This is being written because I've been asked so many times about the Volkswagen emissions software scandal that it seems a good moment to organize my notes. The story in question is the recent revelation that VW and Audi (and now, it turns out, Porsche) had installed software in some vehicles with sensors which allowed the emission controls to operate only when the engine was under test, and which shut off controls under normal driving conditions. The result was that VW-Audi's turbo diesel engines, advertised for their power and efficiency, were allowed to emit up to 40 times the pollutants under use as permitted by EPA regulations. We might have expected something along these lines, I thought, around the time a class action suit cited the divergence between EPA mileage ratings and actual mileage in use…the first suit affected only Hondas, but the mileage discrepancies, which were explained by auto makers as a function of inadequately designed tests, were seen across a wide variety of makes. (Of course, the VW scandal is not about the design of EPA tests, but about software designed by VW to cheat on tests). And we certainly should have expected something like this when VW told us all about Soundaktor. Soundaktor is the software that pipes enhanced engine noise through your speakers when you nail the accelerator in your VW GTI or Beetle Turbo. The software allows you to dream for a moment you're driving a Porsche Carrera GT at LeMans, and you can hear the engine's song over Garth Brooks or Beyoncé (or even Wagner's Twilight of the Gods) without touching the volume control. Similar systems featuring enhanced (or pre-recorded or even completely synthesized) engine drama are in use at Ford, Lexus, Audi, BMW and even Porsche. VW defends their system by noting that they only amplify "real" engine sound, unlike some of their competitors, who offer a completely fake experience. Perhaps consumers should have become suspicious when minivans began sounding like Formula 1 Ferraris when speeding down expressway on-ramps. At this moment, however, it might be helpful to review how Volkswagen came into the world in the first place...
Have a close look at the little blue car pictured above. It looks a bit like one of those die-cast scale models of the original VW Beetle, doesn't it? But it's a real car, a Czech Tatra V570 prototype from 1933, five years before the first production Beetle turned a wheel. When Hitler launched the People's Car project, he presented it to the public as a subscription program. You'd make monthly payments into a KDF account (that's for Kraft Durch Freude or Strength Through Joy, by the way) and eventually, when your account was paid up, you'd have your shiny Beetle to drive on the new autobahn, the first completed section of which would soon extend to the Polish border. Possibly in anticipation of a surge of joyful motorists clamoring to visit Poland, the Nazi government urged engineer Ferdinand Porsche to come up with production-ready prototypes for public display. He short-circuited the process by generously cribbing ideas from rival Tatra engineer Hans Ledwinka. Among the features of Tatra's V570 are a rear mounted, horizontally opposed, air cooled engine*, with an independent rear suspension of the swing axle type. Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it?
It certainly looked familiar to Hans Ledwinka when he saw the first VW. Tatra sued Porsche for patent infringement. Porsche shrugged and admitted he had "looked over Ledwinka's shoulder," and suggested paying off the claim. Hitler said that he would settle the problem in his own way. This involved invading Czechoslovakia, a program which offered the added benefit of taking over the Tatra truck factory and Skoda tank works for the planned war effort. In taking over Tatra, the Germans discontinued production of the new Tatra T97, which also featured a rear-mounted flat four, but larger and more powerful than the Bug. Only just over 500 of the T97 (red car below) made it onto Europe's highways, along with something like 240 of the glorious air-cooled magnesium ohv V8 Type 77 which came before it. The successor V8 Type 87, another Car of the Future ("Zukunft") featuring Deco teardrop dorsal fin styling like something out of Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons, was made in over 2,000 copies owing to popularity with wartime German overlords as well as postwar Russian ones. It made it into the 1950s before being replaced by the Tatraplan; Czech for airplane is "eroplan." Only 650 civilian VW Beetles were delivered between 1938 and war's end in 1945, and these were reserved for Nazi party officials. The VW factory, using about 12,000 slave laborers, did somehow manage to produce 65,000 military vehicles during the same period. A real civilian offering of the People's Car would await Allied takeover of the VW plant in 1945; the Allies also instituted the novel practice of paying assembly line workers for their labor. And what happened to Tatra's lawsuit against VW and Ferdinand Porsche? Volkswagen AG paid Tatra one million deutschmarks in 1965. At that point, several million VW Beetles had been manufactured. It would end up being the world's longest-lived production car design, with over 21,500,000 cars delivered when production finally ended in Latin America in 2003.
*Correction: Our first posting credited the 570 with a rear-mounted air-cooled four. The rear-engine prototype was called the V570, and featured an air-cooled opposed twin. The air-cooled opposed four went into production as the T97, and an air-cooled opposed four was also featured in the postwar Tatraplan.
Top: 1933 Tatra 570 (Wikimedia)
2nd: Tatra Type 77, 1934-35 (Tatra)
3rd: Tatra Type 97, 1936-39 (tatra.register.co.uk)
4th: Tatra Type 87, 1936-50. 1941 shown (road&track.com)
5th: Tatra T87, 1950 version (hemmings.com)