is often regarded as an unloved car – even many VW enthusiasts apparently snub their noses at them – this particular example was loved, pampered and garaged for decades. Hopefully it found a new garage (or a museum) where it can remain a loveable oddball for decades to come.
The 411 was a good concept (well-engineered, durable wagon) with some interesting features, but while many of the details were on target, the big features missed the mark. Odd styling, tepid and noisy performance, a spartan interior and a high price is not a recipe for success. The Type 4 never found its niche, but let’s hope that this remarkable example did.
Photographed in McLean, Virginia in November, 2015
Curbside Classic: 1974 Volkswagen 412 – VW’s Deadly Sin #1 Paul Niedermeyer