Volkswagen Once Tried To Kill A Journalist Because Of This Car

– By Jason Torchinsky

On June 19, Jason Torchinsky, a writer and editor for the automotive website Jalopnik, joined us for a Flash Talk to discuss the fascinating history of the Volkswagen Brasilia automobile, a prominent part of Clarissa Tossin's Made in L.A. installation and the first car to be installed at the Hammer.

Yep, that's right. As far as I can tell, this incident where a Brazilian auto journalist was shot at while taking some spy shots is the only time a carmaker has actually employed potentially deadly force against a journalist. Even though I may have tempted some. The car is the VW Brasilia, and I think it's great.

I recently gave a talk about the Volkswagen Brasilia at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum, because a well-worn Brasilia was a key component in an installation piece from artist Clarissa Tossin

To most people walking by the exhibit, I'm sure they just saw some angular, rusty little band-aid-colored hatchback and didn't give it another thought. But for those who care, this little Southern Hemispherical VW is really a remarkable little car.

First, let's go back to that shooting-at-a-journalist thing. The journalist was Cláudio Larangeira, and he was a young, curious freelance Brazilian auto journalist. Larangeira just so happened to be near VW's test facility when he noticed several unusual cars driving around. Correctly recognizing them as prototype VWs, he chased them down in his car and started taking pictures.

This happens all the time, even today. I myself have chased down a mule or two to get some shots. What usually doesn't happen is that security workers start shooting at your car.

But, that's what happened here. VW Brazil apparent policy of hiring only the most jumpy, over-reactive security guards was paying off, because they began firing at Larangeira's car. The journalist got away unharmed, wrote an awesome story, and eventually got both an apology from VW and a sweet gig as editor-in-chief of the Brazilian car magazine Quatro Rodas.

I think Matt said he got his job here as editor-in-chief of Jalopnik in essentially the same way.

It is, of course, a colossal overreaction to shoot at a journalist getting some photos of a car, but at least we can say that this was quite an important car for VW. The Brasilia (made from 1973-1982) was important because it's really the only successful true Beetle replacement that VW ever produced using their own traditional air-cooled/rear engine architecture.

There's a few reasons for why the Brasilia came to be. VW was very big in Brazil, with a lot of local manufacturing from the 1950s. Starting in the later 1950s, the Brazilian government began a policy to restrict auto imports and produce as much of their cars and car parts internally as possible. This had the effect of making VW do Brasil very independent, and producing many unique cars to fill all sorts of market niches that VWs didn't seek out in the rest of the world.

In essence, Brazil was to VW what Australia was to mammals — a wonderland of convergent evolution. As a result, there were all sorts of fascinating uniquely Brazilian VWs in addition to their own variants of Beetles (they called them Fuscas) and Buses. They had their own Type IIIs, their own Karmann Ghias, and even their own lovely exotic sportscar.

The Beetle/Fusca was a constantly strong seller, but it was still essentially a 1938 design, and, just like in the rest of the world, the Beetle was finally starting to feel the pressure of competition from more modern small cars from Japan and elsewhere.

In Brazil, the new upcoming competitor was the Chevette, which was a much more modern design with a hatchback, and VW wanted to be sure their products could compete with it and other more up-to-date cars. In the rest of the world, VW wouldn't manage to find a viable competitor until the Golf/Rabbit, and that required the acquisition of an entire other company's (NSU/Audi) technologies, and a near-total switch to water cooling and FWD.

But in Brazil, things were different. Rudolf Leiding, the head of VW Brazil, got his designers and engineers started on a new project: re-body the Beetle so it's more modern, roomier, practical, and able to compete with these new little boxy cars. Something flexible for Brazilian tastes. 

And so the Brasilia was born. Built on the same, tried-and-true Beetle chassis (well, actually the slightly wider Karmann-Ghia chassis, but it's pretty much the same) and using the same, rugged, well-known Beetle drivetrain, VWs designers accomplished something pretty remarkable: they made a car of the 30s look like a car of the '70s.

The new body was clean and crisp, and maximized the amount of usable area of the car. Much like the Type IIIs before it, they stuck the Beetle engine under a floor in the back, creating a usable load area/wagon above it, and the new boxier body pretty significantly increased luggage capacity up front. Unlike the Type III, the Brazilia used the normal upright-fan Beetle engine, so the rear luggage area wasn't terribly tall, but they did redesign the air cleaner and fan shroud to give enough room to be usable.

It's actually a bit shorter than the Beetle, but much roomier. The interior feels modern (for the 70s) and has lots of glass area, to be open and airy. I'm a big fan of this sort of packaging that gives the entire wheelbase to passengers and cargo. The only car we really have available today that accomplishes this is the Tesla Model S.


If you think how the Brasilia would have been with a now-common FWD drivetrain (an idea they considered late in the car's life) the sense of the layout becomes clear. Sure, you could deepen the rear luggage area, but you'd lose a good 30-40% of the car's length to the engine.

Another detail about the Brasilia's design is the face of the car, which was called the "Lieding Nose" after the VW Brazil big man. You can see this same face on a number of other VWs in Brazil, mostly their Type III variations, and on the global VW's Type IV lineup.

There was also a 4-door hatch version (the first car of that style to be designed and built in Brazil) that was also built at VW Nigeria under the name Igala. I also found some strange references to ways Brasilia buyers could avoid taxes by registering their cars as "The Brasilia" instead of just "Brasilia," since the "The Brasilia" car was classed as a commercial vehicle. I need better references for this one, but I felt it was my duty to report it.

There was also a sugar-cane alcohol version, like many Brazilian cars to this day, taking advantage of Brazil's very successful national biofuel system. It even made a few extra HP, around 50 instead of 44 or so. Maybe 48. Still, a few extra horses for running on sugar-booze seems like a good deal to me.

Hopefully, you can see why I was excited enough to see a Brazilia in the US (there's maybe only between 5-10 in all of the US) and why I convinced the Hammer Museum to let me talk about it to people. It's a deceptively fascinating car, I think. In Brazil and Mexico, they're pretty common, since they made over a million of the things, so I suspect that to many of our Latin American readers I sound like a loon.

But I don't care. 

Olé for the Brasilia!