COAL: 1990 VW Jetta 1.3, Or How I Learned The Truth About Cars


Unlike in North America, In Europe Volkswagens have a reputation of reliability and quality. Just mention the brand’s name and at least someone in the conversation will immediately state how solid those cars are. Particularly the Polos, Golfs and Passats built before the mid-nineties are considered bulletproof, spearheaded by the second generation Golf and Jetta. This, and a fair amount of nationalism (or “regionalism”) makes VW the most successful manufacturer on the continent and many of the best-selling brands in the EU originate in it. Even the recent TSI issues have not been able to tarnish the high quality image VW has got and manages to cultivate. Although I knew present-day VWs are not (significantly) better than most other European brands, when I went to find my first car, I was convinced the old-fashioned ones were good.


In the spring of 2010, my then-girlfriend and me made our plans for the summer: we decided to go on a road trip, heading for former Yugoslavia. Having heard stories from friends who did so before, we hatched the plan of buying a car for the holidays to drive there, make the journey, and possibly sell it after summer. As university students, our budget was obviously low and our ambitions high. As the roads in Southeastern Europe are not of the same quality as the ones at home, and we didn’t want to have any issues on the way, we needed a solid car. Hence, perhaps foolishly, all French and Italian cars were out.

My father owned a ’93 Passat for 10 years and, in my perhaps rose-tinted memory, did not have any major problems with it. Having been a fan of the Golf II for years, I first directed my search at those. Shortly after, I found one. Not a Golf but a Jetta, which would also do, a 1990 1.3 with all of 55 bhp and 270,000 km on the odometer. That number should have backed away any serious buyer, but my enthusiasm I wasn’t bothered by that. I reasoned the car could handle that distance, as it still looked and drove well and it would be sold after summer anyway. The prospect of getting my first car was too tempting. Of course, I learned my lesson later.


 I bought it for €900 and got that joyful feeling of owning my first car that is hard to describe. I was free, I could go anywhere, even if only for the summer. No matter what cars you’ll own in later life, the greatest car you’ll ever have will always be the first one.


 The car seemed great at first: the engine wasn’t exactly powerful but thanks to well laid-out gear ratios, it was still kind of zippy around town if shifted at the right time. Shifting gear took some getting used to but if handled properly, shifting was smooth. With its square bumpers it looked even more like a brick on wheels, which I thought was kind of cool, not your average car. Old reviews consistently praised the Golf and Jetta’s handling, and this old lady still had that spirit: it was very tossable on both good and bad roads.

Like most cars of the day, it didn’t have power steering, but it wasn’t really necessary either because of its low weight (870kg), it just added to the fun. It even had a “sports” steering wheel with good grip in its otherwise very spartan but spacious interior. Its huge boot could carry a considerable amount of beer. The great seats and handling made it seem it fitted like a glove, the Jetta seemed rock solid and even had next to no rust; that’s why VWs are so great. I thought.


 Although VW had already introduced fuel-injected engines long before 1990 and those were most sold in North America, the vast majority sold in Europe throughout the eighties were old-fashioned carbureted mills. The most common Golf and Jetta petrol engines were the 1.3, 1.6 and 1.8, of which the latter was supposedly the best: the fastest, most durable and even the most economical in practice. That engine also served in my dad’s Passat, although modified for fuel injection. The 1.6 lived on until recently as the low-tech base engine until it was replaced by the TSIs. The 1.3 was converted for fuel injection in 1990, making mine of the early ones. As I found out later, it was intrinsically solid (the old carbureted engine), but very sensitive to electric issues. I learned that fairly soon after I acquired mine.


 The engine seems to have got the hiccups, stalled increasingly frequently and got jumpier and jumpier until it was almost impossible to drive. Of course, I wasn’t particularly tech savvy and although I could deduce and rule out some possible problems myself, I had to take it to the workshop to have it fixed. Great automobile start for a cash-strapped student.

Said workshop initially left it untouched for almost a week as it had more important (lucrative) things on its mind. When I finally got it back, I found they only did the standard things: change the spark plugs. I got presented a significant bill and a lecture by the phone operator but the problem wasn’t fixed or been diminished the slightest bit. Angrily, I left the workshop my family had their cars serviced in for ages, not to return.


 The car being barely driveable, the holiday plan was obviously off, although we did find cheap flights to Italy instead. I tried tweaking with the car myself, my parents unsuccessfully attempted to convince the seller (who didn’t mention the problem that undoubtedly had existed before, although it was in the service history) and took it to another workshop. That workshop did come up with a solution but couldn’t guarantee it would work. Not wanting to waste more money on it, I didn’t want to take the risk. It had dawned to me: I’d bought a dog.


 I used it less and less. It got broken into at some point, Golf and Jettas are notoriously easy to steal. Someone attempted to take it for a joyride but didn’t succeed in stealing it but damaged the steering column and dashboard in the process. It now even looked quite bad. Eventually, I wanted to get rid of the car. The relationship with my girlfriend ended and I managed to sell the car to a trader, who was going to export it to western Africa, a place where many old European cars end up. Although the car was no good, I still felt slightly sorry sending it off and particularly there.

The selling price in the state it was in, after reasoning (“It’s not a 1.5? Sorry, I cannot give you what I initially said”): €300. Although I shared the loss with my now ex-girlfriend, the loss was more than I’d hoped for. I’d learned a few lessons however: don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you, don’t go car shopping on your own, check the background of the car, and be prepared not to buy one if something’s wrong with it. Look past a car’s reputation: even if it’s got a high quality image, it doesn’t automatically mean a car is actually good. And don’t expect a car to function perfectly if it’s old, there will always be cost and effort involved. Most old cars are sold off for a reason. Make a mistake here and you’ll bear the consequences. Coming of age.


Soon after, my sister and me took over our grandfather’s Volvo 850, a much better car and entire story of its own. Today, we own another car together, a VW again, although it carries a different badge: a Seat Ibiza 1.2. When I first drove it, it reminded me of that old Jetta. You just hop in and drive off and feel at home immediately. The seating position is much higher but otherwise the same and it’s got that direct steering. I was much more critical this time though and knew it would have its issues. It does, but I’m prepared this time.



Still, despite all the problems it had, the annoyance it caused, the wrong expectations I had of it and the money it cost, I think back fondly of that Jetta. I wonder whether it’s still alive in Africa. There’s really nothing like your first car!