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CCotW: ItalDesign/Volkswagen Project Orbit (1986)

19 October 2018 | by Karl Smith

In September 1983, Volkswagen introduced the second generation Golf at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It was well received, and sold in record numbers. The Golf Mark II was designed in-house by Herbert Schaefer, who had enlarged the package a bit and softened the crisp Giugiaro-designed box.


The original Giugiaro-designed Golf – a design and packaging classic

The world had changed in the years since the Golf had come on the market in 1974. Then, the radical successor to the Beetle had been one of the few front-wheel drive hatchbacks on the market. The following decade, though, had seen lots of imitators from other brands. But the Golf had built up enormous loyalty among owners and a huge amount of valuable brand recognition.


The second generation Golf, designed in-house at Volkswagen

So any redesign, then and now, needed to stay close to the mark, with little in the way of radical change.

That said, Italdesign is not in the business of incremental improvements, so when the opportunity came to re-imagine the Golf, two radical departures were put forward at the Turin Motor Show of 1986.


The Machimoto – a strange car/motorcycle hybrid on a Golf platform

The first was the Machimoto, the name of which is a portmanteau of MACHIne (Italian for car) and MOTOciclo (motorcycle). And indeed that’s what the vehicle was – a topless shell of a car with motorcycle seats that could be straddled by six (and in some configurations, nine). It was a vehicle somewhere between a car, a motorcycle, and a Fiat Jolly. We visited the Machimoto back in 2014, (and here’s its picture gallery) so we will give it only a cursory view here.


‘Doors’ on the Machimoto were minimalist to say the least. Don’t forget your helmet

One entered the Machimoto through the side ‘doors’ – really just protective rails – and then straddled the motorcycle-like seats, each of which had a handle to hold and a lap belt. The driver had a traditional steering wheel, but also within the interior of the wheel were two handles that could flip out to mimic the handlebars of a motorcycle. The gear shift, however, was on the floor like a traditional car.


The Machimoto’s interior with its extensive instrument array and reconfigurable wheel

The sight of the mechanistic, futuristic shell holding six riders straddling motorcycle seats was either super-cool, or totally ridiculous, depending on your individual taste. ItalDesign noted that the ‘car’ was to be a rethinking of a fun vehicle, much as the dune buggy had been in the 1960s.

It was certainly a radical rethinking of what the Golf could be.


The Orbit – a Golf-based MPV with plenty of glasshouse

The second car, Project Orbit, was a more realistic, but still dramatic, rethinking of the Golf brief. The Orbit was based on the Mark II Syncro platform, a Golf four-wheel drive model at the time.

The brief was to project a design for a Golf MPV in the spirit of ItalDesign’s previous radical MPV proposals such as the New York Taxi, the Lancia MegaGamma and the Capsula.


The Orbit – no hint of the Golf underneath

The Orbit used the basics of the Syncro, kept the overall length under four metres, but increased the height some 150mm (about six inches) for increased headroom and overall interior volume.

This increased volume was sheathed in lots of glass, making for excellent visibility inside and out.


The Orbit IP – a little bit of everything, in glorious LED displays

Inside four passengers sat in lounge-like comfort. The IP, predictably, was an array of LED instrumentation of all sorts, as well as a primitive SatNav and trip computer. As noted earlier, the generous glasshouse gave each occupant of the Orbit a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.

The Machimoto and the Orbit were usually not photographed together, for obvious reasons – the Machimoto would steal the show. But the two shared the Golf’s underpinnings, a bumper, and the hood/fascia assembly. Beyond that, they veered off dramatically in their own design directions.


The Orbit still looks fresh and futuristic three decades later

Project Orbit and the Machimoto were never intended for production. They were an exploration of ideas; concept cars in the truest sense. The Machimoto lives on, in Autostadt, near Volkswagen’s campus in Wolfsburg.

The two projects presented an alternate future for a very popular car. And they still present a challenge to us in our own time to challenge presumptions about what our own popular cars – still including the Golf – could be, with electric powertrains, autonomy, etc.

Could the Golf be radically different in the next decade? Possibly, though an open-top tourer with six motorcycle seats is probably not being considered as one of the options. Still, it’s fun to imagine…


The Machimoto now, in a vitrine at AutoStadt in Wolfsburg