The early 1970s were an interesting time for car enthusiasts in Brazil. The importation of cars had been banned, leaving those lusting for a sports car with limited options. Sure, there was the locally built-Puma, but it was little more than a kit car with engines sourced from DKW, Volkswagen and General Motors and with production numbers in the hundreds.
At the other end of the production scale, Volkswagen do Brazil (literally Volkswagen of Brazil) was the country's largest manufacturer or cars, enjoying an astonishing 66 per cent market share in 1971.
The Brazilian arm of the German car maker was headed up by Rudolf Leiding (who would go on to become the boss of Volkswagen globally) and he, along with his wife Helga Leiding, conceived a plan for a locally-designed and built, stylish sports car to replace the ageing Karmann Ghia (also assembled in Brazil) which was due to be cease production.
Leiding himself created the initial sketches, with input from Helga, before handing them over to VW do Brazil's in-house designer Marcio Piancastelli. With permission from VW HQ in Wolfsburg, 'Project X' was born.
Using the readily available platform from the Volkswagen Type 3 (made and marketed in Brazil as the VW Variant with minor, and it must be said unflattering, design tweaks by Piancastelli), the first prototype of what would become the SP appeared in 1971.
Sleek, with elegant lines, and with proportions more than a little derivative of the Jaguar E-Type, the SP was fitted with the Type 3's 1.6-litre 'pancake' air-cooled flat-four housed low in the chassis at the rear underneath the boot. With a meagre 48kW on tap, it's little wonder the SP1 (which stood for Sao Paolo, where it was manufactured) earned the nickname 'Sem Potência', Portuguese for 'without power'.
A more powerful SP2 variant featured a larger 1.7-litre engine fed by two Solex carburettors, boosting output to 55kW. Independent tests at the time saw the SP2 complete the 'sprint' to 100km/h in a lazy 16 seconds while top speed was rated at 160km/h. One media outlet at the time described the SP2's performance as not so much acceleration as "gaining momentum".
Still, what the SP lacked in performance, it made up for with panache, a modern and comfortable interior and contemporary styling that now, some 50 years later, still stands out.
Volkswagen do Brazil dropped the SP1 from the range having sold only 88 examples, buyers preferring the more powerful SP2. It too enjoyed a short life span, just three years from 1974-76. A total of 10,205 rolled off the production line, nearly all of them destined for Brazil's domestic market. Just 670 SP2s were exported, the majority of them (155), strangely to Nigeria. Only one was sent to Europe, to Portugal, while today, the Volkswagen museum features one its collection.
Sadly, the Volkswagen SP also had a propensity for rust, making it difficult to find a decent example today. A quick scan of the internet found a well-kept 1974 example for sale through American outlet Hemmings; asking price a cool US$45,500 (approx. A$70,000). A quick search of historical sales and auction results confirms this about the going rate for a clean example.
Despite its short production run and localised market, the Volkswagen SP's legacy continued in Germany where Leiding, the man who originally conceived of the SP and who was now boss of Volkswagen, was the force behind a Volkswagen sports car, dubbed internally Project 425. Working alongside Porsche, the VW team took inspiration from the SP2, certainly in terms of design. But when the Project 425 was halted due to the oil crisis of the 1970s, it was Porsche who stepped in and completed the car, making it their own.
Produced as a replacement for the ageing 914, the Porsche 924 remained in production from 1976-1988, with over 150,000 sales over that period making it one of Porsche's most successful models of the time. And its genesis can be traced back to a quirky, yet stunning design from Brazil, a sports coupe that oozed presence even if its performance didn't marry up with its unashamed sporty looks.
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