Part 2 – Sensibility. Becoming more of a grownup.
So here we are, with a 1983 Rabbit GTI as our family car, and a 1962 Triumph TR-3B as my commuter and “fun” car. It was actually a pretty manageable situation. I never drove the Triumph on snow or salt, depending upon my wife to drop me off or pick me up from my trips if need be, or in a pinch taking a cab home. (Our home was ten miles and about 20 minutes from the airport, and I almost always worked multiple day trips, so this really wasn’t a big deal.) But I was quite aware of the safety advances that had been made in the twenty-plus years since the Triumph had been built, especially on the rare occasions that our daughter was occupying the passenger seat, and to be honest, I was getting a bit tired of the lack of other advances that time and innovation had brought since, well really, the late fifties.
Now, the more often I have traveled to Europe I have always found that my sensibilities seem to align more with those of Europeans than with many “American” traditions. (And part of this stems from being only second generation American born on both sides of my family.) It’s been perhaps only two decades since I heard the philosophy of Tom & Ray Magliozzi (as “Click & Clack: the Tappet Brothers they hosted the most popular NPR show of their era) “Live large, drive small.” But I’ve been living that way all my life. In Europe, a Golf or similar sized car would be a perfectly normal family conveyance. But, we knew it was a matter of time before our family grew, so it became time to look for a sensible alternative, something perhaps a bit larger and with four doors.
As I mentioned in my GTI story, in the fall of 1983 I saw the first example of the second generation Golf/Rabbit, which did not make it to the U.S. until the following year as a 1985 model. As it seems all second-generation cars must do, the Golf (as it was now wisely badged in the U.S.) and its “sister” car the Jetta, got larger. Not grossly, but noticeably. A slight digression; in the initial year the stateside Rabbit was the only model to get the GTI treatment, and of course as I really wanted one, and honestly, having had the Mustang previously, I really liked the utility of having a hatchback, so I would not have chosen differently. The second and last year of the first gen Rabbit GTI continued in the states through the 1984 with a few minor changes, but in addition, for one year only, in the U.S. market they offered the first gen Jetta in GLI trim. I seriously doubt if I will ever do this (however you never know) but if I was in the market for an example of a first gen liquid cooled VW I’d likely choose a four-door GLI. It reminds me of a smarter looking BMW 2002 (another car from my past, not mine, that made an indelible impression).
Another factor, first or second generation, I really never took to the looks of the four door Rabbit/Golf, and I thought the second gen Jetta was not only a better “balanced” design, but had much more storage with its “three box” configuration than the Golf. (To this day, part of my enjoyment of the film “Hot Fuzz” is seeing the Jetta Police cruisers featured in the movie.)
The dealer I had purchased my GTI from had changed hands, so with our just over one-year-old daughter we visited an import dealer that was located on Lindbergh Blvd. between our home and the airport. Much has been written about the history of the Volkswagen (the book Small Wonder is a great starting point and has been mentioned on this site) and while some of the early retail outlets may have been rather sketchy, by the time they became a major player in the U.S. and other parts of the world they apparently exercised a great deal of control and discipline over their dealerships.
But by the 80s, that had pretty much disappeared. Mid-America Motors had, at one time, been one of the largest VW dealers in the Midwest and if memory serves had actually been owned by a major Volkswagen distributor. Now in addition to VWs they also sold Saabs and Volvos. Mercifully I have forgotten the name of the “salesman,” but I’m thinking he would have been better suited to a phone sales “boiler room” than any activity that required face to face interaction. He was there to sell cars, not listen to what we, the customers, wanted. I’ve always been a careful shopper, and as we were getting ready to buy from the existing inventory (and had two cars) I was taking my time to see if anything more appropriate appeared on the lot.
