Historiography: The "Dylan Moment" at Volkswagen

What does Bob Dylan have to do with Volkswagen?

An explanation is in order here. In 1965, Bob Dylan had forged a career as a singer-songwriter, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica and winning over legions of fans with his Folk-rooted music. He was christened the label "the spokesman for a generation."

Then came the Newport Folk Festival that year. Dylan already caused a stir with the song "Like a Rolling Stone," where one could hear an organ and an electric guitar backing him. He took to the stage at Newport playing three acoustic songs, until he got into his first two electric tracks. The crowd started booing – at least half the crowd was.

It was a turning point in this Nobel Prize winner's career. Frankly, Bob Dylan couldn't care less what the world thought of him.

By the early 1970s, Volkswagen was at the point where they needed to make changes for a modern world. They knew that their most loyal customers would jeer at the notion of their beloved air-cooled, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engines that were mounted in the back would turn towards a more conventional vehicle format.

What Volkswagen was about to embark on was a journey almost as important and impacting as Bob Dylan going electric.

Just like Dylan, Volkswagen was seen as a vehicle for a new generation of drivers in the 1960s. The same counterculture that embraced Dylan's earlier music also embraced the Sedan and Type 2. Americans affectionately called these two iconic models the "Beetle" and the "Microbus." Adding the Type 3 Squareback, Notchback and Fastback to the lineup in the 1960s expanded the appeal of the rear-engine, air-cooled cars by balancing the counterculture demographic with more mainstream consumers. This would continue well into the 1970s and beyond in some markets worldwide.

A year before Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, Volkswagen completed the acquisition of Auto Union. The Ingolstadt company was known for two-stroke cars that kept the firm going, including DKW. Auto Union had been working on a more modern automobile. It would feature a four-stroke engine with the front wheels being driven. By the time of the arrival of Volkswagen AG at Auto Union's doorstep, the new car took on a rarely used brand name – Audi.

What made the F103 Audis intriguing for Volkswagen was the implementation of a water-cooled, four-stroke, four-cylinder engine that was mounted conventionally – longitudinally – but diverted the final drive to the front wheels through a transaxle-based transmission. The Audi 72 and 75 had a more conventional design, following a new trend towards modern designs seen across most Western and Northern European manufacturers.

Volkswagen had a spark of an idea. Since they now have equity in Auto Union, could they possibly introduce a similarly-engineered car under the Volkswagen name? Further more, could they do so to either complement or supplant the rear-engine, air-cooled cars that started the whole business in the first place?

It would be risky, but the top priority for the newly expanded group was to develop the Audi brand further and make it palatable for global premium car customers.

That would come in 1968 with the introduction of the Audi 100. The F103 platform formed the basis of a longer executive sedan, now known as the C1 within Volkswagen. The C1 began to take shape to appeal to premium car buyers outside of Europe. The propulsion format did not change with water-cooling, a four-stroke four-cylinder engine, and front-wheel drive.

The result was a hit for Audi and Volkswagen, as North American customers began to appreciate the Audi 100 LS for what it represents. The front-drive platform provided customers a view of how it would provide better traction than its rear-drive rivals. The longer car was handsome enough for Peugeot, Saab, BMW, Volvo and Rover customers to look at the Audi with an open mind.

By 1971, Volkswagen saw increased momentum with the Audi 100. They already had a smaller model to replace the F103 cars that would feature the same chassis and propulsion format. The Audi 80 would be that car. The B1 Audi 80 first appeared in 1972 to replace the older F103. The next year, it would be sold through USA Porsche+Audi dealers as the Fox. These front-drive, water-cooled cars were slowly taking flight, which gave Volkswagen more incentive to develop their first such car of their own.

That car would be the Passat.

For the Passat to work, it had to replace its contemporaries off of the rear-engine platform. The Type 4 411/412 was a short-lived larger car that was positioned above the Type 3 line. It also had to have some advantages over other models in the Volkswagen line. This would include introducing a hatchback and a wagon design with more cargo space utilization – a lower floor than the Type 3 and 4. It also meant creating a modern look that would carry the brand further towards the next decade.

The latter was executed through Italdesign and its principal designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The design house began to create a very modern look using creases and straighter lines than seen on even the latest Volkswagen – the Type 4 412. The Passat took shape as a mid-sized hatchback in both three- and five-door configurations, plus a four-door wagon.

The Passat's designs bucked the trend among fastback family cars, which offered only a trunk. The Renault 16 and Austin Maxi had hatchbacks to go along with their four door variants. The timing was right, as Western European customers in 1973 wanted more practicality and capability in their family cars. It would also enable other global markets to embrace the new design for their needs and wants, as well.

