Cars Of A Lifetime: 1984 VW Diesel Pickup – Old Rabbit Habits Are Hard To Break

(pics not of my actual car, but close)

In my last article I promised there would be no Rabbits of any kind. I’m a man of my word (mostly): it’s not; it’s a VW Pickup, or VW Caddy as it’s known in the rest of the world. This particular VW Pickup was a diesel once and almost a turbo diesel another time. And if you like bullet holes in your cars ala- Travelall this one might suit you as well.

I don’t remember how we obtained this pickup, or from where. In fact my earliest memory of it was of my friend Peter owning it and putting new struts and shocks on it for him.  It was another baby blue VW ( I don’t know where he kept finding them), I do so hate that color, perhaps even more than chartreuse or mid-eighties Buick metallic blue. But more importantly it had a Gemtop canopy and it was a diesel – five speed. For most of it’s existence with us it was owned by Peter. And of course it had an interesting life with him.

image source: oldparkedcars

Because it was a Rabbit at heart it had electrical problems. Eventually it failed to start reliably and Peter called up to get me to tow it home for him. I was driving my 1973 Dodge M886 5/4 ton search and rescue truck. So I hooked a tow strap on and prepared for a fifteen mile drive through the countryside to my house. But we got about a mile before things went horribly wrong.

I stopped at a stop sign and turned right (mind you, I could not actually see the pickup through the back doors, or even feel it back there).  As I started to straighten out I looked in my right mirror to see the pickup just keep turning. It turned right into the ditch, I thought that he must have straightened it out by then and so I kept pulling him. It came out of the ditch but now he was heading straight for a mail box. By this time I could see that the front wheels were still turned right. I figured something must be wrong with the steering. So with the mailbox coming up fast I turned left (as there were no cars coming) and gave it the gas. The pickup must have missed the mailbox by an inch and then it tugged back toward the ditch, but by this time Peter was on the brakes and I was keeping tension on the strap to keep it out of the ditch.

I got off the road and went over to Peter. I asked him what the hell the problem was. He said, “I am never going to live this one down”. What one? I asked. Well, remember how you said to put the key in and to turn it on? Yeah, I said. “Well I didn’t do that part”. What do you mean? I asked. To which Peter replied, “The keys are in my pocket”.

Amazingly the Pickup was not even scratched in the incident and we made it back safely after inserting the keys in the ignition and unlocking the column.  The problem was easily fixed and the pickup lived with Peter until he sold it to our friend Bill. Bill was considerably bigger than Peter and it was most entertaining watching him get in and out of the little VW. But he needed a commuter car for his new job and the Pickup got great fuel mileage.  Now I should note that Bill had destroyed every car he had owned to date, either by crashing it or by “repairing” it. And his losing streak was not broken with the purchase of the Pickup.

image source: oldparkedcars

After several months Bill showed up at my house with a sick Pickup. I diagnosed it as a blown head gasket. At the time I was working nights, so repairing it was all on Bill; I could only give him some instruction before heading off to bed most of the time. Well, after making sure the head was not warped or cracked it came time to put it all back together. I had given him detailed instructions about finding top-dead-center and lining things up right before he removed the head. Apparently those words were wasted breath.

Bill’s attempts to start the car awoke me just long enough to know that he had done it all wrong. I fell back to sleep with the distant sound of valves hitting pistons.  Apparently Bill kept trying to start it until it would not try anymore.

I happened to have a wrecked Volkswagen Quantum with a perfectly good turbo diesel engine sitting under the trees out back. So I bought the broken Rabbit pickup from Bill. But of course as Robert Burns famously wrote; “the best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew”. So it never did receive the turbo but it did get the turbo diesel engine.

Once the VW Pickup was back on the road it really struck me just how small it was. I am 6’3″ inches tall and not so thin. I had changed jobs and was working as an executive secretary to a church senior pastor at the time (actually doing some stuff I went to school for!). At the time we had a hefty young intern from the east coast who was even more fond of eating than I. So given the exceptional fuel mileage of the Rabbit (offset by my use of off-road-only fuel, don’t tell) we decided to drive up to Portland to find some good pastries. Once we got there however, we were wanting real food. So not knowing of any buffets (we liked buffets) we turned around and drove to the casino in Grande Ronde (between the coast and Salem).  Finally having stuffed ourselves we headed back. But  because of our immense size, now increased by our consumption of immense portions of food, I cannot say that our trip was pleasant. It took all the next day for my cramped gas pedal foot to recover.

Eventually Peter bought the car back from me and drove it to California for his family reunion. A day or so after Peter left I got a phone call from him. He said that the car had a big oil leak, that he didn’t have any oil, and that he had “nursed” it into a gas station. I of course explained to him that you can’t “nurse” a car with no oil. He found out it was the oil filter that was leaking at the seal. So he replaced it and got it back home. But it kept having the same problem. New oil filter, not over-tightened, eventually the seal would give out and oil would spray forth. I found out in an old service bulletin that it was actually caused by a recalled part. Apparently some of the oil filter bosses were manufactured slightly warped. But by that time the engine was smoking and loud so we decided to sell the car.

But as I was cleaning it up to sell and removing Peter’s custom license plates I noticed something. Sometime between Bill and Peter owning it, a bullet hole had appeared in the front license plate! Since both of them were avid shooters it was hard to pin it on either of them. However, Bill did once accidentally shoot a box of .22 ammo in his trailer home causing a chain reaction that left a few holes in the walls.  And Peter was disallowed from hunting with at least two different groups for certain gaffes.  But neither of them claimed to know anything about it. I still have the holy license plate today and the original injector pump laying around somewhere. And by the way, this really was the last Rabbit/Golf-family vehicle I ever bought.

A young enthusiastic guy bought it with the turbo charger and parts, and intents on doing all the things we had never got around to doing with it. Well, best of luck to him, I thought, he’ll need it.