As I said, it was between work and home, so stopping by was not an issue. He greeted me on one of my visits with the statement that I had exceeded the average number of visits to a dealer prior to purchase, which he explained probably meant we were not going to make a deal. I’m still wondering how, in his mind, this was supposed to motivate me to purchase, but then I am not a practicing psychologist. (Although after eleven years as a flight attendant I was probably a pretty good amateur one.)
Anyway, on one of the visits past our apparent limit he said he thought he had just the car for us. He disappeared to the back of the lot and drove up in a metallic red Jetta GL with air conditioning as its only option. With the exception of the lower body protective strip on each side and the plastic trim rings on the base wheels (more on those in a minute) it was about as basic as you could find (which is probably why he hadn’t brought it out sooner). It was also one of the few examples that had been imported from Germany. I have forgotten what the list price was, but I was determined that I was not going to pay more than four figures, which of course began the old “I’ll have to check with my manager” dance and of course the manager wasn’t having our money today so we began to leave and the manager suddenly had a change of heart and we signed for (I kid you not) $9,999.00 (but of course they tacked on like $30 in documentation or something) and that was that. I’m not sure if the economy was sluggish or just if VW was having problems moving cars, but we financed through them for a great rate. (I do recall less than a year later they offered some kind of incentive that if you were laid off your payments were suspended, so it could have been either.)
As was my usual custom I put the GTI up for sale, we had few interested buyers, but all it takes is one and while I am forgetting the guy’s name he had had a first gen GTI that he had totaled and wanted to replicate his experience (the owner and driving experience I’m assuming, not the totaling part) and as he had salvaged his stereo from his previous car it worked out perfectly as I took the head unit and amp from ours and with new speakers installed it in the Jetta. This is when I first became aware of the subtle but significant differences between the products of Wolfsburg vs. Westmoreland, PA. The dash unit of the Rabbit had been secured with self-tapping sheet metal screws, but the Jetta’s was assembled using machine screws and threaded openings, which while more difficult to produce made for a much more precise fit.
Like the GTI the Jetta was equipped with the extremely reliable Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system, and to ensure its reliability on the firewall was an easily replaceable fuel filter the size of a 14 oz can of tomatoes. (Despite my handle here I’m generally on the side of progress, but I do not favor the modern method of encapsulating the fuel pump and filter inside the fuel tank.) I came to read later that the cars built in Germany were assembled in a brand new (at the time) plant at Wolfsburg in Assembly Hall 54 and that the second generation cars had in fact been designed with the specifics of the assembly line. The results were a very high build quality.
The Jetta did what it was intended to do, transport up to five people comfortably and safely – with the exception of one very glaring deficit! To this day I’m not sure I fully understand how this was allowed, but in this brief window of time these cars were sold in the U.S. equipped only with the diagonal shoulder strap that attached to the door frame for front passengers. There was no lap belt, only large, foam pads under the instrument panel and glovebox area of the front of the cabin. Thankfully we never had to rely on this antiquated technology.
It was geared entirely differently than the GTI, which made it much quieter at freeway speeds. Of course, the seats were nowhere near as firm, but in a perverse way I supposed the Jetta accommodated that flaw by the lack of ability to generate the lateral G forces that made the bolsters necessary on the Rabbit, due to the 13 inch tires that were standard equipment. I’m sure with larger and better tires and some slight modifications to the suspension, it was capable of much better performance.
About those wheels; I’ve owned very few cars that have not been equipped with some kind of alloy wheels, which I prefer for aesthetic and practical reasons, however, there are two simple hub cap and trim ring combinations I’ve always thought to be simple and good looking. The first would be the chrome “dog dish” cap and outer trim ring that Ford used in the early seventies (seen here on a 1971 Mustang Mach One being driven by Jill St. John in “Diamonds Are Forever.”)
The second were these on the 1980s VWs, with a simple plastic cap color matched to the silver wheel paint covering the lug bolts and a similarly colored plastic trim ring. Kind of a poor man’s version of the classic ’70s Mercedes wheel, at least to my eye.
