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.