Colin-on-Cars – Volkswagen’s records still stand

A nearly missed note in my email inbox triggered a nostalgic rush – February 23 was the 20th anniversary of the date the Volkswagen W12 broke seven world speed records on the famed Nardò circuit in Italy.

On that date the W12 Nardo covered a distance of 7 694 kilometres and sustained an average speed of 200,6 mph (320,96 km/h). In achieving this average speed, the W12 Nardo set seven world records and 12 international class records in the process.

Volkswagen W12 Nardo

Volkswagen could then lay claim to nine of 12 world records relating to distance and time. The additional two were set by the ARVW (Aerodynamic Research VW) in 1980. According to the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA), all nine world records stand to this day.

It was that mention of the ARVW that triggered things because shortly after establishing its records, I had the opportunity to drive this remarkable car – albeit at very slow speed around a skid pan at Volkswagen’s research centre.

The author with the ARVW in 1980

The near cylindrical shape and very narrow track meant it was not designed to turn corners at anything more than a snail’s pace. Rather it was intended for a high-speed banked circuit.

Still, the experience brought home the technology of the time working – in the wake of a fuel crisis – to improve efficiencies, reduce drag and eke out minimal consumption.

Called the ‘Aerodynamic Research Volkswagen’, the project was born as a result of the oil crisis of the 1970s and arrived at the test track in late 1980. The price of oil had spiked, sending shockwaves throughout the world and hitting the oil-dependent automotive industry especially hard. Automakers went from pumping out big, fuel-burning V8s to figuring out how to maximize efficiency. 

The ARVW was a study in demonstrating how an attention to aerodynamics and weight reduction can produce high speeds from considerably lower power. 

The first challenge in creating this super-light, air-slicing vehicle, according to Volkswagen, was to pack a powertrain, four wheels, and a driver into the tiniest car possible. Engineers tucked the wheels beneath the body and smoothed out the car’s underbody. The end result stood just 84 cm tall and 110 cm wide, or less than three feet by four feet. 

The vehicle was incredibly light, built from an aluminum frame under a fiberglass and carbon body. Its drag coefficient was an incredible 0.15. 

The ARVW was powered by a version of the Volkswagen Rabbit engine: a 2,4-litre diesel inline-six. Volkswagen added a high-boost turbo-charger and an intercooler, which more than doubled the engine’s original output to 130 kW. 

That figure of 130 kW also doesn’t seem like much — it’s about the output of a modern Honda Civic. But with the lightweight body and extreme dedication to pure aerodynamics, the ARVW was able to hit 353 km/h during its first hour of testing in October 1980. Eventually, it topped out at 360 km/h. 

The first supercar to feature a functioning example of Volkswagen’s unique ‘W” engine was not the Bugatti Veyron with its quad turbo-charged W16 engine.

With aerodynamic styling penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign, the W12 Concept Coupe that debuted at the Tokyo International Motor Show in 1997 was, just like the Veyron, an out-and-out supercar. Perhaps even more significantly, it broke the traditional notion that a Volkswagen had to be a regular family car, paving the way for range-topping luxury and performance models from the brand.

The W12 Concept Coupe was powered by a 5,6-litre W12 engine, made by mating two of the company’s compact and lightweight 2,8-litre VR6 engines on a common crankshaft. When married, the W12 made 308 kW, which was channelled through Volkswagen’s Syncro all-wheel drive and a six-speed sequential transmission.

Engine Study W12 Coupé

The W12 was a hit—at least in concept form. Though it never made it to series production, Volkswagen’s first supercar utterly exemplified the term. Its windshield was a single sheet of specially-curved glass that stretched all the way through the end of the roofline, splitting double gullwing doors and blending directly into a glass engine cover that allowed a view of the mighty W12 beneath.  With the flames stoked, a roadster variant was unveiled in 1998 at the Geneva Motor Show.

It would be another three years before reasoning for the earlier prototypes’ existence became clear. In 2001, Volkswagen announced it would attempt to set the 24-hour speed record at the 12,4 km Nardò Ring in southern Italy.

The W12 Concept Coupe seen in auto shows had evolved significantly—the W12 engine was enlarged to 6,0-litre, which, among other mechanical differences, resulted in power leaping to 440 kW and it sprinted from 0 to 100 km/h in just 3,5 seconds.

On the ground in October 2001, the W12 was instantly in its element, clocking an average speed of 293,6 km/h over 7 043 km, shattering the World Record.

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