(Heath McClure is back with another highly entertaining installment of his COAL. Don’t miss it. PN)
If ya recall, we skipped ahead on our heroes Life Well Lived™ and bypassed the 1984 VW Rabbit diesel. Some of you, sadists all, wanted to hear the sad tale of that Rabbit, its foibles and folly, and how it brought me to ultimate ruin. But first we have to go back in time, because there was a first Rabbit diesel, a 1979 model. Yes indeed, I’m living proof that, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
It was the very early ’90s, we were living in central Texas near Temple, and I was dreaming of a car. Again. Not just any car, my friend, for at that point in my life I was neatly obsessed with two things, Volkswagen and fuel economy, and as we all know, the perfect joining of those twin desires manifests itself in the first generation Rabbit diesel. Straight and simple lines, massive greenhouse, tight component packaging, front wheel drive, and a tidy little 1.5 liter four banger diesel coupled to a four-speed manual shifter. Yep, no finer example of a pure and true car exists on this planet, not from the past, not from now, and not from the future. Whatever you own, it’s inferior to the Mark 1 VW Golf, whatever you hope to own will never measure up. I had to have one. It was my destiny.
But where to find one? Even in the days when Depeche Mode was still a viable top 40 listening choice for some odd reason they had become rare. Luckily, family came to the rescue. My father-in-law owned a ’79 model, 3-door hatch, in Kenmore refrigerator white, with the diesel, and almost nothing else, a stripper base model, exactly what I wanted, a car filled with whole grain goodness and no extra fillers, as the VW gods intended. This is a first generation Rabbit, aka the Golf Mk I in more stern lands. Gearheads today universally pour love on the Germanically pure early first generation, and heap scorn on the Buickized later models. I’ve had both. Meh. The Buick version has square headlights and puffier dash, like it’s having anaphylactic shock after a bee sting, but frankly isn’t a whole lot different overall.
Mine was “Alpine White,” tan/black interior, 3 door, vinyl seats, thin carpet, lots of bare metal visible in the cabin. No AC, no power anything, 13-inch wheels and a dent in the back quarter panel. The 1.5 diesel had a claimed-when-new whopping 48 horsepower, try not to use it all at once. It was the bottom of the line “C” model, and it had exactly one option, but it was a doozy, and excited me because of the possibilities. The spare tire well held the dealer installed, factory made, extra fuel bladder that added about 11 gallons to the regular tank. Total fuel capacity was about 21 gallons, which, when coupled with the supposed EPA mileage of 40 city/53 highway, meant a theoretical range of 1,113 miles! Yeah, back then I got real excited about that. Sad huh?
My father-in-law graciously gave it to me! Free! Yay!! Success!
Now there were a few issues that needed to be addressed before I could begin motoring nirvana. First problem was that the car was located near Silverdale, Wash. That was, uh, 2,163 road miles away from our joint in Texas. The second, and very, very minor problem, was that the engine was blown.
No problem, I got this. Here’s what we do: we’ll take some time off, ride the Greyhound Bus up there, I’ll rebuild the engine myself, and then we’ll drive it back to Texas in triumph and glory. What could possibly go wrong?
Did I mention I’d never wrenched on a diesel before? How hard can it be? I bought a book and everything, this will be a snap.
Now back in that era of mullets and grunge you could snag a ticket on Greyhound for $39, one-way, anywhere in the lower 48, if you gave them 30 days notice. What a deal eh? Has there ever been a time in American history when you could go sea to shining sea for a measly $39? We routed the trip through Bakersfield, Calif., to have a break and stay with my folks. Some friends took us to the local bus station and das frau and I set off on a trip that was best described as “Epic™,” and worthy of an article in itself. Have you ever ridden a Greyhound Bus for 67 hours? Might want to bring a magazine and flea repellent.
Fast forward to our arrival at Rabbit central in Washington. It was late in the day when we stumbled out of the in-laws car, thoroughly road weary, and I, of course, hustled out to see my new pride and joy, a free, let me repeat that for emphasis, FREE diesel Rabbit!
