That picture right up there is the answer to a question I’ve wondered about for years and years: was there ever a blatant knockoff of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle? Sure, there were plenty of cars “inspired” by or evolved from the Beetle: Fiats 500 and 600, Subaru 360, Porsche 356, Chevrolet Corvair, and so on. But until now, I wasn’t aware of any real, no-joke knockoffs. Then I learned about the Orix 610.
I’m not going to lie—I’m absolutely thrilled to learn about this car. There’s many layers of what makes this so exciting to me: there’s the idea that you can be a lifelong Volkswagen obsessive and find that there’s still things to be discovered, which is positively life-affirming to me. Then there’s the car itself, which is such a bold, shameless, and brash outright copy of what is perhaps the most well-recognized design in all of motoring history that I can’t help but admire the weapons-grade notgiveashittery of the person behind it all.
That person is Juan Ramirez Montepeó (most sources just call him Juan Ramirez), a Catalonian motorcycle and motorcar racing driver and mechanic. In 1950, Ramirez was involved in a rivalry with another motorcycle racer who used a BMW motorcycle with a flat-twin engine.
Ramirez really wanted to beat this BMW-riding nemesis, and, after some unsuccessful experiments trying to turbocharge a Harley-Davidson V-twin, he decided to just try building his own BMW-style boxer engine, but with a bit more displacement and power.
The result was a 610cc air-cooled flat-twin making about 20 horsepower—from what I can tell, that wasn’t more than what a 1950 BMW flat twin made, but perhaps his rival was using an older bike? Still, for the time, it was a decent amount of power for an engine like that to make, and the success of this engine got Ramirez thinking.
What Ramirez was thinking was that this engine could go into a car instead of a motorcycle, and so he built his first prototype, a small, rakish-looking rear-engined two-seater roadster that he named Orix, after the oryx, an African antelope.
He entered the car in a local hillclimb, where the Orix took a very respectable sixth place. This got him some press and attention, and with that some actual orders for cars, so the Orix went into (admittedly slow and very low-volume) production in 1953.
These first production Orixes were small sedans for two, with a small, occasional seat behind, essentially a 2+2 coupé. The design was a somewhat generic-looking 1950s pontoon-fender’d design with a prominent grille (false? for cabin ventilation?) and decent proportions.
These cars were essentially made to order, since he didn’t have the capital for a full production run. Even so, he managed to build and sell a dozen of these first-series Orix cars.
Ramirez wanted to make a larger, fully four-seat car, which makes sense, since he’d be able to sell such a car to the many families in Spain that needed good, cheap transportation. He’d improved the output of his 610cc flat-twin to a respectable 27 HP, and at the start of 1954 began to build his four-seater prototype.
But here’s where it gets weird: for reasons I have not been able to find or fathom, Ramirez decided to make his new Orix look exactly—and I mean exactly—like Volkswagen’s Type I Sedan, which we all know as the Beetle.
This wasn’t a case of convergent evolution, where the general goals of the car dictates a common design, like so many 1970s and 1980s hatchbacks or any number of Jeep-like vehicles. This was a flat-out copy of the Beetle design, right down to the idiosyncratic stamped shapes in the hood and the chrome trim placement.
This was, for all intents and purposes, a slightly smaller, two-cylinder Beetle.
If you look at the pictures, you can even make a pretty good guess as to the year of the Beetle Ramirez very likely had on hand to copy: a 1951 or 1952. I say this because the Orix “beetle” has little flaps in the front quarter panels that are in the exact same position and are the exact same shape as the “crotch-cooler” vents Volkswagen put on 1951-1952 Beetles.
In case building a blatant copy of a Volkswagen wasn’t enough, Ramirez made sure everyone knew about it, as he displayed his Orix 610 at the Fira de Barcelona in May of 1954.
If we look carefully at the Orix, we can see some differences from a VW: the windshield has a greater rearward rake, the rear fender appears to have a longer trailing slope, There seems to be an engine air intake behind the rear quarter windows, and a few other slight proportion and detail variations. But none of these very minor differences appear to be true deliberate changes in design, but rather just slight variations that come with copying a car’s design and making it fit on a chassis of slightly differing measurements.
The Orix’s engine can be seen on display behind the not-Beetle in their booth, and it too is remarkably VW-like. Yes, it’s only two cylinders, but the general layout and cooling shroud design certainly look familiar.
Of course, many air-cooled flat engines of the era had a similar look, but in the overall context, it’s notable.
That engine, with its 27 HP from 610cc, compared pretty favorably to the engine Volkswagen was putting in Beetle in 1954, a 1192cc flat-four that made 36 HP. The engine used in the Beetle I suspect was acting as Ramirez’ template, a 1951 or 1952, would have had a 30 HP 1131cc engine, just barely more output than the Orix engine yet with nearly twice the displacement.
Not surprisingly, Volkswagen found out about the Orix, and complained to Ramirez about what they pretty justifiably saw as automotive plagiarism. Incredibly, VW didn’t pursue legal action because, as several sources state, “because, it seems, Ramírez explained the important differences and advantages of its design.” This seems extremely improbable to me, and I’ll be following up with Volkswagen’s historical archives to see if there’s any record of VW’s dealings with Orix at all.
Maybe Volkswagen was wary of pushing too hard on allegations of copying designs since VW had some similar issues of their own to deal with, culminating in their payoff of one million marks in 1965 to Tatra to settle claims that Volkswagen based some of their designs on the Tatra 97.
Ramirez built two prototypes of his Beetle-like car, and then 14 production copies throughout 1954, finally stopping because the enterprise was not proving to be profitable.
That may not have been what caused the end of the Orix-Beetle, though. While he was still building the Orix-Beetles, Ramirez was contacted by the Spanish Ministry of Industry about the possibility of building a factory in Basque country, but he was committed to remaining in Barcelona, so he rejected the offer.
Soon after that, a group of Barcelona-area bankers became interested in investing in his automotive business, so they set up a meeting.
Ramirez then managed to do something that has never happened before or since in the history of motoring: Ramirez doomed his company because of his commitment to the best possible customer service.
See, right as he was leaving his factory to meet with the bankers, an Orix owner drove up to the shop, complaining about some problem with his car. Incredibly, Ramirez stayed to fix the car, which, like all repairs, ended up taking longer than he’d guessed, during which time the bankers got fed up with waiting and left, any possibility of a deal gone.
So, if the head of the company didn’t think that fixing a customer’s car was more important than heading to a meeting to secure the financial future of the company, it’s possible there’d be a whole parallel universe of knockoff Spanish Beetles buzzing around, defiantly and wildly improbably.
I can’t believe I’d never heard of this before. What an astounding world we live in.