It was only the family car for a few years and later some significant life changes, and soldiered on for over a decade with no significant issues and only a timing belt and clutch replacement for major maintenance. It also remained solid and good looking. I’m not sure if the American versions were built this way, but the German examples had a polymer undercoating on the underside of the body, which was then sprayed with a full coat of finish paint. The only rust on a car that spent a lot of time parked outdoors was on the windshield frame, the result of a sloppy installation of one of perhaps four or five windshields that had to be replaced. (I’ve never figured out why, but I swear the impact forces of a good sized June bug were enough to start a crack.) A low speed collision resulted in just enough damage to cause the insurance company to total it out.
Not directly related to this story (but later as I became involved in the safety area of commercial aviation, a part of my career) but a sad coda to this Volkswagen era was that slightly a year after our purchase the person most responsible for the late resurgence of VW’s American popularity, Jim Fuller, died as a result of the bombing and subsequent crash of Pan American Flight 103.
My COAL story gets a bit less linear and more complicated at this point, so please stay tuned.
Between my sister and I there was a new Golf or Jetta purchased each year from 1985-89, skipping only 1988, so I am pretty familiar with these.
That and the fact that I got several “normal” Golfs or Jettas as loaners during the more than should have been necessary warranty repairs on my 85 GTI. There was a lot to like about the way even the basic cars felt and drove. You are right that the non-GTI cars were geared much better for the highway.
I still remember my salesman – a guy who was actually pretty good to deal with, even once we got down to the hard bargaining right at the end, that included a seat swap with another lot car.
The comment from your sales person about exceeding the average number of visits to a dealer prior to purchase made me laugh.
I have never been an impulse buyer . While looking at a Volvo S40, the sales person got frustrated when I didn’t bite at his latest offer and told me “You either sh*t on the pot or get off.”
I listen to my inner voice when I’m at the dealership exploring a purchase. If it says ‘they’re playing games with you’ I’ll walk. And I’ve never had a followup call from a salesman that I’ve walked away from convince me to come back and finish the deal, they’re usually a case of trying to make me feel guilty for wasting their time or an offer to come back without any specifics that tell me things are going the way I want in the negotiations. “Have you decided to take my offer?” “Come on in and we’ll discuss that”.
Case in point: a local Ford dealer advertises $12,999 Fiestas. They take forever with the salesman manager back and forth, I’d been there three hours and the last time I saw my salesman was an hour ago. I tell them I’m going to get some lunch and get my keys back. A few blocks away is a Nissan dealer with a big sign advertising $12,999 Versas. I stop in, talk to a salesman and they run my credit. I get a call within minutes from the Ford salesman complaining how I’m at the Nissan dealer when he’s working so hard for me. The ‘games’ voice was already screaming pretty loud with Ford and it’s not even whispering at Nissan – so Ford loses the sale.
Salesmen and dealerships are their own worst enemy. I’m amazed how some manage to stay open.
With few exceptions I’ve been personally acquainted with, car sales seem to be (or at least were up until a decade or two ago) a transitional occupation. If you were presentable you could be hired with outlandish promises of future income, only to be thrown into a situation where you were competing with your co-workers for a limited number of potential customers, balanced on a continuum with a small carrot at one end and a large stick at the other. Everything was based on your monthly score, no rewards for any effort that might pay off in the long term by building customer loyalty. If you discovered that you indeed had some aptitude for sales, you likely moved on to more lucrative and less stressful applications for your talent.
Our former hometown Fortune 100 company, Anheuser-Busch, used to run a simple advertisement with the “A & Eagle” logo that stated, “Making friends is our business.”
It seems if there had been a slogan for the collective retail end of auto sales it would be something like, “Browbeating you into quickly buying what we have on the lot at the highest possible margin is our business, so let’s do some business or get lost.”
Yes that plastic trim ring makes all the difference. That pic is of the quite rare two door sedan version (or is it a coupe?) of the Jetta.
