Volkswagen Karmann Ghia by Dacon

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The one thing about early Volkswagens and Porsches is that they're clearly from the same creator.

Ferdinand Porsche had—especially after looking over his friend and Tatra designer Hans Ledwinka's shoulder—a singular idea for an automobile. Put the engine behind the rear tires in order to give better roadholding and aerodynamics. 

If you were a spirited driver in Europe after the Second World War, even though the Volkswagen Beetle wasn't exactly a monster in the power department, it was a great way to get around. Maybe we forget this because of how ubiquitous the Beetle became, but it was a genuinely good small car in an era when most vehicles employed big, heavy engines, girder-like frames, and acres of chrome.

The Beetle was great because its design helped to mitigate problems that most mainstream cars had back then: poor traction, loud on the highway, bad on gas, etc.

The engine fires up immediately without a choke. It has tolerable road-handling and is economical to maintain. Although a small car, the engine has great elasticity and gave the feeling of better output than its small nominal size.
— Walter Henry Nelson, Small Wonder
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It also put Germany on the map, again. We all know the story spirals from there, but when you so correctly create a vehicle for a task, there is a certain amount of DNA that persists.

So when Ferdinand Porsche founded his own sports car company, Porsche, much of the Beetle DNA was seen in his next design, the 356 sports car. The engine was still in the back, it had a flat-4 engine, trunk up front, etc.

It doesn't take a genius to work out what the next few decades of enthusiasts did with their Volkswagen Beetles: they tried to make them go, stop, and handle like Porsches.

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In Brazil, Dacon, a Volkswagen producer, distributor and dealer, also imported Porsche models for wealthy clients. But what you must understand is that import taxes have always been incredibly high in Brazil, in order to protect local carmakers and promote the creation of assembly plants within the country—if a car is made in Brazil, Toyota badge or not, it's A-OK.

Today, if you import a vehicle, expect a cost that's at least double what the rest of the world pays. But between 1956-1986, it was near-impossible to import a fully built vehicle into the country. (This is partly why I've been able to feature so many Brazilian specials in Car of the Day!)

And so in 1966 if you wanted to gain publicity for your products by winning races, you needed a fast car. But if it was impossible to import, say, a Ferrari, what was your next option? Take a locally-built Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and fit it with as many Porsche parts as you're able to…and hire the best drivers.

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After Dacon owner Paulo Goulart's successful trial of fitting a Porsche engine to a Karmann Ghia, winning the 1964 1000 Miles of Guanabara, plans were drawn up to create a race team.

The four Dacon Karmann Ghias were fitted with either a 2.0-litre or 1.6-litre Porsche 356 motor—four 2.0-litre and 18 1.6-litre engines were imported into Brazil by Dacon. With more than 80 horsepower up on the original 1200cc Beetle-based engine, the cars must have felt like rocket ships. 

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Keep in mind that the engines weren't just dropped into the cars: they were further modified from stock, often using race-derived parts from the Porsche 904.

Weight was reduced with liberal use of fiberglass and aluminum. Wheels, brakes, and suspension were Porsche-derived. 

That's just the cars. With drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi, José Carlos Pace and Wilsinho Fittipaldi, the team dominated racing in Brazil for only a season and a half—from 1966-1967—often with 1-2 finishes. In the most prestigious race of the year, the 1.000Km Brasilia, they finished 1-2-3.

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I've read that because of the increased power, frames would twist, crack, or break—apparently the Dacon race cars were filled with repair welds! That said, racing in those days was hot, dangerous, and popular. Tracks were sub-par. You did what had to be done. The four Dacon entries helped earn wins for their drivers and helped sell hopped-up Volkswagens to Brazilian enthusiasts.

After their racing careers were over, the cars were split up. One was sold to the Fittipaldis, who continued to win with it. There are a few replicas floating around, but my Portuguese isn't good enough to go searching for one of the originals!

Dacon wasn't the first—and certainly not the last—to install a Porsche engine in a non-Porsche chassis. And not the only semi-factory special capable of winning races in Brazil during the 60s and 70s. But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading