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.
Good piece, entertainingly written and roasting a VW exactly the way it deserves. Those work borderline fine with starter, ignition, wipers and lights (a radio maybe) being the only electrics aboard, but throw in even a high pressure fuel pump, and the good-enough-for-’70s electrics are bound to act up with rising degree of fierceness as you keep adding ampere hungry amenities. All this isn’t helped by the developement of the 3rd gen Golf being well underway, in which the last fraction of a pfennig was chased down through the whole car and the supplyers’ factories, cheapening out the non-electric bits and pieces, too.
When these A2 cars were still around in large number, I saw a lot of them with faulty rear lights: the tail, stop, turn signal, and reversing lights and the centre stop light would all be lit dimly, and some of them would go out when the driver would step on the brake, or weakly flash in opposite-phase to the turn signal. Obviously a lost ground.
I haven’t seen an 80s (or 90s) Jetta on the road in a long time; they’re all gone. I think there was something more utilitarian and plain Jane about the Jetta that led people to use them up and move on. I still see lots of old Golfs, Cabrios, and Vanagons from this era, but never Jettas.
The design of this one morphed along with the decades, but I like this squared off look the best. I can’t tell today’s Jetta from a Camcord.
Heck I haven’t seen anything VW from that era in a while. Not even a Fox, which is supposed to be the most reliable (‘reliable’ compared to a Cavalier, Tempo or shudder other VWs) Wolfsburg product.
I did like the design of these A2 Jettas. The subsequent A3 looked cartoonishly overinflated to me.
There are many things I second-guess about my car ownership choices, but selling the 1985 VW GTI at the end of its 2 year unlimited mile warranty is not one of them. There was much to love about the car – an engine more powerful than the one in your car (especially much closer to sea level), the 5 speed stick and the taut handling. But I was at the VW dealer far more frequently than I should have been. I had wondered if it was due to being a Pennsylvania-built car. Perhaps not, from your experience.
That’s exactly why I made pointed note of the car having been built in Germany. Y’know how saying “I don’t care for sushi” guarantees there’s gonna be one in the crowd who holds forth with “Oh—no—it’s not all raw fish; that’s sashimi“, etc? This is like that: for years whenever I would tell stories about this Jetta, there was always one in the crowd who would hold forth with “Oh, you must’ve had a Mexican car; real VWs are made in Germany“, etc.
(I’m not inclined to eat raw fish, that’s true, but actually it’s the nori I find disagreeable)
My Rabbit GTI story is coming up tomorrow I believe. It was my fifth car and fourth VW, and it while it was not perfectly executed it was a lot of fun, especially for the money. (I actually had two, but that’s a story yet to be told.) In between GTIs my wife and I started a family and really wanted a four door so we wound up with a 1987 Jetta GL that had inexplicably been on the lot of, as you accurately described, one of the “careless, callous, customer-hostile North American VW dealers” for about six months. It was one of the few left that had been built in Germany (I believe the model changeover in Pennsylvania had taken longer). I can’t compare it to the American second generation Jettas but the fit and finish were far and away superior to the first gen GTI, with actual machine screws holding the instrument panel together in place of sheet metal screws. I drove that car for over 130,000 trouble free miles until a minor accident caused it to be totaled out as the repair costs exceeded the value. Compared to the GTI the performance was found wanting, even with the five-speed manual (I think more because of the taller gearing) but the biggest deficit compared to the Rabbit was imprecise handling, possibly due to softer springs and the dinky 13 inch tires. I don’t know if the American versions were finished this way, but the German built Jettas had a polymer undercoating covered by a full coat of the final finish paint. The only rust anywhere on the car was near the lower edge of the windshield frame (where the vent and wipers were) that had obviously been the result of a windshield replacement where the metal got exposed in the removal process and was not primed. (In eleven years I went through five windshields. I swear, a good sized junebug could crack one.)
Did you ever overcome your aversion to/disdain of Japanese vehicles or products?
The only no start situation, not due to a dead battery, that I’ve ever helped somebody with was in a Mercedes about 15 years ago. I was working at Walmart and happened to be at the front door when a shopper came in frazzled and asking for a phone to call a tow truck. I give her credit, though, since she actually had the manual in her hand and was trying to figure out the answer. Presumably the car was fairly new and deemed not to be a candidate for major failings yet. I asked her questions about what was going on since I had just enough knowledge to diagnose very basic problems; I won’t pretend to be any more capable now. Long story shortened, her steering wheel had locked preventing the starter from engaging. I explained to her how to correct it, and she came back about 5 minutes later after she’d gotten it to work. She thanked me for having saved her a $150 tow bill and whatever the dealer would have charged to diagnose. It’s a dumb little story, but it felt a little good to help somebody.
