After the failure of the 1951 Ford F-1 to live up to my hopes and dreams as the perfect modern family car, I turned once again to VW. Now don’t shake your head and mutter, “What a maroon, this guy is an idiot”, hear me out. Perhaps you recall the huge successes that were my ‘77 Westfalia and ‘79 Rabbit. Do you remember how that Rabbit threw down 58 mpgs on the freeway? Do you recall how the Westy had a portable potty allowing for relief at 55? And since diesel was still running through my blood it was time, time to find the only car that could possibly top the first Rabbit, another one, a better one, one with AC!
Scanning of the Thrifty Nickel ads began at once. Bam, a hit! An ad for a 1984 VW Rabbit popped right up and it said it had air conditioning. “Good condition” claimed the copy, giving a phone number and a price, $1,500 dollars American, and it was the diesel. I called and the fellow sounded young, like me, and he offered to show me the car RIGHT NOW!
Did I just hear a hint of desperation in his voice? Hmm.
I met the fellow at his work, one of the stores at Fashion Fair Mall in the joyful, blissful, super happy fantastic city of Fresno. He came out a back door on a “break” to show me the car. Kind of a longhair type of guy, he’d probably be a hipster now but this was back in 1994, and so he totally lacked an air of irony. But onto the car. It was tan, “Manila Beige”, “L” trim with cloth seats, 4 doors, all stock right down to the radio.
By 1984 Folks at Volks had bumped up the engine to 1.6 liters in size, and it now pumped out 52 horsepower at a dizzying 4,800 rpms linked to a four-speed tranny. With a curb weight of around 2,000 pounds that microscopic amount of ponies under the hood wasn’t as bad as it sounded (OK, it was) Yes, indeed, this car had beautiful cold AC! Well not so cold, it “needed a can of Freon”, but the potential was there. The only obvious option other than the AC was the AM/FM radio.
Now all this sounds great you say, a 10-year-old diesel Rabbit for only 1,500 bucks. “Hey maroon VW guy, why aren’t you jumping for joy?” you wonder. Why aren’t I rhapsodizing like I’d just figured out the three faces of Eve? Well…
Obviously this car was a crapper, any fool, even I, could tell that it was ragged out and ready for the final slow drive to Pick-A-Part. None of the exterior door handles worked, so to get in you had to leave a window down and Bo and Luke Duke it. Most of the engine’s oil appeared on the ground and outside of the motor, as if the little VW forgot that it’s supposed to be inside to do the most good. The seats had holes, but that’s OK because it broke up the pattern of grease and smudges, and the carpet followed suit. Remember those silly headliners that were glued on and tended to fall down on your head? Yeah, it had one. Rattles and shakes and smoke bellowed from the engine just a bit more than it should have, something was wrong here, my gut told me. On the odometer registered 185,000 miles and come change.
Nah foo, I ain’t buying this car. Even I got standards. (I know, you are shocked)
I tell the guy not interested and start to walk away.
“Wait!” he yells after me, “How much will you pay?”
“Not interested” I affirm, and turn again.
“Wait! How about 1,200?” he asks.
“Nah” I reply.
“Then how about 1,000 even?”
“Nope.” I say, arms crossed.
“Then how about 850?”
Never in my short and smelly life had I been involved in a barter like this; I was doing nothing and the guy was doing all the work, continually lowering his price until he found my pinch point. Well, I didn’t have one for this loser car, not going to happen.
“No, still not interested.”
“How about 750?”
“Hmm”, that was getting tempting, “Nah”.
“OK, OK, how about 700 dollars? Please, please buy my car!”
Geez, what the hell? Was this guy serious? He seemed to be close to tears, and I started to feel a little sorry for him, a pathetic out-of-time proto-hipster panicked at the thought of having to hold onto this rolling pile of dogsh…wait a minute, 700 bucks?!
“OK, sold” I blurted out, somewhat shocked at myself.
The dude smiled like he’d just won the lottery, “Thank you thank you” he exclaimed, a beatific smile on his face.
