Volkswagen SP Series

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Volkswagen SP1 and SP2

1972 - 1976
4 cylinder
1600cc / 1700cc
75 hp (56 kW)
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
160 km/h (100 mph)
Number Built:
4 star
Volkswagen SP1 and SP2
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4

Rudolf Leiding

Although the Volkswagen SP series was both designed and built in Brazil, it was fostered by Rudolf Leiding - Volkswagen's then new Managing Director in Stuttgart. The idea for the SP1 and SP2 started while Leiding was in control of Volkswagen's Brazilian establishment which he left early in 1971 to take up Volkswagen General Command.

Leiding's appointment was controversial, and he had barely been seated in the Number One chair, when he reviewed and discarded some of Volkswagen's most ambitious new car projects, including a Porsche-originated mid-engined small car prototype. The SP Series started as "Project X", and a prototype was built in time for the 1971 fair. But it would take another year before the car reached the streets. (The first image of the slide show at left shows the 1971 prototype).

Why Brazil?

Brazil was the logical place to market the vehicle first. Volkswagen totally dominated the Brazilian market commanding 66.3 percent of total sales during 1971. This gave VW a 295,725 production figure of the total 516,000 market - which had an annual sales level remarkably close to Australia. Brazil was also Volkswagen's largest overseas plant and the company employed nearly 19,000.

Virtually the entire Volkswagen range was sold there but the company had no real sports model. The Volkswagen SP was brought in to compete with the Puma - another two-seater sports coupe which enjoyed healthy sales. The SP series was produced in left-hand-drive, and the specifications made it suitable for the US market, where cars needed to meet stringent safety and anti-pollution legislation.

The Hot Machine

The promotional blurb described the SP as "The Hot Machine" and claimed it would stir up interest in VW when it circulates "along the avenues" and "particularly in high speed roads." And as a volume production sports special it certainly looked the goods - from the various angles of performance, equipment, comfort and safety. Most interesting was the safety aspect, and meeting the tough US safety standards meant it was fitted with a double-circuit braking system, and the steering was collapsible. Quartz iodine headlights were fitted to the SP2, and both versions used a quad-light system. The SP was also the world's first sportscar to get a “collision-belt” which enveloped the entire body. It consisted of a band of "collision-proof" material that traced the perimeter of the car, incorporating the bumpers front and rear with extensions down the flanks for side impacts.

The impact belt was covered in heavy duty gloss-finished rubber to provide a good appearance and also protect the car from every-day parking bumps. The designers blended this safety idea into the body with a very simple amd neat styling idea - a coloured dress panel let-into the flanks extending from headlights to taillights. The front and rear bumpers were built on spring-steel "claws" that are intended to give on impact and return the bumper to its original position. This appears to be designed to comply with the latest American 5mph bumper-impact legislation.

A further safety emphasis was the good visibility provided in the design. The car used deep screens front and rear - both cut high into the turret. The rear screen projected low into the lift-up tailgate to provide good rearward visibility. The front pillars were slim and the rear quarter-panel was reduced to the minimum to accommodate the air-induction ventilators for the rear engine. Big styled exterior mirrors were fitted. Racing-style articulated-arm windscreen wipers were employed for maximum vision in wet conditions. A sophisticated ventilation system, for the time, was another safety-plus. The car was fitted with through-flow ventilation but quarter vents were retained - as necessary for Brazilian heat conditions as they were for Australian temperatures. The rear quarter panes could also be opened on forward hinges. Face-level fresh-air vents from the through-flow system supplemented directional vents to windscreen and floor.

Rear view of the Volkswagen SP2
Rear view of the Volkswagen SP2.

Cool-Air Induction

Radial ply tyres were standard on 5.5in. safety rims (J-type). The design of the lighting system gave multi-directional vision from wrap-around lenses, yet was well protected by the bumper system. The trapezoid front headlight panels were made of anti-glare buffed aluminium to avoid dangerous reflections. The tail treatment, which had more than a slight resemblance to the famous old Mercedes 300SL, was bulky but neat. The engine was fed cool air from the induction system on the rear quarter flanks, and hot air extracted through a vented alloy panel below the bumper. This was protected by the bumper - even the exhaust outlet was within the bumper line. To avoid unsightly fittings, the tailgate opened by a inside lever (this feature was about to catch on, but in 1972 was rare).

