If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking the beautiful slice of 1970s sports car design you see above is from some low volume Italian manufacturer, but actually it’s a Volkswagen that was sold exclusively in Brazil.
To make sense of the Volkswagen SP2, you need to understand how it came to be. In the 1970s, Brazil was closed to imported cars. To get around this, VW had a Brazilian subsidiary that could build cars in the country to sell, including the Karmann Ghia - also painfully pretty, by the way - right up until it was retired. When a slightly hotter replacement went on sale in Europe, the Brazilians noticed it wasn’t selling well, and in their wisdom, decided to build their own version. The Karmann Ghia TC was born. It’s considered a failure now, but it demonstrates that Volkswagen do Brasil was allowed a certain level of independence from its German bosses.
In 1969, the Brazilian arm of VW decided it wanted to work on something completely different to what could be bought elsewhere, and with permission from Wolfsburg, ‘Project X’ was born. The idea was to signal the company’s independence from Europe, but building a car from the ground up is damn expensive, so the new sports car had to be based on something the company already sold in Brazil.
The SP2 was therefore built on the frame of the Volkswagen Type III, though it shared a little too much with that compact car to be considered truly sporty. For example, it had the same air-cooled engine - though it was bored out to 1.7-litres - producing a feeble 75bhp. The flat-four engine earned the nickname ‘pancake’ due to the fact it was so low, while the car earned the less affectionate nickname of ‘Sem Potência’, which means ‘without power’ in Portuguese. The name was fully warranted; at the time its 0-60mph was recorded in the region of 16 seconds - proof that even if a car is lightweight, it still needs some power.
Volkswagen claims that the car was essentially brought to fruition by just six men and one woman. The solitary female member of the team was Helga Leiding, the wife of Rudolf Leiding, VW Brazil’s then CEO and future boss of VW. She was drafted in to cast her eye over the design and features of the SP2, since her husband wanted the car to appeal to women - in a later interview, he said he had built the car just for her - “for you and all the other ladies.”
Unfortunately, when Leiding moved to Germany to take over VW, he didn’t bring the SP2 to market with him - the car didn’t fit in with the company’s new front-wheel drive, water-cooled direction, and required too many modifications to be sold in other markets compared to Europe’s Scirocco.
Very few SP2s survive today, partly because they were rarely exported to other markets, but also because they suffered a great deal from rust. It’s a shame, because despite its wheezy powerplant, the SP2 is arguably the prettiest Volkswagen ever made.