COAL: 1987 Volkswagen Jetta GL – Nonsense and Sensibility

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).

By 1988 all U.S. Jettas were being built in Pennsylvania, hence the “German Engineered” ad copy

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.)

“Hot Fuzz! Highly recommended!

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.)

Volkswagenwerk, Wolfsburg, as photographed by the author, 2016

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.”)

A nice, clean, simple look, for not a lot of money. (The wheels, not Jill St. John)

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.

The basic wheel with black center trim


The basic wheel with color matched center


What a difference a plastic trim ring makes


To me, a bit reminiscent of the classic ’70s Mercedes wheel

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.