Curbside Recycling: Audi 50 – Fitting the Pieces

What in the name of Europe is this? I said, as I approached the recently discovered VW salvage yard in search of missing Golf A3 parts. An unknown shape on the driveway… that’s no Volkswagen, or is it? Technically, it was… kind of, depending on how one thinks of it. After all, VW Group’s history at the time was an assortment of puzzle pieces waiting to be sorted out.

As I reached the car, the yard’s owner, a lanky fella, noticed my excitement: “You know what that is? An Audi 50”. I looked for a mental image in my head… A dusty memory of black and white promo photos of a Polo, its corporate sibling, barely materializing. How in the world did it appear here in El Salvador? 60 miles away from the capital? A car that according to internet sites was only sold in Europe. Yes, I had gone there expecting to obtain some hard to find interior bits… but not an unicorn. Said 4 ringed unicorn, being a puzzle itself, a shadow of its former self, missing many crucial pieces.

Let’s look at this puzzle a bit closer. There it is, in all its 4 ringed facial glory; the Audi 50, AKA VW Polo, never -supposedly- sold in the Americas, a foundational stone in VW history (along the previously developed Audi 80). Launched in 1974, it helped cement the water-cooled lane VW was taking on, as it tried to rid itself of the Beetle rut.

About that sibling, I never cared for the original Polo, a creature I had only read about in VW books. The car just didn’t look like a ‘real’ Volkswagen, the designer in me feeling its lines were out of step with Giugiaro’s, who took care of most of the 1974-75 VW lineup. The Polo had to be a fake VW; an impostor, much in the way a K70 was. Little did I know the car had started as Audi’s 50. With that info in place, years later, the pieces in my mind clicked into place. That 4 ringed logo truly belonged on that snout, and as an Audi… it looked infinitely better; the understated lines, the slightly bulbous tumblehome, leftovers of DKW/NSU’s school of design. Now the car made sense! (These designer nitpicks are inane and maddening, I know).

Photo from the Cohort by F Abbott

Now, puzzles can be a fun pastime, true… but what if the pieces don’t fit?

Let’s backtrack a bit. Under the cautious guidance of CEO H. Nordhoff, VW had found itself in quite a bind by the late 60’s. Following a careful approach to product development, the company had offered the public various evolutions of the venerable Beetle platform. Larger models, with more horses under the hood, and different packaging options. Trouble was… the public wasn’t quite biting. Not outright loses -yet- but not setting sales charts on fire; VW probably wondering why the evolutionary approach enjoyed by others wasn’t panning out for them. Wasn’t GM churning out the same chassis every year in and out?… Oh yeah, that snazzy styling probably had something to do with sales! Any meat packer on a Pontiac Catalina looked like he was going to the Catskills for vacation, at any given time. What did the VW 1500 convey? Grocery shopping?

Let’s not throw Nordhoff completely overboard yet. A cautious evolutionary approach is after all, what most car makers engage on. Also, under his tenure, acquisitions that would keep VW alive in the future; among these DKW (then a Mercedes Benz controlled entity). Absorbed by VW during the mid-60’s great mass extinction of German makes, the original idea was for Ingolstadt to take on more Beetle production. The little runt was just gobbling all assembly line space it could find as sales in the US kept going from peak to peak.

By ’64, DKW, originally a low rent maker, had developed a split personality after a decade of Mercedes ownership. This due to what seems a MB proclivity: invest in a ‘value oriented’ car company, put in tons of money in producing a new ‘expensive-cheap’ model for said company, and then, balking at the cost, bail out (the Smart, anyone?). So, DKW was falling into VW’s bosom with a heritage of inexpensive vehicles (quickly dashed under VW management), creative engineering, and an upcoming, recently developed, upscale vehicle courtesy of MB, the Audi 60. Thrift or Lux, that was the question, in a manner of speaking…

The 100, an evolution of the Audi 60. Covertly created by Ludwig Kraus against the wishes of VW management, he would later be promoted in VW’s hierarchy. (I’ve myself disobeyed management instructions… with very different results).

Talking about existential crisis, VW’s whole house of cards was falling apart by the late 60’s, rival companies closing in on sales both in the German and European markets. Fiat was even threatening to put foot in German soil, toying with purchasing NSU, the Neckarsulm Company now on the verge of joining mass extinction.

After Nordhoff’s passing, new CEO Kurt Lotz sent VW into overdrive, greenlighting VW engineering to develop new platforms, while also cutting Fiat’s impromptu and acquiring NSU. The proposed Audi-NSU merger took place under rather chilly conditions, acquiescence was hard to come by with VW’s latest purchase. Still, Lotz thought new technologies at NSU and Audi could be the path for VW’s future. One unsuccessful program was launched under Lotz, though, with input from Porsche; the stillborn EA266, a costly mid-engine compact proposal to replace the Beetle.

