“The Polo: is that a fibreglass-based experiment that went very badly wrong?” This was the question posed by Antonio having viewed the photo gallery on The Cars of Roscoff and Morlaix. He was referring to the Volkswagen Polo Transfer and, truth be told, PetrolBlog knew absolutely nothing about it.
Naturally PB had to find out more. Well, there’s never anything decent on television.
Some light Googling revealed that the Volkswagen Polo Transfer was the creation of Gruau – company based in northern France, around 50 miles west of Le Mans. Given the Polo Transfer in question was found in Morlaix, it hadn’t ventured too far from its place of origin.
Keen to find out more, PetrolBlog got in touch with Gruau, which, despite being a company turning over close to €200m and employing 1,100 employees, found the time to provide some information.
It turns out the Volkswagen Polo Transfer represents just a tiny slice of the company’s 126-year history. Today, the firm is involved with the creation of ambulances, electric vehicles, funeral cars, refrigerated trucks and disabled access cars. Gruau’s list of partners reads like a who’s-who of automotive brands. But none of its creations are as cool as the Volkswagen Polo Transfer.
In late 1986, Gruau approached VAG France about the prospect of creating a light commercial vehicle out of the second generation Volkswagen Polo. The plan was to build a van to rival the Citroën C15 and Renault Express, which was to be modelled on the Peugeot 205 Multi and Ford Fiesta Cube – two of Gruau’s previous creations.
The negotiations were a closely guarded secret and the eventual deal represented a significant coup for the French company and the local community. It is said that the contract secured an investment of two million francs and the building of a new factory in Mayenne specifically for the Volkswagen Polo Transfer. The initial plan was to build a total of 1,000 vans at a rate of 30 per month.
In the first instance, Gruau’s stylists presented Volkswagen with a foam model of the Polo Transfer, which was subsequently followed by a three-quarter size model to give the Germans an idea of the lines. With VW’s approval, Gruau pressed on with a prototype, but a fire destroyed the car with which the mould was to be created. This delayed the delivery of the prototype by two weeks.
Undeterred, the project team continued with the van’s development and made good progress. Indeed, it was thanks to the firm’s experience with the Peugeot 205 Multi, that it took a mere eight weeks to progress from original drawing to the delivery of a prototype. Needless to say, the bosses at VAG were suitably impressed and the project was given the green light.
Two engines were available: a petrol and a diesel, both of which offered a modest 45hp. The Polo Transfer was designed for light commercial use and its 400kg payload meant it was ideal for small business, such as bakeries, florists and local couriers. All Transfers were finished in white with the distinctive two-tone blue decals running down the side. It’s interesting to note that the one spotted in Morlaix sported windows on the side, suggesting some kind of bijou camper conversion.
The Polo Transfer was by far and away the best looking of the three Gruau vans, almost as if Volkswagen had designed and built it in Wolfsburg. That said, the huge glass tailgate does give it the feel of a Popemobile. Not that this detracts from what is a classic 1980s van and one PetrolBlog didn’t know existed until earlier this year. If ever PB needs a support vehicle, the Polo Transfer will be high on the list of potential purchases.
The photos provided by Gruau provide a fascinating insight into the build process and a look behind the scenes at the Mayenne factory. It’s especially good to see the line-up of vans receiving their final inspection prior to be loaded on to the train and delivered to customers across Europe. To think this took place nearly three decades ago.
Many thanks to Gruau for supplying the photos and helping to ensure the history of this German supermini turned French supervan stays alive. If you happen to own a Volkswagen Polo Transfer, do get in touch. PetrolBlog would love to hear some stories of the van in commercial use. Merci beaucoup and bon voyage, Marlene.
All images © Groupe Gruau.