The plain full cover steel hubcaps of the early ’85s like the first picture were more common on the Golf, usually though you’d see a steel wheel with just a small steel center hubcap on the really early cars (mainly ’85s).
A couple of close friends each had ’85 Jettas (both curiously the same gray/brown color, both bought slightly used) and got good service out of them, then another got an ’86 GTI and I did as well later on, while ours were fine (nothing like JPC’s horror stories), the German built Jettas did seem somewhat better put together and as you noted there were clear differences once you sat there and compared part to part, few though making any real tangible difference to the end user. The “big step forward” for the MkII that instantly dated the cars of those that had the older ones seemed to be when they lost the small front non-opening vent window and went to a full size one.
I believe the red car in the first photo is a 1985 Jetta GL. They had those full wheel-covers and I don’t see a third brake light in the base of the rear window, which became the law for 1986.
Why does VW take so long to get their new models Stateside? My Mk5 Rabbit (Golf) debuted at the beginning of the 2004 model year in Europe, but didn’t reach the U.S. until the last few months of 2006, almost a three year wait. I bought a 2007 and it still seemed like a newly refreshed model here when in fact it was three years old already. (Note; we did get Mk5 Golf GTIs in midyear 2006, a few months before non-GTI models.
That one-year Mk1 Jetta GLI was the only time Americans saw the now-classic plaid upholstery on a vintage Golf-based car. American Rabbit GTIs used burgundy or dark blue ribbed velour. Plaid made a comeback on the GTI and GLI Mk5, confusing some Americans who’d never seen it before.
We asked that question when we were at Wolfsburg and saw the same new Golf you referenced back in late 2003! They explained that they change over the various factories in sequence, one after the other, which can result in one to two year delays for some markets. It seemed that the markets with less sales and their own factory (i.e. US, Mexico) sometimes wait longer than the German factory and others. It’s probably all for the better as if something turns up as an issue it can be engineered out before the later markets get theirs.
Actually the Golf based Scirocco had plaid seats for its first few years of sales here in the US…Looked so 70’s back then…like bell bottoms
I dunno. It sure as hell isn’t quality improvement or beta testing for defects before releasing the product!
Imagine how crappy they are at the beginning if what we do get IS what’s made after defects are corrected!
One thing about this particular Jetta generation – was the huge trunk capacity. It could swallow a whole lot of gear and luggage.
Wow, that is really interesting and apparently quite true; here’s the relevant parts cattledog page for the ’87, and here’s for the ’90 like the one I excoriated a few Saturdays ago. Difficult to believe a 2-point belt + knee bolsters would comply…until we remember that the same agency allowed GM’s completely non-passive, completely non-automatic, completely freaking unsafe door-mount belts to be counted as passive and automatic and adequate.
Sounds like you had a much better experience with your ’87 than we had with our ’90. If absolutely nothing else, I like the ’87 grille better, and it had vent wing windows (in accord with Scripture), which our ’90 didn’t. And if your ’87 had that steering wheel with four round horn buttons, I also like that better than the one we had.
This brings back memories. I was leaning toward a VW GTI for my first car in the fall of 1986, before going on active duty.
My dad “strongly suggested” a VW Jetta. I thought the sedan look “much classier than that thing” (side note: how wound up buying a 4-door Golf later, in part, because of my good experience with my GTI).
I had read up, knew all the specs–very excited 22-yr old. The Jetta GL stickered for a little less than the GTI. It did look classy–from the outside. Inside, the GL looked richer than it was. GL seats were upholstered in this expensive-looking cloth that looked like it came out of an Audi 5000. And the trim rings made a huge difference. The GL was money well spent. The Jetta GL seemed like an Audi–with a huge trunk.
The Jetta also was EPA rated 27/34 mpg, vs the GTI 26/31.
I drove a Jetta GL and I liked it. But I liked driving the GTI a lot more. The most noticeable difference was the shifter–the Jetta’s felt fine, but not as precise.
