The Audi 50 played an important part in the history of the Volkswagen Polo. Born into a energy crisis-hit world, the smallest production Audi ever built soon had a cheaper and more popular sister to play with, as Volkswagen launched its own less expensive version. Setting a template for the premium supermini, the 50 was a test bed for many technological developments and ultimately gave its life for the baby VW. Here we chronicle the history of Audi’s forgotten supermini
30 August 1974 is a landmark date in Volkswagen Polo history. It was on this date 36 years ago that the smallest-ever Audi was launched. The Audi 50 was a two-door car with a new and increasingly fashionable opening rear hatchback. The small car was designed and developed by Audi engineers at the company’s headquarters at Ingolstadt and due to the mass market production numbers, was to be built at Volkswagen’s plant in Wolfsburg. The 50 was presented to an expectant worldwide motoring press in Sardinia in September of that year.
Following on from the Audi 80’s launch in 1972 and the company’s larger 100 and 200 models, the 50’s sloping tail with its opening door was something of a departure, as all the other models in its range were conventionally-styled saloon cars. Showcasing much modern technology, it was rumoured that a cheaper Volkswagen version may appear (no doubt due to the Wolfsburg build connection), but the new, as yet un-named small VW was still a year from release.
Volkswagen launched a raft of new models in 1973 and 1974, though; the Passat appeared first, followed by the Scirocco and then the Golf. These new water-cooled cars charged with taking the hopes of a new generation of Volkswagen management used Audi technology too, with engines and drivetrains being commonly shared. Making its first public appearance at the Paris Auto Salon in the autumn of 1974, the new small Audi was introduced to prospective continental buyers on 26 October 1974.
Produced to a tight brief with maximum length and weight stiplulations of 11ft 6in and 700kg respectively, development of the car began in 1971. Volkswagen Group chairman Rudolf Leiding and Audi design team leader Ludwig Kraus were happy with the result – length was exactly 11ft 6in and the weight was 15kg under the suggested 700kg. The pretty design of the car was the in-house work of Kraus and his team, although sources have since stated that both Italian designer Marcello Gandini and design house Bertoné were called upon to give an opinion.
Bertoné’s website even shows styling pictures (above) which depict various elements that were obviously rejected by Audi. Front and rear plastic shields show the Audi four-ring logo, and Bertoné claim that this logo was clearly displayed on all the graphical elements of the car’s body. It is thought though, that in the final stages of development, Gandini pronounced the overall shape of the car to be good, and approved the chrome trim upsweep at the rear of the car. Even before Gandini was involved, Audi’s design was very similar to the larger Volkswagen Golf which had been designed by Giorgetto Guigaro’s ItalDesign studio.
1093cc, 50 and 60bhp
Fifty prototype cars were built and covered 100,000 kilometres each, while the power units and suspension assemblies underwent serious bench and rig testing. The engine was transversely-mounted and two power options were offered from a basic cubic capacity of 1093cc. The units produced 50 and 60bhp, with the latter being a higher compression unit and producing a claimed top speed of almost 100mph.
Developed by Audi engineers, the newest of the company’s powerplants featured a cross-flow cylinder head and direct camshaft drive to the distributor and fuel pump. A new type of carburettor had also been developed with the automatic choke being heated electrically while the engine was cold and then by the coolant as it warmed up.
The suspension called on McPherson struts at the front and a simple torsion beam at the rear, with the trailing arms placed nearer the wheel hubs. This meant that when the car rolled under hard cornering, the rear wheels were no longer parallel, the outer one assuming a position of negative camber. The 50 was also the first Audi to get a new seating design that was used the following year in the Volkswagen range.
Comprehensive equipment levels
The new small Audi was available in two trim levels – the 50bhp LS and the 60bhp GL. Both models made do without the optional (£26) rear wash/wipe system costing and a brake servo, but otherwise equipment levels were comprehensive for a vehicle so small. At launch, the 50 LS cost £145 more than the soon-to-be-launched Volkswagen Polo, but, to justify this, the more prestigious Audi featured a more attractive and upmarket appearance than the sparsely-trimmed Volkswagen.
The LS featured full carpeting, a full bank of instruments, an electric clock and a temperature gauge and quality was found to be superior to other cars in the class. Steering column switches for main lighting functions and hazard lights were on stalks and were a feature that soon saw service in the 80, 100 and 200. The GL built on these features, and added more attractive trim panels and of course, that more powerful engine. Both models boasted chromed bumpers with plastic end caps and a heated rear window.
British car magazine Motor tested a pair of Audi 50 pre-production prototypes for its 14 September 1974 issue and stated: ‘Assuming they can build VW quality into this new four-seater, it could well retire the Beetle fairly smartly,’ going on to proclaim that ‘Audi picked a tough act [the Beetle] to follow. But they seem likely to win their applause.’ Overall, an impression of quality and refinement prevailed, qualities which the Polo is still known for today. The GL’s handling was said to be on the sporty side, the contributor preferring the softer-sprung LS version.
The Volkswagen Polo version of the Audi 50 was officially launched at the Geneva motor show in February 1975, before being presented in Hanover one month later. Fundamentally cheaper than its more luxurious cousin, but less comprehensively-equipped and ultimately less prestigious, the Polo was destined to be the bigger seller of the two cars.
Resolutely left-hand drive
The Audi 50 had a good following in continental Europe, but was never imported into the UK. A handful of privately-imported cars made their way over the Channel (Ford was even thought to be evaluating one for its Fiesta development programme), but the 50 stayed resolutely left-hand drive only. It was a different story for the Polo; a late 1975 UK release as a Beetle replacement saw it find many buyers. But by then it was too late; the 50’s days were numbered.
In July 1978, after nearly four years in production, the 50 was discontinued from the Audi range with 180,828 having being built. The Polo was left to carry the mantle as the smallest Volkswagen Group passenger car. Coming full circle, Audi has recently launched the A1, its smallest model for years. In a historical déjà-vu component-sharing move, the £14,530 A1 shares many parts with the fifth-generation Volkswagen Polo.
But, despite Volkswagen and Audi’s close relationship, would the Polo have even been born and gone on to be the success that it undoubtedly has become over the last 41 years if it had not been for those visionary Audi engineers?
Story Rich Gooding
Photography Audi Media Services, Volkswagen Media Services