COAL: 1978 VW Rabbit Diesel – Bunny Tales

One of the good things about being associated with the car business is that you will never be without wheels for any length of time; there is always something kicking around for you to drive. When the 1974 Corolla finally met its maker, I needed a car to drive me and my stuff to the lake or the ski hill and I needed it fast. My parents had a garage and there were always cars on Garage Liens there. It was a strange quirk of life that more often than you might think, people just walked away from their car, sometimes because they could not pay the bill or for some other reason. At this point, I still loved cars and I wanted a good driver.

I was far more interested in motorcycles at this time in 1986 than I was in cars (that installment will come later) so a car for me was something that kept me dry, had a nice interior, was cheap and didn’t need much wrenching. Even though I grew up working on stuff, I was never terribly happy with getting greasy, so any car I had must be reliable.

At the back of the lot we had a really ugly 1978 Rabbit Diesel L four door. It had been brought to us by a hippie-granola woman who complained of brake problems, had them done and then couldn’t pay the bill, which was like $300. The car was covered with surface rust and was that horrid “safety orange” (PN: All I could find was a yellow one; sorry) that the Germans loved that the time.

The good points were the engine was excellent, with 400+psi in each cylinder and it started up cold with no drama. The interior was brown mouse fur but it was German mouse fur and it was the L model, so it looked good. It also had new brakes all around, which is what the unpaid bill was all about. I ran it around the block and it was very tight and peppier than I thought it would be. The surface of the body looked awful but the underside was fine, no problems in any areas at all. The rust had formed on stone hits, as the car had been living on a gravel road in Sooke. It was the first drive of a long love affair with Rabbit Diesels.

The Rabbit has been discussed on COAL more than once before but I will add my impressions of them. The 1975-76 models had many teething problems and were best avoided but by 1977, most of the early glitches were ironed out and the ones that were not were easy to take care of. The Rabbit had a great body structure and excellent suspension. Nothing available at the time in the class drove better. The seating position was exceptionally good, with high seats and the steering wheel and shifter were in the right places. With the rear seat folded you could get tons of stuff in the back.

Finally, the cars were very easy to repair; all the parts from a 1977 model were the same as a 1980 and thus cheap and easy to get. The diesel model made all of 48 hp in the 1.5 litre but it did not feel slow. The torque of the diesel was amazing in how it could pull you around town in third gear. It was really not any slower than anything else and it got like 50 mpg. One tank would last three weeks for me and cost less than $20 to fill on those days.

Rabbit Diesels were very popular in Soviet Canuckistan and they sold well; this despite the price tags on them. A Rabbit Diesel L four door was priced at over $8000 in Canada when it was new in 1978, which at the time would have bought you a really well equipped Impala. Clearly, many people were not thinking dollars per pound and there were loads of wrecks around for anything you might need. Anyway, my Rabbit was in need of body and paint so over to my body guy we went. When you are in the car business, you get to know many rather “odd” people and “Wham-bam-thank-you-Ma’am-Bodyman-Sam” was one of those. Sam, when not on an extended drunk, could make anything look good, even a Rabbit as bad as mine was. The secret to Sam was getting him right off a big bender, when he was broke and had to pay back his loan shark. By chance I did; Sam was hard up for cash, so I made a deal for $500 cash  for bodywork and paint. I would drop the Rabbit off Friday afternoon and pick it up on Monday.

When I picked up the car, it looked like new. All the rust was gone and the paint was perfect. Sam was beaming at the work (no doubt done by the twenty cousins from India who worked there illegally) and all was good. I now had a very nice Rabbit for the total cost of $150 (what we had into it) to clear the lien and $500 in body and paint. Not bad for a good ride. In fact, it was an excellent little car. It drove very nicely and was really cheap to run. The interior was also very nice for the era.

I drove that Rabbit for almost a year and I don’t have many memories of it because I treated it like a disposable appliance but I do have one interesting vignette from it. In the fall of 1986, my girlfriend and I were really tired and stressed from working and studying at the same time. We decided to rent a cabin on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, in Tofino. It is a beautiful place in summer but we were going in November, the stormiest month in these parts. We loaded up the Rabbit and headed out from Victoria. It is only about 350 km but the road is very twisty, windy and narrow. The rain was coming down in torrents the whole way but the Rabbit never missed a beat. On some really steep stretches, second gear was required but really, 48 hp was all that were necessary.

When we got to the resort, I gingerly went down the long driveway. Half way through there was a huge lake. We pondered what to do; I reasoned that there was no ignition to short out and the air horn was high, so I put in in low gear and had right at it. The drag of the water slowed the car down quite a bit so I stomped it and it kept pulling. The water was splashing up the window sills and I was afraid the car would float and sink but low and behold, we made it. The owner of the place was watching and was amazed we had done it. My skeptical girlfriend laughed like hell and at the moment christened the car, “Scuba-Bunny.” The name stuck for the rest of the time I had it.

When it comes to cars, I cannot stand success at all and cars never meant much to me anyway. Motorcycles were what mattered so if I could flog a car at a profit before having to fix anything, I was always happy. In fact, I did the same thing with motorcycles; I would buy one with fresh tires and recent service, ride it for a season and sell it. It was cheaper than tires and service. Anyway, the next riding season came up and I need to get rid of Scuba-Bunny to get a nice bike to ride. She still looked good (I always thought she was female for some reason) and Rabbit Diesels were really easy to sell. It went into the paper and sold the first day for $2000. I had driven it for a year and made $1350, a tidy profit. It was always nice to drive at a profit, which I usually managed to do in those days, until my next car, which was a horror story.

Rabbits were far and away the best small car on the market in their heyday, 1977-1980. I had quite a few more over the years because I could always make money on them but what struck me was how easy they were to work on and how cleverly they were designed for home maintenance. Things like changing heater motors took minutes, same with anything else on the cars like starters. Three wrenches would take most of the car apart and there were tons of used parts around. The American (Westmoreland, PA-built) Rabbits were never as good and were totally shunned in Victoria. The 1977-80 models soldiered on far longer than you could think possible. I recall when I returned to Victoria for a visit in 2003 there were still a surprising number of them on the road. And every Bunny has a Tale.

(photos by Paul Niedermeyer)