I’m very glad I got the GTI. The cheaper-looking GTI seats turned out to be on of my favorite things–VERY comfortable and supportive, for my 400-mile weekend treks. The seats–and the car—were a great fit for me!
Yes, I liked the seats in the ’86 GTi as well, but the bolsters wore out very quickly, as well as the seat foam (which exacerbated the problem, since when the foam turned into dust under the seat, you could have metal seat frame rubbing against the fabric which really accelerated its decay). I managed to locate some NOS fabric and got good at redoing my seats, also when the seatback release cable broke inside the seat back and I had to get at it to repair it.
Sounds like a lot of bother, but I really liked the car. Mine didn’t have power steering, which in a light car is kind of questionable, but the GTi had wide (for its time, now not so wide) 60 series tires, which even with the low weight of the car made parking a bit tough. Especially when I was in a bicycle accident where I broke several ribs and my collarbone, and had to drive my manual transmission GTi with manual steering while healing up. Not the best choice of a car when you are incapacitated.
I never had the problem with the close-ratio manual transmission where a circlip could cause the case to self-machine, but apparently it wasn’t an uncommon problem. Mine leaked gear fluid onto my clutch disk, replaced it myself but it took better part of a month, partly because I got sick but partly because I had conceptual problem figuring out how it worked, I’d actually gotten it right the first time but put back and removed the transaxle probably 5 times before I realized it. Also did the timing belt on it.
One really bad design flaw unique to the GTi was due to the heated oxygen sensor..I took it to shop to change it out and wasn’t half a mile from it after picking it up when smoke started coming out my dash vents and the instrument panel LCD went blank. They’d shorted out the oxygen sensor (used a universal vs specific cable connection) and the 12V line that wasn’t fused burned both it and the adjacent wires in the harness.. The shop made good and paid for repairs, the harness wasn’t available as new part any longer and they had to get one from salvage yard, but the car was fine afterward for several years I owned it. Mine had the “standard” alloy wheels, but I actually preferred the ones on my Scirocco, even though they were 13 vs 14 inches
(wow, 15 inch ones on my ’00 are now considered small).
My current car is a ’00 Golf, and the GTi immediately preceded it in my possession. I prefer the older design, more upright driving position and high mounted controls. I had a A1 Scirocco before the GTi, which was my favorite car, but trying to be more neutral, I think VW got more things right with the A2 cars than the others…the A1 was light but a bit flimsy, never owned an A3, but it was the last prior to what I consider the “sell out” A4 that I own now….more aerodynamic, but low seating position (similar to Asian cars), now typical center stack with low mounted stereo (A2 was up high) and heater controls, plus right and left dash turn signal indicators instead of the single flashing indicator used for either direction.
Daniel, the “vent windows” were not. They were fixed glass.
Unlike the Mk1 (Rabbit), there was no optional “opening vent window”
I think they reduced wind noise.
The 1988 Jettas lost them and had a full window. They also got “Digifant” fuel injection. Some one else can talk to whether that was better or worse.
Also, I’m surprised about the reference to the beer/soda can-sized fuel filter in the engine compartment. On Rabbits yes, but on Mk2, this was located adjacent to the fuel tank, next to the fuel pump.
Fake vent wings? Echhk. 🤬
One of the few benefits of living in Illinois is that car dealers are closed on Sundays, so you can shop the lot without being chum on the water.
I had forgotten that VW had those door-mounted shoulder-belts only for a few years. I’m pretty sure that my sister’s 1990 Golf had a lap belt as well, so I guess the shoulderbelt-only concept was sold for just a few years. Hard to believe that anyone thought that was a good idea.
Great picture of the Wolfsburg plant by the way! But I’ve got to wonder, what’s the deal with the silhouettes by the train platform of a car (OK, I get that, I guess), a trenchcoat-wearing person, and… a sheep??