In the late 1960s, Volkswagen needed to replace the Beetle, which turned out to be quite the best-seller. And though the Beetle ended up selling well into the end of the decade, the automaker almost didn’t ready a new mass-production vehicle for the buying public. Eventually, VW came up with the Golf, which became the next hottest thing and saved the day for the German automaker. But as Jalopnik points out, the Beetle was almost replaced by something much more unique and revolutionary. Enter the Volkswagen EA266.
The little EA266 was developed with help from Porsche, led by none other than Ferdinand Piëch, who would later become chairman of the Volkswagen Group. The EA266 cut ties with VW’s previous practices, being engineered with a water-cooled, inline engine. If the Golf was looking at Mini and Fiat on which to base its recipe for success, the EA266 was staring blankly at the time period’s exotic sports cars, because it was mid-engined with a drivetrain positioned in the mid-rear of the vehicle.
The 1,588 cc inline-four laid flat under the rear seat, and was accessible via its own compartment. The design is said to have been inspired by the Porsche 695 concept vehicle from 1961. The little motor reportedly made between 100 and 105 horsepower, a lofty figure for economy cars of the era. But here’s where the formula gets very interesting.
Volkswagen was preparing to launch other variants of the EA266, a move that predates modern platform sharing for vehicle variants. The automaker had sketches of possible variants including a van, sport coupe, and roadster. Journalists from the era reported a top speed of 118-mph, and excellent handling dynamics.
In fact, when the EA266 project was ultimately abandoned in favor of the Golf, journalists actually preferred the odd-ball EA266 more. It’s rumored Volkswagen forced members of the press to sign non-publication agreements after the EA266 became officially stillborn.
And this leads us to why, exactly, the Volkswagen EA266 never came to be. Apparently, VW was quite along in the development of the EA266, but fresh-faced VW boss Rudolph Leiding destroyed the project. In fact, he ordered that all 50 prototypes be destroyed with Leopard 1 tanks. Apparently, Leiding wasn’t happy with the fact that Porsche was being compensated for the project even though Volkswagen had its own research and development team. The man even burned the napkin on which the EA266 was sketched, and cut up Piëch’s prototype engine for the car.
The model could have been revolutionary, changing not only Volkswagen but possibly the entire auto industry as well. Unfortunately, the EA266 only lives on in stories like this one. Thankfully, the Golf became a wicked ride in its own right with plenty of variants — including convertibles, wagons, crossovers, vans, and go-fast models — for enthusiasts to enjoy today.