The Volkswagen LT was the largest panel van produced by Volkswagen (and consequently Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles as of 1996) from 1975 to 2006. Two generations were produced.
As early as the Spring of 1950, Volkswagen had exerted a decisive influence on the market for light commercial vehicles in Germany and Europe, with the renowned Volkswagen Type 2. The name ‘Transporter' (the name under which the Type 2 was sold in Brazil) rapidly established itself as a concept term to describe an entire commercial vehicle segment. Through the continuous development of the Type 2, above all after the introduction of the revised Volkswagen Type 2#T2 in 1968, additional demand was shown, especially from commercial customers. Increasingly heavier and larger-volume freight items required transportation using compact commercial vehicles. This saw the classic Type 2 reaching the limits of what was possible, in part conditioned by the rear mounted engine design.
The set of specifications for the new larger transporter, as an additional series, were very clear in requiring as much utility space as possible in a small footprint. The planned tonnage classes; from 2.8 tons gross vehicle weight upwards to 3.5 tons, called for a strong traction rear drive, and ruled out a rear engine placement in accordance with the original spacial requirements. As a result, the engine was located above the front axle, between the driver and passenger seat.
The new VW van celebrated its launch in 1975 in Berlin. The name given to Volkswagen's large transporter was as functional as the entire vehicle: it was just called LT, which is simply the abbreviation of Lasten-Transporter (‘cargo transporter').
The LT came in three gross vehicle weights, from 2.8 to 3.5 tons (LT 28, LT 31, LT 35), with two wheelbases, two roof options, and with bodywork options as a panel van, a compact, a platform vehicle and a chassis/cab combination.
The ratio of utility space to footprint was nothing short of sensational: Thanks to the cab-over-engine construction and the overall width of 2.02 meters, even the compact LT panel van (with the short wheelbase and little over four and a half meters in length) offered a load length of over three meters and a load area of around 5.5 square meters.
Even at that time, Volkswagen's transporter developers placed great value on secure and comfortable handling. For that reason, the LT was equipped with a front axle with independent front wheel suspension, which at that time and in later years, was not standard in this class of vehicle. Later options, such as the heavy LT 40 to LT 55, had a rigid front axle for reasons relating to load-carrying capacity; this is remains common procedure today on more modern light trucks.
In time, problems were presented by the choice of engine for the original LT, and Volkswagen's own stocks offered only the familiar air-cooled boxer engines for rear mounting. The dimensions of the new generation of engines for the Volkswagen Golf, which was launched at practically the same time, were too small, as was the power unit on the still youthful mid-class Volkswagen Passat sedan.
A suitable petrol engine, at that time still the standard engine even for transporters, was identified at Audi, a sister company within the Volkswagen Group in 1976. The biggest engine from the Audi 100, a four-cylinder engine with a cubic capacity of two litres (also used by the Porsche 924), proved suitable and was adapted to the specific requirements of a utility vehicle. Accordingly, the developers cut back on performance, to 55 kW (75hp) in favour of achieving high torque at low speed.
At the same time a diesel engine was developed at Perkins, a British manufacturer. The four-cylinder 2.7l engine, included in the LT range from 1976 onwards, developed just 48 kW (65hp), did not run particularly smoothly, and had an unpleasant sound to it. LTs equipped with this engine are typically not favoured by LT enthusiasts, due to their infamous characteristics.
Volkswagen reacted quickly; in 1979, the Perkins engine was replaced with a diesel engine that had proved successful on the Volkswagen Golf - while adding two more cylinders. The 1.6l four-cylinder engine became a 2.4l six-cylinder delivering 55 kW (75hp). Unlike other diesel engines in this performance class, the assembly stood out for its balanced vibration behaviour and pleasing acoustics. The engine worked so convincingly that Volvo adopted it for the Volvo 200 series, and were therefore able to offer the first passenger car with a six-cylinder diesel engine.
In Spring 1983, Volkswagen made a significant upgrade to the LT - the second phase of the first generation, following eight years of production. The desire for improved performance resulted in the six-cylinder diesel engine's availability as a turbo-diesel, providing 75 kW (102hp). This saw the LT become the most powerful van in Europe — and the same was true of its maximum torque of 195N·m. In addition, the six-cylinder engine was now also available as a 66 kW (90hp) petrol engine. The engines, which were now mounted with a clear offset alignment, allowed for a flatter engine compartment which was shifted further to the rear, allowing more space for a third seat in the cab.
In 1986, an overhauled turbo-diesel engine with charge air cooler and 70 kW (95hp) was introduced.
The first decade of the LT saw no change in terms of its appearance, however 1986 saw a facelift leaving the previously round headlights becoming rectangular in shape, as well as other minor cosmetic retouches. In Spring 1993, there was again a modest change in the look, with new grey-plastic elements introduced to the radiator grille and in the rear lighting section.
