COAL: 1986 VW Jetta – Fahrvergnügen Gone Bad

What I wanted my Jetta to look like

Cars have always been a passion of mine since early childhood; quite likely because my Dad also loved cars too. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t always make the best car purchases. Sometimes, yes;, but often not. This is where I probably inherited the inability to stand success and keep a good car until it was used up, or past repairing. I have had many a great car that I simply flipped because I was bored or thought something better would come along. The Fahrvergnügen experience made me realize I could get one thing right and sell the car before it caused me to lose a limb or two in the ridiculous amounts of repairs my German Driving Machine would have cost me.

Really, it was time to go

In 1976, my family were English refugees from the province of Quebec, which was in the process of passing racist, anti-English laws. My parents saw the writing on the wall and I ended up in a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was quite a shock after cosmopolitan Montreal. My older brother and sister quickly saw that Small Town BC was not a happening place unless you chopped down trees and drank copious amounts of draught beer every day, so they flew the coop almost instantly. This left me alone, and at age twelve, with plenty of free time. This time was devoted to car magazines, mostly Car and Driver.

Well, for Car and Driver at the time, German cars were the pinnacle of everything. No amount of superlatives could describe them. By age fourteen, I was completely committed to German cars, they being the Highest Order of The Universe. I could spout every statistic associated with any German car model and proudly pronounced them as the best driving cars on the face of the planet. The fact that I had never been in anything but a Beetle and didn’t have a driver’s license only increased my desire of All Things German.

Me, in 1986

My 1978 Rabbit certainly drove well and had excellent all around dynamics. I sold Scuba Bunny in 1986, the same year I graduated from my Bachelor’s degree. I was working in the family garage/taxi business and was making pretty good money. I decided I really wanted a NEW car, not a used one and of course, it HAD to be GERMAN. I mean, German cars were the best. I convinced myself the reason we never saw them at our shop was they were so good. The Golf was out of the race because it was built in America so it had to be a Jetta. The problem for me was the price: even the cheapest model, the two door, gas, with nothing, not even power steering, was $10,400. That is just under $20,000 in today’s money, not cheap at all, especially for a car that plain. For example, we just looked at a Hyundai Accent for Annie and it was $19,000 loaded. What’s worse, the interest rate on the loan back then was 13.9%, meaning whopping payments. I would never do this now but at age 21, I was young and foolish, so I took the plunge.

Exactly how I felt at the time…

The dealer experience was horrible. The owner was a German guy (who was actually named Rudy) who had the attitude, “Should I let you have one of the Vaterland’s pieces of auto-artwork?” I was completely ignored when I entered the stealership; they evidently thought I could never afford one of their fine products. I eventually found a sales woman who was shocked I was there and tried to sell me a used Rabbit. I went out and found exactly what I wanted, a base, gas two door Jetta in white. She was totally shocked that I had $2000 in cash for a deposit. In we went and the deal was written up; they would not budge one cent on the price, either. If I wanted the joys of German Driving, I was going to have pay full price for it.

This was the line-up for ’87. The ’86s were almost the same

The car drove and handled very well. The body structure was really solid and the tweed upholstery looked like it was going to last forever. The 90 hp 1.8 litre gas motor was more than enough power for the light car and the 5 speed transmission really did fall readily to hand. Driving the car on a windy road was really a load of fun since without power steering, you had superlative road feel.

This was a Canadian spec car, whose emission controls were not nearly as strict in the USA, so my Jetta had no catcon and ran on regular fuel. The K-Jetronic system was really good, and the power of the motor was really smooth and linear. It wasn’t a powerhouse, but it revved up to 5500 very well, where the long-stoke engine reached its power peak and would not go any higher. I wanted this car because I knew there were loads of cheap, high-po parts for them, all easy bolt-ons.

Beautiful Qualicum Beach, site of the first (of many) Jetta Maladies

As soon as I got the car, of course I had to make a road trip up the Island to show my friends, so Friday after work I headed to Campbell River, about 300 km from Victoria. It was a fine, sunny day and my girl and I really enjoyed the first leg of the trip. However, right around Qualicum, it started to miss intermittently, then one cylinder went dead. “How could this be happening?” I thought, this is a GERMAN CAR, and GERMAN CARS are the best and never break, especially when they had like 400 km on the clock. I limped the car into Campbell River, to the VW dealer that was closed on Saturday so I had to wait until Monday morning. Of course I was due for work then, too, but I was not going to risk driving my pride and joy back on three cylinders.