If one market was not ready for this drastically different Volkswagen, it would be the USA. Stateside customers were struggling to fully embrace the hatchback but knew it is their future. Hatchbacks came in "smaller" packages, such as the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, and AMC Gremlin. The trend towards hatchbacks would soon expand to other products from General Motors, Ford, and AMC. The Japanese would also start using hatchbacks in their lineups, such as the Honda Civic and the Datsun B210.

The Volkswagen Passat made the trip across the Atlantic to join the Beetle and the Bus. Yet, not many Americans would recognize the name so readily. For Stateside tastes, the Passat would be renamed the Dasher. The 1974 model year welcomed the Volkswagen Dasher as more of a curiosity than a worthy addition to the lineup.

The Dasher brought more than just the practical advantages of a water-cooled, front-engine car. Compared to the Beetle, the Dasher was more efficient. It yielded better fuel economy because of its in-line four-cylinder engine. The new car ran cleaner with better exhaust emissions and easier placement of emission control equipment.

America was in the midst of an oil crisis when the Dasher was introduced to the motoring public. The Federal government was also instituting new emissions and safety regulations for cleaner and safer cars. The timing for the Volkswagen Dasher was right to meet these new standards.

In turn, these new emissions and safety standards were threatening the core of the Volkswagen lineup. Although the Type 2 Bus would be spared since the Environmental Protection Agency saw it as a "truck," the Beetle was not immune from scrunity from the same Federal agency. It seemed that there was no way to either add a catalytic converter or any anti-smog device in the exhaust system onto the company's famed air-cooled horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine. At least, that was what Volkswagen stated to the U.S. Government.

In terms of vehicular protection, new standards were imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for bumpers and body construction. Again, the Bus was exempt from these standards due to its vehicle classification. Volkswagen did add safety bumpers to the Beetle, but they were to placate the Federal government for the moment. The body structure of the Beetle was never designed to meet the upcoming body protection standards that loomed in the next several years.

The Dasher was designed from the beginning to be a safe vehicle to operate, with space to grow to meet new safety regulations worldwide. But were people buying them? Yes…and no. Dasher customers came from those who waited for a modern car from Volkswagen. Some of whom were new to the brand. Other customers probably had Beetles or other air-cooled, rear-engine models, but grew tired of their lack of performance, efficiency, and practicality compared to other imports and smaller domestic cars of the day.

Just like Dylan's performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, there was that half of the crowd that booed at the 1974 Dasher. Like the Folk-rooted fans of Dylan's earlier music, those who refused to buy the Dasher were of a traditional Volkswagen mindset. They wanted the Beetle, the Type 3, and 4 to maintain the tenets of the brand. They could care less about higher fuel economy – although the air-cooled models returned much better fuel economy than the average American car of that decade – or crash tests and whatnot. They wanted their Beetles pure and for Volkswagen to develop a more modern car on the same rear-engine platform.

The longitudinal engine mounting was one solution to create an efficient family car. Water cooling brought it to a modern era. There was indeed further progress on fuel economy for the Dasher over the Beetle, along with built-in and compatible emissions control systems. From that point, Volkswagen never looked back.

In that sense, the Passat and Dasher were the future of Volkswagen. But, what about an eventual replacement for the Beetle?

This would come in two parts. First, Volkswagen of America decided to drop the Beetle altogether. That process would take two phases with the Sedan phased out in 1977 with the Convertible following through 1979. The Beetle would continue to be sold elsewhere, though production ended at the main Wolfsburg plant. Bettle production would continue in South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico. When regulations for safety and emissions caught up with the rest of the world, the Beetle's run in production ended in 2003 at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla, Mexico.

The second part would become the biggest leap forward in the company's history. The year 1974 marked the arrival of a new platform. This one would be smaller with front-wheel drive and water cooling. The engine was mounted transversely, instead of the longitudinal format of the Passat and the Audis. This was a format that had been around since the Austin Mini in 1959, and have been on several cars since.

Italdesign was also brought in to design this new compact car as a modern looking one. They made a hatchback design that could have either two or four side doors. What both Volkswagen and Italdesign created would become one of the most iconic automobiles in modern history.

The story of the Volkswagen Golf would cement the future fortunes of Volkswagen and its growing group of companies. To state this milestone only supports the sea change created by the acquisition of Auto Union and the development of the Passat. The Golf really needs its own Historiography, as it is a story unto itself.

With the Passat, Volkswagen plugged in an electric guitarm cued up the Hammond organ, and changed the music for good. To create a car for the company's future was no easy task, as it had to win over brand traditionalists who were willing to not let go of their air-cooled, rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed engines.

As with Dylan's music, change at Volkswagen needed a planet disturbance to happen. That disturbance was the Passat and Dasher.

All photos courtesy of Volkswagen of America

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