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A Short History & Possible Future of the VW Cabriolet
The Volkswagen Cabriolet is one of those rare cars that has attained 'cult' status. It has a rich history that comes from over 50 years of service and is deeply entwined with several key advances in technology and the best German and Italian automobile designers and engineers. Here is a quick look at some of the key players, cars, facts and possible future developments in the VW convertible universe.
- Headquarters: Wolfsburg, Germany
Volkswagen was founded in 1938 by the German government to build the KdF Wagen ('KdF Car') as part of the master plan to provide the average German family with an affordable reliable car. (KdF stands for Kraft durch Freude and means 'strength-through-joy.') KdF was a political arm of the German Labor Front that was set up to organize recreation, sport and travel activities in pre-war Germany. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, arguably the leading car designer of the time (he had been the chief designer for Daimler-Benz and Auto-Union) and the father of Ferry Porsche (co-founder of Porsche), had developed a design that employed several revolutionary ideas but was unable to get the established German car manufactures to build it. It was designed to carry two adults and three children at a speed of 60 mph with at least 33 mpg at a cost not much more than a motorcycle. It had a unitized body construction that didn't require a heavy separate frame. It also had an air-cooled engine that didn't have a radiator that would freeze in winter and was positioned at the rear to put the weight over the wheels to increase traction. After a meeting at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin, Hitler ordered the KdF to sponsor the car's development so the average German worker could purchase it using a five mark-per-week stamp book layaway plan. It would also allow the average German to drive the new autobahn. During the development of the KdF Wagen several convertible and roadster prototypes were explored.
An entire new city named 'city of the KdF car' (Stadt des KdF-Wagens) was built just to make Beetles. Hitler even laid the corner-stone of the new factory. However when WWII ended, the city was renamed Wolfsburg after a nearby castle, and the company renamed Volkswagen ('People's Car'). (The KdF plant was briefly known as the 'Wolfsburg Motor Works' for a while before the name officially changed to Volkswagen.) Although the factory was heavily bombed during the war, the machine tools and presses were in good shape. The Ford Motor Company was approached to buy VW for only $5 million but turned it down because they thought the funny small cars would never sell. The French government even planned on disassembling the entire factory and moving it back to France as war reparations but was stopped by the French auto industry because they didn't want competition. So the factory was resurrected by a British military officer named Major Ivan Hirst because of the need for transportation and the desire to get the German economy started again to stop the spread of communism. The British military placed the first order for 20,000 VWs. Within a couple years, VW accounted for around 10% of West Germany's GDP.
Volkswagen AG marks include Volkswagen, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti, SEAT and Skoda. VW has had several up and down periods. Volkswagen is the 4th largest auto manufacturer in the world, the largest manufacturer in Europe, and is the number one 'import' brand in the US. This is amazing when you consider that VW almost pulled out of the US market because of lack of sales in the early '90s. VW has just over a 12% share of the world's auto market and vehicle sales were 4.99 million cars and vans in 2002. The VW Golf has been the best selling car in Europe for over a decade. Volkswagen is determined to move the VW brand upscale and is introducing cars at prices unheard of before. It has bought more new mainframe computers to design engines and chassis than any other auto manufacturer in the world. VW has even opened an amusement park (Autostadt) in Germany where families can come and play, see pavilions dedicated to each mark and pick up their new car.
The vision and energy behind Volkswagen's revitalization was widely been credited to the now retired VW Chairman & CEO Dr. Ferdinand Piech. When Dr. Piech took command he replaced most of the old guard board of directors, fired most of VW's top management, standardized development platforms and insisted on high product quality. Earlier in his carrer, Dr. Piech was also directly responsible for developing Audi Quattro 4-wheel drive and in rebuilding Audi sales and racing success as we know it today. His grandfather was Dr. Porsche and his family is still one of the major owners of Porsche. Dr. Piech retired in April 2002 with Dr. Bernd Pischetsrieder becoming his successor. Dr. Pischetsrieder used to be a big cheese at BMW and was responsible for BMW getting into Formula 1 racing. Audi is now officially suppling Maserati (a subsidiary of Ferrari) with technology.
