When the T3 Transporter Syncro appeared in early 1985, it was hailed as a pioneering off-road Volkswagen. In reality though, Wolfsburg had been dabbling with 4WD for over 40 years before its appearance…

Despite what other specialist VW titles said at the time, the third generation Transporter T3 – or T25, depending on your terminology preference – wasn’t the first 4WD example of the marque when its Syncro variant was launched at the Brussels Commercial Vehicle Show in January 1985. Not by a long shot. In terms of 1980s’ machines, the Passat Syncro had beaten the T3 to showrooms by a few months, being launched in October 1984. But well, well before that, VW had been flirting with 4WD since WW2. During that conflict, it had come up with Kübelwagens, Schwimmwagens and Kommandeurwagens with the ability to drive with all wheels. Then during the 1970s, it developed the Iltis for military service (although a civilian version was available in Germany), which in turn led onto the highly successful Audi Quattro. So, by the time the T3 Syncro came along, VW had been experimenting with true off-roading for quite a while.

Nevertheless, the T3 Syncro was a pretty significant vehicle for Volkswagen. It did give the Transporter concept even more flexibility, and the ability to go to places that would have defeated even the notably versatile 2WD versions. It appeared at a time when many manufacturers were beginning to experiment with the format and, in truth, Wolfsburg was fairly late to the game when it finally got properly involved in the civilian side of things.

However, had things worked out differently during the previous decade, Volkswagen could have been well ahead of the game instead. For before the T3 Syncro there was the T2 ‘Allroad’, a 4×4 variant of the previous generation Transporter. That nearly made it into production a decade earlier and probably provided inspiration for the Syncro project.

Mayer and Duckstein, engineers

We have Volkswagen engineers Gustav Mayer and Henning Duckstein to thank for the Allroad nearly becoming reality, and 1975-1982 company boss Toni Schmücker to be somewhat miffed at that it never received the green light. Mayer was the head of engineering at VW’s Commercial Vehicles Division, which also employed Duckstein. And being in charge seemed far more than just a job for Mayer, who would ultimately work for VW for 33 years, earning himself the nickname of ‘Transporter Mayer’ in the process. He owned Type 2s himself and travelled with them all over the world, believing that “There’s a difference in being informed about driving trials or feeling everything yourself.”

One of the things that his feelings rather than testing told him was that there were times when a bit more height and traction would have been of benefit. Rear-engined Volkswagens were always pretty good at the rough stuff and in snow because the weight of the engine over the rear wheels improved adhesion. But if that back axle does get bogged down, then it generally is game over, with the front wheels unable to help. So Mayer started talking to his colleague and friend Henning about how a 4WD system could be made to work. At this point (January 1975), it should be noted, the project was completely unofficial, even covert – just as would happen a few years later with Audi’s early Quattro experiments, which initially took place away from the gaze and reach of management.

The pair used their own time and whatever parts they could find to convert Mayer’s own red and white T2 Kombi into a surprisingly competent off-roader. Fitted with a 2.0-litre 70bhp engine, it also had a semi-automatic transmission and, in normal circumstances, drove just like an ordinary RWD Type 2, albeit with a bit more power and no need for all that awkward clutch pedal pushing. However, when required, a lever in the cabin engaged the front axle differential and also transmitted drive to the front wheels as well. The system could even be engaged when the Bus was moving.

Other changes the pair incorporated including an improved heating system – proving that Mayer really did know his Transporters (or at least their deficiencies) as well as a tougher suspension, chassis skid pads, 16in wheels with chunky off-road tyres, enlarged wheelarches, and additional instrumentation for revs, and engine and differential oil pressures. These were incorporated into a pod that sprouted from the top of the dashboard. So that the the Kombi could tackle more than just mainly horizontal bumpy terrain, the front bumper was raised while the exhaust pipe was routed through the back one, thus raising the Transporter’s angle of attack when climbing or descending gradients. It was also able to cope with half a metre of water, thanks to its higher ride height.

Testing of the T2 began on 25 December 1975, which was definitely one way to avoid spending Christmas with the family. The machine, with a top speed of 75mph and 0-60 time of 36 seconds, headed for a 500-mile shakedown trip to Algeria where the 1300ft sand dunes of the Grand Erg in the Sahara gave it ample opportunity to demonstrate what it was capable of. After that, it was shipped back to Genoa in Italy and then returned to Germany where, having proved its worth, Mayer and Duckstein took the bold step of revealing its existence to Volkswagen’s management.

