Curbside Classic: 1978 – 1982 VW Brasilia – Dressed For Success

Once more we take a deep look into the mirror universe of South American-built European brands. Known forms take on skewed proportions, familiar motifs find new ways of coming into a new whole; sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. With the Brasilia, it was all for good; as VW’s rehashed themes found wide acceptance with the Latin public, selling briskly for almost a decade. It was just the kind of mirror universe most corporations wished to find themselves in.

The Brasilia’s shape is the work of Marcio Piancastelli, one of South America’s unsung design heroes. Born in 1936 in Belo Horizonte, Piancastelli had a passion for motoring from an early age, eagerly sketching cars throughout all his childhood. By the time he reached high school, with car design seeming a fool’s errand, Marcio settled for a career in architecture.

Much was shaking in Brazil by the time young Marcio was making future plans. The large South American nation is often referred to as the ‘The Land of Eternal Hope’ by neighboring Latin countries, who admire and envy it all at once. Possessing extensive resources and industry, regional pundits have often claimed it is a nation bound for eventual greatness.

Alas, like the rest of Latin America, Brazil carries the burden of four centuries of colonial rule and its resulting inequalities. It’s a nation of extremes and contrasts; staunch Catholic conservatism, wicked revelry, backwater jungle fronts, and world-class industrial hubs. The country dreams big from time to time, with some of its gambits playing largely in the imagination of the international community.

While the idea of relocating Brazil’s capital had been decades in the making, the plan finally got going by the early ’50s. The project was to be spearheaded by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; a member of the Communist Party, and great disciple of Le Corbusier’s Brutalist architecture. The future capital, Brasilia, was to be a testament and monument to the State and its institutions.

It was a massive undertaking for the rising nation, a moment for South America’s biggest country to shine in the world’s spotlight. Having a clean sheet of paper to work from, Niemeyer designed a city layout resembling a flying bird, opening its interpretation to all sorts of ‘positive’ allusions.

With Brutalism meaning exactly what it is, Niemeyer’s massive and cold concrete structures work as sculptures on their own. Riding on ’50s positivist thinking, the city was to pay homage to an ideal future where technology would set humanity free.

Like a lot of that period’s architecture, the structures look awesome as long as no humans inhabit them. Whatever ‘common masses’ affectations Niemeyer may have had, all succumbed in an interest to bring a rational and unified vision created from the top down.

With Brasilia taking shape, architecture must have seemed like a safe bet to the Piascantelli clan of Belo Horizonte. Young Marcio had other ideas though. When in 1962 news came of a car design contest to be held in the industrial hub of Sao Paulo, Marcio sent sketches and a wooden model (secretly made at his father’s furniture making shop) by land with the help of some close friends. Part of the contest’s allure? The heavy hitters serving as judges: Giuseppe Farina, Brooks Stevens, Mario Fissore and Luigi Segre from Ghia.

This occurring before the internet’s advent, Marcio kept to his daily chores, not hearing one iota from the contest until months later. News of his second place award came in the most surprising way, when journalists arrived and knocked on his door for an interview. Judge Luigi Segre was so taken by Marcio’s entry that an internship at Ghia was offered. The young designer-in-the-making didn’t think twice.

No idea if Marcio got any ominous warnings on his decision, as the field he was now venturing into was an uncertain and limited one. But regardless, his brief Ghia stint proved a providential and lucky one, as he returned with a set of skills Brazil’s industry was now suddenly in need for. Once back, Piancastelli got hired right away at Willys Overland of Brazil, working on ‘Project M.’ After his departure from Willys, ‘Project M’ would be released as the Ford Corcel in ’68.

By the mid ’60s, Brazil’s automotive market was becoming a rather competitive one, with various international players placing their production footholds in the nation. It was in this environment that Rudolf Leiding arrived to take control of VW of Brazil. After a successful stint sorting out production headaches from VW’s NSU-DKW acquisitions, Leiding seemed to be on a new mission; to show Wolfsburg how to regain its creative mojo. In a scant few years, Leiding would reinvent VW’s Brazil lineup at such a quick pace that Wolfsburg’s management heads must have been left spinning.

Piancastelli was an early hire by Leiding; setting up VW of Brazil’s Design Center in ’67. Details are murky, but Leiding had Piancastelli and engineering rework VW’s still-born EA97 prototype, designed to slot between the Beetle and the Type 3 (1500/1600) to create the TL, a Brazilian take on the Type 3. Obvious options that VW’s headquarters had resisted were implemented: a four door sedan and a new front end. Sales of the TL were decent, but lackluster against competitors.

Piancastelli’s team, now comprised of José ‘Jota’ Novita Martins and George Yamashita Oba, would keep honing their skills with further updates of the TL and the Variant, as well as the limited edition SP2 sports car.