We signed the papers on the spot, he had them quite handy, and he handed me the single key, shook my hand a little too happily, and scooted back into his place of work with a fistful of dollars almost floating on air. I’m betting a lot of alcohol was consumed that night by him and his posse in celebration.
Now time to drive it home. Frankly I wasn’t sure it would get home across town to the Kings Canyon and Chestnut region, aka the “Garden Spot of Fresno”. (snort) My friend who’d brought me, a fellow student, said he’d follow me to the apartment, “Just to be sure.” He looked mildly horrified at my purchase, but was holding back from saying so in that honorable tradition of his well-mannered Canadian roots, and so off we went. (Canadians will rarely tell you that you are being an idiot, even when you are)
It rattled a little more than my butt felt it should, and it didn’t have enough power to get out of its own way, and the AC was weak, but trying, sort of like the state legislature, but we were moving and keeping up with traffic.
Inside I was smiling, heck I was happy and thrilled. Happy to be driving one of God’s Own Cars again, I mean, come on, it’s a VW Rabbit after all, and thrilled at the way I’d gotten the car for less than half its asking price. I was driving a 10-year-old car that I’d only paid 700 clams for! Now tell me that’s not a coup.
It made it home, and the wife came out to inspect her new reliable, dependable, solid, competent family whip that I’d been entrusted to go buy on my own without adult supervision. “Ummhmm” was her exact comment. She seemed especially unimpressed with the Dukes of Hazzard method of entry, and the overall filth. OK, I’ve got work to do!
Before the traditional wax and oil change ceremony was an immediate run to Pick-A-Part for door handles. While there I picked a few pieces of trim, window cranks, hubcaps, and bumper end caps among other parts. You know, the usual things you buy on the day you buy a car because it didn’t come with them. Then began the cleaning. Scrub a dub dub, one filthy little Vee-Dub. Holy landfill Batman, what had proto-hipster been doing in this car? (don’t ask, don’t tell). Shampoo, wax, wash, repeat. Take a good shower when you are done.
After a full weekend of cleaning and fixing it was ready to go! I even filled the AC and, sure enough, it worked decently well. In fact, I was feeling pretty darn smug now about my little Rabbit. With only some serious elbow grease and a little minor wrenching I’d turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I began immediately bragging to everyone who chanced by how little I’d paid for the car, and what a GREAT car it was, and how it got fabulous mileage and I never had to smog it and blah blah blah.
However, there was one minor fly in the ointment, this Rabbit wasn’t doing the smackdown on the mpgs. It never managed to get more than 38 mpg on the freeway with any of its engines. (Noticed that plural there, didn’t you) In town it was 27ish. I kept these facts hidden from the general public.
The honeymoon, like a lot of whirlwind romances, was short-lived. (little did I know this car would prove the adage, “marry in haste-repent in leisure”) Soon problems, and of a more serious nature, began to manifest. First the radiator went kablooey. Water pump followed. Timing belt had to be replaced. Brakes were all bad, as was the master cylinder. And all the while it leaked oil from every pore.
Then began the Starter Warz. One day the starter failed; you’ve had days like that, right? No big, I’ll swing over to Pep Boys and snag one. Oh my gawd! They wanted some ridiculous price like 250 bucks for one! No way, Jose. Not on my watch. I began prowling and discovered that’s what they cost, but this one local rebuild shop would sell me one for only 150 if I brought them my core. Lifetime warranty. OK. And guess what? That “new” starter failed after about three months as well. Then so did the replacement.
In fact they kept failing at spectacular rates, sometimes the damned things would only last a week or two, and one only lasted a day! I broke down and bought an extra and carried it and the tools to swap it out in the trunk, and by golly I could remove and replace that puppy in 10 minutes in any parking lot. Kept those little blue rubber gloves and a piece of cardboard to lie on handy, and many a moment was passed as the wife and kiddo passed the time ’90s style, aka no cellphones to stare at, while I humped those starters in and out.
This continued the whole time I owned the car.