My deeply trained eye immediately noticed a problem, once I was able to discern where the car started and the brambles growing up around it ended; the driver-side window was down. Considering that this was the Kitsap Peninsula, a well-known temperate rain forest, emphasis on RAIN, well, Houston we have a problem. There was like 3 inches of water sitting in the floor pan, and even a little moss-like substance growing here and there on the seats and stuff. Well hey, half a year filling up with rain in a rain forest will do that to ya.
In retrospect this was a watershed moment, that moment of extreme clarity we have right before a major disaster, like you have when you realize that you’re going to hit that car that just pulled out in front of you, or on your first day on the new job when you discover that you hate it, or standing at the altar about to say “I do” and realizing you don’t. In that moment I knew in my heart of hearts that the Rabbit was going to be a disaster, and I should immediately cut and run. To hell with the Rabbit, get back on the bus, McClure, hightail it for home. But I’m a lot of things, horse-faced for one, and dumb as dirt for another, but I’m no quitter! I was going to see this through. I was going to win!
Next day we dragged the Rabbit out of the brambles and shoved it onto a long derelict concrete slab from some forgotten building and I started working. In order to ramp up the classiness of this build, cuz I’m all about classy, I jury-rigged a blue tarp roof over the site so that I could work in the rain, which it did with alarming frequency for someone accustomed to the American Southwest. Before the trip I’d consulted with various VW diesel dudes, and their received wisdom was that it must be that the rings and valves were bad, given the death throes the car had had six months earlier, I then voted for their proposed Cheap-ass Rebuild™, aka the in-car rebuild. You drop the oil pan, pull the head, drop the crank and pistons but leave the block in the car attached to the transaxle. And then you hone, baby hone!
Day 1: Someone who shall remain nameless not only left the goddamned window down but also left the key on for six months, so the battery was dead as a dodo. Did you know that a battery for a diesel 1.5 VW engine is nearly as pricey as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program? It rains that day.
Day 2: Machine shop calls, the head is cracked! The injectors are bad! The injection pump needs seals! Yay! It’s going swimmingly, another testament to my good judgment. It rains.
Day 3: Cylinder holes are as worn out as Polish submarine jokes. Buying new pistons will put this financial fiasco even deeper into National Deficit territory, so it’s hone away and hope the bigger rings do the trick! It rains.
Day 4: Reassembly day. Rings, bearings, and head bolts, oh my! Twist, turn, tighten, press, squeeze and pray. It drizzles.
And now we come to the moment of truth, that moment that my entire life had been leading up to, time to try to start it up. I sit on the throne-like vinyl drivers seat, padding is a little thin, I note, insert and twist the key, hold my breath, and it cranks. And cranks. And cranks. Hmm. I pause, not wanting to overheat that pricey starter. Gotta let the pump and injectors fill up, right? Turn key again, cranks, cranks, then suddenly BAAhruuum rummm rummm followed by the largest cloud of smoke since Krakatoa blew in 1883 and a horrific rattling as the dead diesel came back to life.
Now, time for the butcher’s bill. I have a running 1979 Rabbit with the deeply coveted oil burner engine. Total cost thus far, uh, 6 + 2, carry the 3, add in the 7 and uh, it’s $1,750 bucks or so including travel to get here. Value of the car? $1200 bucks, maybe, but that would require finding another ignoramus maroon like myself who has a VW crush and reduced executive functioning. Back home in Texas, land of Real Goldurn ‘Murican Cars and Pickemups, this pathetic little wheezer Rabbit is worth $800 clams, tops.
But it’s not over yet! Got to get this thing home, and there is no time for shakedown testing and fine tuning, the trip will serve as the test bed for knocking all the bugs out. Heck the military does that all the time, right?? How hard can it be? We pack our bags and off we go!
It handles pretty well, and even all these years later I recall well the visceral fun of roaring down the Interstate flogging the little bitty go-cart like Rabbit for all it was worth. Not bad. Not bad at all. It was very responsive to the helm, and, while slow, felt faster than it was, probably because it was low and lacked a lot of insulation. A fun ride, I was very happy and felt smugly satisfied that, in spite of the total and complete financial disaster this car represented, it was a fine ride home and I was winning!
Oh, we had a few teething problems. Had to replace some stuff, you know, like the valve cover gasket, a belt blew apart, and something was seriously wrong with the brakes. But hey, that’s why God made rest stops, right? The wife made sandwiches while I rejiggered the Neinstukkenheimer while simultaneously resetting the Achtuooberlettr and tightening the Frigginleben.