By this point, VW just seemed to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck. Recently launched models had bombed (the 411), and by the early 70’s, VW was in British Leyland mode, trying to make sense of the large maze of car lines simultaneously in production and development; the Beetle’s derivatives (411, 1300, 1500, types 1 and 2), NSU’s R80 and K70, and finally, the MB developed Audi line at DKW. By ’72, Opel took sales lead in Germany, while Fiat took over sales in Europe. Better figure out how to make those puzzle pieces fit soon.

Rudolf Leiding took over Lotz’s chairmanship in ’72 to sort out the mess. A lifelong employee at VW, Leiding was a ‘trouble-shooter’ by reputation; his latest success, to put in order the Audi-NSU merger, with the help of chief engineer Ludwig Krauss. Once at the helm of VW, Leiding coolly acknowledged the company’s bind; the rush to replace the Beetle had resulted in 8 disparate ‘volume’ model lines that in terms of production and components, hardly had anything in common with each other.

Time to toss away those ill-fitting pieces; under Leiding, project EA266 was immediately scrapped (bruising the egos of one Ferdinand Piech, and Ferry Porsche, who didn’t even mention the affair on his memoirs). Legend tells most EA266 prototypes were rolled over by military tanks (quite a tall tale, but it keeps popping all over the web… nice image though). Other early FWD prototypes by VW’s team were scrapped, instead Ludwig Krauss, from Ingolstadt, was to take command over development. Just in time, as VW started net losses soon after.

So, amongst all this shuffling of pieces, where does that leave our little Audi 50?

Bertone proposed frontal treatment.

With Audi still carrying DKW heritage, the 50 was aimed at the lower end of the market, a bracket the company had been successful at for years. Its lines penned by none other than NSU’s stylist Claus Luthe, along some minor input credited to Bertone. At some point, automotive design teacher Del Coates referred to Audi’s styling as Bauhaus influenced, possessing its virtues and defects: clean, purposeful, logical, elegant; but to some, lacking ’emotion’. He used to refer to it as the Bauhaus-Broadway schools of design; GM being full Broadway, with shapes that entertained the spectator, while Audi, and VW, being the most Bauhaus of all car makes.

Sources differ on whether the car was conceived as VW first, then rebadged as Audi, while others posit the opposite. That said, the 50 started development at Ingolstadt in 1971, with some very clear goals to meet: it had to weight below 700 kilos, and length was to be below 11ft 6in. Also, unlike the rest of Audi’s longitudinal FWD line of vehicles, the 50’s would be transversely mounted, something DKW already knew a thing or two about.

While development for the 50 at Ingolstadt took place, Wolfsburg kept up working on VW’s own future roster; with the Passat, Scirocco and Golf, soon to appear in alternating order. Unlike Audi’s, Giugiaro would dictate VW’s lines, and according to his telling, he came across a dissected Fiat 127 (or 128, accounts differ) on VW’s premises. So, the progenitor of the Golf… The Audi 50? Or the 127? Ingolstadt, clearly… but the covert rendezvous with the sensual Italian probably adding some genes to the mix.

The Audi 50 was finally launched on October 26, 1974, a whole 6 months before the decontented Polo. Spanish musicians -the 70’s are an inscrutable decade- brought entertainment on the car’s reveal. Timing for the arrival of Audi’s new ‘supermini’ coinciding luckily with the ongoing energy crisis of the 70’s.

The Audi 50 enjoys some classy 70’s escapades.

During the tiny Audi’s development, 50 prototypes were built, each covering 100,000 kilometers in road testing. Power came via a Type 801, 1.1L engine, with either 50 or 60 bph at disposal. Top speed, almost 100mph with the higher configuration. Suspension made use of McPherson struts ahead, and a simple torsion beam at the rear, with trailing arms near the wheel hubs. The 50 also got a new seat design, soon to be used all across the VW range. Handling was on the sporty side, benefitting later of a hotter 1.3L engine option.

The badge engineered Polo version was launched six months later, in 1975. Differences were found on a lower sticker price, with the Polo being sparsely trimmed and with inferior plastics inside, mainly in the thin door panels. The VW offered the lower end engine options and a top speed of 82mph. With the Polo, VW had now an entrant to the hotly contested European mini market, where Peugeot’s 104, Fiat’s 127 and Renault’s 5 had a heady start. Thanks to Ingolstadt, VW was now in a position to play catch up, even exceed.

So what’s this piece of the puzzle doing in rural El Salvador? By the looks of the badge below the hatch opening, it was sold by Universal S.A., a local dealer. This in spite of the car never being imported outside Europe, at least according to Wikipedia. A handful of these must have found their way across the pond by the enthusiastic Universal Salvadorian managers, back in the 70’s. No hard feelings Wiki, El Salvador is a tiny country, how could you know?