One glad day we were sitting at a stoplight in Fresyes, valiantly trying to not look at either driver to the side of us for fear of being shot for “mad dogging”, and suddenly the noise from the engine changed ever so slightly. A little hissier, more rattly, and slowly the car began to disappear in its own self-generated fog bank. We drove on and everything seemed fine, as fine as anything ever was driving a Rabbit diesel in Fresno, till the next light, and the same fog quickly covered the land. I also noticed we were leaving quite the trail of it behind us as we motored about. We’d owned the car for about 11 months.
Yup, the block was cracked.
Insert expletives here. Most humans would admit defeat at this point and scrap the VW Rabbit and go buy that Oh What A Feeling Toyota Corolla and rest easy knowing that their significant other would be able to return home from shopping at Sprouts without requiring major auxiliary parts to be swapped on the power train in the parking lot. That’s the plinker way. Not my way. I don’t admit defeat, no way was this little piece of shi…uh, fine example of Germanic automotive engineering going to beat me. Not on my watch! Not only was I going to fix that engine, I would do it myself and save a bundle. After all, I’d done it before.
There were some problems, like as usual I had nowhere to work on the car. We lived in an apartment while I was pursuing a master’s degree in basket weaving, so where to wrench it? I know, how about right smack dab in the middle of the campus student housing? Yup, that’s the ticket, and that’s exactly what I did. Used the basketball court, and used the basketball hoop as the hoist to yank that dead engine right out of that baby in a madcap two-day engine R&R.
Luckily for me a friend who was actually a real mechanic, and 10 times the mechanic I’ll ever be, took pity on me and “helped” with the work. (Actually I helped and he directed) I had learned one lesson, amazingly, don’t bother trying to rebuild these engines, go buy a used one and save a bundle. So I’d found a used 1.6 diesel long block at a local VW salvage yard for 350 bucks, they claimed it was sound and had good compression. We pulled the busted engine, and found a nice big crack on the side of the block, moved over all the accessory fittings, and mushed that new engine in there. Sure a few students muttered things about having a car in their housing quad with the motor hanging from their basketball hoop, something about safety and eyesore and stuff, but you gotta break a few eggs to make a VW omelette.
At the end of two days of hard core wrenching I found myself once again sitting in the drivers seat of an old VW Rabbit about to turn the key and see if it would start. Ironic. Oxymoronic. Idiotic. I dunno, pick one. It started.
This is where I tell you that the car became a triumph. A feather in my bonnet. A joy forever. That I still have it, carefully preserved, and still love and adore it like a newborn child.
Nah, it’s long gone. The gottdammerrung thing still ate starters like a Great White eats seals. (nope, wasn’t the flywheel, checked that, it was pure malice and spite) The timing belt slipped with alarming regularity. (learned how to fix that in a parking lot as well) The AC always seemed to be busily trying to destroy the ozone layer all by itself by leaking all that R12 out as fast as possible, like sometimes on a single trip.
Parts continually failed, it was radiator roulette, pop a hose week, weird electrical problem of month, name that leak, alternator assassination, and “what was that clunk” days. “Brakes? We don’t need no stinkin’ brakes.” If we went more than a couple of weeks without a part failure we were really beating the odds, and clearly the gods were smiling at us. More than a month and I must have made a pact with Satan the Prince of Darkness himself. (For the record, the car never made it that long between something going wrong, so clearly I didn’t sell my soul to the Horned One at a crossroads at midnight. Though I was sorely tempted.)
No wonder proto-hipster had been begging me to buy his car.
By now we’d owned it a couple of years, miserable years, and all my love for VW and Germanic things that roll down the road was thoroughly and completely smothered. Plus I was getting older, I’d hit 30 (woo old) and perhaps the pre-frontal cortex had kicked in enough to realize that this car was a turd that wouldn’t flush.
I sold the Rabbit.
Got exactly $1000 for it. A friend told me that anything that runs here in the flyover part of the Golden State is worth no less than that, and turns out he was right. As it drove away, and you heard it long after you stopped seeing it, I realized that an era in my life was ending, no more cursed Volkswagens for one thing. And no more stupid oddball cars that were some sort of personal crusade. From now on it was going to be normal cars that were solid and reliable, I was done with experimental jalopies from oddball companies and hard luck cases.