COAL: 1983 VW GTI – A Fit Like a Custom Made Glove

While I have a reverence for the past, as I suspect most regular visitors to this site share, I’ve always focused on the present and future. “Straight ahead,” I often say, is the only direction. But every now and then, especially with many more yesterdays behind me than tomorrows ahead, it’s fun to reminisce about time passed. There were some very good times in my past, and 1983 was certainly a very good year to turn 26.

The airwaves were filled with new hits by Elton John, Billy Joel & Rod Stewart, as well as some new names like Eurythmics and this new band from “Down Under,” Men At Work.

If this doesn’t scream “1980s” to you, you weren’t around


On the big screen, it was the year of “Flashdance,” “Trading Places,” “Terms of Endearment” and one of my often overlooked favorites, “Local Hero.” Oh, and the only year to feature not one, but two James Bond films. Sean Connery returned after a 12-year absence to appear in a remake of “Thunderball” titled “Never Say Never,” while Roger Moore returned for his sixth and penultimate appearance in “Octopussy.” If you were a stylin’ guy you were wearing band collar shirts and thin ties (but not together).

Two Bonds in one year. We shan’t see this again

And me, I was in my fifth year working as a flight attendant at Ozark Air Lines, and the regional Midwest carrier I had joined in 1978 now flew coast to coast with destinations like Miami, Tampa, Las Vegas and San Diego. When I wasn’t traveling for work (with an average of 12 working days a month) I was off to one place or another for fun.

As I wrote about seven years ago, I had purchased my first new car in 1979. My Turbo Mustang was fun and fast, but I had some concerns about its long-term reliability. I had been reading car magazines since the sixties, and in the fall of 1982, the new buzz was all about a car that was right up my alley, the new (to the USA) Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. Car and Driver and Road & Track really just fell over themselves praising this upcoming model. Even though I had yet to see one, I was intrigued.

This was, to use a more contemporary phrase, right in my wheelhouse. My previous three cars had been Volkswagens, and I had always been attracted to small cars and high performance. This “sleeper” seemed the ideal choice, so much so that I ordered one sight unseen. Based almost solely on the reviews, they were in demand and it was hard to find one for less than list, but a friend of a friend had recently sold a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership to a newcomer to the St. Louis market, and the new owner also had bought one of the more established VW dealers as well, so I was able to get a $400 discount. Not quite like the deal I got on the Mustang, but I was happy to get it.

Almost my first black car

Now, I’ve never been partial to dark colors, but I thought the GTI looked good in black. (Actually it seemed to be the only color initially displayed in the ads and reviews.) I ordered it with a sunroof, air conditioning and an engine block heater (which I don’t think I ever used on this car, and later when it would come in handy, a subsequent car was not similarly equipped). To this day, I have never traded a car in for a new one. I’ve been pretty successful “curbing” them (to use a term one of my used car salesperson friends used to use) and I sold the Mustang for a good price, maybe a week or so before the Rabbit Arrived. No problem as one of my roommates was a cousin who was a commuting pilot and I had access to his “airport car.” However, when it arrived there had been a slight error. It was silver. No matter, I liked it better anyway.

I liked the silver much better

I loved this car. The interior was spartan, but highly functional. One review referred to the GTI as a “Speedster for the eighties,” and I felt that was right on the mark, except perhaps for the updated amenities we had all come to expect by this era. The instrumentation was excellent (despite the DOT mandated 85mph max speedometer) with the addition of a voltmeter and oil temperature gauge to the usual fuel level and coolant temperature indicators. The ventilation system was very good, and the seats were excellent, with firm foam (that apparently had to be imported as no stateside material was considered acceptable) bolsters for lateral support on both the seats and seat backs (which were gradually adjustable via a dial mechanism instead of the usual lever that only allows a series of predetermined positions). Even the steering wheel looked as if it came from a BMW or Audi. And all this before you began to move.


The view from the cockpit

The really, really nice seats


There are some cars that can produce impressive performance, but when driven hard give you feedback that while they would comply with your request, they were being punished. The GTI seemed to respond with, “Is that all you got?” It was, until that point, easily the most fun and responsive car I had ever owned. While it had a larger engine and clutch, and a precise close-ratio 5-speed gear box, there were some tradeoffs to providing this level of drivability at this price point, the main one being that it was geared for acceleration more than high speed. At 60 mph the tachometer was reading about 3,200 rpm. Not that it was complaining mind you, but a sixth gear would have been a nice addition.

When pushed hard into a corner, the inside rear wheel lifted, a characteristic still displayed by contemporary GTIs


Back in the day, those of us who were audiophiles or at least pretended to be eschewed any factory installed sound system. (And to be honest, at this time, the factory offerings were still a year or two behind leading edge technology in sound reproduction.)

I can’t recall the company I used to purchase my Sony XR-75B AM/FM Cassette Player, along with a separate Blaupunkt amp and four speakers (it was similar to today’s Crutchfield) but the total was more than the cost of the VW Beetle I’d bought seven years earlier. Didn’t matter, it sounded great and I could afford it. And I also, wisely I might add, shelled out $245 1983 dollars for an Escort radar detector, which probably saved me much, much more. I even replaced the sealed beam headlights with European Hella models that accepted higher wattage (“off road only”) bulbs.

It was the sportiest car I ever owned that could actually be of assistance when moving or transporting large objects. An independent stereo store carried Boston loudspeakers. I had a pair of two-way A-70s that had worked well in my previous apartment, but now that I was in a rental house I was looking for something larger. One evening I viewed a Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum commercial that announced a sale, and the next day I went out and bought a pair of A-200s (which unboxed measured 21” by 42″). With the rear seats folded down it was not a problem.

Later that year I took my first transatlantic vacation, Nonstop from St. Louis to London’s Gatwick airport via the now long-gone British Caledonia Airlines. (Airlines generally offer lower-cost space available flight to employees of other carriers) and spent a week alone in London. I then flew to Frankfurt where my best friend (still is) arrived for two weeks on the continent, beginning with a visit to the Munich Oktoberfest. For some reason there was a difficulty with my Avis reservation and in order to avoid a long delay we wound up with a diesel Golf (as you might know the Rabbit was titled everywhere but in the U. S.) that while disappointing on the autobahn actually worked out pretty well. While in Germany I did get a glimpse of the next generation 1984 Golf/Rabbit that had just been introduced there. A blinding flash of “planned obsolescence.”

It was a great trip, with excursions to France, Austria and Switzerland, and while one Oktoberfest experience has sufficed for me, I have returned to Munich at other times of the year more often than to any other international city in the intervening years.

The first generation GTI started the “pocket rocket” (now better known as the “hot hatch”) category yet only lasted one more year. Volkswagen wisely upgraded the Rabbit Convertible (later Cabrio) with the GTI engine and drivetrain, along with the distinctive 14-inch wheels, considerably improving its drivability.

As we all come to learn, all things must pass. I got married in 1984, and two years later became a father. While the GTI was still as much fun as ever and even had adequate room for strollers and other various accoutrements of parenthood, for ease of entry and exit we replaced it with a four-door Jetta GL. But like my Karmann-Ghia experience, this one too, has an encore appearance. Stay tuned.