Volkswagen started dabbling with four-wheel drive technology during World War II with vehicles like the type 128 Schwimmwagen. The experiments from the firm’s earliest days were largely forgotten about when the company started mass-producing the Beetle, and even the Thing was offered exclusively with rear-wheel drive when it was presented to the American public in 1968.
Gustav Mayer, the head of the engineering department of Volkswagen’s Commercial Vehicles Division, had not forgotten about the company’s short-lived venture into four-wheel drive. Story has it that Mayer liked to take his Bus on road trips all around the world and often found himself wishing for a front axle and a couple of extra inches of ground clearance.
He talked it over with co-worker Henning Duckstein and the two began to develop the very first factory-built four-wheel drive Bus in January of 1975. The project had not yet been presented to Volkswagen’s top brass so the two intrepid engineers essentially built the van in their spare time by using whatever parts they could get their hands on at the factory.
The four-wheel drive Bus was powered by a 2.0-liter air-cooled flat-four that made 70 horsepower at 4,200 rpms and 100 lb-ft. of torque at 2,800 rpms. It was linked to a semi-automatic transmission that was similar in design to the Automatic Stickshift unit that was offered on the Beetle, meaning that the gears were shifted manually but a torque converter eliminated the need for a clutch pedal.
Under normal driving conditions power was sent to the rear wheels but a lever mounted inside the cabin enabled the driver to engage the front differential even while driving. Installing an axle under the front floorboards required several modifications and the entire heating system had to be re-routed.
The suspension was upgraded for off-road duties and van’s vital mechanical components were protected by thick skid plates front and back. The exhaust pipe was integrated into the side of the rear bumper and the front bumper was raised by about three inches, giving the Bus an approach angle of 30.5 degrees and a departure angle of 22.5 degrees.
Ground clearance was increased by fitting 16-inch steel wheels mounted on high-profile tires. While they helped the van drive through almost 20 inches (50 centimeters) of water, they required the Bus to adopt slightly larger wheel arches and inner fenders.
The off-roader reached 62 mph (100 km/h) from a stop in 36 seconds and went on to a top speed of about 75 mph (120 km/h) when driving on a paved road. Although most type 2s were fitted with front disc brakes in 1971, the four-wheel drive models featured drums all around. Interestingly, the handbrake could be independently applied to either rear wheel.
A decade too late
Painted in red and white, the first four-wheel drive prototype was shipped from Germany to Algeria in December of 1975 so that Mayer could test it out in the Sahara Desert while on holiday with his family. The drivetrain was far from perfect but the Bus’ off-road capacity was nothing short of impressive.
Volkswagen CEO Toni Schmücker shot down the project in early 1976 but Mayer and Duckstein pressed on regardless and built several more prototypes. Documents in Volkswagen’s archives indicate that a total of five four-wheel drive Buses – including at least one Westfalia camper – had been assembled by 1978. They were largely ignored by the company’s top brass who was dealing with more pressing matters including cutting production costs in an ever-competitive environment.
According to an article published by Germany’s Westfalia Register, Volkswagen brought along one of the prototypes when it presented the Iltis to the West German army in 1978. Both vehicles participated in the demonstration and the Bus proved more capable off-road than its front-engined purpose-built counterpart but it was still denied the proverbial green light for production.
Had the four-wheel drive Bus been presented to Volkswagen’s CEO a decade earlier it likely would have been added to the lineup as a regular-production model but it far too late in 1978. In addition to the aforementioned financial reasons, in the late 1970s the Wolfsburg-based firm was putting the final touches on the Vanagon and it had very little interest in launching yet another variant of the aging type 2. The project was shelved and precisely what happened to the prototypes is not known. They were never sold and most of them were likely dismantled, though one survived and is on display in the Volkswagen museum.
Mayer and Duckstein’s concept did reach production when Volkswagen introduced the Vanagon Syncro in 1984. Developed with input from Austria’s Magna Steyr, Syncro was tremendously different from the drivetrain that was found found in the experimental T2 but the general idea of a four-wheel drive van remained the same.
The photos above were kindly provided by Volkswagen’s archives department.