Eventually, after sleeping in a few of these rest stops, we smokily roared into Bakersfield to my folks’ for some needed more serious repairs. As these repairs were going to take a while, we had to buy a plane ticket and send the missus back to Texas so she could, you know, like, keep her job. Ah well, what’s another 170 bucks, that’s what credit cards are for, right? She jets home and I settle down to seriously skinning and cleaning my Rabbit.
By the time I set off for Texas, a week later, the car is purring like a kitten and fulfilling all my dreams of fuel efficient Germanic manhood. Damned if there is not a single problem on the remaining Interstate home, and I roar along at nearly 60 mph (can you believe the speed this baby has?) heading back to the promised land having thoroughly spoiled the Egyptians.
Stopped once in Albuquerque, unlike Bugs Bunny my Rabbit didn’t take a left turn at Albuquerque, and I bought fuel, the only time I refilled that Rabbit from Bakersfield to Texas. Slept for a few hours near Tucumcari, N.M. in a rest stop, and paroosed into Belton the next afternoon like Caesar after defeating the Gauls, 27 hours after starting out. Ooo-rah!
Now, listen little children and you will hear the best part of the whole tale, and you won’t believe it but it’s the gosh durned truth. The Rabbit managed to average 58 miles per gallon on the trip from Bakersfield to Belton. That means my Rabbit had an actual range of 1,218 miles. Let that sink in. Oh and back then diesel was going for a buck and a quarter a gallon, so to drive the Rabbit to empty would cost $26.25, or 0.02 cents per mile. Never, in the long and painful history of the human race, has there ever been a cheaper way to travel than my Rabbit!
I owned it for a couple more years, fixing up this and that, like new little hubcaps, drove nearly an hour to get them, wax and polish, some gauges, a radio. But you know what, let’s be honest now in the harsh grim light of middle age, this car was a turd. In the Texas summers it was miserable to drive, it rattled like a coffee can full of marbles at idle, was deathtrap slow, uncomfortable, smoky and smelly, and, in the end, I confess freely before men, disappointing. It was almost the perfect car, if only. Yeah, sure, it squeezed the miles out of a gallon of fuel, but man shall not live by MPGs alone.
So I sold it.
Got $750 bucks for it. Ah well.
But I wasn’t done with diesel VW Rabbits. See, if only it had AC, if only it had four doors, if only it had power brakes, if only it had cloth seats, if only, if only, if only. All I needed to do was find a Rabbit with these features and all would be well with my soul.
(apologies to AA)
Great story. When my brother had a gasser Rabbit, I found that folks either loved ’em or hated ’em. Sometimes it was the same person separated by a few ten-thousand miles.
Hey, isn’t that you and the missus getting on the bus in the ad?
Excellent story, someday I aspire to do something as nutty..
Thanks for this post, really entertaining (or painful, or both…).
See this for comparison:
you are my hero!
That was a fantastic tale for anyone who has spent too much money on an old car or had a crush on the Rabbit. I was with you every step of the way saying I get it, I get it, except that yours was a diesel. I could see over-spending on a gas L or even C to have in your possession one of the finest cars ever made. The pedals in the photo of the red L interior triggered so many memories of that crazy-light, perfectly placed clutch and the low, noisy lickety–split shifter.
Then you came clean about how bad the diesel really was and started talking about finding a gas 🙂 Go for it man! You tell a great story and I would love to read about the Rabbit from someone who truly understands.
AC and a fuel injected gas engine would have fixed all the issues, although probably closer to 40 MPG at 60 MPH would have been the penalty.
Great job getting the engine rebuilt and up and running, a friends Dad bought new light blue 4 door no AC ’77 Rabbit had an aftermarket spare well fuel tank (never a VW factory option, although our dealership sold and installed them). He lived near Mexico and would get Diesel for around 25 cents a gallon and have around a thousand mile range. Had over 250k on the engine when he traded it in.
Isn’t it funny how free cars often cost more than buying a well cared for running example?
