Axon's Automotive Anorak: Five forgotten VW off‑roaders
Think four-wheel-drive and Volkswagen is probably not the first car brand name that springs to mind.
Sure, the German marque has been selling its popular Touareg SUV 4x4 since 2002 and has subsequently expanded its all-wheel-drive product offering with the smaller Tiguan crossover, plus the Amorak pickup truck.
Lesser-known or considered four-wheel-drive VWs are also available today, however, including the capable Passat Alltrack estate that the GRR team has had on a long-term loan test for some months now.
This early 1980s Passat 4x4 reminded me of some of the other lesser-known ‘off-road’ Volkswagens that pre-date today’s Alltrack and 4motion models, as the Wolfsburg brand has been mud-plugging virtually before the Volkswagen marque emerged out of KdF post-war. To this end, here are five other off-road-inspired Volkswagens that you may not be so familiar with, until now…
Were it not for the utilitarian Volkswagen you see here, the Audi Quattro may never have been developed, Audi would not have reinvented and dominated the World Rally Championship in the early 1980s, and the Audi brand may not have become as desirable and successful as it is today.
Although it may seem unlikely, this basic VW 4x4, the Iltis (German for polecat) is the Grand Daddy of the Quattro. A quick rewind to the mid-1960s might help to explain more. Volkswagen acquired the two-stroke-driven Auto Union DKW group from its temporary custodians, Daimler-Benz, in the mid-60s, and re-invented the Audi brand name to consolidate the Auto Union marques under a single banner.
At the time, the German military ran a sizeable fleet of DKW Munga ‘jeeps,’ a highly capable 4x4, but saddled with an out-moded two-stroke motor. Volkswagen was keen to access this lucrative military sector, so immediately begin making use of the technologies it had acquired in the Auto Union purchase.
Equally, the German armed forces were anxious to replace the outdated two-stroke Munga as well, so the resultant Iltis prototype combined old DKW technologies with new in an off-road vehicle developed by Audi. This used a variation of the Munga's platform with modified suspension parts and a four-wheel-drive system based around components from the first-generation 1969 Audi 100, mated to a VW 1.7 litre four-cylinder engine.
The design of this Iltis four-wheel drive layout provided the basis for Audi's quattro system, launched a couple of years after the VW’s 1978 debut, as used in the now legendary 1980 Quattro coupe.
Ultimately, the Iltis was to prove less successful with the military (and civilian market) than the DKW Munga and VW 181 (see below) models that it replaced, with just 9,547 examples built, including a four-year production run under licence by Bombardier in Canada, plus a handful of Citroen C44 variants, offered to the French Army using the Citroen CX petrol and diesel engine options.
Volkswagen Golf II Country
Of the many millions of Volkswagen Golfs built since 1974, none have been as distinctive, and odd, as the high-rise 1989 Country, based on the second-generation Golf.
Using VW’s Steyr-Daimler-Puch-developed Syncro four-wheel-drive system, as introduced into the Golf II range in 1986 (with 26,000 sold overall, less than 1,000 of which came to the UK), the raised Golf Country was designed for mild off-roading.
To improved its off-road-ability, the Golf Country Syncro had increased suspension travel, with an improved ground clearance of 21 cm, as well as a skid plate to protect the engine, a special sub-frame to protect the rear Syncro differential and prop shaft. Front and rear bull bars, plus a rear-mounted external spare wheel on a swing-away triangular frame, added to the Country’s 4x4 street cred.
In Continental Europe, the standard Country model was offered with the 98 bhp 1.8-litre, 8-valve petrol engine, with just 50 Golf Country GTI 114 bhp built specifically for VW’s own Golf Country project staff.
For those seeking an even sportier all-wheel-drive Golf, Volkswagen also introduced the Rallye model in 1989 to rival the Lancia Delta Integrale and contemporary BMW M3. Just 5,000 examples of the supercharged 161 bhp Rallye Golf were made, assuring classic status for this performance Golf 4x4 today.
Volkswagen Beetle Type 62-87
The Ferdinand Porsche-engineered KdF/Volkswagen Kublewagen (Type 82 ‘tub car’ was designed early during WWII for use by both the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Based heavily on the KdF/VW Type 1 (Beetle), a handful of Kübelwagens were built with four-wheel-drive (known as Type 86 models), with a few of these carrying the early Beetle saloon bodywork we have all come to know.
The most commonplace of these ‘off-road’ Beetles – with 688 examples built – was the VW Type 82/E, which used the standard Kübelwagen platform. Six all-wheel drive Beetle-bodied saloon prototypes (Type 86) were also made, along with a whopping 667 Type 87 ‘Kommandeurwagens;’ using a Kubelwagen 4x4 chassis, and equipped with a Beetle ‘command car’ saloon body, fitted with running boards, an under-bonnet spare wheel (accompanied by a jack, fuel tank, a small tool kit and a shovel), and widened wheel arches for its larger-diameter off-road tyres.
Some of these 4x4 Beetles were provided to preferred Waffen-SS officers, as they could push through virtually any kind of terrain in them. No civilian Beetle 4x4s were ever offered commercially post-war by Volkswagen.
In Swinging Sixties Britain we had the Mini-based Moke utility vehicle, the French had the fun-loving 2CV-derived Citroen Mehari, and the Germans – well, they had the Beetle-based 181, which arrived in late 1968, and was styled to resemble the versatile WWII KdF/VW Kübelwagen military vehicle.
Originally developed for use by the West German Army, the Type 181 was also sold to the public, called The Trekker in the UK (where it was very briefly sold, but flopped), Safari in Mexico (where it proved rather more popular) and bizarrely, The Thing in the USA, where it also briefly proved to be popular, before quickly being outlawed due to changing safety regulations that it failed to reach.
Unlike the other VW’s featured here, the 181 was purely a two-wheel-drive ‘jeep-esque’ convertible, with the look of a 4x4, but not the off-road capabilities at all, beyond a cruise along the beach with a surfboard slung in the back. It used the VW Type 1 (Beetle) floorplan with its rear-mounted air-cooled engine, plus many other interchangeable parts.
Between 1969 and 1980, over 50,000 VW 181s were delivered to the NATO forces, with the model ultimately replaced by the less-prolific Iltis, as already described.
Volkswagen has made light commercial vehicles for decades, with its ‘Type 2’ Transporter gaining global cult status (especially in its multi-window Samba and camper van formats). The Wolfsburg brand is not known for its larger trucks, however, leaving this side of the business to its M.A.N. and (more recently) Scania lorry marques which form part of the huge VW Group.
An exception to this is Brazil, where Volkswagen has been locally manufacturing its own trucks for years, designed in VW’s Wolfsburg studio, and aimed specifically at the South American heavy commercial vehicle market.
The Constellation is Volkswagen’s flagship truck, produced in Brazil since 2005. This 13-57 tonne gross truck exists with a 4x4 configuration, and well as larger 6x4 and 6x6 formats, with the Brazilian Army using the VW Constellation 31.320 is a baseline 6x6 model since 2013 as a general troop/cargo carrier, fuel tanker and fire-fighting off-road vehicle, to supplement the smaller Brazilian-built VW Worker 4x4 truck.
As an interesting aside, in 2006 driver Renato Martins won the Brazilian Formula Truck Championship in a VW Constellation, in the lorry's first racing season.