Celebrating 70 Years of Volkswagen SA: Latest VW Tiguan meets unique Project 1021

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• Today, 31 August, 70 years ago, the first Volkswagen rolled off the SA production line.

• Since then, Volkswagen became a giant in the local automotive sector.

• The RoadTrip team revisits VW's incredible past with the latest Tiguan SUV.

For more motoring stories, visit Wheels24

Recently updated, the Tiguan spearheads the burgeoning Volkswagen family of SUVs. But what if we tell you Volkswagen South Africa foresaw this crucial category in the modern arsenal of nearly all carmakers over four decades ago? To celebrate the 70th anniversary of VWSA, the RoadTrip team introduced the newcomer to the uniquely South African Project 1021.
Ian McLaren, RoadTrip contributor

In an age of smartphone cameras and high-speed internet, when was the last time a car reveal was kept genuinely under wraps until its scheduled reveal? Even then, how long has it been since those gathered at the unveiling were treated to a true, in the metal first glance at an all-new shape and design? 

Arriving at the Kariega-based Auto Pavilion of Volkswagen South Africa after collecting an updated Tiguan, I could merely smile at the sight of a vehicle I, until that moment, had only heard about, with no prior context around what form it actually took. A full ten minutes later, I was still taking in the intricacies of a package that, by all accounts, was years ahead of its time.

Today, seventy years ago, the first South African assembled Volkswagen (Type 1) rolled down the production line at the South African Motor Assemblers and Distributors (SAMAD) plant in Uitenhage (now Kariega). By the end of 1951, an impressive 290 Beetles were sold by the newly formed Volkswagen franchise in South Africa.

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volkswagen tiguan,project 1021
2021 Volkswagen Tiguan (left) with the classic VW Project 1021

'VWSA' was born

By 1962, the 100 000th Volkswagen vehicle was produced in Uitenhage, and in 1966 SAMAD was officially renamed Volkswagen of South Africa (VWSA). Over the next couple of decades, VWSA undertook a variety of unique vehicle projects, including distinct homegrown adaptations of the Beetle (remember the 1600 S, SP and Lux Bug?).

Other local projects included developing the exclusive Big Window VW T3 Bus models with 2.3-litre, 2.5- and 2.6-litre five-cylinder Audi engines. And, of course, the CitiGolf range with unique taillights and, later, an adapted Skoda Fabia dashboard. 

Besides a few noteworthy locally engineered and developed racing cars, there were also some very special road car projects, such as a very fast Mk 4 Golf R32 and the Vivo Dune Concept car. However, Project 1021 (pronounced ten-twenty-one) was a serious and massive undertaking at a time when Volkswagen South Africa needed a credible stop-gap solution. And quick.

volkswagen tiguan,project 1021
2021 Volkswagen Tiguan (front) with the classic VW Project 1021

The project plan

In 1976, monthly sales of the Beetle were eventually showing signs of decline, and with the estimated local launch date of its replacement, the Golf, still uncomfortably far away, technical director of VWSA, Tucker Lockhead, set in motion a plan to bridge this gap. 

Led by August Jukel in Uitenhage and calling on the expertise of ex-Lotus man Chris Rawlinson of the United Kingdom-based fibreglass company Ex-Press Plastics, the vision Lockhead had was to use the floorplan and running gear of the Type 1 Beetle as the platform for a vehicle that was to be more comfortably than its donor car and could transport a young family and their respective goods.  

Codenamed Project 1021, the brief was for a station wagon and a bakkie type vehicle. It was designed by Peter Stevens and engineered and developed by a company called SmallFry, named after its founders Anthony Smallhorn and Tim Fry. Fry was previously head of design at the Rootes Group, where he designed the Hillman Imp. With its Beetle-sourced upright twin-port 44kW 1 600cc engine situated over the rear axle, the packaging of Project 1021 is as fascinating as it is strange. Indeed, with a fuel tank position up front below a relatively shallow front storage area and a rear engine bay. The square-shaped wagon only has three doors.