Loved my AC equipped Deluxe red with white interior ’75 after replacing the junk Zenith carb with a Holly Weber, sadly totaled it after a couple of years. My ’77 fuel injected brown base model with sunroof was a good car, but missed having AC.
When my mom finally traded in Dad’s 1986 Jetta Turbo Diesel, it had over 500,000 km on it. It was burning a bit of oil at that point, but still ran just fine.
Hey if it was good enough for Reggie then it should be good enough for anyone. Pardon Howard Cosell’s bothersome colour analysis in this video: http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6479266/v13062847/1977-ws-gm6-reggie-becomes-mr-october
What a fantastic adventure and write up. One has to be pretty ambitious to rebuild an engine then drive it across the country!
“ambitious” is one word. I can think of several others.
Looking back at all the times I crossed America to bring home some battered relic I’d like to skip the probably more accurate pejorative words and go with ” determined ” =8-) .
Great story! Let’s be honest, how many of us here can say that we have never rushed into a bad car because of crazy, torrid love. “Just this one more repair and life will be beautiful” is something that has crossed my lips way too many times.
My sister had an 81 Rabbit Diesel. They bought it used around maybe 1984 or so, and it gave them good service for a couple of years. Driving into the wind on a stormy night was not its strong suit.
She liked it well enough to buy a new 86 Golf Diesel. She only kept it for a year. She loved the car, but made one miscalculation. Having a car with no a/c for yourself is ok. Having a new car with no a/c when you have two toddlers – bad, bad idea. Anyhow, glad you are back with more Tales from the Crypt. 🙂
And what’s in my stable awaiting me to get to it? A ’79 Rabbit diesel.
I see another victim with the dreaded VW addiction. I’ve been clean for 6 years now. Why do I keep looking at the 2017 Jetta 1.4T S model with the 5 speed?
Oooo, nice! Sunroof, 80’s Enkei rims, and a diesel to boot. You have a masterpiece.
Great story, worthy of inclusion in Car and Driver. You know, back in the good old, David E. Davis days. The addition of various early Rabbit ads and personal photos really make the story come alive. I confess that while I’ve always loved the honest simplicity of the original Rabbit, all the maintenance horror stories managed to keep me from ever buying one, new or used (I chose the rather more pragmatic route of buying a strippo, 1980 Fiesta in an odd peach color, my first new car). So I can certainly understand the VW love that manages to override common sense for many, and this voyage does a superb job of summing that up.
Great story. A few years back I rushed into buying an early 2-door Range Rover, when I was besotted with them (but not for the mpg of course). It was rubbish. I ended up giving it away – waving good-bye to the A$3,000 purchase price but later consoling myself for not having sunk any more money into it than that.
“or on your first day on the new job when you discover that you hate it”. That happened to me. My first job out of university. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach on the day of the interview and the same feeling the day I started. I should have turned around and walked right out again, but I actually ending up staying for too long (almost three years). I learnt a lot, but I could’ve learnt more elsewhere.
I’ve been there myself. Nothing like quitting a job (that I was honestly fed up with) and moving a thousand miles or two just to feel that, isn’t there? I should have taken the Kotzebue offer instead.
I had many Rabbit diesels in my younger years, and they were excellent little cars. Very easy to work on, they drove very well and as for cheap, well, you can’t get any cheaper.
I would never rebuild one, however. I would have gotten a used engine at the wreckers.
The Rabbits I had were all the L version shown in the picture. One was exactly the same as the one in the photo.
I can imagine how damp the Silverdale area would feel for someone from Texas, as that’s about a fifteen-minute ride from where I live. I know what you meant about the car being hard to find in the brambles. Check out this photo I took a month ago; I think there’s a Ford pickup in there.
I’ve had my share of “Why the hell did you ever buy this?” cars, but never one that I had to rebuild and drive halfway across the US. Quite an adventure and a great story.
We loved our diesel Rabbit and put 230k on it before selling it to a friend who drove it another 100k.
BTW, the engine was a 1.6l, not 1.5; and I’d love to see info on a dealer installed fuel bladder in the spare tire well…I’ve never heard of that before. Sounds very aftermarket to me….but then I’m a skeptic until I see documentation!
