Volkswagen’s EA-48 prototype. Photos courtesy Volkswagen AG, unless otherwise noted.
[Editor’s Note: Ronan Glon of Ran When Parked visited the AutoMuseum Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, where he came across this oddly familiar prototype. Here’s the story of the stillborn VW EA-48 city car prototype.]
The original Mini is often credited for laying the foundations of the city car as we know it today. However, that honor almost went to Volkswagen a couple of years before Sir Alec Issigonis’ brilliant creation hit the road.
Volkswagen began experimenting with the idea of a small city car positioned a notch below the Beetle in 1953. At the time, Beetle sales were low at best and showing few signs of improvement, so engineers wanted to introduce a smaller and more affordable model in order to help the company finally get off the ground. On paper, the car was ambitious. It was the first small car from Volkswagen, and the first prototype designed in-house without any input from Porsche. Led by Gustav Mayer, project EA-48 officially kicked off in October of 1953.
Mayer decided that simply shrinking the Beetle wasn’t enough; in fact, he took a completely different approach to designing a car. The EA-48 featured unibody construction, a front-mounted engine, front-wheel drive, and a McPherson-type front suspension. Using both a McPherson front suspension and front-wheel drive was revolutionary at the time.
The EA-48 in Wolfsburg’s AutoMuseum Volkswagen. Remaining photos by Ronan Glon.
Power was provided by a two-cylinder air-cooled engine which was, at its core, essentially a Beetle engine cut in half. Mayer initially designed two different flat-twins for the car, according to Volkswagen Classic magazine. The first was a 700cc unit with a crank-mounted cooling fan, and the second was a 600cc unit with a belt-driven fan. Mayer also considered developing a diesel, but the idea was quickly dismissed by Volkswagen boss Heinz Nordhoff.
Volkswagen decided that the 600cc engine was sufficient, so the bigger twin never made it beyond the prototype stage. Fed by a Solex carburetor, the smaller two-cylinder generated 18 horsepower at 3,800 rpm and 29 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm, enough to send the 1,267-pound car to a top speed of nearly 60 mph. Power was transferred to the front wheels via a four-speed manual transmission.
The car – which was tentatively set to wear the 600 nameplate – needed to be affordable, easy to maintain, and spacious. Unibody construction and 13-inch wheels allowed designers to make formidable use of space, so the EA-48 was nearly as roomy inside as a Beetle in spite of its significantly smaller footprint. And while the production model was set to gain a pair of rear windows, Volkswagen never intended on launching the car with a trunk lid in order to keep costs in check. Mayer explained that, at best, the feature could have been added to the lineup as an extra-cost option later in the car’s production run.
The first EA-48 prototype stretched 133 inches long, 58 inches wide, and 54 inches tall. To put those dimensions into perspective, it was slightly longer, wider, and shorter than the Fiat 600, which debuted in 1955 and would have been one of the EA-48’s most direct rivals.
Volkswagen began testing its entry-level model on public roads in 1954. It was surprisingly sharp to drive; period internal documents went as far as labeling its handling “sporty.” Mayer was justifiably pleased, but the engine wasn’t as praiseworthy. Not only did the twin run rough, it frequently overheated because the fan was too small. Engineers tried installing a bigger fan from a Lloyd but saw very few improvements, so as a last resort they installed an even bigger fan borrowed from the Porsche parts bin. Porsche ended up playing a small part in the EA-48’s development after all.
Mayer firmly believed that Volkswagen needed to expand its lineup with a small car, but the EA-48 was never approved for production even though its development had reached an advanced stage. One issue was that Nordhoff feared the car would lure customers away from the Beetle, which was starting to get attract buyers in Germany and abroad after a rough first few years on the market. Young Volkswagen had invested so much into the Beetle that Nordhoff was unwilling to risk cannibalizing it.
Interestingly, the final nail in the EA-48’s coffin came from Ludwig Erhard, Germany’s minister of economy. He warned Nordhoff that thousands of jobs would be lost if Volkswagen moved forward with the small car project. The threat allegedly came from Carl F.W. Borgward, an industrialist whose namesake company owned Lloyd, an automaker that tussled for a slice of Germany’s small car segment. The EA-48 project consequently ground to halt in February of 1956. One of the prototypes was scrapped, while the second is on display in the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
It’s too bad, because the Volkswagen 600 would have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the history of the automobile. Walk down a street in just about any European city and take a look around: a majority of the cars that make up the automotive landscape are front-wheel drive, diesel-powered, and fitted with a McPherson-type front suspension. If built the way Mayer envisioned it, the 600 could have been 60 years ahead of its time.