Streetwalking: Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
If you started telling most car guys about the tech specs on these little vans, they’d start salivating — provided, of course, you didn’t tell them what vehicle the specs belonged to. For obvious reasons, these little trucks don’t have the best reputation. But let’s take a closer look. Imagine, for a moment, we’re not looking at a T3 Transporter. Imagine I was describing to you a vehicle with a rear-engined water-cooled flat-four, available in either a gas or diesel; imagine I was telling you about an engine tuned for as much low-end torque as possible; imagine I told you it was hooked to a proper four-wheel-drive system with actual locking differentials; imagine I told you it was available with a manual, a semi-automatic, an automatic, or even a rare sequential-shift manual. These are pretty good credentials. They’re actually even better when you get further into it. The differentials are selectable on the dashboard, and can be locked or unlocked individually, front or rear. The transmission itself serves as the center differential; while this might be a weak point in a larger vehicle, the Transporter Syncro was designed to be light, flexible and versatile. Adding a heavy center differential would serve little purpose with the limited power, and the viscous clutching system in the transmission works just as well. The Transporter Syncro (or Vanagon, or T25, or Kombi) was developed out of a rivalry between the different divisions of Volkswagen. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a need in the German armed forces for a replacement for their light off-road vehicles; Volkswagen management sent the mission to their Audi department, hoping they could develop something appropriate out of their “quattro” technology. Audi, of course, began developing the Iltis. Off in an unloved back laboratory somewhere, however, the department that would eventually become Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles was offended by this choice. They felt that they should be responsible for the project, and quietly set out to prove it. With no budget and only the spare parts in the Volkswagen parts bin to draw on, they put together Transporter Syncros in several different varieties, including one using a four-wheel drive system sourced from the Jensen FF, legendarily purchased “off the books”, using various office-supply budgets. When the Iltis was completed, and sent to the German military for testing, the Commercial Vehicles department also sent along one of their Transporter Syncros. Simply put, the Transporter ran circles around the Iltis in the off-road trials; unfortunately, it didn’t meet several of the basic requirements for configurability, and was set aside. Volkswagen senior management was impressed however, and when the next generation of Transporter came out, the Syncro was added to the lineup; Volkswagen even purchased the technology behind the Ferguson 4WD system they had “borrowed”, and shared it with Steyr-Daimler-Puch for use in some of their military vehicles. In short, it was one of those rare instances when a back-office laboratory said that they were capable of making a vehicle better, proved it, despite orders to the contrary, and senior management listened and rewarded their efforts. Perhaps with more examples of management like this, we wouldn’t end up in situations where legendary companies like, say, Saab end up being sold off piecemeal in disgrace due to years of neglect and lack of direction.