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”.