It is often said that it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. I’ve driven my share of slow as well as fast cars, and overall I agree with Abner Perney’s quote. Today’s story is about one of the cars on the slow side of the spectrum; and yes, I did have fun driving that slow car as fast as I could…which like so much in the 1980s was not all that fast, but good enough to move me down the road.
As hinted at the end of last week’s COAL – the one about the 1971 LeSabre (t c f t m w k w i a…or at least the car for someone who was trying to figure out what man I am) — by 1984 the Buick was a lost cause. Between the massive amount of structural rust and the increasingly constant breakdowns, it was clear that the Buick was done.
It was also right around this time that I managed to find a “real” job which would ultimately move me along a trajectory to my current career. Although at the time, I wasn’t so concerned about trajectories as I was about finding work with a guaranteed paycheck and a chance at the holy grail of health benefits. I’m rather sure that my parents – who still held some sway with 23-year-old me – advocated for this as well.
Living in Amherst, MA, a real job for me if not most people in the area was defined as something at the University of MA. After some time spent stalking the UMass employment office, I ultimately found a job as an office temp in a continuing engineering education program. This placed me simultaneously in an entrepreneurial program (all continuing education is by definition entrepreneurial), the education sector, and work involving engineering and technology. As it turned out — although I couldn’t have known it at the time — I had slowly started down a road that would be the one that has taken me to my current career. Slowly, but surely. More significant to me at the time, I had found a job that had an adequate paycheck and security for at least one annual contract renewal at a time. That was – and still is – a pretty big deal to me.
It was perfect for cobbing together the funds to purchase a car.
Through what I’ve written about my family automotive history, some have commented that it seems remarkable that the Suns – as clear devotees of imported small cars — always managed to steer clear of the 1960s and 70s VW juggernaut. I therefore suppose I have some explaining to do around why when it was time for me to buy my first new car it would end up being from Wolfsburg (via Westmoreland, PA).
The part that probably doesn’t need much explanation is my desire to ride the pendulum swing from a two-plus ton Buick to a car half that size. The fact is, I really had never been a Big Car guy, so naturally when given the chance, I leaned back into getting a Little Car. Actually, in my mind the Buick had been fun precisely and mostly for its ponderous – almost comical (to me) – size. Aside from its initial value as critical transport, the Buick served as an affectionate goof…a purposeful nod toward ridiculous (so I thought) conventional suburban existence within the context of my twenty-something college life, not coincidentally at a school that worked overtime to rigorously and haphazardly (we struggled to cover all bases) eschew everything and anything conventional or established.
Basically, the 71 LeSabre was my automotive equivalent of the hipster’s “ironic” fedora. Except my fedora had become illegal to drive in Massachusetts (said the guy at the inspection place) and drank an inordinate amount of gas just to travel between breakdowns.
While the Buick was useful for its size and as a literal vehicle for the kind of self-centered sociocultural commentary so important to many late-stage adolescents (and others), the bottom line was that in 1984 my life was changing and a giant car was no longer necessary or prudent. By then I had mostly settled into an actual house, thanks to down payment support from my newly-minted in-laws. I therefore didn’t need to move around all of my worldly possessions every few months. My wife’s daily driver at the time was a small truck, so in our new household, she had the “Big Car” thing covered. I really just needed something that could comfortably carry two people on road trips, commutes, and shopping errands around town.
My solution turned out to be another mélange of practicality and desire. Thereby setting up one of life’s eternal equations relating to vehicle choice (and pretty much everything else, but we don’t have to go there right now).
At the outset, it has to be said that on the side of practicality one can’t deny that Rabbit diesels were economical.
The EPA book that I picked up at the dealer clearly showed that the Rabbit Diesel had superior mileage.
See? 47. The largest number on the page! Despite the fact that it took some work to achieve 47 mpg, this was a big step up from the LeSabre and also most small cars at the time.
Another factor in favor of the Rabbit’s practicality was its cost. I’ve lost my original purchasing paperwork, but I recall paying around $4500 for it. This was about $2000 under sticker, and was achieved by a couple of days of (I’m sure rather incompetent on my part) negotiation with the dealer. I got several hundred for the Buick as a trade — rather generous, in retrospect — and the rest of the “discount” probably came from the fact that this car was a low optioned diesel car at the very end of the 1984 model year. In fact, it was a hold-over on the lot as the entirely re-vamped 1985’s were already arriving. The dealer was eager to get this white, no-radio, no-air conditioning, cloth interior, 4 speed manual off the lot.
The first thing I learned about having a white diesel car – something that undercut the practicality – was that the Rabbit traveled in its own little cloud of soot and grime. Sort of like Pigpen from Peanuts. The car was always dirty with black particulate matter. But, I could live with that.
