COAL: 1990 VW Jetta • Fahrverschmerzen

In the summer of 1990, my folks set out to buy my sister a car, in effect. Nominally it would be theirs, but practically speaking it was my sister’s, at least at first. This time, tra la, there was careful thought put into its selection, and it would be the first new car bought since 1978.

I tried to sully the search early on with a piece of damn-fool teenager behaviour. Earlier that same summer, in my bigotted anti-Japanese “wisdom”, I had scorned a Suzuki engine on our new lawn mower. That same dumbass attitude led me to do something much uglier this time: I saw an article in the Denver Post one morning, describing how Japanese cars were tops in one or another quality and reliability study. This angered me and I didn’t want my parents to buy a Japanese car, so I cut it out of the page and threw it away.

This left an article-sized hole in the paper, of course. My father noticed, of course, and he asked me about it. I said I knew nothing, because surely lying would make everything better. He went and got another copy of that day’s Post and plunked the relevant section in front of me, open to the article, and asked me now did I want to fess up. He and I both knew I was completely guilty and completely busted, but I kept on digging and stuck to my lie. Whatever the consequences were, I probably deserved harsher ones; censorship is not on, and neither is lying. Especially not really stupid censorship and even stupider lies like that, echhk.

That behind us, the search went on. I guess it’s a shiny bit of irony or something that we didn’t look at any Japanese models, though I can think of at least three obvious ones—Corolla, Civic, Legacy—that should’ve been on the list. I’m sure my scissor monkeyshines hadn’t dissuaded them; I don’t know what did. On the other hand, we also didn’t look at a Cadavalier or a Tempo; whew.

By and by the 1991 models came in and there were deals to be made on leftovers. The choice came down to a 1990 Volvo 240 or a 1990 VW Jetta. I daresay they’d’ve done better with the Volvo, but—perhaps due in part to the catchy little rhyme my sister kept repeating (“get a Jetta!”) they went with the VW: a Jetta GL Wolfsburg Edition in a tomato red called Tornado Red (which made VWs and Audis highly conspicuous from 1985 clear on up through 2008). The Jetta had a 1.8 litre 8-valve engine with 82 horsepower at our altitude, and a 3-speed automatic transmission; acceleration was considerably less than brisk even with the aircon off—with it switched on, the car was downright slow. I imagine it’d’ve been better with the 5-speed (and, erm, the 16-valve engine) but both of those were right out of the question. At least the automatic’s first gear sang, as commanded in Scripture.

VW were trowelling it on thick and heavy at the time with their “Fahrvergnügen” campaign. I don’t know objectively, but my sense is it ran into the same pronunciation problems as the Lincoln Versailles. Even genuine attempts brought mangled results like “farvenoogin” and “faffignoogen”—not to mention the Fukengrüven bumper stickers and that silly joke about how you turn a cookie into a car:

(throw one of these across the room and go “There, see? Far Fig Newton!”)

That wasn’t the only pronunciation-related artefact of those ads; they started pronouncing the brand “Vokeswoggin” instead of “Vokeswaggin”; I guess they wanted to get as close as they figured Americans would tolerate to the German Folksvogg’n pronunciation.

The Jetta was my folks’ first German car excepting the early Beetle handed down to my mother by her parents decades before. It was their first front-drive car; their first four-cylinder car; their first with fuel injection, first (and only) with “passive” front seatbelts, first with 3-point rear seatbelts (but no rear head restraints), first with automatic shifter on the floor, first with bucket seats, first with a chin spoiler—integral to the front bumper, it scuffed loudly on the way in and out of the driveway, on parking blocks, and otherwise like that; first with a sunroof, first with LED dashboard telltales, first with replaceable-bulb headlamps, and my sincerely-held religious beliefs require that I report it was their first with amber rear turn signals.

It wasn’t their first car with an electronic warning chime—the ’84 Caprice and the ’80 Lincoln each had one—but the Jetta’s played the first three notes of “A-hunting we will go” on infinite repeat.

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