Wilhelm Karmann GmbH
- Headquarters: Osnabrück, Germany
Wilhelm Karmann GmbH was founded in 1949 and currently modifies or builds cars for Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Renault, Ford, Jaguar and General Motors, but has also worked with Porsche, BMW and KIA in the past. Karmann does everything from design and engineering, to conversion, to complete manufacture. (For example, Karmann completely built both VW Sciroccos, the Porsche 914 and the BMW 6 Series.) Although VW manufactures the raw coupes to start with, the cars are shipped to Karmann who does all the design and engineering, cuts the metal roofs off, welds in reinforcements, roll bars, new panels and hand fits each convertible top. They're known for classic German high quality.
KdF Kübelwagen, Schwimmwagen & Kommandeurswagen
- Years: 1940 to 1944
- Units: 55,000 Kübelwagen
- Units: 14,283 Schwimmwagen
- Units: 667 Kommandeurswagen
- Units: 65 Beetles
- Manufactured: Germany
Before Beetles could be delivered in mass to the average German, WWII started and the KdF factory started churning out special modified versions for the German military. Military versions included 4-door 4-wheel drive convertibles called the Type 82 Kübelwagen ('bucket car'). There was even a special Kübelwagen that drove on railways. There was also an amphibious 4-wheel drive version called the Type 166 Schwimmwagen ('swimming car') that could float and used a retractable propeller at the rear in water. Finally there was a 4-wheel drive Beetle sedan called the Type 87 Kommandeurswagen ('commander's car'), and a two-wheel drive staff car version called the Type 82E. A small amount of Beetles were also built for Nazi party officials. They were essentially the German equivalents of the US Jeep. There was a brief reprise for the Kübelwagen between the mid-1960's and 1980 when a Kübelwagen-like VW designed for the German military called the Type 181 (The Thing) was produced for the consumer market. About 90,000 were made and it was only imported into the US from 1973 to 1974.
Radclyffe Roadster, Heb & VW Käfer Cabriolet
- Years: 1949 to 1980
- Units: 331,847 VW Käfer Cabriolet
- Units: 696 Hebmüller roadster
- Manufactured: West Germany
During the rebuilding of VW, there were two initial open top prototypes. One was a two-door roadster created and droven by Major Ivan Hirst called the 'Radclyffe Roadster.' The other was a four-door convertible created and driven by another British officer. They were really toys to play with rather than serious production considerations. It was Heinz Nordhoff, the first German head of Volkswagen, who wanted to build an open top car. So Volkswagen began building two designs in 1949; a four-seat convertible version (known as the VW Käfer Cabriolet) by Karmann of Osnabrück (Type 15A), and the lesser known two-seat roadster version (known as the Heb) by Josef Hebmüller & Son of Wulfrath (Type 14A). Only 696 (some figures say 750) Hebmüller roadsters were produced because the factory burned down on July 23rd 1949 after a massive fire started in the paint shop. After a series of 25 pre-production convertibles, Nordhoff gave Karmann an initial order for 2,000 cars and the rest is history.
Käfer is German for Beetle. Legion has it the name was coined when Hitler said 'It should look like a Beetle, you only have to look to nature to find out what streamlining is.' The VW Käfer Cabriolet was based on the standard Beetle with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine. The only major platform upgrade was the introduction of the Super Beetle in 1971 which added MacPherson strut front suspension to replace torsion bars, repositioned the fuel tank and spare tire to increase luggage capacity, and a new dashboard and windshield. For the last two years of Beetle production, every car off the assembly line destined for US shores was a convertible. German Beetle construction ceased in 1979 with the final cabriolet conversion date January 10, 1980. The only mechanical pieces that remained unchanged on every convertible throughout the entire production run were the running boards.
VW A1/Mk1 Golf Convertible & Cabriolet
Vw Golf Convertible History
- Years: 1979 to 1993
- Units: 388,522
- Manufactured: West Germany/Germany
The VW Cabriolet is based on the A1 Golf, Volkswagen's first front-mounted water-cooled engine car. This is the best selling VW convertible of all time. The A1 Golf was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign who is credited with the creation of the forms we know today as the hatchback and GTI. It was the worlds' first mass produced car with transversely-mounted engine, front wheel drive and fuel-injection. The signature Cabriolet 'basket handle' roll bar serves two purposes; to add strength and rigidity to the frame, and to provide protection during roll over. The 1988-1989 versions are considered to be the pinnacle of VW Cabriolet design as they have the new integrated 'Euro' bumpers and ground effects, 4-headlight grills and hydraulic valves but retain the simpler mechanical CIS fuel-injection system.
