Vintage Ad: 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI – Good Try Imitation

1980 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI ad Canadian

When people think about Volkswagen’s GTI, several models likely come to mind: the original European Golf GTI, the fun 1983-84 North American Rabbit GTI, or many of those cars’ successors.  But how often does one think of the 1979-80 Canadian market Rabbit GTI?  Here’s an ad to give this obscure model a bit of recognition.

People’s memories may gloss over this car for a few reasons.  For one, it was a low-volume Canada-only model that lasted only two years.  But also, this GTI had no more performance credentials than the plainest Rabbit Custom.  It was a trim package… a GTI from the depths of the Malaise Era.  While this may look like a performance car, it was less of a Grand Tourer than just a Good Try at an Imitation.

Shortly after the Rabbit/Golf was introduced in the mid 1970s, European markets received a high performance GTI model, featuring a souped-up fuel injected engine (110 hp), a sport suspension, and upgraded trim.  However, North American consumers could only look wistfully across the Atlantic Ocean, as VW seemed content to let the Scirocco carry the brand’s performance torch in the US and Canada.

1980 Volkswagen Rabbit ad Canadian

As was the case in much of the world, plain, economical Rabbits became popular in Canada, with the Canadian market receiving Custom, Deluxe and Diesel variants.

1979 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI ad Canadian

Then, in 1979, a new trim level came along – the GTI.  But while its European cousin was a performance model, this Canadian version constituted a trim upgrade.  Included in the GTI package were exterior enhancements such as a spoiler, black bumpers and fender flares, and slightly wider wheels and tires.  Interior improvements brought full instrumentation, a “sports steering wheel,” plusher carpet and a stereo cassette.

1979 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI brochure Canadian

The GTI’s most distinguishing feature was the plaid interior – vaguely reminiscent of Scirocco upholstery from a few years earlier.

Plaid or not, the Rabbit GTI wasn’t a strong seller.  Canadian VW showrooms carried the GTI for 1979 and 1980, and then it quietly slipped away.  For the next two years, Canadian Rabbits came only in L, LS, diesel and convertible versions.

1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI ad

Finally, in 1983, Canadian and American consumers were treated to a more proper GTI – the car we commonly associate with this nameplate.

1980 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI ad Canadian

In retrospect, the 1979-80 Rabbit GTI may seem more of an oddity than a refreshingly fun or sensible offering.  However, by 1980 standards, black bumpers and racy upholstery were as good as many customers could expect for a practical, reasonably-priced car.  Looking at this model charitably, once could say that Volkswagen at least gave some North Americans a taste of genuine GTI life during this period.  Plus, if one defines fun as something rare and nearly forgotten, then this “imitation” GTI ad just might rank pretty high on the excitement scale.