1960s / 1970s / German / Great automotive failures / Volkswagen

Great Automotive Failures: Volkswagen 411/412

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The Volkswagen Type 4 was arguably the earliest whispers of the company’s trend to move into more up-market segments. Despite intentions by VW to find a possible replacement to the Type 1 Beetle with the Type 3, the Beetle still sold strongly on its reputation as an economical, reliable, and affordable car. The Type 3 was not successful as a replacement, but it had shown Volkswagen that there existed a market for more refined vehicles in its model line-up. The 411 was introduced in late 1968 as a mid-sized car that would be a step up from the Type 3. In terms of the modern Volkswagen model line, one can think of the Type 4 as the earliest predecessor to the Passat, while the Type 3 was more like a predecessor to the Jetta.

The 411 was the first VW to do away with a torsion bar suspension setup, having MacPherson struts in front, and coil springs in the rear. Also notably, this was the first production car from the company to be available with four doors. Body styles included a two and four door fastback as well as a wagon version, commonly called the “Squareback”.

While VW’s traditional rear-engined and air-cooled powerplant design remained, a completely new engine made it’s debut with the introduction of the 411. It was overall larger in design and displaced 1.7 liters. Like the Type 3’s engine design (which was essentially the same as the Beetle), the new Type 4 had its cooling fan mounted directly off of the crankshaft. This allowed for a much lower deck above the engine for a lower luggage compartment floor. After the launch, the Type 4 engine received Bosch electronic fuel injection, which was a major technological advancement for a relatively low-cost car during the era. The engine was carried over to the Bus range and also famously used in the Porsche 914 four-cylinder models. In the Type 4, however, the performance wasn’t exactly stellar, especially if equipped with the optional three-speed automatic transmission.

The 411 was not a bad car. It was typically solid, as VWs were, reliable, and quite practical. However, its biggest problem was cost. Other manufacturers offered similarly equipped models for significantly less money and likely an overall better value. Sales were hardly booming. Perhaps VW was hoping that those who had purchased a Beetle as a first car or as basic transportation would eventually move up-market within the brand. However, perhaps the name VW was not yet what people wanted to have on a more expensive car. Furthermore, just two years after the introduction of the Type 4, VW began selling the K70 – a former NSU design – which was front engined, front wheel drive, and more traditional looking than the somewhat bizzare 411. Neither the 411 nor the K70 was a huge marketing success though. (The K70 is of course, a whole other story)

In an attempt to refresh the Type 4, the 412 was unveiled in 1972. The engine displacement was increased now to 1.8 liters and the front end was changed to a new headlight and nose design. Sales remained poor. Through its lifespan, under 368,000 411 and 412s were made compared to over two million Type 3s and over 15 million German built Type 1 Beetles.

By 1974 VW had made full advantage of its aquisition of Auto Union/Audi/DKW and NSU. The new Passat was a far more modern vehicle than the Type 4, featuring front wheel drive, an Audi sourced water-cooled four-cylinder engine, and crisp modern styling from Giugiaro. The Type 4s and 3s quietly ceased production and it was the beginning of the end for the air-cooled era at Volkswagen.
Without a doubt the most successful part of the Type 4 project was the engine. It lived on in Porsche 914 until 1976 and the one-year-only 912E (US Market) and finally in the VW Bus and Transporter models until 1982 when it was then highly modified to water cooling and became the “Wasserboxer”.

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8 thoughts on “Great Automotive Failures: Volkswagen 411/412

  1. Good blog, found it by accident. I remember driving a 412LE with the injection, it seemed a nice car as I recall, with a sort of distant engine noise compared to a front-engined car of the era. The interior heating was weirdly engineered and erratic, and fanbelt failure was almost always catastrophic.

    • Actually John, fan belt failure was almost never catastrophic. The cooling fan was bolted directly to the end of the crank, and would turn and cool whenever the engine ran. The only accessory the belt drove (driven by the cooling fan) was the alternator. Breaking the belt would illuminate the charging system light, but the car would continue to run until the battery died from lack of charge. No worries.
      The only thing needed to repair it was a new belt. And if you looped it around the alternator pulley first, then around the fan while rolling the car forward in final drive (with the engine off, of course), you could actually install the new belt without any tools and be on your way. 🙂

      • Remember my dad doing that but other than that one time, i remember passing all the water cooled cards overheating in the mountains.

  2. My wife and I bought a Shantung Yellow 411 Variant in June of ’71, one of the early ones sold by Flynn Volkswagen in Pittsfield, MA. I also had a ’68 bug so we became a two car family. That 411 waas a beautiful car and can be seen on the website, Type 4.org. When our third chils arrived, we had to trade the 411 in for a ’75 VW Bus. I wish I still had that 411. It has been described as ugly, but I think it was very good looking. It was subject to crosswinds on a blustery day, and the gas heater was about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, yet nonetheless, we loved the car.

  3. Dad bought a 1970 LE Variant while stationed in Germany with the Air Force. Traveled all over Europe and England without a problem..muffler and tailpipe rusted quickly. Day it was picked up at the dealer in Kaiserslautern dad noticed it had no seat belts ! They wanted like $100 more to put seatbelts in…he told em no seatbelts,,no sale ! So they installed for free. Didn’t ship it back to the U.S. as it had no A/C. Sold it 3 years later to another G.I. for $100 less than new.

  4. I had a 411 le 4dr saloon and to this day have never owned a nicer car everything worked heater time clock on dash only problem engine blew and replacement unit cost 500 pound and a Vauxhall motor would of cost 185 pound still loved the car red it was

  5. I had a silver 4 door 411 in Wisconsin. Engine was great. The two front fenders rusted out within 2 winters, but the bolt-on replacements weren’t too expensive. I couldn’t get a stick shift in the US. Of the five Michline tires, two had overlaps that caused 55 mph vibration – replaced all five at 45,000 miles with cheap Coop tires and the problem disappeared. It was a pretty good family car, but it didn’t do as well as expected in Wis.
    I had a 61 Deluxe bus, and two bugs that were all much more economical; especially the bugs which cost about a dollar a day if sold when the tires wore out.

  6. We bought a 1973 VW 412 square back with US specs at the VW Dealer in Lautzenhausen Germany after we arrived at Hahn Air Base Germany in 1973. We traveled all over Europe in it and loved the car. The only problem we had with it was the brakes squeaking. After the dealer put softer brake pads on it, the problem went away. We put a lot of miles (remember US specs) on it and then shipped it back to the states where we drove it a few more years.

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