Although the A1 Golf was introduced in 1974, the Cabriolet version (Type 155) didn't appear until 1979. Folklore says the A1 Golf Convertible was created by Karmann engineers on the side because VW management was not actively planning a new version. Although today there are several convertibles to choose from, this has not always been the case. In the early '80s, there was a time when only a few convertibles were for sell in the US because of safety concerns. It wasn't until the Chrysler K-Car convertible and later the Mazda Miata came to market that the current convertible craze began.
VW uses different names in different countries. In the beginning, A1 convertibles were called Golf Convertibles in Europe and Rabbit Convertibles in the USA. (North America uses the A1 designation, while the rest of the world uses Mk1.) Volkswagen names water-cooled cars after winds; Golf is short for gulf breeze, Jetta for jet stream, Scirocco for a hot dessert wind, etc. In English, gulf breeze is spelled with a 'u' while in German with an 'o.' VWoA thought it would confuse Americans (thinking it meant the sport) so named all US Golfs after the Chinese Year-of-the-Rabbit.
In general, there were two types of convertibles: standard and limited special edition. Beginning in 1983, there were several special editions that involved different combinations of paint and top colors, top materials, leather or special pattern seat materials, special wheel types and colors, side and rear badges, and upgraded equipment packages. Special editions in the USA included the Wolfsburg, Boutique (all alpine white), Best Seller and Etienne Aigner. In Europe, special editions included the Acapulco, Azur, Bel-Air, Carat, Christmas, Coast, Etienne Aigner, Fashionline, Genesis, Havanna, Highline, Quartett, Sportline, Toscana and Youngline.
The Cabriolet went through a number of upgrades designed to add power, meet safety needs and differentiate it from other VW. In 1981 Cabriolet switched from the standard dash used in other VW to a special Cabriolet dash. The first engine was 1.5L 71 hp and used mechanical CIS fuel injection with solid valve lifters. It went through several quick sessions until 1984, when the 1.8L 90 hp engine used in the GTI, the close-ratio 5 speed transmission, the tachometer, butterfly vented windows and front side remote mirrors became standard. In mid-1984 the Cabriolet, Jetta I and Scirocco II fuel tanks were enlarged to 13.7 gallons, an in-tank fuel pump was added and the spare tire changed to a space-saver configuration. This required a change in the bend of exhaust system pipes to get around the larger fuel tank. The third brake light became mandatory in the USA in 1986 and bumpers and front side mirrors were painted to match the exterior body color. In 1988 VW added hydraulic lifters and the Cabriolet body kit with the updated 4-headlight grill, front and rear bumpers, fender flares and rocker skirts. In 1989, power windows became standard and minor changes included a white dashboard knee-bolster and black side trim. In 1990 Digifant fuel-injection and ODB1 was introduced. Also driver side airbags and glued-in windshields, instead of the older gasket-fit method, became standard. A power top became an option. There were diesel engine versions available in Europe.
With the introduction of the new A2 Golf and Jetta lines, VW changed the name to just Cabriolet in the USA in 1984. When the new A3 Golf convertible was introduced in 1993, the remaining A1 Cabriolet in stock were renamed the Cabriolet Classic in the USA, and Golf Cabriolet Classicline in Europe. The last A1 Cabriolet was produced on April 23, 1993.
VW A3/Mk3 & A4/Mk4 Golf Cabrio
- Years: A3/Mk3 - 1993 to 1997, A4/Mk4 - 1998 to 2002
- Units: A3/Mk3 - 139,578, A4/Mk4 - 85,980 (as of Dec 31, 2001)
- Manufactured: Germany & Mexico
This VW convertible was based on the A3 Golf. It was called the VW Cabrio in the USA, and the Golf Cabriolet in Europe. While Volkswagen had aggressively updated and added new vehicles, there was little more than cosmetic changes to the VW Cabrio. The Golf and Jetta made a transition to the new A4 platform, while the VW Cabrio still used the A3 platform but updated to the A4 trunk and fender panels, front grills, head and tail lights, and interiors to keep them looking up-to-update. In 1998 VW reclassified the VW Cabrio chassis as A4-based.