No idea how well Leiding’s actions were received at Wolfsburg, although I suppose more pressing matters kept headquarters busy – like VW’s shrinking European market share. In 1970 Leiding pressed on with his next project; being that it would be VW of Brazil’s defining product, it was appropriately christened The Brasilia.

The car’s boxy shape follows Leiding’s brief for maximum passenger space within the smallest possible footprint. Engines and mechanics were to be Beetle sourced, with a slight emphasis on better accommodations. In essence, a Beetle for the ’70s, to be sold in the economy segment with a slight premium over its predecessor.

Piancastelli’s team put together over 40 proposals; some rather ahead of their day, even showing minivan proportions. With the Design Center still being a modest operation, the designers used resources selectively, working with scaled models. Full size clays were a few years away for VW of Brazil.

Work on the Brasilia was the talk of local automotive press, being subject of much speculation. In ’72, Revista Quatro Rodas pondered on the future ‘Mini-Variant’ on its main cover.

The Brasilia was launched in ’73 to be warmly received by the local market. Good timing, as it was becoming a heated field; with the Chevette, the Dodge 1800 and Ford’s Maverick being launched in the same year.

The Brasilia made good use of styling themes already explored in VW’s 411. Piancastelli did add a chiseled look that befitted its forms well, with the squarish shape being as far away as possible from its donor Beetle. The model looked modern and customers took to it with checkbooks in hand, selling a bit over a million by the end of its production run in 1982.

Now, it may have looked modern, but underneath it was all Beetle, with all the goods and negatives that it implied. The car possessed reliability, economy of use, good traction, and rational packaging; known VW goodies. Rear engine drawbacks were known as well; high speed instability, noisy interior (especially in the dual carbureted version), and limited luggage capacity.

The car’s footprint was about the same as the Beetle (∼4 meters/159″), but with a significantly roomier body sitting on the Karmann Ghia’s wider platform. The 1600 60HP engine came from the Ghia as well, tuned to 4600RPM and speeding to 60MPH under 23 seconds. Top speed was an almost Beetle-correct 83MPH.

No one will confuse the Brasilia’s interior with luxurious accommodations, but compared to the Beetle’s, it was the cat’s meow. A revision appeared in ’76 (below), adding instrumentation and shrouded in an austere type of black plastic that seemed to be found only in European makes.

While the platform may have been antiquated, the Brasilia’s success gave VW of Brazil its reason for being; a hub to develop vehicles for non developed nations. The Brasilia’s dated but proven mechanicals were ideal for Latin America’s rugged roads and its economic conditions.

Beyond Brazil the model sold over 150K units, with Mexico producing an additional 72K. In Africa the model became the Igala, selling modestly. Under Leiding’s guidance, VW of Brazil increased production by 50%, adding to his impressive resume. All this lead to his ascendance as group chairman by 1971.

The four door is the rarest variant of the Brasilia. Online conflicting claims mention it was available from the model’s inception, while Revista Quatro Rodas indicates it came into being in 1978. Regardless, any Brasilia is a rare sighting nowadays, as most succumbed to rust and usage. Lacking the devotion of the T1 and T2 hasn’t helped matters either.

Brasilias have almost ceased to exist on my neck of the woods, even though selling in decent numbers back in the day. Quite a surprise to come across one, especially in 4-door form. A good chance to look into its detailing and rekindle some long lost memories.

Local touches include the hand painted riveted badge on the back (a poor man’s restoration?), and the heavily darkened windows. This particular sample lacks the muffler’s protective back shield, which I can only assume is unattainable locally. It is a rather outstanding sample otherwise.

The blank-yet-friendly fascia was a recognizable VW trait back in the day. On the hood, the surface accent lines are exclusive to the 4-door.

With the retirement of the Brasilia in ’82, Piancastelli’s team took on its next assignment, the Gol. On its early design stages some of the old themes are evident, possessing some Brasilia genes mixed with new DNA from the Golf. At launch, the Gol would be another success story for VW of Brazil.

Piancastelli and team would remain at VW of Brazil for years to come. Still, all the way until his passing in 2015, Piancastelli often mentioned the Brasilia as being his favorite creation. Even more so than its namesake, the model showed an industrious and ascending Brazil to the region. Lots of providence took to get the Brasilia created, but such are the fates in new lands full of hope.

(Notes: The Brasilia has appeared previously on CC, with many new details appearing in Brazilian media after Piancastelli’s passing. Additional photos from the Cohort by Alberto Simon and Rivera Notario. Additional images of the 4-door by my copilot that day, ArgieArts).

More on Brazilian VW’s:

CC Global: VW Brasilia

Curbside Classic: 1971 VW 1600 TL  (Brazilian)

Automotive History: Volkswagen Gol