COAL: 1986 VW GTI – Kick A Little Asphalt!


(First posted 6/2/2013) It was the beginning of 1992, and I had started my career and found myself with a regular income stream.  Reality hit quickly, however, and I realized that after paying rent, taxes and student loan payments, there wouldn’t be enough money left to buy that slightly used E30 M3 I coveted…

Even so, I did have enough left over for a used but well-maintained 1986 VW GTI! The little car was being sold by the (now defunct) Subaru dealer in San Carlos, CA, where it sat on the front lot just begging me to come and check it out. It did not take long for me to sign on the dotted line, hand over the keys to my Isuzu, and take this little gem home.



Finished in Diamond Silver with a charcoal interior, it was exactly what I wanted. It had about 58,000 miles on the odometer, came with a full service history (remember when dealers left all the documentation in the car?), wore a good set of Pirellis and was in immaculate condition.

It was altogether different from the various cars I had owned previously. The performance was excellent, the handling was phenomenal, and it just felt like a real driver’s car.  The close-ratio five-speed never left you hanging; in 5th gear the engine was turning at about 4,000 rpm at 80 mph, but the gaps between gears were small and the 1.8-liter, 8-valve engine had plenty of torque to accelerate at any speed without downshifting.


One hundred-two horsepower, 2,300 lbs, four-wheel disc brakes, 26 city/31 hwy mpg, and one of Car and Driver’s 10Best Cars for 1986.  Like other Golfs of this era and the Rabbit before that, mine was built in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, but basically was the same car you got in Germany.  While looking for photos for this article I came across both the original window sticker and the build sheet for this car. The options that the first owner had paid for at the San Francisco dealership were Silver Paint ($140), CA Emissions ($85), 4-Speaker Radio Prep ($145), Heavy Duty Cooling Package ($75) and a Sunroof ($350).  Why this car (which did not have A/C) needed a Heavy Duty Cooling Package in Northern California is beyond me but then again, it never did overheat…

While those may not seem like many options, most of the good stuff came standard in the $9,630 base price, including  14” alloys, a trip computer, those excellent faux-Recaro seats, split-folding rear seats, intermittent wipers (front and rear) and more. It was pretty much a complete package from the start.


The first thing I did after I bought it was to call a friend to join me in a jaunt to Los Angeles (about 900 miles round trip) on which the car did great.  We went down I-5 (boring, but fast) and came back up 101 (not so boring, but also fast!).  The week after that trip I took it in to get the timing belt changed–the receipts did not show it having been replaced, which made me a bit nervous.  With that done, it was now really ready for commuting and fun.


The trip computer proved to be great: You could toggle through such various items as oil temp, ambient temp, distance driven, and average and instant MPG readouts, which made getting to work (or anywhere, for that matter) on as little gas as possible an enjoyable pastime.  The gas I saved driving to work I later used up on the weekends, barreling over Hwy 92 to Half Moon Bay or heading to Tahoe.  Later that fall when I went back to visit my college buddies in San Luis Obispo, I met my future wife, which doomed me (in the best way possible – she is reading this!) to four more years of long drives back and forth.  Did I mention the car was fun to drive?

I recall changing the muffler as well as the upper-strut mount bearings when they started to become noisy, but both  were quick and cheap repairs. The previous owner had installed one of those tinted sunroof wind deflector things that were popular then.  I didn’t mind it, but I did learn not to park it facing downhill if it was raining, as the water would accumulate in the deflector and eventually seep through the sunroof seal and into the cabin, soaking the seats.


Another issue that most of these suffer from is the driver’s-side seat bolster wearing out.  While many cars have a thick foam bolster, the VW bolster actually has a metal frame inside the bolstering foam–great for holding you in the seat, but it also made for an early wear point.  When mine wore through, somehow I thought to look for patch material for jeans (like the stuff your mother used when you were a little boy and had worn through your Tuffskins). I actually found a pack with an assortment of colors, and amazingly enough the charcoal-colored material was a perfect match.  I super-glued it on, and it held up great!


Recalling my earlier attempts at driving in the snow with my previous car, I made sure I had a good set of chains for this one whenever we went to Lake Tahoe.  It did very well in the snow but, like most people, I absolutely hate dealing with chains and usually waited until the CHP checkpoint was in sight before pulling over and putting them on.  Nowadays I have snow tires (and sometimes I even swap wheels/tires several times in a season) but back then, chains was it.


I’d had this car for about two years , during which I managed to put about 60,000 miles on it.  Even nearing 120,000 total miles, it was still running great and looking good, and I had no real reason to change rides again.  However, the decision was made for me…

My good friend and neighbor, Don, with whom I regularly prowled the local car lots and watched races on TV, suggested we visit the Blackhawk Motor Museum in Danville, which is on the other side of the San Francisco Bay.  (By the way, if you are in the area, it is well worth a visit; the cars are in absolutely fantastic condition, and the displays are rotated often.)  As it was a rainy Saturday and I had nothing else to do, I agreed.


We hopped into the GTI and got on the flyover ramp to head onto the freeway.  The design of this particular ramp is unusual, in that the exiting cars essentially have to make a hairpin turn at the end of their exit, and then come back toward the cars heading down the ramp at speed onto the freeway.


As I mentioned, it was a rainy day, and a black Lincoln Town Car that had made the hairpin turn was accelerating out of it when the driver lost control on the wet road and immediately sent it directly across the painted divider into our lane.  We hit him broadside on his rear wheel at about 40 mph, which sent him spinning across the other lanes and over the embankment.  The GTI, however, was done for.  It protected us well, crumpled as I suppose it was built to do, and left each of us with really nothing beyond a stiff neck.  The Town Car (which turned out to be a livery car) had some dented sheet metal and a bent wheel.  In the end, we got a ride home from the police officer on the scene, hopped in Don’s car and still made it to the museum!


The GTI was a write-off but the Town Car’s insurance company paid up quickly, so the search was on for the next car…A shame really– it was a great car that I’d piled a lot of miles on in a relatively short time, and I had really bonded with it.  I believe I even still have its keys knocking around here in a drawer somewhere, since I come across them whenever we move. I always look at them, and then tuck them back into a box.