When Volkswagen Took a Walk on the Wild Side

by James Kraus

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“Place Pigalle” by Stanley Black and his Orchestra Montmarte, 1957. Capturing the atmosphere of a night in Paris.

At the height of the Swinging Sixties, everyone was (literally and figuratively) letting their hair down and doing things that would have been unheard of (or at least kept private) just a decade earlier. It was the era of satellites, moon launches, the pill, James Bond, The Beatles, the Twist and the Watusi.

Automobile manufactures were building family sedans with extra punch, and with the debut of the Lamborghini Miura, we witnessed the birth of the supercar.

German manufacturers were not immune to these winds of change. Porsche introduced the new 911 in 1964, their first new road car ever. Mercedes-Benz launched the audacious 600. BMW escalated the sport sedan battle with the 1800 Ti SA.

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1964 VW 1500 S

Even Volkswagen let their guard down for a brief period by offering VW-1500 buyers the high performance “S” option. The short-lived S generated the highest specific output of any engine Volkswagen produced in the 1960’s prior to the debut of the VW 411 in the fall of 1968.

Fortunately, for a small group of Volkswagen aficionados, a bit of extra performance was just not enough for VW executives. Likely following a night of debauchery ending no doubt with many rounds of Schnapps, they conceived the idea of the Pigalle Option.

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Place Pigalle

Place Pigalle is the center of the infamous red-light district of Paris that houses the Moulin Rouge and other erotic cabarets and sex shops. An oft-visited point of interest in the 18th arrondissement, it is located not far from the café where Sam (Robert DeNiro) joins forces with the other operatives in the opening scene of John Frankenheimer’s 1998 film, Ronin.

In the mid-sixties, Volkswagen interior fittings were mostly rendered in VW L43 Grey-Black with charcoal square-weave carpet, grey rubber floor matting and a black or white steering wheel. The various colours of fabric and vinyl upholstery offered were expressed solely in the seat coverings, door and side panels.

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VW Karmann Ghia Cabriolet in Arcona White with Pigalle Interior

In the Pigalle cars, nearly everything inside was red including the seat upholstery, seat frames, door panels, carpets and floor mats. On all but the Beetle, the red was extended to the instrument panel padding, the steering column, steering wheel, even the turn indicator stalk, All red. The colour of… well you get the idea.

At the time, automotive interiors with this degree of colour-coordination were generally not available from European manufacturers. It would be nearly three decades for example before Mercedes or Porsche offered comparably colour-matched interiors.

VW Type III in Pearl White with Pigalle Interior

The Pigalle option was available in combination with either a black, white or grey exterior across the range, from the Beetle right up to the range-topping 1500 S and 1600 Karmann-Ghias in 1965 and 1966.

The rare and elegant VW Type III Model 34 Karmann Ghia

Today, the existence and occasional rumoured sale of well-maintained original Pigalle cars are discussed in hushed, conspiratorial tones, usually accompanied by swirling cigar smoke and the displaying and fondling of large-denomination banknotes or bearer bonds.

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3 thoughts on “When Volkswagen Took a Walk on the Wild Side

  1. I worked in a Volkswagen shop in the early 1970’s. I once saw a white Beetle with the red carpet and mats (I believe it was a ’66 model) come in and I always wondered about the car since I had never seen one before or since with a full color-matched interior.

    Now I know what I was looking at!

  2. The Pigalle interior was one of the hallmarks of the years 1964-1966 that represent the pinnacle of the air-cooled era at Volkswagen. In addition to the Pigalle Option, this period saw the introduction of the aforementioned 1500 S powerplant, the first big-engine Beetles (the 1.3 and 1.5), front disc brakes and the innovative optional sliding door on the Type II models.

  3. “Pigalle interiors were available in combination with either a black, white or grey exterior ”

    Not all *that* wild, then – no red-on-red…

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