Volkswagen Passat B2

Germans have a funny habit of taking things over. I'm not quite sure what propels them to do it, but there must be some inward drive that forces them to interfere, to meddle. Yes, their way of doing things is probably more efficient than yours, it'll be the most reasonable, the most logical way of achieving a Solution, sorry, solution, but it'll be so pragmatic that it won't be enjoyable. Like when playing the board game Monopoly, Germany is the father who insists all fines go to the bank, rather than to Free Parking. It's what the rules say, but it's just no fun.

When it comes to playing monopoly, Volkswagen are pretty good. Having earned a fortune with their childish Beetle, they aquired Auto Union and NSU, and by the Seventies the mighty conglomerate were just cottoning on to the idea that air-cooled engines just weren't that cool at all, especially not when it comes to big family cars. They'd aquired NSU's big family car, the K70, and were building that alongside their own air-cooled monster, the VW Type 4. But the public just weren't buying them. They weren't really playing with the Audi F103 either; in fact, despite having factories all over Germany making big saloons, the public were just uninterested in the toys Volkswagen were making. People needed something practical, serious, functional, reliable; they wanted four cylinders up front, four gears on the floor, four wheels and four doors. Nothing more.

Volkswagen took notice, and all the silly Sixties eccentricities like air-cooled, two-stroked and rear-mounted engines were out the window. In their place, VW developed Platforms, a production technique where the fundamental mechanicals and chassis of a vehicle remain the same, while the outer skin can be warped and shaped into two distinct products, in this case the Audi 80 and the Volkswagen Passat.

Leap forward to the beginning of the Eighties, and you'd be amazed at how much VAG, the newly-named Volkswagen Audi Group, has advanced. From pottering post-war rotters they'd built a powerhouse of sharp-lined city slickers (the Golf and Jetta), superb sportsters (the Scirocco and Audi Quattro) and their big Audi 100 saloon was popular with the monied classes. Even the Audi 80 was selling admirably. But something was up with the platform-sharing Passat B1; where the Audi had sporty GT trim options, the Passat was a slug, crippled by 1.3 and 1.5 engine options that struggled to propel the heavy beast up to autobahn speeds. Where the market had previously demanded prudence, Volkswagen had pushed that to levels of parsimony, and Passat sales suffered for it.

So, when the B2 platform was announced, and the Audi 80 was logically upgraded to more modern engines and suspension and brakes, the remarkable decision was taken to do the same with the Passat. Even though Audi had a Sedan, a Coupe and an Estate, sorry, sorry, Avant, in their range, someone somewhere figured it made sense to duplicate all of that and give it the Passat name. Which leads us to this motley selection of B2 Passats dotted around Warsaw; used, abused and unloved.

The thinking behind this manufacturing masterstroke was that Volkswagen didn't want to jeopardise Audi's reputation as a luxury brand, which is why the Audi B2 Avant never made it onto the production line. The market need for a family saloon with a big box wedged on the back fell instead on the shoulders of the B2 Passat, which became known as the Passat Variant, and is the most popular of all the old Passats still rattling around. Released onto an unsuspecting world in 1981, it quickly fell to the bottom of the VAG stable, surpassed in almost every aspect by its siblings.

The Coupe version, for example, was incomprehensible. With the Golf, Scirocco and Audi Coupe swamping the market, where on earth was the rationale behind selling an outmoded curvy "fastback"? And the Passat was anything but fast; even the tiny 1.6 diesel engine from the Golf found its way under the bonnet, and that feeble 54hp took 22seconds to get the car to 60mp/h. Fortunately, Volkswagen realised just what a ridiculous model the Passat Coupe was, and withdrew it in 1985.

But the Sedans and Variants marched onwards, achieving a global presence, if not dominance, under the names Quantum, Santana, Carat and Corsar. Their bog-standard trim, frugal fuel consumption and unassuming presence earned them a place with price-conscious consumers in developing countries like Brazil and China, where they are still in production today. In Europe, thankfully, the entire B2 platform was shelved in 1988 and the old Passat quickly and quietly swept under the carpet or, in these cases, behind the Curtain.

Maybe I'm a bit harsh on these old wagons. They were practical rather than pretty, and their function for many low-end consumers was unquestionable. But you need to have some fun if you want to have function; the Audi and VW might be playing on the same board, but they're definitely playing by different rules.