The story of the Volkswagen Nardo W12 - VW's pre-Veyron supercar

This is the story of a concept that helped VW build the Bugatti Veyron, and create their now famous W-engine.

2y ago

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It’s not like the Volkswagen Group as a whole isn’t experienced when it comes to producing supercars. What with Porsche, Lamborghini, Audi, Bentley, and the might of Bugatti all a part of VW, they have more than proven their worth when it comes to creating a performance car. The thing is however, out of every single supercar that can be linked to Volkswagen, not one of them has ever actually worn the Volkswagen badge. Except that is for just one lonely concept...

The Nardo W12: a car that was initially designed to test a new type of engine that eventually ended up breaking records. Under no circumstances did it conform to the traditional concept car cliche of being purely for show. This was a concept that worked in the same mechanical capacity as any production car. Yet its whole purpose and reason for being led to the creation of something much greater than itself. This is story behind a concept that the world is forever indebted to.

While the Nardo is the most famous of Volkswagen’s supercar concepts, there came 2 critical stages in its evolution before it - the first of which was born in 1997. The story starts when Ferdinand Piech requested the design of a Volkswagen supercar from Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Italdesign team. While Volkswagen were busy preparing the mechanicals, Italdesign were entrusted with sketching a body and creating a monocoque chassis that could house Volkswagen’s rather unique internals.

The parameters for the design were that it must accommodate VW’s Syncro 4WD system, and that the engine compartment must reside in the middle. While nothing particularly unique can be found analysing those requests, it was upon learning exactly what type of engine would be sitting in the middle that the challenge became clear. For Volkswagen wanted Giugiaro’s design to integrate an engine consisting of 12-cylinders arranged in a W-configuration. No car had ever utilised a working W-engine before this.

Notice the critical word in the sentence “working”? For back in 1991, the VW group launched the Audi Avus Quattro concept which housed in its middle a wooden model of a W12 engine. Quite poignantly, this wooden mock-up planted the seed to the future of W-engines.

It’s often said that the layout of a W engine consists of two V-engines positioned side-by-side sharing a crank. While that is half true, it omits to inform people that the two V-engines are actually VR-engines. A VR-engine is essentially a V-engine that’s had the angle between the pistons narrowed to the point where the cylinders share a compact block, distinctly showing the offset of the pistons. It’s purely a packaging solution, which was the very motivation behind Volkswagen pursuing the W-engine layout in the first place.

For the 1997 car - that would go on to be called the Volkswagen W12 Syncro after its 4-wheel-drive system - the two engines that would be joined at the crank were a pair of 2.8L normally aspirated VR6s. Combined, they’d make a 5.6L NA W12, sending 414bhp to all 4 wheels via a sequential gearbox. Unveiled at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, it debuted to the world a working W-engine for the first time in a car. While its concept nature was made clear, it still garnered much excitement for what it could potentially bring to production cars.

A few months later at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show, Volkswagen revealed a Roadster version of the W12. Beyond its lack of a roof, the only other difference was that the W12 sent its power to the rear wheels alone. While this concept may’ve kept media attention on the W-engine - as did the W16-engined Bentley Hunaudieres concept, and W18-engined Bugatti Chiron concept that were revealed a year later - the main event in the saga of the Volkswagen W12 concept was still to come.

At the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, in the same place the original W12 Syncro had been unveiled 4 years prior, Volkswagen threw the covers off what we now refer to as the Nardo W12. While it still had a face akin to an infant gazing up at all its futile hopes and dreams, more aggression was added in the form of additional vents. The sharper exterior reflected proportionally to the extra oomph that had been injected into the car, for the 5.6L engine had seen its displacement increase to 6 litres. This, along with a number of other modifications, resulted in the power shooting up from 414bhp to 591!!

Just like the Roadster, power was sent to the rear wheels alone, but unlike either of its predecessors, a 6-speed manual gearbox featured in place of a sequential. Weighing in at just 2646lbs (1200kg), the 600 horsepower 6L normally aspirated W12 was enough to get it from 0-60mph in just 3.5 seconds! Impressive as that is, its main performance credentials would be proven at the very test track that the car is named after.

On the 23rd of February 2002, just a few months after its official unveiling in Tokyo, Volkswagen sent their W12 supercar around the 7.8 mile Nardo bowl in Italy for a run that would see it enter the record books. For what they did was assemble a team of racing drivers who would take it in turns to drive flat out for a total period of 24 hours. In that time, the W12 covered a total distance of 4909.8 miles - further than any other car had managed to travel in the same time before.

During the run, the W12 averaged 200.6mph and maxed out at 222mph! Along the way, it also broke 6 other world records for various speed classes. It was these achievements that resulted in the car gaining its now familiar Nardo moniker.

As a concept car, from the original 1997 Syncro to the 2001 Nardo, the W12 provided a number of exceptionally important services. For a start, it helped Volkswagen establish a new type of engine - the architecture for which went on to be utilised in Bentleys, VW’s Touareg, Phaeton, and Passat, the Audi A8, and most notably the Bugatti Veyron. Due to how they were treading in uncharted road-car territory, it was imperative that the W-engine had bulletproof reliability - which the concepts helped establish. And finally, the W12 was supposed to prove that Volkswagen were capable of making a supercar - which would be useful if people were to have faith in the world’s first thousand-horsepower road car.

When you think about all the thousands of Bentleys that have been produced with the W12 engine, how successful they’ve proven, and how reliable they’ve shown themselves to be, it really puts it into perspective how important the Nardo was. While some may feel Bentley’s association with narcissistic clientele is a reason to choke effigies of the W12 in diesel emissions, I see it as having a profound beneficent impact on the motoring world.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

Twitter: @AngeloUccello

Tribe: Speed Machines

Facebook: Speed Machines - DriveTribe

Photo credits: Volkswagen

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Comments (11)

  • The nardo was a beauty. I remember seeing it and hearing rumours of a VW supercar to see production. Too bad it never happened.

      2 years ago
  • Of the Syncro, Roadster and Nardò, the Nardò is the best in my opinion, with the slightly revised rear end with those quad-circular tail lights. And that orange is probably one of the most vivid paint schemes ever applied to a car. Think I still have a 1:18 scale model of one somewhere...

      2 years ago
  • That exact record car has a special corner in VWs museum in Wolfsburg (or at least had some 5 years ago). I had the pleasure of standing next to it. And what a nice machine it is. Surprisingly small. And pretty simple. Or, let's just say, focussed. Too bad they stopped putting the engine in the Passat. That seriously was the sleeper car of the century!

      2 years ago
  • How could I have not heard of this??????

      2 years ago
    • My brother and I each had a Matchbox version - that's how I knew about it.

        2 years ago
    • I didn’t know there where matchbox concept cars, I do now🙂

        2 years ago
  • Most impressive.

      2 years ago

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