The second phase of the first generation LT in 1983 also included a redesigned dashboard, and the undercarriage had an additional third wheelbase as an option for platform-type vehicles, at up to 4.6 meters in length.
Two years later, Volkswagen again increased the gross vehicle weight, with the 5.6 ton LT 55. Users were delighted by an option on the LT 35 which could be supplied with a single-tire rear axle — bringing benefits in terms of through-loading dimensions between the wheelhouses, which were now thinner. For extreme requirements, there was an LT with all wheel drive that could be enabled from within the cab.
The last first generation LT was produced in 1996, which corresponds to a British 'P' Plate.
A touring camper in its various bodywork and fitting options was also produced. When compared to the then-current Type 2 (which still remains a stubborn favourite among campervan enthusiasts), the possibility of beds set out crosswise due to the generous width of the LT become apparent. Many campervan solutions of the LT exist, due to their popularity amongst amateur and professional campervan converters alike. A more official conversion was produced, as with the Type 2 Volkswagen-endorsed Westfalia California model that was available at the time, a model known as the Florida was available for the LT.
In addition, the wide yet compact cab-over-engine design of the LT was ideally suited for use on much larger utility vehicles. This meant that it was used on the so-called G Series, the light truck in a joint venture between Volkswagen and MAN AG with gross vehicle weights of between six and ten tons. It was built from 1979 until 1993.
A further career for the LT cab opened up in South America. For many years, Volkswagen's Brazilian plant at Resende has been constructing trucks with weights of between 7 and 35 tons. Even after the launch of the new Volkswagen Constellation in 2006, Volkswagen has continued to manufacture vehicles incorporating cabs clearly based on the first generation of the LT. The LT has even made a career for itself as a racing vehicle; for the past two years, the VW Titan has succeeded in winning the European Cup in the Super Truck Race. Its cab is similarly based on the first generation of the LT's cab.
The demand for the first generation LT is defined by the exceptionally long period for which it was manufactured. After 21 years and just under half a million vehicles, shortly after the foundation of the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles brand in 1995, came the second generation of the LT in 1996.
In 1996 Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz Commercial unit debuted the fruits of their joint venture the second generation LT would share a body shell with the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, however the engine and transmission would be Volkswagen sourced. This deal would continue on in the Volkswagen Crafter, successor to the LT.
As with the new Volkswagen Eurovan (Transporter T4), the second generation of the LT abandoned the one-box design in the cab-over-engine construction which had characterized Volkswagen utility vehicles for over four decades. With an engine mounted longitudinally beneath a short hood and with rear-wheel drive, the LT now adopted what had become the standard style of construction for bigger transporters.
In addition, it satisfied requirements which remain sought-after even today: economical direct-injection diesel engines, easy access to the driver cab behind the front axle, and a wide space between the driver and passenger seat.
The range now went from 2.6 to 4.6 tons gross vehicle weight, and the enclosed options of the panel van and compact were available in three wheelbase options. Platform vehicles, crewcabs and numerous undercarriage options completed the range. A special articulated version of the second generation LT, the XLT was available through special order.
With a naturally-aspirated engine as well as three TDI engines, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles answered the call for economical and high-performance diesel engines. The basis for this was the same five-cylinder TDI which had already established a positive reputation in the Volkswagen Eurovan (Type 2 T4) within a very short period of time.
For the first time, Volkswagen had profited from synergies between the two major in-house transporter series.
The performance range for the LT initially went from 61 kW (83hp) to 96 kW (130hp). In January 2002, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles again raised the bar; a particularly powerful four-cylinder 2.8l engine increased power output to 116 kW (156hp) and the maximum torque to 331N·m. At that time, these were once again record figures among vehicles in its class. Compared to the most powerful engine on the first generation LT, it represented an increase in torque and performance of over 50%.
The 2.8l engine's specifications were as follows:
- 2,789 cc 2.8l 4-cylinder engine with 93 mm bore, 103 mm stroke and three valves per cylinder
- Power: 116 kW, 158 hp EEC @ 3,500 rpm, 331N·m (244ft·lbf) @ 1,800 rpm
- Diesel common rail fuel system
And the 2.5l:
- 2,461 cc 2.5l 5-cylinder engine with 81 mm bore, 95.5 mm stroke, 19.5 compression ratio and two valves per cylinder
- Power: 80 kW, 109 hp EEC @ 3,500 rpm, 280N·m (210ft·lbf) @ 1,900 rpm
- Diesel direct injection fuel system
- KKK K14 turbocharger
The second generation LT was manufactured for over nine years in total, with practically no external changes; testimony to its build quality. By the end of production in the 4th Quarter of 2006, around 350,000 models had come off the production line.
Plans for the third generation of the 'large transporter' from Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles had already gone underway, and later that year the Volkswagen Crafter was launched.