I have various memories of VW Rabbits, the first one I ever rode in was actually a Golf, probably around 1976 or so when my best friend’s mom replaced her Fiat 126 with a new metallic blue VW Golf. This was back in Germany and I recall how quick it seemed at the time, although she certainly didn’t baby the 126 either. Then my Dad rented one a couple of years later after the head gasket blew on our Audi 100 while at my grandparent’s house half a country away and we needed to get back home and then come back the next weekend to fix the Audi. A green Golf it was that time, also quick the way my Dad drove it. Then there was a baby blue ’84 that my high school friend’s mom had in Los Angeles, it was a diesel, and only fast when Ken “drove” it, i.e. beat the hell out of. And then finally a roommate in college had access to an ’83 Rabbit GTI that got me really interested in them, and eventually I’d have a couple of somewhat newer GTIs of my own.
Rabbits have for the most part cycled through the junkyards at this point, so I tend to look closely when I come across one. This particular one struck me as it had my favorite interior color, and wasn’t an accident victim so we can concentrate on the car; being a 1980 makes it a bit unique as well.
Of course the US originally got its Rabbits from the old country, but in 1978 it was decided that it might be a better idea (i.e. cheaper) to produce them over here. So that’s what happened, VW found a site in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania and started producing them there. James McLernon, a former Chevrolet engineer, had joined VW several years earlier and was chosen to run the plant.
This particular one is a 1980 model, which can be distinguished from the later models by the small taillights. Starting in 1981 through 1984, the final year here they all had the wider format ones (except for the Cabriolet, which kept these smaller units its entire life, which continued all the way into the 1990’s, while South Africa sold the general Mk1 bodyshell all the way until 2009 as the CitiGolf). And this one can also conversely be distinguished from earlier models by its rectangular headlights, the 1980 is the only year to have this front/rear lighting combination.
The Rabbit (Golf everywhere else in the world), was sadly “Americanized” when production started over here and is sometimes derisively mocked as “Malibu Rabbit”. Suspensions got softer, the inside was somewhat broughamized with cheaper materials, there were some interesting interior color choices, and the exteriors even got a little different treatment, with the eventual loss of the round headlights in favor of rectangular units (again, except for the Cabrio, which stayed with the rounds, due to being built in Germany by Karmann the entire time.)
Still, the intrinsic goodness of the package shone through. Excellent interior packaging, a trim and compact exterior, great sightlines all around, fun but secure handling, and a commanding seating position all combined to generally make the Rabbit a success. And of course, the Diesel-engined variant was quite popular in times of high gas prices and something the Japanese really didn’t offer to any significant degree (Yes, there were some, but not pushed or marketed anywhere near as successfully as VW did).
Rabbits were offered in two and four doors, and with three engines as well as three transmissions available for the 1980 model year. There was a base model, the mid-grade “C”, and the “L” which obviously stood for luxury (to be taken in context of course). An automatic transmission was available as well, but most (and all diesels) seemed to have been sold equipped with manuals.
The three engines on offer in the Rabbit lineup were a 1.5l (available everywhere but CA) producing 62hp and 76.6lb-ft of torque, a 1.6l standard in CA but optional everywhere else producing 76hp and 84.1lb-ft of torque (82.7 in CA), and what we see of its remains here, a naturally aspirated 1.5l diesel producing 48hp and 56.5lb-ft of torque. You could opt for a 4-speed or a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed automatic if you ordered the 1.6 gasser, but the automatic was not available for the 1.5 or the diesel.
The brochure quotes a top speed of 93mph for the gasser and 87 for the diesel along with a 0-50mph (not 60 due to the national 55mph speed limit at the time) time of 8.3 seconds (for the basic Rabbit model, apparently the 1.5l, no time is given for the diesel.) At least every one could outrun its 85mph speedometer.
Apparently something happened to this one’s engine and it was disassembled prior to its arrival here, but we’ll never know exactly what the problem was. The large spin-on filter on the firewall is for the fuel.
The rear end of these was always quite attractive with minimal adornment, a simple plunger type lock for the tailgate centered on it. The later (’83/’84) GTI models would get the black surround, a wiper, and a small top spoiler along with the larger lights but this simple form is the one that is most like the original Euro model, besides the large US bumpers of course.
