Curbside Classic: 1976 VW Passat TS (B1) – First Sight Memories

In 1976 my family left Puerto Rico, as Dad –after completing his studies- was about to take on a job offer in his native country, El Salvador. At the time, the island’s streets were mostly populated by large American land yachts. Being a colony, Puerto Rico was a captive market for US makers and was somewhat behind the rising import tide occurring mainland. Besides the ubiquitous Beetle, European makes were but just a trickle.

Daily traffic in San Salvador. Mid 70’s.

As a tender –and car fixated- 5 year old, the vehicles in the new country called my attention immediately. Endless streams of trucks and pickups moved about, large buses spewing columns of dark smoke sped by; then, heaps of small Japanese sedans swirled around.

Did the Toyota Crown want to be cast in Ultra Man? The Corvair already had that role covered.


Not a fan of trucks, buses or pickups, I fixed my eye on the alien Japanese offerings and studied them; those with broughamistic qualities fell flat on me (Corona, Carina, Cedric), while those with space agey qualities confounded me (Datsuns, Toyota Crown S60). These latter ones looked like props from Ultraman or Speed Racer.

Finally, in lesser but still significant numbers, European makes: Peugeot, Fiat, Alfa, Mercedes, BMW, Audi. In general, my eyes were drawn to them, as they looked like nothing else in traffic. Outside of Peugeots –which looked too dopey to my kid eyes- the European makes looked clean and purposeful, in ways American and Japanese cars didn’t.

I spent those first few weeks endlessly querying Dad on each European make. He rarely ignored my need for information. Most of my questioning revolved around whether the car was fast and good (i.e. reliable): “Yes, it’s a German car, and it’s fast… Well, those other ones are Italian, and yes, they’re fast too.” Just about each brand sounded exotic, and imagination took flight: “An Alfa Romeo? Who calls a car Romeo? Italy must be quite a place!”

A Celica, much like the one I remember. From the Cohort, by Benoit.


My views on the world of cars stirred (not shaken), I was on the fence as to which ones I truly loved. Memories of Camaros and Mustangs in my mind, American makes already had a place in my heart (left ventricle, by the aorta valve). It was hard to get excited with Japanese ones, though a brand new yellow Celica next door told me not to dismiss them entirely (that and an ad for the 280Z on a Reader’s Digest). Now, the new to my eyes European makes looked really appealing to me; what if I found a place in my heart for them too?

Adding to the sensorial overload (no biggie for a kid), an extra odd European appeared. On a parking lot, the familiar VW logo was adorning a squarish vehicle. What kind of VW was this? Time to ask Dad. He made sure to lengthen the S sound, and accentuate the T at the end: “It’s a Passat…” On his voice, the car sounded nice and exotic. “… It’s a water cooled VW, it has a radiator.” A VW with a radiator? This was as deep a mechanical knowledge as my family could handle, and an effective one. Even mom understood it, and distrusted it: “They just can’t be any good! Volkswagens only come without radiators! They can’t learn to do radiators that quickly!” (As we know, mom was right to be distrustful).

On that first sighting, I liked the Passat immediately. Of course, I loved all fastbacks, even short small ones as I had just discovered. As the years went on however, this sentiment towards the Passat B1 faded. In my youthful eyes, the Golf and Scirocco took over the styling mantle at VW. With memories of the B1 dimmed, the ratty ones that appeared here and then didn’t make much to change my heart. Then again, my 5 year old was onto something in regards of those clean-looking European makes.

As previously covered by Paul, the Passat was hastily cobbled together in VW’s desperate race against marketplace irrelevance. With the aging Beetle and its intended replacements failing sales wise, VW took on Ingolstadt’s Audi 80 at the eleventh hour for a quick reskin. With new exterior by Giugiaro, the Passat became the template for what was to come: VW’s water cooled future would be Ingolstadt based.

