COAL: 1985 VW Gol BX – The Beetle’s Spiritual Successor?


Since at least the 70’s, sometimes more often than others, foreign manufacturers have been designing products tailored to fit the specifics of the Brazilian car market. It is debatable if it leads to better or worse products (well, the whole concept of better/worse is subjective to ones tastes and concepts) than “off the shelf” projects from the respective parent company but at least a handful times it has been very successful: that’s the case of the Chevrolet Onyx and VW Brasília to name just a couple. My first car was one example of this strategy, and being a first car owned for almost three years it was a companion to many happy events and lifetime decisions. Welcome to the story of my 1985 VW Gol BX.


Original VW Gol with air-cooled boxer engine


In the mid-1970s VW was the market leader in Brazil by a huge margin. It had an extensive lineup but it’s real sellers in the entry and low medium price range were basically two products: the Beetle (know as Fusca in Brazil), national top seller since the 50’s, and the Brasília, a domestic design also very successful. Its products in this market range were extremely robust but due to the classic air cooled rear engine but were lagging in performance, economy, drivability and comfort against new competitors such as the Chevrolet Chevette and Fiat 147. So for the next decade it would be necessary to have products more or less aligned with the product concepts offered by other manufacturers. Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong but it was a similar situation VW faced in Europe some years earlier.

To that end, VW of Brasil could have picked the German Polo or Golf projects, but maybe the harsh use conditions in Brazil induced the adoption of a more robust project. Probably a lower manufacturing cost was a concern too. Designed and developed in Brazil with seemingly Audi Fox/VW Passat Mk1 underpinnings, this new car would be called Gol and was launched in 1980 to replace at any time soon both the Brasília and the mighty Fusca itself. PS: before bringing my personal story with the car there’s an introduction to the Gol history and it’s context in the Brazilian auto market. Anyway, I strongly advise to check nice previous CC sources on the subject, like here by Niedermeyer and here by Rubens.

VW opted for the longitudinal architecture as in the Passat already being built here, but powered by the air-cooled boxer 1.3L liter then still used by the Beetle (I can’t remember any other 80’s car with front wheel drive air-cooled engine). The front suspension was McPherson and rear suspension used a torsion axle, both following the basic principles of the Passat. The car would be hatchback combining low weight (around 800kg or 1764 pounds), economy and a certain practicality of use. It measured 3,79m (149,2 in) long with a 2,36m (92,9in) wheelbase, 1,6m (63in) wide and 1,37m (53,9in) high. One important detail: a good 13cm (5,1in) ground clearance. It’s claimed that the VW German engineers involved in the project described the Gol’s hatchback as it had been “cut with an axe”. It takes just a profile picture to understand what they were talking about.


Writer’s 1985 VW Gol BX – still with gray wheels


So the first Gol had the air-cooled boxer with 1.3L with a whopping 42 hp (net) and four-speed manual gearbox. Sales were no good and already in 1981 the 1.3L engine was replaced by a larger 1.6L boxer capable of 51hp (net). Between 1981 and 1982 came the rest of the family based on the Gol project: sedan (Voyage) SW (Parati) and pickup (Saveiro). It’s very important to emphasize the VW lineup in 1980’s didn’t did not have any Golf or Polo or other newer products except for the Passat Mk1 (Dasher for USA) and Mk2 (Santana in Brazil). So the Gol family would generate the bulk of VW local sales and securing it’s market leadership for a long time. In 1982 VW pulled the plug of the Brasília, killing one internal competitor to the Gol (the Fusca would be gone by 1986). The inline four-cylinder water-cooled engine (1.6L with 81 hp) was launched in the Gol only in 1984. Also in 1984 appeared the sporty Gol GT with a 1.8L engine with 99 hp. In 1986 the air cooled Gol was canceled.


1985 VW Gol GT 1.8 – in my opinion the most beautiful of them all


In 1987 came the first facelift and in 1988 the Gol GTI, the first Brazilian car with electronic injection (2.0L with 112 CV). In 1991 the Gol family had another facelift. In 1994 the new generation Gol was launched (see later COAL) but maintaining the old platform. Something analog to the Lavoisier law of conservation of mass.


Original Gol GT 1.8 interior – look at these nice Recaro seats. Nothing to do with my Gol BX


Since the 1980 modelyear the Gol has had two platform generations (the second based on the German Polo). It’s undeniable that it was an extremely successful product. Starting in 1988 it made 27 straight years as market leader counting only the hatchback version. Considering information updated until May/2015 more than 7.7 million units were produced in Brazil, plus 1.1 million in Argentina. More than 6.6 million were sold in the domestic market and 1.1 million exported to 66 countries, making it the all time top seller and most exported Brazilian automobile. The Gol was also the 8th most produced model of the Volkswagen Group in the world.


1990 VW Gol GL 1.8 – original wheel covers


That pretty much explains why in early to mid 90’s the Gol on its many iterations was a staple on Brazilian roads and why the earlier air cooled Gol was pretty outdated against newer compact cars, especially the new handsome Chevrolet Corsa, the very successful Fiat Uno and of course the more modern and powerful Gol with water cooled engines. Of course these cars cost a lot more than my old Gol.