VW advertising was always creative. I recall an ad with-I think-Kareem Abdul Jabar crammed into a Rabbit Diesel; and they had another print ad that claimed “It costs less to run per mile than you do”, where they had calculated the fuel cost vs. the food (calorie) cost of ‘running’ 1 mile!
Thanks for the memories!
The 1977-79 cars were equipped with a 1.5 litre engine of 48 bhp.
The 1980 cars had the 1.6, with 52 bhp.
I believe, off the top my my head, the 1.6 was available as an option in 1979.
The 1.6l wasn’t available until the 1981 model year. It had beefier head bolts than the 1.5l.
I had a 1981 Rabbit LS diesel, that I honed only one cylinder on in a similar manner (rings stuck into the piston due to a lack of oil changes). I’ll have to write about it someday.
It wasn’t a bladder tank like race cars use, just an aluminum tank. They were aftermarket, I can’t remember the name of the company our dealership bought them from.
People with gas Rabbits sometimes wanted the tanks installed as well, but due to safety concerns we only installed them in Diesel cars.
I was with a VW dealer too in ’79-thanks for pointing out the spare tire tanks were definitely aftermarket.
This was during the 2nd gas crisis. Smokin’ hot, those diesel Rabbits and Dashers.
What my dealer did to the Rabbit diesel was near criminal. Spare tire tank, fogs, roof rack, pinstripes, ventshades, any thing we had.
I remember asking prices of $10K IIRC.
Ooh! Shiny hubcaps! My ’77 gas was very quick for the time but regularly munched on brake rotors. So I thought, “uh-oh, here we go again” when you mentioned the brake issues. Those vinyl seats were pretty hot in Ohio, I don’t want to think about the potential for leg burns in Texas. But, but, but…
What a delightful read!
Didn’t do it with a diesel, but back in the early 1980’s I picked up a 1976 gas model for $350, the engine for which was in boxes under the seller’s porch and scattered around his yard. “I’ll fix it up and make a buck” says I. I got the engine back together, with the stock pistons, thankfully, (what was that about honing?) but, yeesh, what a money pit. The already aftermarket carb was junk so I bought a fine, new Weber. New struts and, while you’re at it, a new set of tires, and….. I thought the list would never end. In even threw in some JC Whitney carpet. By the time I was as finished as I was going to get, I punted it for $1,100. Heck, I only lost around $700-$800. A waggish co-worker reminded me the old adage was, “Buy low, sell high”, not the opposite. Oh, well!!
Wow, does this story bring back memories, complete with the vintage ads! Talk about “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Or, “Volkswagen does it…again!”
I had two gas Rabbits both bought new. The first was a 75 lemon yellow 3-door, its color being a portent of things to come. Utter junk — the infamous carb problems, driver sun visor broke off (plastic brackets), and the exposed timing belt slipped a cog after the Midwest blizzard of ’78 filled the engine compartment with snow. Then I stupidly traded it AND my wife’s super reliable A/C-equipped, but very slow 75 Corolla for a 1979 Westmoreland Rabbit C 3-door in that ubiquitous baby blue (“they’re supposed to be better now,” I said). The dealer gave us a pittance for the Corolla, about a half year before the 2nd oil shock, and we had to pay full list for the new car — no A/C, 4-speed manual, vinyl seats, and AM/FM one-speaker radio.
It was better in fact, but still had problems, like the shift linkage completely disconnecting one fine Sunday morning just before my wife, 1-year-old son, and I were about to embark on some back road tours near our apartment in Louisville, KY. Luckily we were still on the main road with bus service, so I pushed the Rabbit onto the lot of an adjacent convenience store and we took the bus home. Then there was the mysterious “leaf caught in the ventilating system,” which later was accompanied by a burning smell, and turned out to be a faulty blower relay (out of warranty by then).
No more VWs after that, and I feel SO vindicated four decades later!
Never owned one, but big, big fan of the Mk1 Golf shape here. Giorgetto Giugiaro’s original had rectangular headlights and Volkwagen insisted on the roundies. He was still spewing about it in 1987 when his Catalogue Raisonné was published.
I personally prefer the roundies. PN was right, this was a great read Heath.
I like the overall shape of the first-generation Rabbit/Golf just fine, but with the rectangular headlights it’s too unrelentingly angular to my eye. The roundies break things up a bit.