Alamosa is in the south of Colorado, but not really near anything and a small town today, but Ray Carter did operate a dealership there and sold Ford as well as AMC and MoPar products out of it over the years, but not VW, so this was probably a trade-in at some point, which is when someone put the sticker on crooked, which hopefully is not a reflection of Mr. Carter’s business practices. Sometimes a cigar is in fact just a cigar but it’s too good to pass up.
The 40-year-old dirt doesn’t lie, you can see the ghost of the Rabbit on the left, then the lettering as well as the “C” on the right.
Pop that hatch and shade your eyes lest the bright red get to your soul, my bruthas and sistahs! Glory of glories, I do love me some red interior!
That is a well-trimmed cargo area for 1980. Note the side speakers, showing that this car had the deluxe 4-speaker audio system. The other two speakers are in the front doors. Under the carpet is the well for the full-size spare, something VW advertised, no space saver here.
There would have been a rigid cargo cover here, held to the hatch by two strings. The rear seat folds down and the Temple of Redness motif continues all the way forward, a delight in these days when even a red interior will have a black dashboard and steering wheel.
The color is actually known as “Maroon” and the seat material is “ribbed velour”, for everyone’s pleasure. It’s all a shade or two lighter than it likely was when brand new but generally seems to have aged in unison, unlike some GM interiors we could look at one section over in the yard here. The exterior is Alpine White, one of ten choices. The Cabriolets got a different color palette, although a few colors on offer were the same on both.
Those high-backed bucket seats were quite comfortable and the adjustment wheel visible on the passenger seat allowed for the perfect angle with infinite adjustability. The only downside is when you wanted to get it flat in a hurry, you could sprain something trying to quickly get it turned all the way but you might as well just move to the back seat if that’s the plan…
These did have the infernal door-mounted buckles for the seatbelt which it turns out were actually an extra-cost option on the “C” model but standard on the “L”. Who would pay extra for that nonsense? Nobody left them buckled when getting in, it’d strangle you, and was always a bit of pain to buckle up. No such nonsense over in Europe where people just would buckle up due to it making sense instead of insisting on their freedom to die after being “thrown clear” only to have the car roll on top of them. Or get run over by the next car passing by. Or implanting their head on the tree the car plowed into. Or, well, you get the drift.
I suppose if you didn’t get the deluxe audio you ended up with the dash speaker, but if you did get the four speaker system, then what was behind the dash holes in the center? The large shelf is highly useful and I think meant as a knee bolster, it seems to only be there on the models with the passive safety belts, not the normal ones. I suppose someone figured that people would not latch the lap belt and submarine right under it.
There are a lot of color matched bits on this interior if you look at it closely, it’s no wonder that modern vehicles don’t offer so many color options and so broadly due to the cost involved.
The radio is gone, just like happened in 99.9% of these on the road where a thief would break the vent window, reach in, unlock and open the door and then rip out the sweet Kenwood or whatever you had hooked up while usually breaking at least the bezel and often the dashboard itself. The radio was then replaced with a removable version that people would pull out and carry around like a small briefcase with the folding handle until removable faceplates were invented which started the whole cycle again as thieves would (often correctly) surmise that the faceplate was stashed in the glove box.
Placed nice and high on the dash along with the HVAC and other switches to keep your eyes up, like the idea behind those modern floating screens. This one doesn’t seem to have air conditioning which the brochure made a point of noting that it was in fact available with the Diesel as well.
The steering wheel is well sun-baked and now sports a serious texture. Too bad the horn pad is gone but it just consisted of a vinyl cover with a VW logo in it. The later four-spoke wheel was much nicer to use although this one did the job and allowed the hands to rest nicely around 9 and 3.
I shall not damn this with the “Dashboard of Sadness” moniker as unlike the domestics it doesn’t display a bunch of blank gauges. Just the speedo with a fuel gauge and a bunch of warning lights that hopefully don’t fail themselves. If you opted for a tachometer or clock you got a different dashboard with two large gauges in it, what a concept. No blanks. There was even a wood-faced (ok, fake wood-faced) version. Since it’s a 5-digit odometer we can’t tell how many times she’s gone around, perhaps just once (or maybe not even that) since the condition of this car is quite good for its age inside and out. It reads 67,253 currently.
