I usually get roasted and teased for admitting this out loud (after quietly ignoring how I’m 10-15 years younger than everybody I know), but I grew up in the 2000s. The nostalgia of the ‘80s and ‘90s don’t apply to me in the same way it does for y’all elder millennials. However, the ‘00s are a special time when modernity coexisted with something bordering on super pop. The concept cars of the era, like the 1997 Volkswagen W12 Syncro concept that evolved into the 2001 W12 Nardo Concept, tell the entire story.
The VW is the one I remember best thanks to its prominent features in several racing video games of the era. Project Gotham Racing 3 was my gateway drug to the strange concept VW that looked nothing like the ones I was used to, like my aunt’s Mk2 GTI. It’s also strange because it isn’t quite a useless concept car, nor is it a production car.
In fact, VW set a speed record at the Nardo test track in Italy with this car. Instead of just outright top speed or acceleration, the W12 Nardo braved the Italian night, shod with BBS LMs and a matte black paint job, to do 200.6 mph over 24 hours. Twice. It was more of a fully functioning prototype/engineering mule for the W12 engine than a concept car, and it looked appropriately motorsport-inspired in its record outfit.
The engine and driveline were the entire point of the car, or so it seemed. Feared and famous auto executive Ferdinand Piëch commissioned the car to be built with a Giorgetto Giugiaro body and two requirements: It must be W12-powered and must have VW’s Syncro four-wheel-drive system. It’s possible that the car was never destined for production and was always going to be a demonstrator mule, though I can’t quite confirm it.
The car runs and drives, which is not common for most concepts. I even stumbled across a video of it starting up and driving away from a display, and it looks mostly complete, if a little rough. It certainly screams prototype, but it has strange touches of completion like a gauge cluster and some upholstery. At the time, it was a radical concept, especially because of the W12.
We take the W12 for granted these days, but in 1997, there was no such thing as a working W12 engine. There was that weird attempt by the minnow Formula One team Life Racing Engines (which is a terrible name) to make a W12 racing engine in 1990. It failed horribly but used a different concept to what VW ended up using. Instead of Life using three banks of four cylinders, it took its existing VR6 engine and doubled it into two banks.
The casting of the Syncro’s W12 reflects this. It’s hard to make out but it looks like “WR 12” is stamped into the valley of the V – sorry, W. Nobody could make this engine concept work until Volkswagen, thanks to Piëch’s insistent and legendary style of demanding engineering. Since this car, we’ve gotten used to seeing the W12 in Bentleys and larger Volkswagens, all thanks to the development work done with the W12 Syncro.
It is a large strange engine made up of two smaller strange engines. The VR6 is not the conventional straight-six where all cylinders are in a line, nor is it a true V6 where six cylinders are split into two banks of three cylinders, typically in a 60 or 90-degree configuration. The VR6 was an extremely narrow-angle V6 at 15-degrees and shared a common cylinder head. The best way I can describe it is if you took a straight-six and squeezed it a bit so the cylinders would slightly overlap each other.
It made producing the engine relatively easy because it seems to use slightly modified VR6 cylinder heads, complete with the strange staggered intake and exhaust ports and valve angles. It also means that it is an incredibly short 12-cylinder engine. A VR6 takes up a little bit more space than an inline-four and the overall length of the W12 is similar.
Even with this ready-made sports car that broke records, VW ultimately never put it into production. Like the later W12-powered Phaeton, perhaps it challenged what a Volkswagen could be a little too much. Or, the more likely scenario, there was no business case to produce the car.
Volkswagen hasn’t tried another stunt like this before or since, so this car remains special and strange. One may say it was the Veyron before the Veyron existed, but I think this was the people’s sports car that could have never existed.
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