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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And the 2.5l:
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.