Sports Car Face-Plant: 1972 to 1976 Volkswagen SP2
Most Americans hardly give it a thought, but Brazil has become one of the automotive world’s greatest cash cows. It’s South America’s largest consumer market, and despite a hefty import tax, it’s still a lucrative market for carmakers building cars there. Germans had been immigrating to Brazil since the 1820s, eventually making up about 10% of the Brazilian population. Post-World War II, Volkswagen has enjoyed a significant market there. In the 1970s, when imports to Brazil were restricted, Volkswagen do Brasil began developing its own sports car for the home market as a replacement for the aging Karmann-Ghia. The short-lived SP – and later SP2 – was VW Brasil’s answer: an amazingly styled car that looks just as contemporary today as it must have in 1972.
The SP2's roots are firmly planted in Brazil, with direction from Volkswagen do Brasil's German management, engineering staff and designers. The company’s chief, Rudolf Leiding, called for the car’s construction in the hopes that it would announce the Brazilian division’s independence from Wolfsburg.
But engineering a car from the ground up costs money; money that Volkswagen do Brasil didn’t have at the time. According to historian Karl Ludvigsen, “The sole constraint," in the design brief "was that it had to fit the existing Brazilian VW chassis."
The existing chassis was the VW Variant. Here, it was known as the 412. Rolling on the 412's 94.5-inch wheelbase, the SP2 carried all of the 412's suspension parts, as well a 75hp version of the 412's flat-four 1,678cc aircooled engine.
If you drew a chart of performance cars, the Volkswagen 412 would fall somewhere just above the Renault Dauphine. It wasn’t an ideal mechanical platform for a sports car. “However,” – the argument probably went – “neither was the Beetle, and look how many Karmann-Ghias we moved.”
Styling is what makes the SP2 significant. Penned in-house by VW do Brasil designers Marcio Piancastelli, José Vicente Novita Martins and Jorge Yamashita Oba, with engineering input from Senor Schiemann, it is a stunningly pretty automobile, with a long front overhang and brooding quad headlamps, a rounded, a Porsche 924-esque rear fastback, accented by gills aft of the rear quarter window. Interestingly, the SP2’s front styling is identical to that of the much more successful Volkswagen Brasilia (shown below), which Piancasteilli and crew also designed, an everyday staple in Brazil until the mid-1980s.
The SP2's engine sits under the glass hatch, concealed beneath a carpeted panel affixed with seatbelt straps. Inside, there's room for two, plus a good amount of luggage, provided it's not perishable. The cargo area's proximity to the engine bay makes it a warm place to store your pork roast. The passenger compartment is 1970s-era sporty, with a lot of plastic and vinyl, and a full arsenal of instruments.
The SP2’s problem was power. It featured a 75hp, air-cooled four that was as gutless in this sporty car as it was in the Squareback. Local aficionados referred to the SP2 as "Sem Potência" (or "Without Power", in Portuguese). For the record, there’s some confusion about where the name “SP2” comes from. It’s speculated that it’s an acronym for either Special Project, Sport Prototype, or Sao Paolo, the largest city in Brazil.
Ride quality for a low-production sport coupe from the 1970s was incredible. The full frames around the door glass and the tight overall construction make the SP2 absolutely solid, even over cobblestone roads. Cornering is decent, though over undulating, twisty country lanes, the presence of the rear-mounted engine will announce itself even on mild throttle liftoff. But the SP2 was a GT, more than a sports car.
But despite its beautiful looks, the Volkswagen SP2 was a failure. Between 1972 and 1976, Volkswagen built just 10,205 examples. You never see them here, since most of them stayed at home in Brazil. Just 607 were exported to Europe during the time of production. Part of the reason for that failure was the Puma 1600 GTE (shown below), also produced in Brazil. It used the same engine, but it offered styling that one-upped even the sexy SP2, along with a lighter, fiberglass body and a network of dealers that sold them as kits for Beetles.
It was also a car that was produced as air-cooled Volkswagens reached the end of their usable life. Despite the success of the Brasilia, the Fox (known as the “Gol” or “goal” in Brazil), was just around the corner in 1980, with a modern four-cylinder, water-cooled engine and a slick, boxy platform that could underpin a coupe, a sedan, a wagon or even a small pickup. The era of air-cooled, Brazil-specific sports cars was over.
Image Source: Weilinet.com, flaviendachet.blogspot.com, Volkspage.net, LeeHedges.com