Who or what is ‘Inuvik’? A fish that lives in the depths of the Arctic Ocean? A musical instrument from Siberia? An abbreviation of ‘Innovative New Uses of Very Inexpensive Kayaks’? These were the kind of questions I asked myself when I heard the word for the first time. But the answer was in fact quite simple: Inuvik is the largest town in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle. And I was supposed to go there.

The year was 1976. Volkswagen was planning on unveiling the new VW Derby to the press in December. Because of scheduling difficulties, the model hadn’t yet been tested in winter conditions – but this was an absolutely indispensable part of the final tuning-up work. The challenge, then, was to find a test site where it was already cold enough in November and the general conditions were acceptable. After much hunting and research, the decision was made to go to Inuvik. Nobody quite knew exactly where it was, or how far away.

VW Tests  church

In fact, Inuvik is right at the top of the Mackenzie Delta in the Beaufort Sea – making it further north than Iceland. At that time, there was no road connecting it to Central Canada, so in the summer everything was packed up – entire wooden huts, containers of all sizes, tools, food and much more – and brought there on rafts. In the winter, equipment was delivered by planes with a freight compartment in the front that took up around two-thirds of their available space. The remaining third was occupied by passengers. Our journey was similar: in early November, three testers from VW, a representative of Pierburg (who supplied the carburettor) and I, representing MANN+HUMMEL, flew first from Frankfurt to Toronto, and then on to Edmonton and Norman Wells. From there, one of those mixed-purpose planes for freight and passengers took us the rest of the way to Inuvik. The test vehicles were also flown in – two VW Polos with a 1.3-litre engine and 60 HP, as well as a VW Polo with the same engine but with secondary air intake and pre-ignition delay for cold countries. Test vehicles were used because the design of the Derby was still a secret.

At the time, Inuvik had a population of around 4000 inhabitants. Life wasn’t easy – in short summer temperatures could climb to 30 degrees Celsius, while they were often as low as -30 degrees in the winter and once even hit -45 to -50 degrees. The land itself was covered in permafrost, meaning that the soil was frozen all year round down to a depth of around one metre. This meant that all the cables and pipelines for electricity, water, waste water and the like had to run over ground, wrapped in thick insulation and equipped with pressure pumps. While the town looked positively idyllic in the winter, the residents had to use wooden walkways in the summer that were built over these pipelines, because the melting ice would transform Inuvik into something of a swamp. The buildings were largely made of wood and set on a multitude of small posts, which looked funny to us but in fact served a vital purpose: the posts extended down into the permanently frozen soil, giving the buildings a firm foundation. They also allowed air to circulate beneath the bottom of the houses, transporting away the heat generated by the buildings so that the ground beneath would not thaw. Without this measure in place, the houses could slip out of place or – in the worst case – collapse.

VW Tests

Our little workshop was built in the same way and served as the starting point for our daily excursions. We used the only road there, which extended approximately 16 kilometres from our HQ to the airfield. For two weeks, we drove up and down this road over and over again. While the scenery may not have been especially varied, the test runs were still exciting. We were mostly concerned with studying the pre-heating of the intake air. This is the be-all and end-all in classic carburettor engines, and significantly improves engine operation when the engine is cold. The way it works is simple: when it’s cold outside, the air for the carburettor is pre-heated in order to optimise combustion. The warmer the engine, the less pre-heating it needs – up until the engine is hot and is then only supplied with cold air. If we were to continue warming the combustion air after this point, the performance and the fuel consumption would suffer. In our test, we attempted to compare single and double regulators for the very first time. Unfortunately, the measuring technology needed was still in its infancy back then. We measured everything with machines that would print the measuring points onto paper, before transferring all the data into tables by hand and drawing diagrams. We often had to work late into the evening to get everything done – but that was our job.

In the end, the tests showed that the double regulator worked much better in ‘cold’ starts. When we were driving, it would feed warm air to the intake air system for much longer. This meant that the engine ran better, with little sign of the juddering motions that were typical at the time for cold engines and partial loads. The VW engineers were happy – as were our directors. Our tests played a significant part in ensuring that MANN+HUMMEL would supply the double regulators for VW series production for years to come.