Agree with you both; the square lamps ruin the face for me, much like the lower spec Siroccos had at the time. In this form it looks like a bigger Peugeot 104 honestly…
Heath, I’m still grinning like a goof after reading this on my morning commute train. You’re a most excellent storyteller. And the Rabbit. You have the perseverance that few of us know! Thank you for this.
Very good story & it reminded me when my sister’s diesel Rabbit refused to start on a very cold Christmas morning in 1980, which necessitated my father to drive her, my BIL & my niece to our house in his ’73 T-Bird
What a great story ! .
Both my older Brothers bought new Rabbit Diesels, one in 1978 and ‘tother in ’79 or maybe ’80, both loved them but so many of these failed the engines before 70,000 miles, the ’78 went about 70,000 miles before giving up it’s head gasket, he’d simply fill it with tap water before any trip (needless to says he’s rough on any vehicle) .
The other Brother kept his going for 110,000 miles and loved it in spite of many various issues .
A VW Shop in Glendale, Ca. finally killed it by stripping it then closing up shop and moving away over the weekend, leaving the bare shell parked in the street….
Now they’re serious cult cars in California anyway .
Great post; the pictures, especially the interior shots. brought back fond memories of my 1978 Rabbit. Mine had the gasoline 1.5/four speed combo, and, while not really fast, felt quick because of the light weight and responsive handling. It has been too many years but in mind I seem to recall that my Rabbit got around 32 MPG, regardless of where or how I drove. You are correct when state these cars felt insubstantial, I got caught out in a wind and rain storm one time and thought for sure the Rabbit was going to become airborne. Fortunately this didn’t happen and after a couple of minutes I was able to resume my travels.
Heath, did you have an oil stained, much dogeared copy of this at hand?
Of course. As well as the Bentley manual, which I still have.
Great read! Ah, the joys of spending vast sums of money on a cheap car…I might be there with my Volvo right now if it weren’t for the fact that tight cash flow has put the kibosh on my spending *any* money on it. A blessing in disguise, perhaps.
One of the barbers in my hometown shop had a Rabbit diesel, I think an ’80 or an ’81. He decided to get rid of it right around the time I started driving, so every time I went in for a haircut I got a spiel about the virtues of the diesel Rabbit and how it would be the perfect car for me. Thanks but no thanks, Frank.
In about 1980, I was single, with my first apartment and full time employment for a couple years. I lived in the summer steambath known as Alexandria Virginia, my apartment wasn’t airconditioned, and I still had the 1961 Ponton Mercedes 180b sedan I’d acquired in high-school and also a ’71 Audi wagon – both without AC. So, like many in my situation, I thought it was time I bought a new car, with of course, AC. Oil crunch #2 was in full swing at the time, so the diesel Rabbit seemed a logical choice. I believe by then those were availible with AC.
But besides being the depths of the ‘Malaise Era’, the ’80s saw in the era of ‘Aftermarket Dealer Adjustment’, or as it’s also known, ‘Predatory Pricing’. Thus, the base $3995 Volkswagen Rabbit ballooned to well over $5K with a diesel and AC. So I passed. Having heard many VW diesel horror stories over the years, and seen what a piece of crap those early Rabbit dealer hang on ACs were, I think I dodged a big bullet.
I wound up buying a ’66 Mercedes Fintail 230 with automatic and a Kuhlmeister hang on AC. Not very economical, but pretty reliable for the couple years I owned it. And not making payments on a new VW meant I could afford the gas.
In the early ’90s, I took a 37 hour trip on Greyhound, and even that was too long!
Much looking forward to your tale of the ruinous ’84 Rabbit.
Happy Motoring, Mark
I shared one of these with my older sister when I first learned to drive.
Slow as molasses, would run out of juice on Seattle’s steeper hills. But I learned from this car sped isn’t about horsepower. It’s about fast reflexes.
Boy, did I get a kick out of this story. My boss at the time bought one of the early Pennsylvania diesel Rabbits–rectangular headlights, not round–and it was one headache after another. We lived in the Midwest at the time, in a state with deadly serious winters, and the thing stranded him time after time. He’d been a longtime VW lover, but the whole miserable experience sent him straight to Honda. He never went near another VW.