COAL: 1979 VW Rabbit Diesel: You Can’t Get There From Here

’79 VW Rabbit in its natural habitat.

(Heath McClure is back with another highly entertaining installment of his COAL. Don’t miss it. PN)

If ya recall, we skipped ahead on our heroes Life Well Lived™ and bypassed the 1984 VW Rabbit diesel.  Some of you, sadists all, wanted to hear the sad tale of that Rabbit, its foibles and folly, and how it brought me to ultimate ruin.  But first we have to go back in time, because there was a first Rabbit diesel, a 1979 model.  Yes indeed, I’m living proof that, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” 

You just know that car is about to leap into the air!!

It was the very early ’90s, we were living in central Texas near Temple, and I was dreaming of a car.  Again.  Not just any car, my friend, for at that point in my life I was neatly obsessed with two things, Volkswagen and fuel economy, and as we all know, the perfect joining of those twin desires manifests itself in the first generation Rabbit diesel.  Straight and simple lines, massive greenhouse, tight component packaging, front wheel drive, and a tidy little 1.5 liter four banger diesel coupled to a four-speed manual shifter.  Yep, no finer example of a pure and true car exists on this planet, not from the past, not from now, and not from the future.  Whatever you own, it’s inferior to the Mark 1 VW Golf, whatever you hope to own will never measure up.  I had to have one.  It was my destiny.  

Logically Mr. Spock would have approved of this car.

But where to find one?  Even in the days when Depeche Mode was still a viable top 40 listening choice for some odd reason they had become rare.  Luckily, family came to the rescue.  My father-in-law owned a ’79 model, 3-door hatch, in Kenmore refrigerator white, with the diesel, and almost nothing else, a stripper base model, exactly what I wanted, a car filled with whole grain goodness and no extra fillers, as the VW gods intended. This is a first generation Rabbit, aka the Golf Mk I in more stern lands. Gearheads today universally pour love on the Germanically pure early first generation, and heap scorn on the Buickized later models.  I’ve had both. Meh.  The Buick version has square headlights and puffier dash, like it’s having anaphylactic shock after a bee sting, but frankly isn’t a whole lot different overall. 

Mine was “Alpine White,” tan/black interior, 3 door, vinyl seats, thin carpet, lots of bare metal visible in the cabin.  No AC, no power anything, 13-inch wheels and a dent in the back quarter panel.  The 1.5 diesel had a claimed-when-new whopping 48 horsepower, try not to use it all at once.  It was the bottom of the line “C” model, and it had exactly one option, but it was a doozy, and excited me because of the possibilities.  The spare tire well held the dealer installed, factory made, extra fuel bladder that added about 11 gallons to the regular tank.  Total fuel capacity was about 21 gallons, which, when coupled with the supposed EPA mileage of 40 city/53 highway, meant a theoretical range of 1,113 miles!  Yeah, back then I got real excited about that.  Sad huh?

My actual Rabbit hanging out at my parents in Bakersfield. Note tinted windows and fancy pants sunscreen, yeah, did nothing for the heat.

My father-in-law graciously gave it to me! Free! Yay!! Success!  

Now there were a few issues that needed to be addressed before I could begin motoring nirvana.  First problem was that the car was located near Silverdale, Wash.  That was, uh, 2,163 road miles away from our joint in Texas.  The second, and very, very minor problem, was that the engine was blown.

No problem, I got this.  Here’s what we do: we’ll take some time off, ride the Greyhound Bus up there, I’ll rebuild the engine myself, and then we’ll drive it back to Texas in triumph and glory.  What could possibly go wrong?

Did I mention I’d never wrenched on a diesel before?  How hard can it be?  I bought a book and everything, this will be a snap.

Actual unretouched picture of my wife and I before boarding Greyhound. (I swear, cross my heart hope to die stick a needle in my eye)

Now back in that era of mullets and grunge you could snag a ticket on Greyhound for $39, one-way, anywhere in the lower 48, if you gave them 30 days notice.  What a deal eh?  Has there ever been a time in American history when you could go sea to shining sea for a measly $39?  We routed the trip through Bakersfield, Calif., to have a break and stay with my folks. Some friends took us to the local bus station and das frau and I set off on a trip that was best described as “Epic™,” and worthy of an article in itself.  Have you ever ridden a Greyhound Bus for 67 hours?  Might want to bring a magazine and flea repellent.

