I found this pickup a couple of weeks ago, and have been holding it in reserve for Volkswagen week. With its shiny red paint job and sporty wheels, it looks ready to leap into service, providing its owner with a useful load capacity and economical operation. Volkswagen built this pickup in their Westmoreland, PA factory, and first offered it in late 1979 as a ’80 model.
By offering a pickup built in the US, Volkswagen had a competitive advantage over the Japanese mini-trucks. Up until 1980, Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Mazda had been avoiding the “Chicken Tax,” a 25% tariff on imported trucks, by shipping vehicles to the US without a bed, and completing the assembly in the states. In 1980, Congress closed that loophole, increasing the tariff on all imported Japanese pickups. In contrast, Volkswagen’s Pennsylvania factory allowed them to sell their Pickup tariff free.
This picture clearly establishes the Pickup’s roots, as every component forward of the back window appears to interchange with a Rabbit. Based on the horizontally mounted front marker lights, it appears the fenders may have been exchanged with a German sourced Rabbit (Golf), as all pickups of this era were US built and had vertically mounted marker lights. Later models shared the US Rabbit’s wrap around turn signal/marker light assemblies.
However, given California’s close proximity to Mexico and parts south, and Volkswagens tendency to move tooling from country to country, this may be a newer pickup built in another market, and then snuck across the border sometime in the past thirty years…
Back when I lived in Colorado, encountering one of these on a mountain road led to many miles spent viewing this tailgate. The pickup originally came with two engine options- a gasoline four with little power (78 HP), and a diesel four with no power (48 HP). Both engine options provided impressive fuel economy, but required a patient driver to reap the benefits of low displacement. Volkswagen did upgrade the motor in 1982, but the only vehicle the Pickup outgunned shared space in the VW showroom, and came with a van body.
Volkswagen provided a full 6 foot bed, and engineered a monocoque body using double wall construction. The pickup offered an 1,100 pound load capacity, and held up well in service. The wheelbase increased by 8.8 inches compared to a Rabbit, with an overall length extension of 15.8 inches.
NONE of this extra length appeared in the cab. I looked at buying one of these pickups in the mid-eighties, and a brief drive around the block convinced me the cab was unlivable for anyone taller than six feet (maybe even 5′ 8″). Keep in mind; I drive a Miata on a regular basis, so I’m not claustrophobic. This cab provides less leg room than a typical full sized van, but lacked the tall cab and elevated seats!
In 1980 and ’81, Rabbit pickup sales were very solid, exceeding 25,000 units each year. However, sales quickly tanked, dropping below 10,000 units in 1983. Sales of the diesel engine were especially hard hit, going from about 75% of sales in 1981 to only 27% the next year.
Many websites blame this sales drop on cheap gas, but gas prices remained high in ’82 and ’83. I think the more likely explanation was two new pickups that also avoided the chicken tax.
The Chevy S-10 appeared in 1982, and Ford brought out the Ranger in 1983. Both models were US built, and as the 1983 prices shown in this picture indicate, significantly undercut the Volkswagen’s base price. Since US truck buyers preferred the body on frame construction of these new trucks, VW sales evaporated. In 1984, Volkswagen sent the truck tooling to South Africa, where they built pickups until 2007.
That does not make the VW Pickup a bad vehicle- it provided reliable service and met the needs of its drivers. But when the pickup market offers more truck for less money, good fuel economy isn’t enough to maintain sales. Until someone finds a way to defeat this equation, car based trucks remain tucked into the background of automotive history, waiting for their moment in the sun.