READ: OPINION | Could the Tiguan 2.0 4Motion R-Line be VW's best and most complete car?

A lone rear passenger aperture opens to the left-hand side of the vehicle, as the opposite panel houses an air intake, leading rearwards to the engine, and two additional intakes are located on either D-pillar. Curiously, there is no tailgate access to the packing space available above the engine bay. 

Presumably, owners would reach over the backrest to retrieve their (surely well-warmed up) parcels. This arrangement is somewhat impractical, but its design cues leave no doubt that this vehicle is an interesting precursor to the modern compact SUV (back when the term was not even coined yet).

It is minimalist and strictly analogue inside, with a Beetle steering wheel and seats front and rear. I smiled again at the sight of the golf-ball shaped gear knob - no doubt shipped to South Africa and used ahead of the arrival of the car it would ultimately become synonymous with.

volkswagen,project 1021
The Project 1021's gear knob

Spiritual successor?

Parked alongside the updated third-generation Tiguan, the forty-five-year-old 1021 is actually closer in size to a T-Cross than to the best-selling SUV from Volkswagen to date. Even so, one could argue the Tiguan - derived from the same platform as the Golf - is its spiritual successor as it essentially took over the SUV mantle from the short-lived CrossGolf in 2007.

Comparable wheel size and intricate design detail aside, in the dimmed light of an overcast Eastern Cape day, the most striking difference between the two vehicles was their respective headlamp applications. 

While the 1977 model features items sourced from the Mk1 Golf, the new SUV has the latest IQ.Light adaptive LED lighting technology from Volkswagen, with distinctive daytime running lights housed within redesigned headlamp clusters, complemented by an altogether sharper family-familiar grille.

READ: Buying a vehicle - How a Volkswagen Polo made my car dreams come true

Other notable updates to the Tiguan include a fresh focus on driver assistance technologies and a redesigned fascia in terms of both looks and functionality. Available in three specification levels, a popular choice in our market remains the dynamic R-Line package. 

While it arguably does not hit the sweet spot in terms of value for this traditionally family-focused package, this flagship 4Motion derivative (until the Tiguan R arrives) features a 2.0 TSI turbopetrol engine delivering ample power and torque (162 kW and 350 Nm) to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual clutch transmission.

The latest Tiguan is still a consummate cruiser and continues to offer impressive levels of versatility. Suppose there is a downside to opting for the sportiest-looking Tiguan. In that case, the standard 19-inch wheels (or optional 20-inch items as fitted to our test unit) impact the otherwise compliant ride quality of the vehicle.

volkswagen tiguan,project 1021
2021 Volkswagen Tiguan with the classic VW Project 1021 (front)

The demise

Ultimately not considered a viable project (as local Golf production was given the green light), only four examples of the 1021 were built between 1977 and 1978. Intriguingly, two of these were stepped roof "station wagons". The other two were engineered as a pick-up (preceding the Golf Mk 1 based Caddy by a couple of years). 

It is here where the story gets particularly interesting…

Finished as prototypes only, one VW Project 1021 pick-up was apparently destroyed, and VWSA kept one wagon (now in the Auto Pavilion). Fascinatingly, one station wagon and a pick-up somehow made it through a registration process and certified roadworthy, and they headed off into the South African countryside.

READ: DRIVEN | Why VW's new Golf 8 GTI will still be a megahit for traditional vrr-pha fans

The station wagon/SUV seemingly ended up in Knysna for years. However, it recently resurfaced and was advertised in the classifieds for a humble R50 000. It attracted international attention (even from Brazil and the USA), but as far as we could ascertain, it was immediately bought by a South African collector and now resides much closer to its original home. 

And the Project 1021 pick-up? Well, it would seem it spent many years somewhere on the Cape Southern Coast before it was sold again quite recently, and it now seemingly has found a home closer to Cape Town.

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