“Wow, what make of car is that …?” Difficult to say these days. With a few exceptions. There was a time once when each make of car had its own unique look. And there were (and still are) a number of faces in the crowd that stood out from all the rest – not least because of the design and arrangement of their headlights. Our mini-series will take a subjective look at some of the most spectacular designs and some of the weirdest, some long forgotten and some that are still on the roads today. Today we are taking a look at the weird and wonderful VW Passat B3 which originally appeared not to have a radiator grill.
There are beautiful cars, and there are practical cars; economical cars and luxurious cars. As long as various needs have to be combined with different tastes, there’ll always be cars that people laugh at – or complain about. Sometimes right after they appear, or sometimes only decades later. When the new VW Passat was introduced to the public in 1988, everyone was a bit surprised. Not only did the transversely mounted engine offer a huge amount of space inside, even by today’s standards, but it also no longer required a very long hood. So the hood slanted downward at quite an angle and ended in … no radiator grill. Designers at VW in Wolfsburg were bold and adopted the bottom breather approach, banishing the grill to sit below the bumper where enough air could still be sucked in to cool the engine. It looked funny; simple but funny somehow. OK, let’s agree on “unusual”.
People didn’t like change so it quickly attracted the nickname “Nasenbär” – the German word for the long-nosed coati. Only few people probably remembered that the VW 411 was also given that name in the late 60s. Today, there aren’t that many Passats of this series left. They weren’t susceptible to rust, had robust engines – and very economical ones at that in the TDI version – the replacement parts are still dead cheap and the interior space is fantastic. But they were workhorses, unemotional and unexciting. Only few people hold on to something like that, especially if the value is below €500 even for well-maintained ones. But then most of us undoubtedly still remember the feeling of this beast closing in when you looked in your rear-view mirror. Overtaking was another one of its fortes, with the engine delivering as much as 136 horsepower.
Depending on the year of manufacture and the trim, the front was flanked by an H7/H1 combination or an H7/H4 combination; some versions even had D2S xenons supported by H7 high beam. That’s also still pretty modern. Five years after its introduction, the successful model was significantly redesigned, and the B4 marked the return of the radiator grill. In the very first B3 35i from Benedikt Radecker shown here, everything is still as it was conceived by the designers and built at the factory in Emden. Almost 30 years on it looks as tidy as a Bauhaus design, and it no longer polarizes opinion. That makes us pause, think and enjoy it. Are we getting more forgiving as we get older? Or does real automobile perfection only appear a lot later? That’s for you to decide.