Not a terrible place to be, crack the vent window for some fresh air or roll the main ones down for lots of air. Plenty of legroom in the front too and no intrusive console between the seats, just the handbrake and the shifter which in this example is missing.
Rear seat shoulder belts weren’t required in the US back in 1980, so none of that back here. No head restraints either. But that aside, the cushion is high and long enough for comfort and with the upright position and high roof, the legroom worked out alright as well.
The Mk1 Rabbit (Golf) was a success for VW, and especially the Diesel. Not objectively fast or quick in Diesel form, but frugal, solid, and economical along with a fun to drive chassis, owners tended to hang on to them and usually got a lot out of them.
These were the predominant ride in my mid-80’s high school parking lot. Lots of late ’70’s to early PA cars. A few GTI’s throw in for good measure. My grandfather had a 1979 Rabbit. I am pretty sure it had the square headlights too. He died and it was sold before I was 16, so I never drove it.
Spent a lot of hours in it though. Gas, 4 speed stick and A/C. Metallic brown with a weird shade of interior, kind of nutmeg colored? Not red, not brown, not tan either. His prior car was an old Euro Capri, with the small bumpers. So the Rabbit seemed like a Rolls by comparison (though I wish I had the Capri now).
When I started at a small “Beltway Bandit” in ’85, the company car was the boss’s old Rabbit with no passenger seat. Later, when a pretty new receptionist began sleeping with the VP, she became known as the “Company Rabbit.” She got the company to pay her way through programming school, then dumped him and the company.
Thanks for the rather in-depth article (my phone really wanted to autocorrect that to in-death, which is not entirely wrong).
However, I believe the filter on the firewall would be a fuel filter.
I think you are correct, changing the text, thank you.
I had a few friends with first gen Rabbits, including a roommate with a then quite new Westmoreland diesel L. It had the fake wood, some bright interior trim, and was 100% color matched. Such a contrast to my ‘77 Scirocco or my German-made Fiesta. What I remember most clearly was the racket it made when he started it up in the mornings; my bedroom was at least 100’ away but it always woke me up cold idling before he pulled away.
My father had a 1984 Rabbit diesel when my brother had a 1978 Ford Fiesta, which made for some interesting comparisons. The diesel, with 48 hp, was very slow and noisy, but by then, VW had eliminated most of the bugs, so that car proved very reliable over the ten or so years that Dad had it. The Fiesta was quick and light and felt like it turned on a dime, but rode harshly, especially on potholed Chicago streets. The Fiesta’s 1.6 liter engine revved smoothly and was reasonably quiet, especially at speed. In all, the VW felt like a much more substantial car than the Fiesta, but both had something unique to offer an enthusiastic driver.
There’s still a fair number of the diesel Rabbits on the road here, but the number is shrinking some.
I had a friend in Baltimore who bought a first year ’75 Rabbit, the stripper version with the minimalist hardboard door cards and such. I had driven my ’63 40 hp Beetle out there, and I insisted on a drive post haste. What a revelation! The difference was so stark. It felt incredibly fast compared to my Beetle, and handled terrifically. For 1975, it was a sports car in hatchback body.
Of course, he suffered earl-adopter pains, just like he had when he bought a 1971 Vega.
But I’ll never forget that first drive in a Rabbit.
The 1980 engine line up is a bit odd, with that “1.5” L base engine, which actually had 1.45 L and was not the same as the original 1.5L in the ’75-’76 Rabbits. It was very smooth, but definitely a bit weak-chested with only 62 hp. That’s the low point for gasser Rabbits.
We got a new Rabbit in 1978 to augment the 1968 Checker in our family stable. It later became my car until meeting its demise in 1991. Light blue with matching interior. C trim with the 4-speed. It felt nimble and quick compared to the truck-like 6 cylinder manual everything Checker. I was always impressed with how much cargo it could hold with the rear seat folded. Since then I’ve preferred hatcbacks and wagons over sedans for their ability to fit a PA system or drumkit.
