Curbside Classic: 1980 VW Jetta – Slap A Big Butt On The Back For Those Damn Amerikaner!

(first posted 9/23/2013)   Poor Volkswagen. Their relationship with the US has always been a bit complicated. Without resorting to stereotypes, let’s just say that it was probably rather painful for VW to see their fabulously successful American invasion of the fifties and sixties fall totally apart. It all started slipping away so fast and ugly in the seventies, a cruel combination of a falling dollar and a rising wave of Japanese imports. That kind of thing doesn’t sit well with the Volk-meisters.

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And to rub salt in the wounds, the bold and brilliant new Rabbit/Golf couldn’t begin to reclaim the lost Beetle territory. VW decided that the problem was that Americans really wanted big booties on their cars, not hatchbacks. Well, there’s some truth to that, and so VW cooked up an Ami Golf, by slapping a nice big one on the back. Didn’t exactly solve all their problems, but it didn’t hurt either. And as VW once again launches a new Ami Jetta to (once again) try to reclaim their long-lost share of the US market, let’s take a close look at the transformation of the original.

As you can see, the transformation is pretty dramatic, or something like that, given how little was actually changed. VW builds a genuine two-door sedan for the Amerikaner. And how many two-door sedans was Detroit building in 1980? Hmm.

Reminds me quite a bit of another VW two-door sedan, but one that wasn’t ever officially imported to the US. Back then, VW thought Americans wanted fastbacks, so that’s what they got instead. And what does VW think Americans want now? Cheap Toyota clones without the Toyota reliability reputation?

Admittedly, the two door Jetta was decidedly less popular than the four door version, which really comes off looking more different than two extra doors might suggest.

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There’s something odd about the two-door, and it’s become a bit of a cult favorite of the VW crowd. There’s this one with an early Golf single round headlight front end around; quite nice indeed. A VW lover lives here, obviously.

The Jetta appeared in time for the 1980 MY, so its run was a bit shorter than the almost ten year run of the Mk 2. Speaking of which, that was the last to offer the two door sedan (above). Seems everyone on the web is calling that a coupe now; sorry, but that’s a two-door sedan. Which is a lot cooler than coupe anyway.

It’s probably well known that the Jetta was a big flop back home; Germans like tidy little butts. And the Jetta’s lack of success caused VW to pull a real GM Deadly Sin of name debasement: the kept changing the Jetta’s name for Europe (and certain other countries). The Mk 3 was the Vento. And the Mk 4 became Bora. Thankfully, VW went back to Jetta for the Mk5, although both those other names are still blowing away in some corners of the world. Meanwhile, VW kept dicking around with the Golf’s name in the US…can we be done with that now?

The Jetta was quite a nice little car. By 1980, the Golf’s early teething frailties were largely done with. My father in law bought one, a red four door with the new 70 hp turbo-diesel. It exuded that old-school VW quality, like in the good old days. The non-metallic paint was like that enamel they put on wood stoves. This car stayed in the family almost twenty years, and to the end, that paint looked as deep and solid as new, after a polish and wax.

For that matter, that applied to pretty much the rest of the car. The Jetta was obviously aimed a step above the Golf/Rabbit, and it came with nice nubby upholstery that was a durable as the paint. And that applied to the deeply padded black vinyl dash. This was during the time when Rabbits were being built in Pennsylvania, and the contrast between one of them and a Made In Germany Jetta was stark indeed (this example looks to be a lower level than their GL, or whatever the top trim level was called).

And it was a nice ride. It felt a bit more refined and less juvenile than the earliest Rabbits. Better sound insulation, and the Jetta weighed more, especially with the heavier turbo-diesel to match the heavier trunk. It left the Jetta feeling like what it was trying to be: a compact FWD Mercedes. The Golf’s tossability was the trade-off.

The turbo-diesel was a revelation in its own right. I’ll be doing a piece on the birth of the VW diesel engine soon, which was a brilliant little piece. But it really, really wanted a turbo all along, which finally turned it into a proper motor. Now it had a nice little surge of torque, and better sounds too. I really liked this red Jetta with its five speed stick, and the lack of available power steering was fine with me, although it left a few Americans complaining. Call an ambulance.

That Jetta was handed down to brother-in-law, who kept it spit and polished, and drove it as a second car to keep his new Mk 3 Jetta pampered. After many more years, it finally needed a new transmission, so it went to someone who knew how easy it was to do that. And it’s probably still running around somewhere in the Bay Area with a BIODIESEL sticker on the ass end. The Germans would be happy to know that.