Fast forward to our arrival at Rabbit central in Washington.  It was late in the day when we stumbled out of the in-laws car, thoroughly road weary, and I, of course, hustled out to see my new pride and joy, a free, let me repeat that for emphasis, FREE diesel Rabbit!  

Tech specs for you super nerds in the audience.

My deeply trained eye immediately noticed a problem, once I was able to discern where the car started and the brambles growing up around it ended; the driver-side window was down.  Considering that this was the Kitsap Peninsula, a well-known temperate rain forest, emphasis on RAIN, well, Houston we have a problem.  There was like 3 inches of water sitting in the floor pan, and even a little moss-like substance growing here and there on the seats and stuff.  Well hey, half a year filling up with rain in a rain forest will do that to ya.

What I wish my Rabbit had looked like. Smells like Germany in there! This is a top of the line jobber in great shape. Mine had a lake on the floor and mold on the seats.

In retrospect this was a watershed moment, that moment of extreme clarity we have right before a major disaster, like you have when you realize that you’re going to hit that car that just pulled out in front of you, or on your first day on the new job when you discover that you hate it, or standing at the altar about to say “I do” and realizing you don’t.  In that moment I knew in my heart of hearts that the Rabbit was going to be a disaster, and I should immediately cut and run.  To hell with the Rabbit, get back on the bus, McClure, hightail it for home.  But I’m a lot of things, horse-faced for one, and dumb as dirt for another, but I’m no quitter!  I was going to see this through. I was going to win!

Next day we dragged the Rabbit out of the brambles and shoved it onto a long derelict concrete slab from some forgotten building and I started working.  In order to ramp up the classiness of this build, cuz I’m all about classy, I jury-rigged a blue tarp roof over the site so that I could work in the rain, which it did with alarming frequency for someone accustomed to the American Southwest.  Before the trip I’d consulted with various VW diesel dudes, and their received wisdom was that it must be that the rings and valves were bad, given the death throes the car had had six months earlier,  I then voted for their proposed Cheap-ass Rebuild™, aka the in-car rebuild.  You drop the oil pan, pull the head, drop the crank and pistons but leave the block in the car attached to the transaxle.  And then you hone, baby hone!

The actual rebuild in progress. Note my waterproof tarp. And yes indeed, your clever eye spotted a porta-pottie behind that green bucket. Sometimes a man’s gotta go where a man’s gotta go.

Some highlights:

Day 1: Someone who shall remain nameless not only left the goddamned window down but also left the key on for six months, so the battery was dead as a dodo.  Did you know that a battery for a diesel 1.5 VW engine is nearly as pricey as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program?  It rains that day.

Day 2: Machine shop calls, the head is cracked!  The injectors are bad!  The injection pump needs seals!  Yay!  It’s going swimmingly, another testament to my good judgment.  It rains.

Day 3: Cylinder holes are as worn out as Polish submarine jokes.  Buying new pistons will put this financial fiasco even deeper into National Deficit territory, so it’s hone away and hope the bigger rings do the trick!  It rains.

Day 4:  Reassembly day.  Rings, bearings, and head bolts, oh my! Twist, turn, tighten, press, squeeze and pray.  It drizzles.

Not my Rabbit, but pretty much how the interior looked. Bottom of the line, except mine had vinyl seats.

And now we come to the moment of truth, that moment that my entire life had been leading up to, time to try to start it up.  I sit on the throne-like vinyl drivers seat, padding is a little thin, I note, insert and twist the key, hold my breath, and it cranks.  And cranks.  And cranks.  Hmm.  I pause, not wanting to overheat that pricey starter.  Gotta let the pump and injectors fill up, right?  Turn key again, cranks, cranks, then suddenly BAAhruuum rummm rummm followed by the largest cloud of smoke since Krakatoa blew in 1883 and a horrific rattling as the dead diesel came back to life.

Either Krakatoa in 1883 or Silverdale, Washington in 1991.


