Out for a beer last Friday night on Main St, in Nyack, NY, the honky-tonk of Rockland County. I headed for my car at about 9:15 pm; the temp was probably in the high 20s F and I was hurrying against a chill wind. Just before I reached the intersection of Broadway, I heard the unmistakable “clickity-clack” of a small diesel engine starting up just behind me on the opposite side of the street.
“Look at that!”, I exclaimed to no one. “A Rabbit Diesel!”
From what I’ve read on CC, these little nippers show up in the Northwest with some small degree of regularity, but you never see one in the Northeast. I stepped out into the center of the street to shoot this pic, and the driver, a true hipster (who else would be in such a genuinely hip vehicle?) turned my way. I gave him the thumbs up, and he gave me a quick wave. I didn’t pursue… you can tell someone in a hurry, and he was hunched up against the cold, waiting for for his engine to warm sufficiently to drive off … so I didn’t get to check out the license plate or hear his story. Still, it warmed my heart to see an elderly, yet viable car on the road…it even had a bit of chloride around the wheel wells, showing it’s been in some continuous use this winter. Just don’t forget to take it to the car wash next month and rinse that stuff off, Benjamin…
Here are some CC articles on VW Rabbit Diesels:
YOHAI71 posted this reprint of an Road and Track Extended Use Report last year here
Len Peters posted this COAL of a nearly identical yellow bunny in 2012 here
… and Blogmaster Paul saw this one at a Hot Springs in 2014
Cool car and pic! I don’t get hipsters though, is this being driven ironically then? whatever the case kudos to him for DDing it. Especially a diesel in winter.
These little guys have some hipster cred for whatever reason. Richmond is full of hipsters, and I’ve seen several 1st-gen Rabbits (at least one of them a diesel) and also several of the pickup versions (Caddy to the rest of the world).
Back in the 80’s my friend Brians’s dad had I believe a 81 Rabbit Diesel in that Desert Tan that I’m convinced was VW’s only color back then. I swear if you had gone to the dealership for a paint chip brochure it would have had one big paint chip, in, oh I don’t know, TAN! But anyway, he had turned up the fuel rack and used a different transmission from a earlier car that had different gearing so that when you floored it you couldn’t see the car because of the smoke, but it would do 0-60 in 16 seconds instead of the 24 or so they normally took. It was a hoot to drive. I easily dusted off 240D Mercedes and air cooled VW’s that were still around. Or covered em in soot so they couldn’t see. Except one time. Brian and I were out for a Sunday drive back in 88 running along about 60 when a Karmann Ghia came up behind us. I was driving so we thought no problem, let’s leave him. We had just hit 90 when the opposite traffic lane opened up and I watched the karmann Ghia front end jerk up and he went around us like we were on blocks. We still talk about it to this day. When they moved from Wichita Falls to Bend Oregon in 88 they sold it and I never saw it again.
In high school one of my best friends had a diesel Rabbit in the exact tan color you talk about. That was the loudest car any of us had ever heard. My buddy liked this girl that lived on a dead end street. He would ride by her house and turn around and ride back by. He was fooling no one. The whole neighborhood knew what he was up to.
Oh yeah! My ride at the time was a 71 Maverick with a glasspak. You could here that thing two blocks away. When I would ride by a friends house, I’d push in the clutch and rev it up a couple of times so they knew I was in the neighborhood. We called it “giving ’em a rev”.
…yeah and you still have the damned thing! LOL!
Back in the day.
These were close to the eigth wonder of the world.
A small but powerfull and very fuel efficient Diesel in a small car.
We only had the Peugeot 204 Estate Diesel in this claass and size but this Rabbit/Golf was much much faster and nippier.
The Peugeot’s acceleration was measured in terms of the old-testament 34 second to 90 kph!
We all gazed under the hood, one guy even pointed out where the carburettor was fitted on the gas model, and we simply could not understand !
This Volkswagen and the Alfa Romeo 156 JTD are the two cars that pushed the Diesel forward in a revolutionary way !
Yes ‘t was Alfa Romeo that invented the common rail ultra high pressure injection system NOT Volkswagen Audi group !
There is a strangely comforting sound to the old school diesels. To untrained ears they sound like they are about to die at any moment, but in reality they are generally the most durable of all motors. Speed, what does speed really matter, with 50hp, you will get there eventually, using little fuel, and with less stress!
The KG driver had a built engine. Probably an 1835cc with 2bbl or dual carbs. I had a 1973 Sport Bug which I built an 1835 with 2bbl Holly bug spray 300 cfm carb, big valve intakes and ported heads, Crane cam and headers. It would go 90 mph in 3rd gear and had no problem going way past the 100 mph marking on it’s speedo. Was a lot of fun blowing peoples mind when it could keep up with or pass ’70’s V8 Mustangs and Camaros! I got followed home more then once with people asking me what kind of engine did I have. I would lift up the engine lid and show them the little engine, complete with AC compressor. It locked stock except for the little bit bigger carb and intake manifold with chrome airfilter and the single tailpipe coming out below the rear fender.
Advancing the injector pump timing would really wake up those early Rabbit Diesels, but as you say at the penalty of tons of smoke and reduced fuel mileage.
It definitely had something built back there. I mean it jerked up at least 6 inchs when he went to pass. I can still see it today in my minds eye.
Oh yeah, how temperamental were those Holley Big Spray carbs? I’ve heard good and bad.
In my neighborhood we had an old guy with a little hole in the wall shop that was a carburetor genius. All the dune buggy and baja bug people used him to tune their carbs. He asked for all the specs, valve size, displacement, cam specs, etc. and did his magic. Out of the box the engine had poor idle and flat spots, after old Clint worked on it it worked great and never had a problem after that.
