Automakers and design studios were fascinated in the 1960s and early ‘70s with the performance potential for low-slung and wedge-shaped vehicles. Among them were the C-111 series by Mercedes-Benz, the Modulo by Pininfarina, Italdesign’s Maserati-based Boomerang, the Bertone-designed Lancia Stratos, Ferrari’s 512S and, at the start of the 1980s, the ARVW.
ARVW was short for Aerodynamic Research Volkswagen, a vehicle VW is celebrating 40 years later, noting that the single-seater “remains the most aerodynamic vehicle ever built with a VW badge.”
“Sparked by the oil crises of the 1970s, the ARVW was meant to demonstrate how aerodynamics and lightweight vehicle construction could generate massive speeds from everyday power,” VW reports.
“The first challenge was squeezing a driver, powertrain and four wheels into a body that could have the smallest profile possible. At just 33 inches tall and 43.3 inches wide, the ARVW’s shape was maximized at every turn for aerodynamic smoothness, from its hidden wheels and smooth underbody to moveable fins that helped keep it stable at high speeds.
The car was built on an aluminum frame with a body of fiberglass and carbon fiber. The engine was a turbocharged 2.4-liter inline-6 good for 177 horsepower and was mounted behind the driver. The rear wheels were turned by a chain drive system.
The projectile had a front-mounted radiator, but rather than cutting cooling vents in the bodywork, an onboard tank injected water into the turbo intake.
The resulting coefficient of drag was a tidy 0.15.
In October 1980, VW took the car to Italy’s Nardo test track. Within an hour the car hit 221 mph and reached 225 before the test ended, setting a pair of world speed records in the process.
Decades later, VW adds, “The shape of the ARVW would later find an echo in the radical European-only XL1,” VW’s Europe-only 300 mpg 2-seater, and also laid groundwork for the design of the company’s upcoming ID electric-vehicle family.