Back in the day, the automotive industry gained notoriety for spewing out model after model. This was understandable, as the market was still fairly new and evolving. So, as time passed, some models got swept away. They became just a tiny footnote in history if even that. But why?

While some have surely been complete flops, others just came with a limited lifespan right from the get-go. Thus, even a somewhat successful vehicle could have been doomed to failure.

Such was the case with VW Brasilia. Currently, it is one of those classic cars you didn’t know existed. Back in the day, though? A whole different story! Buckle up as we take a ride through time to see what exactly happened to the people’s car of Brazil!

What is VW Brasilia?

Market demand for vehicle types varies greatly throughout the world. For instance, Europe doesn’t drool over large pickups as we do here in the States. Some places just have completely different needs in terms of price and function. To match that demand, car companies often develop specific models for those markets. VW Brasilia falls right into that category.

After the success of the original Beetle, Volkswagen wanted to remain dominant in as many markets as possible. However, not all countries had the same idea of “the people’s car”. So, in 1970, the Brazilian VW branch decided to take on the difficult task of creating a Brazilian successor to the classic Bug.

Sadly, things went badly at the beginning. Though the automaker produced upwards of 40 prototypes in three months, they all came at too high of a cost. This couldn’t fly as other companies offered cheaper options with pretty much similar specs (e.g. Chevrolet Chevette).

So they went back to the drawing board and after three years of prototyping, VW Brasilia finally saw the light of day. Yet the model’s challenges had just begun anew!

How successful was Volkswagen Brasilia?

Because of a peculiar tax situation in Brazil, VW initially marketed the model as a small commercial van. Many consider that approach to have ultimately failed, only hurting the figures.

Yet with time, the model’s sales began to rise and by the end of its production, it went above 1 million units. That said, it did not really become the people’s car of Brazil.

For starters, many of its units did not even sell that much in Brazil, they had to be exported. In fact, the model went all over South America in order to amass the numbers we mentioned. It even crossed continents to land in Nigeria. VW shipped its parts there ready for assembly and sold it under the Igala name.

Even so, at the end of the day, VW Brasilia failed to match the Beetle in terms of success. Brazilians continue to prefer the latter as an affordable, reliable car, which ended up just too good for VW’s corporate interests. But what did Brasilia actually offer?

VW Brasilia technical details

This little car came at a time when models like the Mustang already existed. Why does this matter? Because VW was not the only company to fight for the Brazilian market. Ford and Chevy had already entered it with their more innovative budget options. In light of all this, here are some details about VW Brasilia.

  • Engine – The car came with a 1,600 cc 4-cylinder air-cooled engine, an already dying breed. It had only 60 hp and abysmal performance. The car took 23 seconds to reach 62 mph with a top speed of 80 mph.
  • Weight – With 1,962 lbs of curb weight you would expect this car to perform slightly better. At the same time, its competitors, although heavier, outperformed it in almost every aspect.
  • Efficiency – Small engines with little power usually provide a good fuel economy. Not in this case! While not bad per se, its 31.5 miles to the gallon fell behind Chevrolet’s 36.2. These results were devastating for the reputation of a supposedly budget car.

When you take all of that into account, you can see why VW Brasilia finally got cut. On the one hand, people disregarded it as the Beetle’s successor. On the other hand, the model became known as being a worse choice compared to its alternatives, due to its outdated tech. So, Volkswagen decided to bite the bullet and start on a clean slate with VW Gol (not to be confused with the Golf).

What do you think about VW Brasilia?

When we look at its historical context, VW Brasilia looks like a giant missed opportunity. Instead of innovating to bank on the Beetle’s reputation, Volkswagen tried to squeeze the most out of old technology. And it failed.

Should the model have come out just 5 years earlier, it could have been the success the automaker wanted. Alas, time waits for no one. So, instead of being among the most desired classic cars, it will remain a fairly obscure model in Volkswagen’s portfolio.

Do you have an idea of what else VW could have done differently? I’d be happy to hear it!


Photo credit: Leonardo Lameu – Unsplash


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