Were all the USA built Rabbits “Americanized”? My 1978 drove the same as a German built 1977 I later had. But when I drove a friend’s 1981 it felt distinctly squishier and American.
I think it was gradual and then swayed back again when the GTI was released in ’83. As far as I know the diesel wasn’t built in the US until the 1980 year, ’78 and ’79 were gassers only, the diesels were imported.
’78 Rabbits still imported from Germany – I almost bought one from a friend after a test drive. Sporty, practical, and fun to drive. His wife has a Westmoreland-built ’79 L, yellow with black vinyl interior which I also rode in many times. The big revisions came in 1981 with a new US-specific dash, upgraded (at least if you like American-style cars) with nicer door panels, seats, and upholstery. Fancy steering wheel on the new top-line LS model.
Great article on a great car. Was any car better suited to its time than the Rabbit? I know there were earlier FWD transverse engined cars but this really showed the way in a mass market family car which had as much room inside as the bloated Detroiters, and wasn’t a really peculiar brand or penalty box. This was a car which was fuel efficient and obviously even more so in Diesel form, with a well built Diesel, faster than a hyper expensive Mercedes with more power, roomy, practical, and could be optioned up to a reasonable comfort level. It wasn’t weirdly styled and crude like the Japanese cars and wasn’t crude and miserable like the Chevette or Pinto with no back seat room. The Rabbit answered the question of what the car of the future would look like and did it very well and spawned a host of imitators. It’s unfortunate that VW lost the plot with service and quality, not to mention bizarre forays like the Phaeton and W8 Passat.
The “quality” of VW service in 1980 drove my family (and me) away from VW permanently. Several Beetles, a Ghia, a Bus…and then the ’80 Rabbit L, Lago Blue inside and out. 4 speed. 1.6 with A/C. Loads of defects that were ignored by the dealer. We never went back.
1981 was when the US-built Rabbits really started to diverge from the German ones, with a distinct front clip with wraparound lights, wide taillamps, a different dashboard and steering wheel, and other interior mods.
The Rabbit was a breakthrough in design. Unfortunately, neither the German-built or Westmoreland-built cars were reliable in their early years. I had gassers from both the ’75 and ’79 model years. The ’75 was quite peppy with decent handling. The rear seat was actually useable for 2 adults, and there was a ton of room in the back with the seat folded. The ’79 was noticeably slower but considerably quieter. Both cars had 4-speed manuals. A rear wiper should have been standard — I discovered this the hard way during the 1st rainstorm.
The ’79 was “Malibu-ized” with an all-blue, all-vinyl interior, quite the contrast to the German-built ’75. That car had 4(!) interior colors — a white headliner, gray cloth seats, black door trim, dashboard, and steering wheel, and exposed yellow-painted metal on the door tops (same as the exterior color).
Both of my cars started consuming oil at an alarming rate. The ’79 was recalled by the EPA because of excessive hydrocarbon emissions from the burning oil, which brought the oil consumption under control.
I vicariously lived both ends of the VW Rabbit spectrum through my sister and BIL. Their first car was a 77 gas Rabbit that was an absolute hoot to drive, and they replaced it with an 81 Westmoreland diesel. That was not. The diesel was a black 2 door with grey vinyl interior and came with those American-style full wheelcovers. That car would routinely return 50 mpg for them, but would also struggle to break 50 mph in a strong headwind.
On the seatbelts, it is my understanding that rear lap belts were made mandatory in the US on 1967 model cars. Perhaps the belts got pushed down in the crack behind the seat cushion.
You can see one of the rear seat belts sticking out from under the seat in the photo of the Rabbit’s cargo bay. The buckle and belt are plainly visible.
Yes, Paulson is correct. When you folded and tumbled the rear seat, the buckle ends of the belts would fall to the cargo floor. When putting the seat back up, you had to remember to thread the buckles up through the gap between the seat cushion and seatback.
These first-generation Rabbits were very popular where I lived when new…but it seemed as though they had all disappeared from the road by 1990. The people I knew who had bought one didn’t have a good experience. Not only were there lots of teething troubles, but there was a learning curve for VW dealers when it came to servicing the new front-wheel-drive VWs.