While Japanese makes moved up the ante in regards of reliability and assembly, Europeans set it up for packaging and engineering. Their passenger oriented layouts became a universal template, and water cooled VWs and Audis became objects of study for American makes (The Taurus being just one example).

The Passat’s TS (Touring Sport) modernity was evident as I shot the car away, with the interior looking inviting, and the no nonsense dashboard looking logical in its intent and functions. The airy cabin provided nice quarters for the passengers, and defied the vehicle’s reduced foot print. In terms of space utilization, it’s a car that doesn’t require too many excuses; try that on a Mustang II, or a Maverick. The B1 offers a sensible, non-frills, purposeful utility in its design. In that regard, it was a harbinger of things to come. Soon after, Japanese makes would cease emulating Detroit (and the UK), as they took on this school of design.

This post’s Passat was a lucky find, it showed up while I filled up gas, and is literally a Car Of a Lifetime. Bought new by the driver’s father, the car has remained in the family ever since. The vehicle saw daily use until sciatica pain forced the owner to remain at home. After a few years stored, the owner’s son has been slowly getting the car back to functionality. As the photos show, the car was regularly maintained and kept to an undemanding routine; it is in outstanding original shape. The TS has never been repainted, with most mechanicals in place, and with only the interior showing wear. The son’s plan is to fix some blemishes, like the bits of rust on the lower panels, and replace some interior trim. No restoration is planned (and is not needed).

Regardless of me preferring the Golf and Scirocco, I have to admit the sight of this B1 rekindled my heart towards its charms. Giugiaro is credited with the lines, but the car’s styling suggests the Audi 80 was handed to him and he worked around that, adding the distinctive fastback. The interior is almost a mirror image of the Audi 80’s, which itself was derived from Claus Luthe’s original proposal for NSU’s Ro80.

After years looking over Toyota and Nissan engines, the Passat’s bay shouts European to me. I identified just about every bit; but all is slightly off, much like street signs when visiting the Old Continent. I recognized the EA engine immediately, as it’s pretty much what propels my own Golf Mk3. I looked at it as if it were a distant relative, somehow refraining from petting it amicably. Peeking at the engine bay was an interesting glimpse to a gone age -before homogeneity took over- where car makers provided out of the left field mechanical solutions.

Reliability on these was mixed. Some buyers endured short miserable ownerships, while others enjoyed units that lasted for perpetuity (See present example, and those in Oregon). Local mechanics didn’t help matters on this front either, with the new FWD tech being too much for most. Also working against these imports; the reluctance of us, non-Germans customers, to stick to maintenance schedules. Ultimately, while I commend the modernity and functionality that was put forth by these offerings, I can’t ignore some California coworkers who referred to these vehicles as smelly (diesels?), noisy and darty. Which I guess is what happens when one is used to driving Oldsmobiles.

Passats of this age were never that common in Central America, and rarely appear nowadays. If they do, tend to be in much rattier state, like this post ‘79 one. The B1’s mid cycle facelift was not a deal breaker, but didn’t enhance the lines a great deal either. The artisan three tone treatment on this one gives it a rather elongated look; and is it me or does it make the overhangs look even longer? Not good.

For those curious, the rear taillights come from a Toyota 1000 (Publica) pickup; neither Giugiaro, nor Claus Luthe would approve, but most owners over here have no such qualms. I had sat on this ratty Passat for quite some time, incapable to come up with words. But certain emotions and recollections can only appear when the dish is served right, and the orange TS did show up with the exact amount of sensorial memory spices. Curious how that works.

While space utilization and passenger comfort did become the way of the future, looking at this orange TS, I do miss its clean purposeful lines. Against the current crop of crossovers with overwrought styling, the B1 looks lithe and agile, even fast (it isn’t). Once again charmed to its qualities, I feel the Passat reclaiming a spot in my heart after all these years; somewhere in my right ventricle, near the pulmonary valve.

More on the Passat:

CC: 1974-1981 VW Dasher (Passat) VW Finally Enters The FWD Era