In overall charge of the company at the time was Toni Schmücker, who was more interested in Volkswagen developing its new water-cooled range than expanding the outgoing air-cooled vehicles. So he gave a very half-hearted approval for just a few more prototypes to be built, under the codename Project EA 456/01, but more generally known as Allroad. There were five more development vehicles; three Kombis and two Westfalias, with one even being shown off to Germany’s armed forces alongside the Iltis. By all accounts, it acquitted itself very well and was just as good as the more specialist Iltis in several respects. Had the military decided it wanted some rugged Transporters in addition to the Jeep-like Iltis, it’s likely the Allroad Transporter might have had much more of a commercial future. As it was, nothing came of the 4WD T2s and only two now survive; one in private hands with the other, naturally, preserved in VW’s own Wolfsburg museum.

Water rather than air

Despite Schmücker’s love of water rather than air, when the third generation Transporter emerged in 1979, it initially continued with the older engine formats, at least until 1983 when water-cooled motors finally oozed their way into the range – well, save for the very special and hugely expensive 230bhp Porsche 911-engined B32 model. But only 11 of these 135mph high speed Buses were made.

While the loss of air-cooling may have been a blow for hardcore Transporter traditionalists, it was probably a necessary move for the Type 2 to stay competitive in an increasingly sophisticated marketplace. And it did allow Volkswagen to inject some sophistication of its own, in the form of 4WD. By now, Schmücker had gone, and been replaced by new VW boss Carl Hahn. He did see the benefits of a Type 2 with cross-country abilities, and gave approval for development to get underway. Surprisingly, despite access to Audi technology or all the work done on the earlier T2 Allroad, Volkswagen decided to farm the job out to Steyr-Daimler-Puch instead. It had a proven track record in 4WD, including having worked on the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and Fiat Panda 4×4 – two very different off-roaders. What may have assisted VW’s decision to bring in such a specialist company is that it wasn’t just cold, hard cash that Steyr-Daimler-Puch wanted in return, but access to the LT six-cylinder diesel engine, which it could fit in its Pinzgauer 6×6 model. So it was a deal that seemed to work for both parties.

What Steyr-Daimler-Puch came up was more complicated than the Mayer and Duckstein system. The 4WD was permanent, but thanks to the oil-filled Ferguson viscous coupling – a British invention, don’t you know? – it was weighted more towards rear-wheel drive in everyday use. However, in the event of difficult conditions such as mud, gravel, snow etc, the normal 10 per cent/90 per cent front/rear bias automatically shifted to a more 50/50 balance. If the Transporter found itself really struggling, even more drive would go to the front wheels. It was a clever system that kept driver involvement to the minimum, meaning that you didn’t need to be a great driver or have skills in off-roading to get the best out of the vehicle.

When the Syncro came out in 1985, it didn’t look that different to an ordinary Transporter. Indeed, only the badges and the raised 2.25in ride height really gave the game away that there was a little more going on under the skin. The Transporter could be specified in all the same configurations as its 2WD siblings, including campervans. The pick-up variants also found themselves being used in off-road motorsport.

There was a lot of press acclaim for the Syncro, but it was less appreciated by the public and commercial users. At £4000 more than a standard T3, it was expensive in Britain. What didn’t help was the convoluted manufacturing process. A Transporter would be partially-built at Hannover in Germany, but then have to go off to Steyr-Daimler-Puch’s plant in Graz, Austria, for all the 4WD gubbins to be fitted. Then it would return to Hannover to be finished off. It meant the vehicles had already done 1200 miles before they were completed – even if it didn’t register on the odometer. For those chosen as Westfalia campers, there was an extra 100-mile trip involved for all the camping kit to be outfitted at the factory in Wiedenbruk too. It all added to the cost, which had to be passed on to customers.

After four years of T3 Syncro production, only about 25,000 had been built, around four percent of total third generation Transporter production. It wasn’t as much as Volkswagen had hoped for, and by the time production finished in 1992, the tally had only crept up to 43,468. The Syncro did return for the following T4, from 2003 to 2015, but again, it was expensive and rare. For the most recent T5 and T6 Transporters, the Syncro name was dropped and ‘4motion’ was introduced as a designation for all-wheel drive instead.

Frankly, we prefer Syncro. Or Allroad…

Words: Richard Gunn