1981 Volkswagen Scirocco
1981 Volkswagen Scirocco. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Volkswagen Scirocco (named after a hot wind off the Saharan desert) was a small, nimble, front-wheel drive, four-passenger, (2+2) coupe that established what came to be called the “Super Coupe” genre. But it was more than just a sporty stylish coupe: it, and its family car Golf sibling (initially Rabbit in North America), were Volkswagen’s future, as the giant German enterprise began converting from the Beetle’s rear engine, rear-drive, 1930s roots to a modern front engine, front-drive car company.

The Scirocco was not Volkswagen’s first front-driver. That was the Dasher, a converted Audi Fox. Volkswagen had acquired Audi-NSU in 1969, and Audi-NSU’s established front-drive technology was the shortest route to a front-drive car. The Dasher’s engine, typical of Audi, was positioned longitudinally, but the Scirocco, although using the Dasher engine, mounted it transversely. Thus it was really the prototype for VW’s front-drive future.

The roomy Golf compact became the replacement for the Beetle, although Beetle sedans would continue to be built in Germany until 1978, and the Cabrio until 1980. The sedan was also built in Mexico until July, 2003. The 2+2 Scirocco replaced the discontinued Karmann Ghia, and like the K-G, was built by coachbuilder Karmann.

Just as the Beetle and the Karmann Ghia shared drivelines, so did the Golf and Scirocco. But with their front engine, front-drive layouts, spirited performance and hatch-back practicality the Golf and Scirocco were a quantum leap forward.

Volkswagen introduced the Scirocco at the Geneva auto show in March 1974 and it began arriving in North America that fall as a 1975 model. Although it had the same 2,400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase as the Karmann Ghia, its 3,955 mm (155.7 in.) length was 236 mm (9.3 in.) shorter. At 875 kg (1,930 lb), the Scirocco was 13.6 kg (30 lb) lighter. But in spite of being smaller and lighter, the Scirocco offered greater luggage space which was more accessible through the large rear hatch. It was also faster, had more passenger room and was more fuel efficient.

The Scirocco’s sharp, wedge-shaped profile, styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ital Design of Italy, was a classic lesson in what a small sport coupe should be. Its four headlamps were set in a pert, chiselled nose. The door window line was level but the rear side windows swept upward, adding a touch of character. The rear of the roof tapered down, then dropped off abruptly in a decidedly Kamm-back profile.

When the rear hatch was lifted it also raised the security panel above the trunk. With this panel removed and the rear seat folded forward, the Scirocco presented truly cavernous cargo capacity for such a small car. Removing the rear seat increased it even more.

The Scirocco’s 1,471 cc (89.7 cu in.) overhead cam, inline four-cylinder transversely mounted engine developed 70 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 81 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,500. It drove the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission mounted in line with the engine.

Suspension was by MacPherson struts in front and compact trailing arms, coil springs and beam axle at the rear. Brakes were front discs and rear drums and steering was rack-and-pinion.

Independent testers were very impressed with the Scirocco. Road & Track called it “A truly remarkable new small GT.” They found the performance “brisk,” recording a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 12.7 seconds and a top speed of 164 km/h (102 mph). Car and Driver magazine called it “a fun piece.”

Engine displacement was increased slightly to 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) for 1976, and for ’77 the two-barrel carburetor was replaced across the board with the Bosch fuel injection that had previewed in a mid-1976 “Special Edition” Scirocco.

Driven by emissions and fuel economy considerations, the Scirocco slipped back to 1,457 cc (89 cu in.) for 1978. But in spite of the loss of five horsepower from the 1,588 cc engine, R&T found the performance better: zero to 96 (60) was improved to 10.4 seconds and top speed was up to 167 km/h.

The 1588-cc (97 cu. in.) engine was back for 1979 with a now-optional five-speed transmission. Things stayed much the same for 1980. A turbo version was available in Europe but did not reach North America. For 1981, the last year of the first generation Scirocco, the five-speed was made standard and engine size was increased to 1,715 cc (107 cu in.) and 74 horsepower.

The second generation, 1982-1988 Scirocco was styled by Volkswagen, and its rather puffy lines lost their crisp Giugiaro distinctiveness. For 1986, it would vault into the high-performance realm with the 123-horsepower, 16-valve 16V version. According to Car and Driver, it delivered zero to 96 km/h in 8.0 seconds and a top speed of 200 km/h (124 mph, which brought it back to its roots as the king of the Super Coupes.

The Scirocco was discontinued in 1988 and superseded by the 1989 Volkswagen Corrado.

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