1995 Chevrolet Corsa – new competition coming


It was around that time that my mother decided to learn to drive. There would be more than a year for my driving age (18 years in Brazil). I can’t remember how that happened but in the end she bought a 1985 VW Gol BX, white with black interior. It had the 1.6L water cooled boxer engine with 51 hp and a 4 speed manual. One important information: it burned only ethanol and had two carburetors, a combination which would make me sweat a little.


Writer’s 1985 VW Gol BX – notice vertical protection trim on the door


When in 1995 I got my driver license my mother had already gave up on driving so we made a deal. The car would be of my usage considering the next year I’d need a more fast transport to go to school and/or work than buses. Of course I would drive my mother and sister to their appointments on my free time. That was obviously a no brainer so we kept the Gol. At the time I was attending Secondary Technical School which meant whole day classes three times a week plus many hours studying and zero income. With short money one of the few modifications I made on the car was to install a right side mirror. The other were removing those horrible little black things on the doors edges (check picture above) and painting the gray wheels with black spray paint.


Writer’s 1985 VW Gol BX – black wheels were not trendy back then…


In the first year in my possession the car was basically used at weekends for everything from shopping to take my mother to relatives homes and other appointments she had, and also my sister too. Usually me and my friends used to go out at Fridays and/or Saturdays, but alternating our cars. The car also had a few trips to country side at relatives or friends house. I did not use it to go to school to cut gas expenses so I continued using bus everyday and in the end I did not use to drive a lot.

The next year things took a different direction. I would have the last (fourth) year in school with only night classes so I would have the days available to work. At the time I thought an internship at any auto/truck company would be close to heaven on earth. And in São Paulo metro area I had many companies to apply: VW, GM and Ford (cars and light trucks), plus Scania and Mercedes Benz (trucks). In the end of the day what I got was an internship at VDO (German manufacturer of auto parts). At the time VDO sourced, along other auto parts, complete dash sets and dash instruments for car manufacturers, mainly GM and VW. The internship was at the engineering department. I had a full drawing board and generally my assignments involved making various modifications like adding details and technical information to products drawings.

In the morning I used to leave home before 6am to catch a bus to a metro station where I’d take the company private bus to work: again I used the buses and not car because it was cheaper. Generally manufacturing facilities work shift’s start early so like at 5:00 pm I’d be home already. But I used to go to school by car, after all, my classes finished late as 11pm and it would be unsafe and too much time-consuming not do it. That was the first time I drove a car at a daily basis.

At that high-speed living last year at school went as fast as bullet. Then came graduation and a huge decision to make: what to do next? A position at VDO wasn’t available so the first thing was to move on. I looked, as usual, for auto/truck companies but the competition was tough and positions too few. What I got was a small company specialized in sales and maintenance of foreign capital goods. I worked almost exclusively with air compressors sourced by Compresores ABC from Spain and designed for blowing of soda PET bottles. Basically I did two kinds of jobs: at office, helping sales of replacement parts, support and maintenance services. Not that thrilling but the plus side was field work at clients, doing startups of new equipment and preventive and corrective (read urgent) maintenance services.

That job had a big impact in my life. On the one side, it gave an opportunity to know a little more about technical work and how to deal with external clients (deal with a customer is not like dealing with a boss). Somehow I got more and more contact with a few managers and sales/marketing people and I started being interested on how things works “behind” money decisions. It took sometime to decide that maybe I should not apply to engineering but some other thing. I chose to wait the next year to decide.

The following year I started studying to college admission exams not knowing which area to apply, and continued working at the same job. One other impact of this job in my life will be the theme for the next COAL. Meanwhile, my life with the Gol BX was going ok as long as I took some cautionary measures. Drive in the rain demanded care not get direct spray from the vehicles ahead because the engine distributor would get wet making the engine stall. Also the twin carburetors combined with the alcohol fuel demanded regular tunings, so soon I started carrying a screw driver on the glove box to do it by myself. Not very good but zero cost and faster than going to a mechanic – I had little time to lose at wait lines on Saturdays, the only possible day to do that. I couldn’t complain about break down, though: that never happened.


WV Gol BX engine bay – notice spare tyre support and double carburation


The car itself was an absolute stripper. Not that I cared about it. It gave a sense of purposefulness and ruggedness I miss on newer cars. No electric anything except for windshield wipers. The windshield washer system was operated by a foot pump (like on the Beetle), it had no radio, no cup holders at all, no under dash console, no rear glass defogger, of course no air conditioning and even no forced ventilation (don’t be fooled by the dash air vents).


VW Gol BX interior – exactly like mine


On the other hand I thought being a 1.6L it could be considered a proper car and better than the then novelty 1.0L cars. Follow this series and you get to know I changed my mind a bit. That’s indisputable that for the Brazilian market at the time the Gol BX had some low end torque making it relatively good at hilled roads or streets (a lot of then in São Paulo) and medium speed takeovers. But try make a 250 mile trip at highways with 120km/h (75 mph) averages and you will feel deaf and your body shaken up like a farm tractor operator. My funny friends nicknamed the Gol as “helicopter” because of the engine noise!

But I had a few indications that recommended searching for another car. The major one: the body was not specifically integer with some cracks, and also the clutch wheel started to spin on hill starts, the brakes were in need of new discs breaks and pads, etc. Anyway, in a couple of months I’d have to make extensive daily drives to college and work so that was the call for something safer and more economical with prospectively a few years of trouble free driving.