There was E-Type standard luggage capacity under the tailgate on a carpeted floor and this was supplemented by a big boot under the front deck lid. This gave the Volkswagen SP easily the biggest luggage space of its class - a legacy of the space-saving flat four which lay under the luggage compartment. The interior had advanced specification, but was not quite up to the European standard in terms of styling and layout. Full instrumentation was supplied on both models, with additional gauges on the SP2 model for the hard-core enthusiast. Two bucket seats were fitted - anatomically designed with built-in adjustable headrests and provision for extensive rake adjustment. A simple chock system provided a wide range of adjustment for height. The seats were finished in high quality vinyl, with leather offered on the options list.

Between the seats was a console housing the fly-off handbrake and the ventilation control levers. Forward of this, on the main centre-console was a stubby four-shifter and a pop-out panel for the ashtray (incorporating lighter). On the vertical face of the dashboard was a row of rocker switches and blanks, and above that, push-button radio (optional) and group of four instruments recessed in nacelles. These included fuel, oil temperature, amps and time (clock), and two of them (oil temp and clock) were fitted only to the SP model.

A Bi-Sonic Fog-Horn

The driver was provided with a neat deeply recessed three-spoke leather-bound alloy-spoked steering wheel, with centre horn boss. Visible through the top sector of the wheel were the tachometer (redlined from 5-6000) and the 200kph (125mph) speedometer. Odometers gave total and trip read-outs. The instruments had rheostat-controlled lighting. The horn boss operated what the Brazilians called, in their sales blurb, a bi-sonic fog-horn. The steering column was fitted with two fingertip levers - one to control turn indicators, high and low beam, and flasher, and the other was a mini-computer for the windscreen wipers/washers. The four-position lever gave (1) four-jet water gush (2 & 3) the two wiper speeds (4) intermittent wiper action for drizzle conditions. The pedals were set for heel-toe downshifts.

The interior was clinically decked-out. The dashboard was of flat-black imitation stitched leather with heavy mouldings for instruments and controls. The doors had upholstery panels colour-keyed to the seat trim and were fitted with the latest safety-standard recessed levers - but strangely no armrests. The floor was completely carpeted with high quality material. The engines were low-compression to comply with Brazilian fuel standards and produced 65(DIN) bhp at 4600 rpm and 75 (DIN)bhp at 5000 rpm respectively from two downdraft Solexes of 32/34mm. A four-speed all-syncro gearbox was mounted via transaxle system as was the normal Volkswagen practice at the time. The front suspension was by two torsion bars with stabiliser bar and the rear wheels were held up on torsion bars with a compensating bar. Hydraulic double-acting shockers were used all round.

Poor Performance

The wheels of the SP series were 5V2J x 14in. made of metal on the SP1 and magnesium on the SP2, and both models were shod with 185SR radials. Disc brakes were used at the front - drum at the rear. On the road the long wheelbase (95in.) was consistent with then modern sports car practice and provided a clean ride with moderate suspension rates – particularly given that the weight was a relatively light at 1970 lb., and it sat only 46in. high. But despite the cars good looks and solid mechanical credentials, its poor performance meant it would struggle at the sales rooms around Brazil. The SP1 could only manage 65 hp(48 kW) with its 1600cc engine on the SP1, and it was soon discontinued.

The same problem plagued the SP2. In fact, a malicious joke at that time was to relate the "SP2" name with "Sem Potência" ("Without Power", in Portuguese). Despite its revolutionary look, the car failed to beat the Puma in performance. Although they used similar engines, the fibreglass Puma was much lighter. This resulted in low sales, and the SP was discontinued in February 1976. With a total of 10,205 units made (670 of them exported, the majority 155 went to Nigeria with only one going to Europe, Portugal), the car is now sought-after as a valuable collector's item. One of them, in white, is in the VW museum on public display. While prices during the production time frame were roughly the same as the Beetle, the price of a well-preserved example today is considerably higher than contemporary VW models.
Volkswagen SP2

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