So here’s the feed, Wiki: Audi made tiny inroads in this region in the 70’s, with their clean styled cars appearing occasionally in daily traffic. If you were inclined to Bauhaus design like I’m, their clean lines stood greatly in the traffic of the times. Most models being sedans (vague memories), but now, evidence at hand, the tiny 50 as well.

This model’s remnants have been in possession of the salvage owner for quite a few years, and -he tells me- is torn between scraping it for parts or keeping it as is. Who would buy such parts? What are the chances of another Audi 50 in Central America, let alone El Salvador? Better keep it as it is, I told him. And who knows, if my soon to be launched Crapcoin does well in the crypto world (wink!, wink!), I might come back and take a look at this disheveled puzzle. The hours of entertainment in painful frustration are just but guaranteed.

Let’s see, windows all seem to be there. That’s a good start, one less unattainable thing to worry about. Interior design speaks more Audi (or early Passat) than VW. Looks like it was a rather jaunty set up, airy and ergonomically sensible. Would have loved to ride on it, when new. Pleasantly styled dashboard as well, with some very nice detailing. Actually, the Audi’s dashboard is pretty close to Claus Lothe’s original proposal for the NSU Ro80. Rust in the body seems manageable. That window crank looks like it could fit a Beetle, actually. Maybe it comes from one for all I know. Leaves were not original equipment, though they add ambiance.

One issue that always pops up with these early Audis; reliability, or lack thereof. In defend of these vehicles, I’ll say they suffered of high-engineering solutions (much like Alfa Romeo) to fit very specific goals, while doing it for a price. The evolutionary engineering and new mechanical solutions arranged in ways that placed traditional mechanics in a foul mood. In my own VW experience, on a US junkyard, the mechanic looking at me with total contempt while attempting to pull out a 1980 Rabbit vent window. I mean… what was the problem? Not enough exposed screws? Also, my own ’68 Beetle, running beautifully at the hands of an experienced German mechanic, never to run like that under anyone else’s hands (modern machinery has taken this human factor out of the equation).

It makes me wonder how many of these vehicles suffered due to unprepared heavy hands (the plus side of Chevys, Fords, or Corollas of the time, the frosting on the cake could fail, but drivetrains could go on without much attention, for ages). Also, a newcomer upscale brand like Audi lacked the commitment of, say, Jaguar owners, who put up with many foibles and kept the vehicles running to this day, in spite of much inconvenience. With these words, I might have given you a reason to understand the clinical nature of the patient… which is a lot easier to say than to live with. It’s admittedly hard to feel empathy for the clinical condition of a serial killer while he impales you to death.

A couple of freebies on this entry. So, what about our salvage yard owner? The guy, thin and nervous, who seems to only think of work and the next project at hand (on my arrival, they were working on a frame-up restoration of a 66 Beetle). A rabid fan of VW metal that also delves into a few other European brands. The yard, a collection of interconnected small houses working as storage areas, filled with VW cut up bodies; frames, fenders, rear panels, etc. From room to room, spare parts of all sorts; and a workshop area with a makeshift paint booth.

This in a rural town on the western area of the country, hot and humid, surrounded by subtropical vegetation. As one walks the compound, car remains appear one after the other, and a few surprises show up. In one of the rooms, a VW T1, waiting for restoration. And… what’s behind the T1?

A Vauxhall Victor? That took me a moment to figure out. The yard’s owner asking “You know what it is?” and me answering… “Some British car, I think…” Still, he was impressed, me being one of 10 people in the region that could sort of muster an answer to that bit of etcetirini.

Enough diversions among deceased vehicles. Let’s get back to the Audi 50. As we all know, the Polo became a staple on the VW’s range, while the 50 was put away in 1978 after 180,000 units produced. By ’78, VW had sorted out their business puzzle in ways Leyland could’ve only wished for: Audi was to attend an upscale clientele, VW starting a ‘Car for the Middle Class’ focus, with models aimed at clear market segments. Meanwhile, VW of Brazil bringing out models tuned for emerging markets. One piece of the puzzle that went askew and never recovered, VW’s presence in the US market (fodder for another day).

I’ll leave you with one last look at this lost Audi piece, waiting for someone to take on the headache inducing mission of putting it back together. I doubt my Crapcoin will do the trick. Maybe I should take on a GoFundMe campaign… not the most sympathetic cause out there… but I sense most of you would understand.

More on the Polo:

VW Polos Then and Now

Audi 80 – The Foxy Mother of the Modern VW/Audi Era

DKW – German Deadly Sin: Two Strokes and You’re Out

NSU – German Deadly Sin: The NSU Ro 80