Designed under the direction of Heinrich Nordhoff and introduced at the Paris Motor Show in October 1968, the 411 was Volkswagen's largest passenger vehicle with the company's largest engine – with styling credited to Carozzeria Pininfarina, who at the time had an advisory contract with Volkswagen. The cars retained VW's trademark air-cooled, rear placement, rear wheel drive, boxer engine with a front/rear weight distribution of 45/55% and a forward cargo storage (14.1 cf) — while also introducing design and engineering departures for the company – including unibody construction, a completely flat passenger area floor and suspension using control arms and MacPherson struts. Volkswagen had prototyped a notchback sedan version of the 411, without introducing it to production.
Over its six year production run, Volkswagen manufactured 367,728 Type 4 models, compared with 210,082 of the subsequent Volkswagen K70 with its four year model life. In the United States, VW sold 117,110 Type 4's over four model years. As Volkswagen's last air-cooled sedans and wagons, the Type 4 models were succeeded by the first generation Passat, marketed as the Dasher in the USA.
As Volkswagen's first 4-door saloon, the Type 4 also introduced unibody construction, coil springs, trailing wishbone rear suspension, hydraulic clutch manual transmission – as well as MacPherson strut front suspension, subsequently adapted to the VW Type 1 1302/1303 ("Super Beetle").
The Type 4's battery was located under the driver's seat (passenger seat on RHD models). All models featured ventless driver and front passenger windows, notched on their leading edge to provide draught-free ventilation, no cost metallic paint, radial ply tires, full carpeting, clock, electric rear window demister, flow-through ventilation, undercoating, and a thermostatically controlled auxiliary heating system, specifically, a gasoline-operated heater model BA4 by Eberspächer, fired by a glow plug accessible from a hidden rear window deck plate.
When the Type 4 was discontinued in 1974, its engine carried on as the power plant for the larger-engined Volkswagen Type 2s, produced from 1972 to 1979, and for the later VW T25 1980-1983.
At launch, the 411 featured a 1679 cc engine with twin carburetors, subsequently modified in 1969 with Bosch D-Jetronic electronic fuel injection and claimed power output increased from 68 to 80 bhp (60 kW) — this fuel injected engine shared with the mid-engined Porsche 914 also launched in 1969. European 411 nomenclature highlighted the fuel injection with the suffix 'E' (for Einspritzung). Revisions in 1969 also included replacement of the single oval headlights with twin round headlights.
The 412 replaced the 411 in August 1972 in Germany, having been restyled by designer Brooks Stevens. Halogen lights were fitted, the headlight surround was reshaped and the nose panels were redesigned. In 1974 the engine capacity was raised to 1798cc and fuel management reverted to a twin carburettor system, the 412LE now being renamed 412LS.
The visual design of the Volkswagen 412 Variant was followed when the Type 1 based Volkswagen Brasilia was produced in Brazil, primarily for the Latin American markets.
In February 1974 on the German market the 4-door 412L was priced at DM 10,995 (DM 11,145 for the 412 LS).