COAL: 1978 VW Rabbit – Mine Was a Good One

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In the spring of 1978 I traded my well used Nova in on a new 1978 VW Rabbit. I know that VW’s in general (and Rabbits in particular) have a reputation for crappy build quality and unreliability. That was certainly not the case for the one I owned; in fact, one could make a good argument that my Rabbit was the best car I’ve ever owned. Accepted wisdom is that you don’t want a car assembled on Monday morning or Friday afternoon because at those times the line workers might not be paying their full attention. I don’t know when my Rabbit was put together but the guys in Wolfsburg got it right; perhaps it was a slow Tuesday or something.

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I had made up my mind that I wanted the Rabbit so my shopping efforts were limited to finding one equipped the way I wanted and how much it would cost me. I visited several VW dealers in the Sacramento area and ended up purchasing mine from the dealer in Davis, California; I paid approximately $5500 for the car, the only options were the factory A/C and a radio/tape player combo. The Rabbit had a 1450cc four cylinder engine with Bosch mechanical fuel injection and a four speed manual transmission. Mine was a light tan color called “Dakota Beige” in VW speak and had brown Leatherette seats. Perhaps not the most attractive car ever but I was certainly happy with it.

I drove the Rabbit around the local area for the 6-7 months that I remained in California; just enough to get the car good and broken in for the trip to Kentucky. I didn’t really have many possessions to transport home, mostly clothes, books and records (remember records); I did have the side and end rails for my water bed. I was able to fit everything in the Rabbit with just enough room leftover for me to drive and shift gears. I don’t know how much all of this cargo weighed but it was not enough to seriously burden the VW. The Rabbit didn’t have nearly as much torque as did the Nova but, of course, it weighed a lot less so it always felt quick and light on its “feet”. The little four banger never felt stressed and was not buzzy, even at advanced RPM.

As it was January when I got out of the Air Force I plotted a more southern route back home; instead of going thru Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and then down into Colorado, I went south in California, planning to go through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It was after noon when I finally finished out processing so the first day’s travel was a short one, I made an overnight stop near Bakersfield. It was raining the next morning but I didn’t give it a second thought. I stopped in Kingman, Arizona for lunch and it was snowing, lightly, but you could tell it was snowing. I overheard some people in the restaurant say that this was the most snow they had seen in Kingman since 1959.


I pressed on eastward on I10 and as the altitude increased the snow got heavier; by the time I got to Flagstaff, which is about 8000 feet above sea level, it was really snowing hard. I stopped to get some coffee and to get off the road for a while. The snow started to taper off but the road was still covered. I tried to follow the ruts made by semi-trucks but the Rabbit’s track was too narrow for that. Finally, as we started to drop down in elevation the snow stopped. I was really glad to make it to Albuquerque for my next stop.

The next morning was beautiful, cold and crisp and clear, with the sun shining brightly. I made it across the rest of New Mexico and on into Texas. My planned route was going to take me to Dallas, where I was going to stop and meet my aunt. About three hours west of Dallas it began to rain, a really hard rain that, coupled with a strong crosswind, made driving difficult and fatiguing. I did get to Dallas but was too tired to do more than find a motel and call my aunt. She offered to come and get me and take me to dinner but I declined; one of my great regrets is that I did not take her up on her offer. She died a few years after this (at much too young an age) and I never got to see her or even talk to her again.

I resumed my trip the next morning and I was determined to make it back to Kentucky with no more halts. It would normally be about an 11-12 hour drive from Dallas to my home town in western Kentucky, and I was making good time until I got about two hours from home. At that point I ran into more snow; by that time I was off the Interstates and was driving on a two lane highway. The only good thing was that the snow was keeping other cars off the road so I didn’t have to worry much about other traffic. This snow storm really slowed me up and I was on the road some 14 hours before I finally arrived at my sister’s house.

I was able to quickly settle into a routine after returning to my hometown; I found a job, moved into an apartment and went on with life. The Rabbit was now broken in for sure and continued to run well. There was a little bit of uneasiness as it started to smoke pretty badly at about 15,000 miles. It was obviously oil smoke and I was just starting to consider a course of action when I received a recall notice from VW world headquarters. Apparently there was a problem with the valve guides wearing out prematurely and, because the resultant oil smoke was a pollution issue, VW corrected the issue at no charge. I took the Rabbit to the VW dealer and a couple of hours later no more smoke.

The Rabbit was my faithful companion for nearly seven years and it never left me stranded. I put over 117,000 miles on the car and basically only replaced normal wear items. I changed the front brake pads a couple of times but the shoes on the rear (drum) brakes were still in good shape when I traded the Rabbit away. The exhaust system did finally rot away; I tried to “fix” it with some muffler bandage but finally, of course, had to spring for a new exhaust. The only other major repair I can remember is having to replace the master cylinder about 4-5 months before the trade; judging from how much this part set me back I’m sure it was made of 100% unobtanium.

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I drove the Rabbit all over during my seven years of ownership; it made a couple of trips to Fort Hood, Texas for National Guard duty. I was still single when I owned the Rabbit and it was nothing for me to go to Louisville, St. Louis, Indianapolis or even Chicago on the spur of the moment. I distinctly remember one trip to Indianapolis; we decided late in the afternoon to make the trip, we ended up getting back home around 5:00 AM. On another trip we drove straight through from Henderson, Kentucky to the Tampa area; it is not easy to take a nap in a Rabbit’s passenger seat but it can be done.

During all of the time I drove the Rabbit it seemed to get around 28-32 MPG, and it didn’t matter very much whether the driving was in town or on the highway. In absolute terms the Rabbit was not a fast car but it felt quick because it was so light. It was certainly capable of keeping up with traffic and it was entertaining to drive on winding roads. The only time it felt underpowered was taking off from a stop while going uphill; you would definitely want to turn off the A/C in that situation, at least until you shifted into third gear.

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By the spring of 1985 I had owned the Rabbit for seven years (and 117,000 miles) and it was starting to look pretty ratty, even if it still ran well. There were some rust spots starting to form around the rear window and up around the cowl. The radio antenna had long since rusted through and had been replaced by a length of coat hanger (I seldom listened to the radio as I had an extensive collection of tapes). In addition the paint was pretty badly faded as the little VW had never been garaged and so was exposed to the weather. The outside edge of the driver’s seat was worn through thanks to seven years of me entering and leaving. By this time I had met the woman I would later marry and, while she never actually refused to ride in the car, after several instances of her suggesting we take her car instead of mine, I could tell that things needed to change.

I had a pretty decent job by then so I was receptive to buying something else. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted but did want something a little larger than the Rabbit. What did I end up with, stay tuned to this channel for our next installment.