Because of my AC compressor there was not room for dual carbs.
I never liked the Holley Bug Spray carbys much .
I worked for a large Florida environmental firm in the early ’80s. For many of us in the company, work required extensive travel to out-of-town and frequently out-of-state sites. Some of the people bought diesel Rabbits to travel in, hoping to make a profit from claimed mileage expenses. This worked well for a while until the Rabbits started needing repairs from the quickly-accumulating miles. After a few years, the Rabbit owners had to admit that they were actually losing money, sold their cars, and began using company vehicles (or flying and renting for longer trips where hauling lots of equipment was not an issue).
The driver may be young, but do you think the Rabbit will see him out?
The Karmann Ghia may have had a Corvair engine. Back in the old days, adapters were available and it was a cheap way to triple your horsepower. A friend of mine had one. It would come close to doing wheel stands.
Adapters are still available. Problem is the Corvair runs in the opposite direction of the VW. So you either flopped the ring gear in the tranny to the other side (the cheap way), or tore your engine down and changed the camshaft (the proper way).
Corvair engines worked best in VW Buses, where they would almost fit inside the engine compartment or in sandrails. The extra weight screwed up the balance and handling in the lighter cars, and even in the Bus it didn’t help.
Rover 3.5 V8 works best in VW bus.
A Buick V6 works too.
My wife’s uncle bought one of these new in the early 80s and drove it until he had to quit driving some 25 years later. As a thrifty, pipe-smoking mechanical engineer, the car fit his personality perfectly.
Uncle Jack, also an engineering type, had just bought a gas Rabbit (Golf here) a few months before the diesel came on sale. He was really angry that he hadn’t waited and bought the diesel.
Volkswagen did not have good luck with their oil motors in the early days. But I will give them an A for effort, and have seen, and worked on, marine versions used in sailboats.
The ’77-80’s were very durable, I saw many in mid 200k miles that were problem free. The yellow car pictured is an early German built Rabbit, and may well still be running it’s original engine. When VW increased power and displacement in the ’81 and up versions, some would have head cracking and gasket problems. Not the majority of them, but if got a bad one it sucked. It wasn’t worth the small power increase.
Interesting as when new , coaxing more than 60,000 miles out of a ’77 ~ ’80 Rabbit Diesel was a very rare thing indeed .
Both my Brothers caught the Diesel Bug and bought brandy new Rabbit two door Diesels , paying well over invoice for the privilege , one died about 80,000 miles the other made it to California from Boston and made to 99,000 miles before it began spewing coolant .
My friend and co-worker’s Dad bought a ’77 Diesel Rabbit, the first one our dealership got. He ran his to 230k miles with no problems, he did have it serviced at the dealership to VW’s recommended specs.
He traded it in on an ’82. That one did blow a head gasket and cracked the head at around 150k miles. After repair he drove it until he died, the mileage was close to 300k miles at that time. Working in the parts dept I would take note of the mileage of the cars off the service RO’s. Over 200k miles was not uncommon. I did see a lot die from broken timing belts not being replaced at service interval and some from overheating due to cooling system problems. The Diesel would not last long if driven while overheating. But I did see a lot more head gasket failures on the ’81 up engines.
There was also a recall on the ’81 up cars(not sure of exact years, it’s been a long time) due to a design defect in the crankcase vent system, where the crankcase oil could be sucked up into the engine and it would run away at high rpm until it sucked all the oil out and the engine seized! It was a rare event, and we did lots of recall breather kits to prevent this from happening. If it happened, turning off the key would not stop the engine.
Yup, Brian’s would sometimes not shut off when you turned the key off because of that vent problem. But it never ran away, it would just continue to idle. You’d have to put it in gear and pop the clutch to shut it down when that happened.
We bought an ’84 Diesel Rabbit new, with factory engine block heater, and it served us very well-with reasonable care-through 12 years of Wisconsin winters and summers. Sold it at 230,000 to one of my buddies, and he put another 100k on it. No engine repairs. Original clutch. Fond memories of 45-50 MPGs consistently. Sold it because we needed a family car with a few more safety features!
Howdy Mr. Ulrich!
The other thing you forgot about the Rabbit that Brian had is that on a cold morning, you had to reach under the dash to hand trip the glow-plug relay. A few cranks and you could see his fingers, 1, 2, 3, 4 which noted that all cylinders were finally firing.
Other things of interest for that specific car;
– It had a BAE turbo kit on it
– It had the Mercedes “Turbo Diesel” chrome plate on the back
– Had a boost gauge (could push about 14 PSI) and an EGT gauge with “1150* Max” sticker on it.
– Had the hand-crank moon roof that Mr. Ulrich loved!
At that time I had an 81 Honda Civic 1500DX (1.5L, 3bbl, 5-speed) that could take him off the line, but after about 75-80 MPH the Honda would run out of steam, and with my foot to the floor, that that damned Rabbit would gently cruise by. Top speed was probably around 90-95 max, you didn’t get there fast but it was pretty quick for a diesel banger and tons of fun to drive, even though the 2nd gear synchro was a little worn.
Brian told me that it finally started rusting out and the engine finally failed probably around 1992. We were unsure about the miles it had, but it was easily in excess of 300K.
I did not know it was turboed. That explains a lot. Never looked under the hood. Yup, Rebecca’s 84 Volvo had probably the same sun roof. Loved it too. I love those old metal manual crank sun roofs.
I did…often. The injection pump was adjustable so he would dial up more fuel for a little performance bump. MAN his dad would get PO’d when he did that! Like his dad didn’t have a lead-foot. He was the only person I knew that had a GTO spec’d 400CID engine in a green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon!
Wonder if the Karmann Ghia was turboed. You should have been with us. It was something to see, that’s for sure.