The next thing I learned — something that is written about often in contemporary reviews of this car — is that 47mpg was difficult to maintain in the real world. Oh, I could do it and then some when taking long Interstate trips if I did not feel the need to rev high or do much passing. On trips like that, 60mpg was not entirely out of the question. But as soon as you got on it, and drove with any verve, mileage suffered. Unfortunately – for fuel efficiency — the Rabbit Diesel L still had enough of the driving appeal of its siblings with very much different powertrains. Whether it could do it or not, the car wanted to be driven fast.
Insertion of this famous 1984 GTI ad into a story about a diesel Rabbit may seem preposterous to some…largely because the GTI remains a positive archetype of the “hot hatch” and the spiritual ancestor of many of today’s fun to drive small imports. On the other hand, the Rabbit Diesel is generally used as a punchline to bad jokes about the 1980s.
But here’s the thing. That GTI ad was intended to do a number of things and it turns out that it did most of them well. The GTI helped reestablish a connection between Germany and VWs at a time when the American car-buying public realized that American-built VWs were not quite the same thing that Europeans were getting from their more domestic product. Particularly for the enthusiast market, VW needed to become more German.
In the manner expected of a halo car, the GTI served to at least temporarily revive flagging American interest in the VW brand. Drawn back into VW showrooms, consumers could be sold on less sporty (i.e., perhaps more practical to their needs) Rabbit models and interest could be drawn to the upcoming Mk2 refresh.
The degree to which all of that worked should be debated, but I will definitely say that it was a strategy that helped draw me into Westfield VW for a look-see. Once I was there, I found that what I actually had enough money for was a substantially discounted Rabbit Diesel L. The fact that it had a 4 speed reminded me of my original driving love – the Fiat – and was a welcome alternative to the very different Buick/Big Car driving experience. And actually, if you put your foot into it and suspended a bit of critical thinking, you could imagine a little bit of that GTI halo shining on you too. A little bit.
This partially explains the desire part of that practicality/desire equation I mentioned above. Ultimately it was all about compromise and slowly easing ones way into something that would ultimately be better. That’s what the late 80s were mostly about for me…as I flogged the bunny around the east coast, in its little cloud of soot, making clickity-clack sounds, biding time until something else could happen.
Back in its late 80s moment, my Rabbit served me well enough. In those days, we still frequently drove down to DC to see my folks and friends and to NY to visit my in-laws and a wide variety of friends who had taken up post-college residence in The City. The Rabbit was economical, spacious enough for two, and fun to drive…just not very fast or very distinctive.
In those days, particularly in a college town, Rabbits of all sorts, not to mention plain-Jane white ones were pretty common. In order to make mine stand out a bit in parking lots, I affixed a duplicate of one of the same bumper stickers I had on the Buick.
You can just make it out in my final picture, below. An all you can eat bar-b-que restaurant was always something of a poke in the eye to a very left-leaning college town chock full of vegetarians. Therefore having a Bub’s sticker on the Buick had only seemed right; and not yet having quite grown out of my contrarian period, it also seemed to work on the Rabbit.
I’ll note that Bub’s still exists. I go there sometimes, and have taken my kids. It now even has a vegan menu option. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If that should be your kind of thing.
Adding to my opinion that Rabbits are highly under-rated is the fact that mine took a beating and (literally) kept on ticking. Over the years that I had it, it sustained two significant accidents – once getting hard rear-ended while stopped at a light and again during an ice storm on the NJ Turnpike where it ended up as a Rabbit-sandwich between a large box truck and the guard rail. In both cases, it was repaired by insurance and put back on the road…clacking, smoking, and smelling like a very small bus or locomotive but as dependable as ever.
When I ultimately moved on from the Rabbit, it was for next week’s car and not because there was anything particularly wrong with the Rabbit itself. This would in fact be the only time I ever got rid of a daily driver without a practical reason – such as my feet going through the floor, the engine threatening to explode, or impending repairs that would cost multiple times the value of the car. None of these were issues with the Rabbit. Rather, in the end, the practicality/desire equation simply solved for desire.
I still kind of feel bad about that.
But really not too bad, because in separating from the Rabbit I made a pitch toward good carma by essentially passing it on instead of actually selling it. In those post-college days, always surrounded by friends and acquaintances who had various post-college jobs (i.e., something sketchy that had little guaranteed income) and yet a need for cars, I turned the Rabbit over to one such friend for whatever cash she had to spare. In short order she decamped in the Rabbit to Colorado. That was 31 years ago. My understanding is that she kept it for quite a while out there. I’d like to think (and actually suspect that I could be right) that she in-turn gave it to someone who needed basic, practical, transportation.
So there’s a chance that it’s still out there somewhere, becoming its best self. Chugging around the Centennial state with its Bub’s sticker, but bearing much less animosity to vegetarians. Dreaming like we all do of someday being a GTI…especially when going downhill. Uphill? Not so much.
(CC has discussed diesel Rabbits extensively in the past. I recommend those articles for additional and perhaps polarizing perspectives on this now largely vanished appliance. Like any good equation, this one seems to generate constant proofs.)