The Famous (for us) Big Rock of Campbell River

Thus we got a nice hotel and decided to make a holiday of it. Good thing, too, since the diagnosis was a bad injector, the only replacement being in Toronto. I was assured it would be there first thing Wednesday and I would be on my way, and that, “Oh, these cars have bad injectors all the time, that is why we are out of stock on them” really made my feel secure about my German Dream. Said part in fact came in on Friday; I had missed a week of work. I should have taken the bus back to Victoria and gone back to get the car the following weekend. Live and learn, eh?

So started the Tale of Woe named Jetta, an experience that is still with me to this day. Call me foolish or naïve, but when I buy a new car, I expect it to be perfect. If it is not, then I expect the dealer to fix it in a reasonable time, with the least inconvenience possible. Seems this idea never occurred to my local VW dealer. The car had one problem after another; each time it did, off to the dealer I went. Some service guy would greet me, look at me like I was a human cockroach and then tell me I was being too picky.

One actually told me, “Well, you have to be prepared for things to go wrong and ignore minor stuff.” At first, the worst problem was a broken spring in the driver’s seat, that stuck right into the small of my back. After five or more trips, they flat out told me they would not fix it. I had to take it to another dealer 100 km away, where I was told, “Oh, they all do this. There was a bad lot of them. The techs hate doing the job because they lose money on it, so they always report it NFF (no fault found).” Oh joy, I could see that the VW experience was going to be, ahem, rather challenging.

Where Jetta and I lived, Victoria, BC, Soviet Canuckisan

When the car ran right, it really was a cool ride. The interior room was amazing, visibility excellent and the trunk huge. In fact, the car exuded a feeling of quality. In reality, I later discovered, that German cars have a great body structure. It is everything that is attached to the stout body that is crap. In the first year I had the car, it had many issues. Bushings in the front end failed, a strut leaked, another misfire due to a bad coil and a few other smaller ones. It really shouldn’t have been a huge thing to fix these issues, but every time the car had a problem, it took at least three stealership visits to have the problem rectified.

When I added up the time I didn’t have the car to drive, it was sixty-three days in the year. I had made two payments and not gotten to drive the car. I vividly remember when the driver’s side strut failed. I was leaking all over the place and the front end jumped around like a pogo stick; the tech then pronounced that he “Couldn’t feel anything on test drive, NFF.” I then showed the Service Manager, (another German with rather limited social skills) a puddle of oil on the ground and he grudgingly arranged to get it fixed. Installing that strut took, get this: three days and they stuck me with the bill for the alignment, saying that warranty didn’t cover it. I flatly refused to pay anything and drove away.

Must have been Invented for VW dealers

I could go on and on about the experience of German car ownership but it is simply too painful. The Jetta had one problem after another. Even changing to another dealer didn’t make a difference; the new one was just as bad. I later learned that the cars were so bad that the techs made no money on the warranty repairs, so they kicked them out as fast as they could so they could, and try to make some money on retail stuff. After two years of Jettadom, I had enough.

The warranty was just about to expire and I shuddered at the thought of paying retail repairs on the thing, even if I did get it at cut price (Dad was old school; all repairs in the garage by family members were charged at internal rate, me included). I decided to return to school for a graduate degree and I could neither afford the payments nor the headaches. Fortunately, depending on what side you are on, the Canuckistani Peso took a real dump between 1986 and 1988, mostly due to the reckless spending our Borrow and Spend Conservative government of the time (we have something quite similar now, by the way). New Jettas were going for truly insane money, like $14,000 for the car I paid $10,400 for only two years before. I advertised the Jetta at $9500 and I was really surprised at the number of calls I got. The allure of German Car Ownership was alive and well in Canuckistan. I sold the car to a young couple for $8950. I had driven it for two years for about $3000 including interest costs. Not a bad exit for the horrible experience.

One of a handful of XJ750s in Canada

I had enough cash left over for a nice motorcycle and the first year of tuition, so things were not so bad. The Jetta was a really sobering experience and not unlike many I have heard from other German car owners. I can see why VW was such a bit player in North America for so long; the cars are just too hard to live with. Sure, they drive well but you are constantly fixing, adjusting or replacing stuff and the dealers were awful.

It really made me re-evaluate Japanese cars because those damned things darned never ever broke except at very high mileage. We never made anything on them in the garage, except tires and brakes, which were loser for us, too. From that point I told myself any car I drive is going to be the top, or near the top of the reliability ratings. That of course meant “Japanese” and I have never been disappointed with any Japanese car I have ever had. I have had three for long periods and the were all bullet proof. The German car thing for me was a real wake up into the reality of life: your dreams often don’t translate into reality. My next car was the polar opposite to the Jetta but we will have to wait for next week to hear why.