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Learning Engineering from History: Volkswagen’s ARVW


The decade of 1970s is infamously remembered for the oil shortage that rocked the United States and a great part of Europe. The embargo and limitations on oil production were becoming a difficult challenge to cope up with, as the international energy crisis started jolting economies.


As always, scarcity drove innovations, and in this case Volkswagen rose up to the challenge. The automobile giant believed the scarcity was indicative of future challenges which would drive customer demands. They identified aerodynamics as an effective way of creating fuel-efficient cars and kickstarted the Aerodynamic Research Volkswagen, abbreviated as ARVW. The agenda was crystal clear, the German brand was not looking towards a people-pleaser product, a treat for the eyes that walked past it, or delight for the hands that steered it, nothing of that sort. The ARVW was a research-oriented prototype built during the Eighties as a response to the oil shortages that preceded it and a generous gesture to the generations of automobile creativity that followed.


The principle of aerodynamics is fairly simple, the lesser drag (fluid friction) that an object experiences while moving in a fluid, the more energy-efficient it will be. However, there goes an enormous amount of rigorous research to determine the exact size, weight ratios, etc. to attain a benefitting aerodynamic design for any automobile. There was little flamboyance in the figures that the ARVW housed. A 2.4L turbocharged engine, an inline-six churning out a whopping 177 HP, nastily from right behind the driver’s seat. It was a daunting task to get behind the wheels of this one, or should we say to tuck oneself in the tiny space, miserly offered.


Volkswagen’s signature product stood just 33 inches tall, and 43.3 inches wide. The ARVW’s body was an all aluminium frame (would probably be made with Magnesium alloys today), under the fibreglass and carbon body. The constructive design makes even the wheels latent. A car made to break through the breeze couldn’t be risked to toppling when hitting peak speed figures, hence there were a pair of winglets sticking out from the front end and two big fins out back.


A straight look from afar, and you might mistake it for a parked flying car. The team of engineers under whose leadership the ARVW came to life were very cautious about their project. The turbocharger’s intake received water from a tank onboard and there were multiple cooling vents for the engine, the primary vent being planted right in the nose to allow the airflow over the radiator.


Volkswagen accomplished a bizarre venture with the ARVW by limiting the drag coefficient to a minimum of 0.15, hitting the rock bottom was never more satisfying. To enlighten you with the magnanimity of the ARVW, the present-day Tesla Model 3 boasts of a 0.22 drag coefficient.


Formula One driver Keke Rosberg had the honour of testing Volkswagen’s speedster at the Nardo tracks in Italy, and ended up setting the record for the fastest diesel car at 225 mph — and eight class records before.


The legend never made it to a serious production process, but the limited edition XL1 introduced in 2013, carries the genes from the 1980 ARVW.


The fuel efficiency challenges that was once started by the ARVW team has now become a mainstream effort of the automotive industry. The industry is looking at aerodynamics and light-weight way more seriously with exploring new age materials like Magnesium Alloys, Carbon Fibre and Composite Materials. We as a company look for innovators like the original team of the ARVW, who are the champions of innovation. We help such team capitalize on the power of new-age materials to make their products significantly superior in both performance and cost. Feel free to schedule a Call Back from our Materials expert today.


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