Volkswagen is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Concept 1, the show car that previewed the New Beetle. The Concept 1 was presented to the public for the first time at the 1994 edition of the Detroit Motor Show.
The Concept 1 was designed under the guidance of J Mays and Freeman Thomas at the Volkswagen of America Design Center in Simi Valley, California, that was inaugurated in 1991. Marketing research carried out in the early 1990s showed that Volkswagen’s success in the United States was directly linked to the original Beetle, so one of the Design Center’s first projects was to toy around with an updated 21st century version of the iconic people’s car.
“Our goal was to treat the original car with the respect it deserves for all it has achieved over the last 21 million units. We took on the role not so much as designers of a new vehicle but rather as curators of an idea,” explained Mays in a press release distributed at the Detroit show.
The Beetle’s basic silhouette was carried over the the concept. The design was modernized and divided into three simple cylindrical shapes: the front, the passenger compartment and the back. Styling cues like a grille-less front end, round headlights and vents integrated into the front bumper paid homage to the original Beetle but the engine was located in the front for packaging reasons.
The retro treatment continued inside with a simple, function-oriented dashboard, a two-spoke steering wheel and a round electro-luminescent instrument cluster that encompassed the speedometer, the fuel gauge and the temperature gauge. However, the concept broke with tradition by offering a long list of equipment including a six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, air conditioning and full leather upholstery.
The Beetle’s air-cooled engine was innovative in the middle of the 20th century. The new model was equally ingenious because it was designed to use one of three power sources that accurately previewed the auto industry’s shift towards cleaner cars. Volkswagen warned that the drivetrains were still at the development stage so it couldn’t provide precise technical or performance specifications.
The first drivetrain paired a four-cylinder TDI turbodiesel engine with what Volkswagen called an Ecomatic transmission. Inspired by a similar unit found in the second-gen Polo, the Ecomatic was a five-speed single-clutch manual with a freewheeling function that shut off the engine when the car was idling or coasting and automatically restarted it when needed.
The second drivetrain was a diesel-electric hybrid consisting of a 68-horsepower three-cylinder diesel engine and a small electric motor. The electric motor was designed to power the car at low speeds, such as when driving in big cities, and the diesel kicked in at higher speeds and/or on long trips. The system offered three driving modes: diesel, electric and coasting. Volkswagen projected that the Concept 1 would be able to drive on electricity alone for 65 miles (104 kilometers) at a constant speed of 30 mph (48 km/h), and that the hybrid drivetrain would return an impressive 131 mpg in a mixed cycle.
The third and final drivetrain was an all-electric one centered around a Siemens AC induction motor rated at about 50 horsepower. Computer simulations revealed the battery-powered Concept 1 would have a range of 95 miles (152 kilometers) and a top speed of 75 mph (120 km/h).
The Concept 1 was remarkably well received by the press and by the public, though both were more awestruck by the retro-styled design than by the ambitious futuristic powerplants. To keep the momentum going, Volkswagen arrived at the 1994 edition of the Geneva Motor Show with a convertible version of the Concept 1 that was painted bright red. The public was even more enthusiastic and Volkswagen’s top brass immediately announced plans to mass-produce it.
There were caveats. In order for the Concept 1 to be profitable it had to use as many existing components as possible, preferably ones shared with the Golf, and it couldn’t be more than 10 percent more expensive than a comparable Golf. With these guidelines in mind, designers built a close-to-production show car simply called Beetle Concept (pictured below in black) that debuted at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show.
Displayed at the 1998 Detroit Motor Show, the production-bound New Beetle ditched the Concept 1’s fuel-sipping drivetrain in favor of more conventional four-cylinder internal combustion engines but its basic silhouette had changed little during the transition from a show car to a production car.