Whatever happened to the Volkswagen K70?

Whatever happened to? General Bunk Volkswagen
Designed and developed by NSU, the Volkswagen K70 represented a turning point in the history of VW, but today it is all but forgotten. Which is a shame.

In an era of air-cooled, rear-wheel-drive and rear-engined VWs, the Volkswagen K70 stood out like a straight-edged imposter.

Here was a car, launched in 1970, that neither looked like a Volkswagen, sounded like a Volkswagen or even drove like a Volkswagen. But it wore a VW badge, so it must have been a Volkswagen, right?

Wrong, because the K70 was developed entirely by NSU and designed to sit alongside the Ro80 in NSU showrooms. When NSU Motorenwerke started work on the car in the late 60s, it was destined to be powered by a rotary engine, and as such, it would have worn an Ro70 badge.

But when NSU discovered that rotary engines were a passport to ruin, a more conventional 1605cc piston engine was chosen for the four-door saloon, and the design code was changed to K70. That’s ‘K’ for Kolben (German for piston), as opposed to ‘Ro’ for Rotary.

Even without the rotary engine, the K70 remained technically advanced, featuring front-wheel-drive at a time when rear-wheel-drive was king, all-independent suspension, front disc brakes and advanced crash protection.

A lot was resting on the shoulders of this pretty if unassuming saloon car. It would slot between the Prinz and the troublesome but brilliant Ro80 in the NSU range and was to be the car to see the firm through the 1970s.

Back to front

Volkswagen K70 NSU

Only it wouldn’t, at least not with an NSU badge. On the eve of the 1969 Geneva Motor Show, Volkswagen completed a takeover of its German rival, leaving the K70 stuck between a slab and a tough place.

For VW, the K70 looked as out of place as a vegan in a KFC. Only a year earlier, Volkswagen had launched the 411 saloon, which looked and sounded every inch a product of Wolfsburg, but the K70 was too far advanced, and too good an opportunity, to leave on the shelf.

Volkswagen had become hamstrung by its air-cooled and rear-engined past and was ill-equipped to embrace a front-wheel-drive future. It was a win-win situation – VW had the 411 for the purists and the K70 for a new breed of owners. 'Ihre Wetten absichern,' as they might say in Germany, if Google Translate is to be trusted.

The finished Volkswagen K70 arrived in July 1970, with production moved from NSU’s Neckarsulm plant to a new factory at Salzgitter in anticipation of strong demand for the NSU in a VW suit.

Aside from the Volkswagen badge on the grille, very little had changed from the model unceremoniously removed from the Geneva Motor Show the previous year. It’s a testament to the NSU engineers that VW felt confident enough to sell it was one of its own without making any significant alterations.

This was a confusing period for Volkswagen, with the company caught between its air-cooled past and the Giugiaro-penned and water-cooled future of the mid- to late-70s. One brochure would be extolling the virtues of one layout (the 411), while another would be showcasing the other (the K70).

Contemporary reviews were mostly positive, with road testers praising the interior packaging, boot space and overall quality. But the K70 was criticised for its lack of outright performance, heavy steering, suspect dynamics and price. A 1800cc engine added later went some way to answering some of these concerns.

Death by Passat

Frankly, it was a sales disaster. In its five years of production, the Volkswagen K70 could muster just 211,100 sales, while the 411/412 achieved over 355,000 in only four years. The air-cooled purists hated it and the broader market didn’t see enough in the K70 not to buy an Audi 100, Opel Rekord or one of its other rivals.

In the UK, kids would grow up pushing a model K70 across the living room carpet with little clue as to what it was. Unless they turned to their copy of Observer's Automobiles, of course.

Ultimately, it was put to sleep by an enemy from within, with the Giugiaro-designed Passat of 1973 holding more universal appeal and strong Audi underpinnings. That the Passat was less interesting and less sophisticated is largely irrelevant, because while the Passat lives on today, the K70 is all but forgotten.

Which is a shame, because, as the first front-engined and water-cooled VW, the K70 represents a turning point in the history of Volkswagen and a bridge between its past and the future.

And while the European Car of the Year award isn’t necessarily a beacon of greatness, the Volkswagen K70 finished second to the brilliant Citroën GS in 1971, which suggests NSU had something rather special on its hands.

Which perhaps brings this article to a fitting conclusion and one inevitable question. Had NSU been able to resist the takeover by Volkswagen and dragged itself into the 1970s with the K70 as its own product, could the future have been different?

There’s little doubt that the K70 stood at the forefront of the shift towards front-wheel-drive vehicles in the 1970s. It also shares something in common with the Peugeot 309, in that it was developed by one company and wore the clothes of another.

NSU or Volkswagen – the K70 is a fascinating but cruelly overlooked saloon. It could even be the most PetrolBloggy car ever to wear a Volkswagen badge. Discuss…