The knee pad under the dashboard was part of the passive restraint system. I believe it was designed to prevent the knees and legs of the driver and front-seat passenger from hitting the dash. And, as J P Cavanaugh notes, rear-seat lap belts had been required on all passenger cars sold in the U.S. since the late 1960s. Rear-seat shoulder belts were not required until about 1988 or so. My 1988 Civic sedan had rear-seat shoulder belts.
Been a lot of years. I hope I remember this correctly.
1975 model year, Rabbit introduced. Huge money for “a Volkswagen”. Lots of first-year teething problems that went on longer than just one year.
Chief among the problems was that they couldn’t keep valve guides in the engine. Therefore, even the gasoline engines were oil burners.
Years go by. VW never did get the valve guide problems solved, which is likely why the engine in the Curbside Recycling photos doesn’t have a cylinder head bolted on–either it was so far gone when it went in for service that the owner scrapped it, or it was so good that it got valve-jobbed and then went onto someone else’s engine when theirs died.
Eventually, Chrysler buys VW four-poppers (1.7L???)or the Omnirison. Chrysler can’t keep valve guides in them, either. Chrysler eventually devises the 2.2L four popper, having learned altogether too much from the VW engine. The 2.2L Chrysler engine has valve guide problems, too.
The VW Diesel, like the gasoline counterpart, has valve guide problems, and acceleration best measured with a calendar instead of a stop-watch. At least the VW Diesel isn’t quite as noisy (almost!) as the Isuzu PuP, Chevy LUV, and Chevy Chevette diesel; which was a reduced-price option because GM didn’t have to install a horn on them–you could hear the clatter two blocks away. Upon hearing a Chevette Diesel knocking and banging, you knew you had two blocks, (about ten minutes) to get out of the way.
Thanks for this trip down memory lane. Speaking of lanes, merging into busy highway traffic In urban areas required as much strategy as a chess turn. Big gaps in traffic were highly appreciated. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think the 0 to 60 Mph was about 30 seconds. But once the Rabbit diesel was up to speed, it could get me into trouble with the cops and their speed traps. I inherited a West German 78 Rabbit diesel from my dad with about 270k miles on it, and it was a great car for driving in or out of Boston. Looking at the picture of the engine compartment, I am reminded that my Rabbit had a habit of blowing a fuse every month or two, the fuse box is located at the 12 o’clock position on the fire-wall. Maybe it was for the glow plugs? I always carried a couple of spares, and the swap-out process took about a minute. I had to junk it because the front suspension bushings were giving way, and it wouldn’t pass the emissions test, as it was an oil burner.
The last couple years’ US Rabbits were available with a turbocharged diesel that was just as fast as the gassers.
Not in a rabbit, just Jetta.
Weird. I must have been living in an alternate universe:
It appears to have only been available in 1983 per the brochures I can access, no mention of it in ’81, 82, or ’84.
68hp (as opposed to 52 for the non-turbo), 98lb-ft torque. GTI 1.8l gas was 90hp, 100lb-ft.
Interesting, must be a very rare beast nowadays.
’83 and ’84, although very few ’83’s were made.
Non-GTI gas was 75hp/90lb-ft, similar to the turbodiesel. The TD had a bit fewer horsepower and a bit more torque. But gas prices in the US dropped like a rock in the mid-80s so any diesel car was a tough sell.
I owned an 81 2-door fuel injected 1.6 Rabbit L from 1988 to 2000. Was yellow with a “russet” interior, which was a darker red than this.
The trim levels are confusing on these, as there was not much fancy on mine. 4-speed, silver steel wheels with chrome caps/rings, fixed glass in the door vent wings. No A/C. Hatch area had a rubber mat and painted wheel wells.
The dash is completely different on the 81. No bolster shelf or center speaker grille. Gauges were in a wide rectangular opening. Mine had a speedo and full size analog quartz clock instead of a tach.
Never had any problems with valve guides or oil consumption the entire time I owned it. I was changing oil every 2,000 miles back then, so maybe that was a factor. I also religiously changed the big aluminum fuel filter every 10,000 miles as specified, so never had any issues with the expensive mechanical fuel distributor either.
Was fun to drive, and consistently returned 40mpg on the highway. Was still running when I sold it with 230,000 miles.
