Curbside Classic: VW Scirocco Mk1 – Irreplicable, Although VW Keeps Trying

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Volkswagen has endlessly tried (and still is) to replicate the brilliant success of the gen1 Scirocco. Ironic too, since they can’t really take full credit for its existence. Success has many fathers, but VW’s paternity is limited to lending its new Golf’s genes; a sperm donor of sorts. It took a bit more to actually develop and put the Scirocco into production, some major risk taking on the part of its progenitors. The result was well worth it.

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The Scirocco is one of the most compelling examples of how the world was very different then: while Detroit was padding vinyl for landau roofs and Broughams, the Europeans were folding steel into some of the most brilliant designs ever. At least some of them made it here, thankfully. In the case of the Scirocco, it was a close call.

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We covered VW’s protracted labors that finally birthed the Golf here. What is often lost in that story is how the Scirocco came to be, or almost didn’t. Giorgetto Giugiaro had the contract to design the original Golf, and approached VW’s board about a sporty coupe version. Given that he already had a very similarly sized coupe on the drawing boards for Alfa, the Alfasud Sprint, that certainly made sense. And as timeless a beauty the Karman Ghia was, Karman certainly saw the light at the end of that tunnel.

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According to this (German language) source, the VW board turned down the sporty coupe proposal, given the company’s very precarious state at the time. And accordingly, Karmann fully took on the risk and investment of the Scirocco’s development costs. Karmann did need to keep their factory humming, which was always a challenge that finally overtook the firm in 2009. Since its bankruptcy, it’s a de-facto protectorate of VW. And now VW owns Giugiaro’s Ital Design. The days of the small independents is waning. But in 1974, the results were brilliant.

Another little detail that’s often overlooked too is that the original European Scirocco had large rectangular headlights (except the top-level TS model), perhaps to distinguish it a bit from the very similar Alfasud Sprint? Or too replicate the Passat’s look? But the most significant of the Scirocco’s milestones is that it appeared some six months before its donor Golf, in Europe anyway.

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I remember vividly reading auto motor und sport’s excited review of the new Scirocco, not so much for what it was on its own terms, but in that it was the ultimate sneak preview of the upcoming Golf, itself the most anticipated car of the times. And the press was most encouraging indeed: the Scirocco’s superb handling qualities were there from day one, even if its full performance potential was still a couple of years off. Although for the times, it was already brisk.

I don’t remember ams using the Das Skateboard to describe the Scirocco’s love of carving, but it seems that everyone ever since has. Is there another competitor to having that analogy used so consistently? It does it justice, especially from the perspective of the times. The whole “hot-hatch” segment hadn’t really been properly birthed yet, and except for the original Mini’s inadvertent handling prowess and perhaps the Fiat 128, most FWD small cars up to that point were more about practicality, function and even comfort, like the Simca 1204. Of course there were exceptions, like the Saab Sonnet, but that was hardly mainstream.

The Scirocco previewed the Golf formula, that would soon be replicated endlessly across the globe: struts in front, a twist-beam semi-independent rear suspension with coils, and of course the transverse engine-transmission layout. Lower the body (and center of gravity) a bit, stir in a dash of suspension firmness, and you have a skateboard. Just supply a bit of extra kick, unless you had the right engine available. In Europe, there were always choices. In the US, not so much so.

If you had strong (European) legs, you could get a Scirocco with the 50 hp 1.1 L EA111 four from Audi 50. The EA827 was available in 70 and 85 hp 1.5 L trims, the top version being reserved for the TS model, which also carried the tell-tale round headlights. The 85 hp was pretty zingy for the times (0-60 in 11.0 sec) , and a nice preview of coming (GTI) attractions. In the US, only the 70 hp version made the EPA cut, with its problematic carburetor. That makes the ’75 versions less than ideal. Road & Track’s ’75 took 12.7 seconds for the zero to sixty. But help was just a phone call to Robert Bosch away.

A larger 1588 cc engine fitted with the injection not only upped the rating ti 76 hp, but made a world of difference in its driveability. The Scirocco had arrived, and it arrived at sixty in 10.5 seconds (Road Test). Pretty heady stuff for the times, considering that while German cars were improving their performance in the mid-late seventies, American cars were totally losing theirs.

Unfortunately, the brilliant 110 hp European GTI version of the 1.6 motor, that appeared in the Scirocco for the 1977 MY (over there), never made it stateside. It has to be the ultimate VW of that whole era. We paid quite a price for our clean air, and when the Federalized 1.8 L GTI finally appeared with all of 90 hp, it was too late for the gen 1 Scirocco, which ended its career with the 1981 MY.

Of course, that’s all largely irrelevant now, since EA827 swaps of every possible permutation have been SOP for VW enthusiasts for decades. This particular Scirocco (the bronze one) has a 1.8 SOHC, and with a few mods to give it a nice snarl but its a totally tractable daily driver. The enthusiasm for these cars is still high, but its low roof makes it something I’m now more inclined to enjoy mentally from the outside. That gives quite a bit of scope, as I never get tired of letting my eyes glide over the lines of that superb folded-origami style that Giugiario perfected. That’s hardly the the case for its less-loved successor Mk2 (designed by VW itself). Some things are just irreplaceable.

Scirocco Mk2 CC here