Curbside Classic: 1974-1981 VW Dasher (Passat B1) VW Finally Enters The FWD Era

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Procrastination is an evolutionary trait; why expend energy now when the wolf isn’t yet at the door? From the mid-50s on, VW knew it needed to eventually find a true successor to their aging air-cooled rear-engined cars, and spent some twenty years exploring various new designs and prototypes. Most were still rear-engined, but there were a few FWD ones too. But VW was so addicted to its cash-cow Beetle, and its plants were spitting them out so profitably at full capacity, it just couldn’t ever really be bothered to make the leap. But eventually the wolf did appear, and VW took the easy way out, with a Fox.

Unscheinbarer Revolutionaer: Der Prototyp EA 48 trumpfte 1955 mit zahlreichen innovativen Details auf

Even though VW developed the rep for being very conservative back then, it (and Porsche) created a constant stream of quite advanced prototypes. Most were rear or underfloor designs, but FWD was given some consideration too. This sub-Beetle class and rather Mini-ish EA 48 was developed during the 1953-1955 period, and was powered by a 700cc  air-cooled twin (essentially one-half of the Beetle four) mounted ahead of the wheels and used McPherson struts on the front, a first anywhere for a FWD vehicle. But in 1955, VW couldn’t even keep up with the demand for the Beetle, so the EA 48 project was ditched. Why bother?

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By the mid-late 60s, VW’s bigger and more immediate problem was in the classes above the Beetle, as buyers had higher expectations and the competition from more advanced designs was brutal. VW colossally botched its entrance into the true middle-class with its 411/412, it was still air-cooled and rear engined; essentially a Super Beetle on steroids. And it was essentially DOA in 1968, with its modest performance, relatively thirsty engine, and the other intrinsic shortcomings of the rear-engined car.

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In 1969, NSU was taken over by VW, and rolled into Audi. This was just as NSU was about to launch its very advanced FWD K70, to slot in below the rotary-engine Ro80. Designed by Claus Luthe, the K70 had some very advanced features, an Audi-like longitudinal engine, and was very space-efficient. Its 1605cc was a development of the one used in its NSU1200, and ended up being rather thirsty itself, and performance wasn’t really all that great either. NSU didn’t quite have the resources to turn an advanced design into a real-world winner. And the K70s construction was rather complex, so it was hardly a cheap car to build.

VW pulled the NSU K70 from the market just before it was to go into production, in part because it was seen to be too close to their own new Audi 100. By when it became obvious that the 411/412 was not impressing buyers, VW changed its mind and slapped its own logo on the grille, and sold it as the VW K70; VW’s first borrowed FWD car.

VW EA_272 1972 _01

The K70 did not get off to a promising start. So VW started development of a new middle-class FWD car of its own, the EA 272 (1972). It had a transverse engine, and was styled by Giugiaro. But an even more expedient solution was now very close at hand.

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Audi’s brilliant new 80 (B1, Fox, in the US), debuted in 1972, with a brand new SOHC inline four engine (EA827), the first in a family of gas and diesel engine still in production today. The B1 was state of the art in its performance, efficiency, handling, and all-round capabilities. There was simply no point in VW spending development money to build an in-house competitor.

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VW logically commissioned Giugiaro to graft a new fastback rear unto the 80, which also made a hatchback  possible. although it was also available with a conventional trunk opening too. The Passat was launched in May 1973, and quickly eclipsed the somewhat larger K70, which went out of production in 1975. VW had found its FWD solution, and ran with it. And what it learned from the B1, it put to good use on the new Golf, which did have a transverse engine/transmission. Most of all, the Passat was able to finally put the venerable Type 3 out to pasture.

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Instantly, VW had the arguably best car in one of the most competitive segments in Europe, and a quickly growing class in the US. Its timing in the US was of course fortuitous, as it arrived just before the first energy crisis. The very lightweight (∼2500 lbs) B1 platform always yielded excellent economy and performance, no matter which engine it had.

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In the US, a carburated 1.5 L gas version made 70/75 hp in the first two years, and then was replaced by a brisker 78hp fuel injected 1.6. In Europe, a smaller 1.3 L version of the EA827 engine was the economy version, and at the other end of the spectrum, an 85 hp version of the 1.6 in the TS. And in 1979, the GLI version had the Golf GTI’s very zippy 11ohp  1.6.

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For the 1979 model year, the Golf’s 1.5 L diesel four became available in the Dasher/Passat, with 48 hp and a 0-60 time of just about 20 seconds. But during the second energy crisis, the diesel engine became very sought after, and these rugged little oil-burners are still clattering away on the streets of Eugene, although typically not with Ronal Teddy Bear wheels.

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VW also developed the station wagon version of the Passat/Dasher, which Audi appropriated as an 80 Avant in certain markets. Thanks to its space-saving design, it is quite roomy despite the B1’s modest 97″ (2470mm) wheelbase and 165″ (4190mm) overall length.

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The pre-facelift Dasher/Passat used the Audi 80’s interior largely intact, with an attractive instrument binnacle and wood-grained trim. These cars were delightfully good-handling for the times, thanks to their light weight and well-sorted out suspension of coil/struts in front and a twist-beam axle in the rear. From a modern perspective, they are more like sub-compacts in terms of their size and weight. Obviously, a deeply quiet, plush ride was not part of their brief. These were true anti-Broughams.

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Although I’ve never found a B1 Fox/Audi 80 in Eugene, there are still a fair number of these B1 Dashers around. This one is obviously owned by a VW enthusiast, and sports GTI wheels and quite possibly a larger and more powerful engine, which is an easy swap. Early cars came with the four-speed manual; a five speed became available a few years later. A three speed automatic was also optional, but not the best choice to take advanatage of the car’s inherently sporty nature.

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But most of them are diesels, like this sedan that was for sale in my neighborhood a while back. It never sold. Diesels anything are in, but these are getting a bit long in tooth.

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But they’re still out there. How much longer is an open question.

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This one is no longer around.

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And this tree pruner now carries his ladders on a Corolla wagon. Time dashes along.

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But my favorite of them all is of course this pristine early coupe sporting a dramatic purplish paint job. How utterly dashing!

Related reading:

CC Volkswagen 412 – VW’s Deadly Sin

CC: Audi Fox/80 – The Mother of the Modern VW/Audi Era