I think of all the cars that were designed and prototyped but not actually put into production, one of my favourites is Volkswagen’s 1969 EA 266 prototype, an incredible mid-engined marvel of small-car packaging. I wrote about it back in 2014, but now, thanks to our pals over at Car Design Archives, a new batch of photos and renderings of the EA266 has been found, and they just make me even more sad that this is not the path our universe followed.
In case you, somehow, need a refresher as to exactly what the EA266 is, I’m happy to explain it to you. See, around the later 1960s VW was slowly realising that their tried-and-true air-cooled/rear-mounted flat-four engine platform that was developed with the Beetle in 1938 was really overdue for an update.
Around this time they’d also buy NSU and Auto Union, and from there, eventually, VW’s front-engine/front wheel drive, water-cooled future would be set, but before they arrived at this conclusion, they explored another path, with the help of Porsche: an all-new car with an inline, water-cooled inline four, laid flat under the rear seats, creating a really remarkably space-efficient design.
This was the EA266 project. The best way to understand why I love it so much is to look at this cutaway diagram:
Hot clams, just look at that. It takes what VW did so well with the packaging of the Types 3 and 4 and makes it even better, a small hatchback with 100 per cent of the length usable for people and/or cargo. It’s an absolute packaging triumph.
I’ve seen that cutaway before, and I encourage you to read that 2014 article and then pop back here, so you can really appreciate the wealth of new images Olivier over at Car Design Archives has unearthed.
Like this proposed timeline of the EA266 and its planned derivatives, along with their power outputs:
I’d known that a van and a sportscar were planned for the EA266 platform; I didn’t realise a sportier version of the baseline hatchback was planned, too (second one from top)! What a great-looking shooting brake profile on that thing.
Plus, look at the sorts of power they were planning for these cars—keep in mind these were going to come out in 1972, and a Beetle of that era, with its 1600cc dual port engine, was rated at 60 bhp — closer to 50 HP in the later SAE rating.
The EA266 would start with an economy 3-banger making 50 HP, but had 65, 80, and 105 HP variants—105 HP for a small car in the early ‘70s was pretty great. That’s on par with what a BMW 2002 of that era would have been making.
There’s some great renderings of the car’s design here, too. Here’s the baseline 3-door hatch:
The design remained quite intact when the actual series of prototypes was built, as you can see:
Those body-coloured bumpers were also very forward-thinking for the late 1960s, too.
I really like finally getting to see how they pulled off this tight packaging, and the engine access, which I’ve never actually seen before:
They really didn’t waste an ounce of space here, did they? The designers shoved that (early space-saver?) spare under the driver’s seat, and the battery under the passenger. The engine, laid flat under that back seat seems to have two main access panels, which give good access to the distributor, plugs, fuel system, and a few other parts. I guess you’d have to drop the engine for bigger things, but I think that’s a reasonable sacrifice here.
The weight distribution on this thing must have been fantastic, too—everything heavy is right there in the middle.
Since we’re already inside, we may as well check out the interior, which is made of familiar VW materials and switchgear, but with a much more sleek and modern design.
It looks like there were simpler two-gauge versions and a more fully-instrumented version (with a centre tach) like you see up above; I suspect that would be for the sportier models?
CDA also dug up some great pictures of the clay model and a later styling mockup, which gives a good sense of the scale of the car. I think it’s wearing stock VW rims of the era there, too.
There’s even a wind-tunnel testing shot of what appears to be one of the running prototypes.
Speaking of running prototypes, it seems a series of cars were built that differ from the final design; I’m guessing before the final run of prototypes? This one has a much clunkier-looking design compared to the cleaner final version, though I kind of like it, too. The guy driving looks like he’s having a blast as well.
I think this is the rear of this early mule. It’s got generic catalogue taillights and VW mirrors and wheels and hatch latches, along with some awkward access panels, so I suspect this was more of a drivetrain/dynamics mule.
This next picture is interesting, as it seems to show the cars VW expected to compete with, especially in Europe:
The Beetle I guess is there as a baseline of what they’re trying to replace, and there’s a British Ford Escort and a Fiat 128, both very good cars of the era. If VW had moved ahead with the EA266, they could have had a car that matched those in performance and beat both handily in terms of interior and cargo room.
This last one is really interesting for several reasons. This must be late into the development, because that licence plate shows the number 191, which VW may have been planning to use as the car’s production name, Type 191.
Also, there’s that logo! The design team proposed that as a new take on the VW logo, with the areas between the W and bounding circle filled in. And last, we have those wheels. Pretty bold and sporty for late ‘60s VW.
And, are those orange bulbs in the headlights? That I don’t really get.
The EA266/VW 191 could have been an amazing direction for Volkswagen. New VW chief Rudolf Leiding killed off the almost-finished project when he took over, in favour of adapting the Auto Union FWD designs, and I suppose that was the safe bet at the time, and, to his credit, it was successful.
But it was also just like everyone else, and VW was so close to not having to be like that. What if VW had gone ahead with the bold move of releasing a whole, modern lineup of mid-engine cars, filling every niche from econobox to sports car to people movers and vans?
They would have been unique in the automotive landscape, and I bet these cars would have grown a dedicated following of people who wanted something practical and different.
Maybe when we figure out all that quantum whatever it’ll take to peek in on the infinite universes of the multiverse, I’ll be able to schedule time to visit the one where the VW EA266 became the basis of the VW fleet.
Also, in that universe, you can materialise a hot dog at any time by just clapping your hand to your face. Or so I’m told.