The A3/A4 engine was the 2.0L 115 hp cross flow 8 valve with Motronic sequential multi-port fuel injection and OBD1 (1993-1996) and OBD2 (1996+). Small trim changes included rear license plate on the trunk lid recess key holes moving from the right to centered. Also rectangular and oval Wolfsburg badges, or even no badges, changed on fenders in the USA, and were side blinkers everywhere else. In 1999, the new A4/Mk4 style was applied to the interior and exterior. All bolt-on bodywork such as fenders, bumpers, hood, headlights, oval side blinkers, steering wheel, shift knob and seats were updated. The license plate recess was moved to the rear bumper and a small handle was added to the trunk center to open. The black textured dashboard was introduced and power convertible tops became an option. In 2000 rear disk brakes were introduced. There were diesel engine versions available in Europe.
The VW Cabrio is the first VW convertible also made outside Germany. Starting in 1995, VW Cabrio sold in the US were made in Mexico. Externally you can tell the difference by looking for the Wolfsburg logo on the front fenders. German made VW Cabrios have the Wolfsburg logo, while Mexican VW Cabrios don't. Conversion is still done by Karmann as they set up a branch within the VW Pueblo factory to do the work.
In the US, VW offered VW Cabrio GL, GLS and GLX versions. In Europe, VW Golf Cabrio came in different versions of trim level including the Classicline, Colour Concept, Comfortline, Highline, Joker, Sportline and Trendline. Special limited editions included convertibles named after the rock groups Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi. The last A4 VW Cabrio was produced on December 4, 2001 with most having automatic transmissions. In Europe, convertibles in stock were renamed Last Edition.
VW New Beetle Convertible
- Years: 2002 – Current
- Units: ?
- Manufactured: Mexico & Germany
The New Beetle Convertible is a low cost convertible targeting young and nostalgic buyers. Like the hard top version, it is based on the VW A4 Golf platform with a New Beetle chassis. It has a standard soft top. When originally introduced, the standard New Beetle was expected to only be produced in Mexico for the North American market. It then took off and VW started building them in Germany for European consumption. However, after a couple of years, the excitement started to taper off and the New Beetle Convertible was introduced to bolster the waning sales.
Future VW Convertibles & Roadsters
The future of VW open top cars looks like it's about to go through major changes with as many as two new convertibles and a roadster rumored or confirmed. (Note - By definition, a convertible has four seats while a roadster has two.)
The Eos (for the Greek goddess of the dawn), origionally called the Concept C (Concept Convertible), is targeted at BMW buyers. It has four seats and a Karmann Retractable Hard Top (RHT) which consists of a three section metal roof that folds back to be stored in the trunk. The idea is 'to have two cars in one.' The system is currently used on the Mercedes Benz SL and SLK and the Lexus convertible. Production will be at Volkswagen Autoeuropa - Automóveis Lda factory in Palmela Portugal. North American availablity will begin May 2006 with a 200hp 2.0T FSI or 250hp 3.2 VR6 FSI engine at around $30,000 USD.
The Concept R (Concept Roadster), targeting Porsche buyers, was shown at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. It is a new mid-engine roadster design based on the A5 platform. The concept was powered by a 3.2 V6 engine that delivered 262 hp and a top speed limited to 155 mph. However reports in German auto magazines have stated versions have been seen around Wolfsburg that are supercharged and turbocharged. Production was confirmed by Dr. Pischetsrieder at the 2005 North American International Auto Show, however no date was announced.
In addition, rumors are buzzing that there will also be a new even larger “upscale” convertible with a 'non-traditional shape.' Volkswagen hinted that a more larger convertibles may be coming in a September 2003 interview at the Frankfurt Motor Show where Dr. Pischetsrieder said “VW is looking at the possibility of building a retractable hardtop model positioned between the Jetta and Passat, as well as something between the Passat and Phaeton.” This could also possibly be some kind of crossover vehicle. It is too early to tell but it is increasingly unlikely this project will come to pass as VW is currently having financial problems and has already cancelled previously announced projects.
This line up would target products in several segments: the New Beetle Convertible as the low-cost version, the Concept C would be the luxury-sport version, the Concept R would be the performance version, and the 'non-traditional' would be the ultra luxury-touring car or crossover vehicle version.
Past VW convertibles have always been versions of either the Beetle or Golf. This is a major departure. What that means is that the spy photos you’ve seen over the past couple of years of convertibles based on the older A4 or even A5 platform are ghosts and will never be built. Also sadly, it is likely that any new convertible will not have the signature basket handle roll bar of the past as it is no longer required because of new technology.