Actually if it was an 81, the engine was the 1.7 liter fuel injected engine..74 hp. I have an 81 Scirocco with the same engine.
I think you’re right, it was a long time ago 🙂
I had a ’78 “Champagne Edition” Scirocco which began my now 40 year VW (only) ownership. Loved the Scirocco, but sold it in ’86 partly to get air conditioning (moved to Texas where it is kind of required).
Never owned a Rabbit, but I had two cousins in MA who had one.
Interesting thing is that the A1 Scirocco had 2 binacles for gauges on the dashboard (one a tachometer), and the “basic” Rabbits had one (for the speedometer) and two for the “deluxe” versions, which I think many had an analog clock, but some may have had the tachometer especially later when clocks went digital. The other thing that Consumer Reports didn’t like was that there was only a single indicator on the dash for turn signals; instead of a left or right arrow, it just let you know something was still flashing. I didn’t mind that at all, my A2 GTi had this as an LED , plus the “upshift” light, but my current A4 car (which I admit is kind of VW’s “sellout ” model as it abandoned many of the neat things I liked about earlier Rabbits/Golfs) has 2 indicators for turn signals.
I really liked the A1 models, they were not very substantial…when I had mine moved to Texas in a van with all my worldly possessions, the entire cargo weighed about 4400 lbs, including the car (admittedly I didn’t have much stuff, but still had my school textbooks which of course added to the weight). Mine were all gassers and all manuals.
I couldn’t part with my 80, guess its been 40 years now.
Man, that interior is something else! I never knew how different those were from the German-built ones we got elsewhere.
And what’s with those turn signals in the bumper? Never noticed those before, for some reason. They’re so close together, they look more like license plate lights.
Thank you for the parallel universe Golf tour, Herr Klein.
1980 was a transitional year for the Rabbit in the US. Built in Westmoreland with rectangular headlamps but the old tail lights. The dash was still the old design, albeit with ‘malibuized materials”. The next year they would get square gauges. This was the last year for the 1588cc engine. 81 would see the 1715 cc engine…more torque but less horsepower 74 vs. 76. This engine would last until the MK2 came to market as an 85 model with its 1.8 liter, 85hp engine
In the late 1980’s, to mid 1990’s, me and some buddies went through “VW Mania”. We would buy basket-case FWD VW’s from the Public Auto Auction and repair them. A dead VW was worth $40 at auction, a live one was worth $1500+.
What killed these was (1).The Fuel Injection systems could not take dirty U.S Gasoline and cost a fortune to pay to replace when plugged, and (2). The cheap Germans used extremely inferior quality plastics/rubber/gaskets, and anything that used those failed early, and expensively. Parts were astronomical, and labor was even higher. VW’s were made from foreign/space-alien technology that normal mechanics refused to touch or learn about. Owners would break down on the road, declare it a write-off, and abandon very decent cars. We would rebuild 4 out of 5 in a weekend, the Fuel injection “killed” ones we would strip to the bone for parts for the others. I think I had ten VW’s in my name at one time! Only four Metric Socket sizes to dismantle the whole car.
What killed our enterprise was that word got out that VW’s were bad/expensive “Mojo”, and people stopped buying them. Our source material “Dried Up”. VW was even considering leaving the U.S. market altogether.
I still have one VW left(technically). One day were getting a Jetta ready to send to the Junkyard. We had it stripped, turned upside down(Roof as a sled), and stuffed full of scrap metal and yard waste. I noticed the exposed rear beam axle would make for the beginnings of an awesome ATV trailer. Viola!(I will attach a pic). It is the best trailer ever, except every five years I have to replace the struts due to seal failure(poor rubber quality still!). The “VOLKSTRAILER”; Great for moving motorcycles.
-Lots of good memories(for me, although probably not for the prior VW’s owners).
What an awesome story! A perfect little niche. There’s endless examples of this, like all the East German Ladas getting snapped up for pennies by car-hungry Russians as the Germans themselves upgraded to German makes suddenly available to them with the fall of the Berlin wall. My brother’s friend used to make a killing buying clean lightly used GMs with a dead 3100, doing a top end rebuild and then reselling them for a very sweet profit.