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#TBT: The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo

Published on Thu, Jan 7, 2021

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo is so rare that its existence has escaped even the most avid enthusiasts’ knowledge.

Editor’s Note: #ThrowbackThursday is a weekly release by Volkswagen, which covers historic and intriguing aspects of VW over the years. All content and photos are courtesy of Volkswagen. -CM

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The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples
The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples

Many enthusiasts are familiar with Volkswagen’s niche models. But not even Ross Cupples, a lifelong fanatic with dozens of Volkswagen cars in his personal collection, had heard of the Öko-Polo — a rare 1988 prototype with a retro rainbow stripe across its doors — when he acquired the only known model in the United States.

Volkswagen vehicles have always been a part of Cupples’ life. At age 10, he fell in love with a yellow 1972 Beetle at his family’s used car business in Belmont, NH. He purchased his first car, a 1985 Jetta GLI, at age 16 and slowly began acquiring and restoring Volkswagen models. Since then, his collection has grown so large that even he has lost track of how many he owns.

The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples
The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples

“I have about 70, most of which are low-mileage, original cars,” Cupples said. His collection fills two buildings, and he is still running out of indoor space as he seeks to keep his vintage vehicles in protected from the elements. “It’s been a fun challenge to research and make connections as I seek out rare models over the years.”

The prototype was designed to run 100 km (62.13 miles) on just three liters of fuel, making it an ultra-economical car at the time. (In fact, the German name Öko-Polo translates to Eco-Polo.) It had a two-cylinder diesel direct-injection engine and a G40 supercharger. The two cylinders displaced only 858 cubic centimeters and a heat-resistant foam substance encapsulated the engine bay to minimize the engine noise and vibrations.

After a year of testing in 1988, the series of about 50-75 Öko-Polo prototypes ended. The car was never mass-produced, due to its high cost of production, but it did help future models become more efficient. The Öko-Polo’s newly developed technologies were gradually implemented in other Volkswagen models.

The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples
The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples

The chassis Cupples purchased was missing many original Öko-Polo parts, including the engine and supercharger that made it an economical choice. He imported a one-liter Polo drivetrain and fit it in the body of the car so it could run, albeit without the Öko-Polo engine.

Still, the chassis belongs to just 50 to 75 total prototypes and remains the only known Öko-Polo in the country. Its origins in the U.S. are unknown, but the seller in Wisconsin purchased the chassis from a government auction.

“Other than the signature stripe, the Öko-Polo is indistinguishable from any other late-‘80s-style Polo Squareback,” Cupples said. “At the same time, it’s one of the rarest models in my collection.” Even the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg does not display an Öko-Polo prototype, he noted.

The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples
The 1988 Volkswagen Öko-Polo. Photo by Ross Cupples

The vehicle also sparked Cupples’ interest in other Volkswagen Polos. Over the past two decades, he has collected every Polo model and its variants, and believes he is the only collector in the U.S. to have done so.

While some might consider 70 Volkswagens too many, Cupples is not done growing his collection.

“I have a mentality of trying to have owned at least one of every model in every generation of Volkswagen,” he said. “And having the Öko-Polo has been a part of that mission. I love being able to hold a part of Volkswagen history.”

Among his dozens of other Volkswagens have been five Golf Harlequins, with at least one of each color combination.

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