Now, time for the butcher’s bill.  I have a running 1979 Rabbit with the deeply coveted oil burner engine.  Total cost thus far, uh, 6 + 2, carry the 3, add in the 7 and uh, it’s $1,750 bucks or so including travel to get here.  Value of the car?  $1200 bucks, maybe, but that would require finding another ignoramus maroon like myself who has a VW crush and reduced executive functioning.  Back home in Texas, land of Real Goldurn ‘Murican Cars and Pickemups, this pathetic little wheezer Rabbit is worth $800 clams, tops.

Me and Wheezer at my folks in Bakersfield.

Epic fail.

But it’s not over yet!  Got to get this thing home, and there is no time for shakedown testing and fine tuning, the trip will serve as the test bed for knocking all the bugs out.  Heck the military does that all the time, right??  How hard can it be? We pack our bags and off we go!

It handles pretty well, and even all these years later I recall well the visceral fun of roaring down the Interstate flogging the little bitty go-cart like Rabbit for all it was worth.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.  It was very responsive to the helm, and, while slow, felt faster than it was, probably because it was low and lacked a lot of insulation.  A fun ride, I was very happy and felt smugly satisfied that, in spite of the total and complete financial disaster this car represented, it was a fine ride home and I was winning!

Reggie and I are standing in almost the exact same pose. Coincidence? I think not.

Oh, we had a few teething problems. Had to replace some stuff, you know, like the valve cover gasket, a belt blew apart, and something was seriously wrong with the brakes.  But hey, that’s why God made rest stops, right?  The wife made sandwiches while I rejiggered the Neinstukkenheimer while simultaneously resetting the Achtuooberlettr and tightening the Frigginleben.

  Eventually, after sleeping in a few of these rest stops, we smokily roared into Bakersfield to my folks’ for some needed more serious repairs.  As these repairs were going to take a while, we had to buy a plane ticket and send the missus back to Texas so she could, you know, like, keep her job.  Ah well, what’s another 170 bucks, that’s what credit cards are for, right?  She jets home and I settle down to seriously skinning and cleaning my Rabbit.

In Bakersfield after I got it running decently, mom snapping pictures so they could have some to give to the Highway Patrol when I vanished in the desert trying to drive it home.

By the time I set off for Texas, a week later, the car is purring like a kitten and fulfilling all my dreams of fuel efficient Germanic manhood.  Damned if there is not a single problem on the remaining Interstate home, and I roar along at nearly 60 mph (can you believe the speed this baby has?) heading back to the promised land having thoroughly spoiled the Egyptians.

Where is Albuquerque anyways??

Stopped once in Albuquerque, unlike Bugs Bunny my Rabbit didn’t take a left turn at Albuquerque, and I bought fuel, the only time I refilled that Rabbit from Bakersfield to Texas.  Slept for a few hours near Tucumcari, N.M. in a rest stop, and paroosed into Belton the next afternoon like Caesar after defeating the Gauls, 27 hours after starting out.  Ooo-rah!

Now, listen little children and you will hear the best part of the whole tale, and you won’t believe it but it’s the gosh durned truth.  The Rabbit managed to average 58 miles per gallon on the trip from Bakersfield to Belton.  That means my Rabbit had an actual range of 1,218 miles.  Let that sink in.  Oh and back then diesel was going for a buck and a quarter a gallon, so to drive the Rabbit to empty would cost $26.25, or 0.02 cents per mile.  Never, in the long and painful history of the human race, has there ever been a cheaper way to travel than my Rabbit!


I owned it for a couple more years, fixing up this and that, like new little hubcaps, drove nearly an hour to get them, wax and polish, some gauges, a radio.  But you know what, let’s be honest now in the harsh grim light of middle age, this car was a turd.  In the Texas summers it was miserable to drive, it rattled like a coffee can full of marbles at idle, was deathtrap slow, uncomfortable, smoky and smelly, and, in the end, I confess freely before men, disappointing.  It was almost the perfect car, if only.  Yeah, sure, it squeezed the miles out of a gallon of fuel, but man shall not live by MPGs alone.

Owning the 79′ Rabbit never really felt this special.


So I sold it.

Got $750 bucks for it.  Ah well.

But I wasn’t done with diesel VW Rabbits.  See, if only it had AC, if only it had four doors, if only it had power brakes, if only it had cloth seats, if only, if only, if only.  All I needed to do was find a Rabbit with these features and all would be well with my soul.