The short answer is yes—my current car is an Accord, which I dislike for many reasons, but reliability and its Japanese heritage aren’t on that list.
But the real answer is I never actually had an aversion to Japanese products. All while this was going on I had no qualm about using my Japanese cameras, listening to my Japanese stereo, etc. It was just a noxious Mouthy McMouthenheimer act. There’s no sturdy excuse for it, but there are explanations: a teenager (of any age) without much agency will tend to grasp at whatever makes them feel powerful, and loudly-professed hatred of some identifiable group does that. Also, being closeted messes with one’s psyche in a wide variety of ugly ways, and so does living under a parent with a wildly unpredictable personality and damaging behavioural defects.
You’ve reminded me that the steering wheel lock and the ignition lock on that Jetta frequently fought each other; starting the car often required grasping the steering wheel and turning it slightly against the tension to allow the ignition key to move.
Also, being closeted messes with one’s psyche in a wide variety of ugly ways
This is so true and hit me hard reading this fact. It took me a year and a half to realize this truth between figuring out who I really was and coming to terms with it. My parents, to this day, say I was almost unrecognizable in that timeframe. I was living a lie, day in, day out, and was extremely suspicious, defensive, and on edge constantly. Not a life I wanted to live anymore. I can so very much relate.
Eleven days would’ve left marks—I did eleven years. Hoorah for survival, eh!
I totally get it. I recall that I had some pretty stupid, uninformed opinions when I was a teenager. Thankfully I’ve learned and grown a bit and honestly can’t recall what most of them were. Suffice it to say I had to overcome certain of my family’s vomitous use of terrible descriptors for any non-white group of people (one such descriptor including zippers).
I can’t bring a zipper-related pejorative to mind, and that’s probably for the best. But yeah, if I were to see my younger self walking down the street, I’d have to bounce him off some walls and have words with him.
” a teenager (of any age) without much agency will tend to grasp at whatever makes them feel powerful, and loudly-professed hatred of some identifiable group does that. ”
Sadly, it seems that many more these days never grow up past that stage .
“Also, being closeted messes with one’s psyche in a wide variety of ugly ways”
Also a very sad truth . I have teenage Foster boys and I need to remind them of this on a fairly regular basis no matter what side of the fence they’re on .
“I file it in the very thick file of evidence that we’re most bothered by whatever and whoever reminds us most closely of our own faults.”
Again very perceptive .
You and Jack Baruth are incredibly good word smiths although 180 degrees different .
Always interested in the mom stories, I had one like that too, why I left before being even a pre teen .
Interesting that your pop backed her up on the Jetta punishment .
Always very good responses garnered by your good writing .
Great, great article.
A few things, in no order whatsoever.
If you thought you looked like a dork when you were a teenager…
I hated passive seat belts. I felt they weren’t as safe as standard three pointers.
Because my car had a manual, a female African American coworker asked me to teach her how to drive using the “stick.” I did and she was a fast learner. But, she had her heart set on buying a brand new Jetta. And she did. Coincidentally, this was right around 1990. And I remember her telling me how arrogant the people at the dealership acted in regard to the alleged superiority of a Volkswagen. (I don’t know how her experience was with her Jetta.)
If I was your dad, I would have been afraid to buy the Japanese car, figuring you would sabotage it.
Calling collect… Yep, it was a thing, and it wasn’t cheap. And it usually meant there was a problem. (“Send lawyers, guns, and money, Dad, get me out of this.”)
You could grow a beard at 18? I was 20 when my facial hair showed up. I grew those long sideburns that had been out of style for awhile.
By the way, great job “fixing” the car over the phone!
Autobahn, by Kroutwork, has a horn at the beginning on the album cut. The engine is a Beetle’s “power” plant.
Now for the serious stuff. I am a third generation German. My parents grew up during a time when it was emphasized that they were now Americans. That’s it. There was nothing “German” in the household I grew up in, and my dad was in the US Army during the second world war.
He would never buy a Japanese car, although he wasn’t militant about it. He didn’t whine about it when my sister bought a Toyota. (My dad had a friend about the same age as him who worked for Chevrolet most of his life, and then opened up a body shop. My dad’s friend was VERY impressed with Japanese cars.)
My wife is a first generation American. If anyone has a reason to hate the Japanese, it’s her. But, our family has bought eight new Hondas over the past 25 years, with no real problems.
It’s not so much that I think I looked like a dork as a teenager, it’s more a matter of objective fact! That aside, I grew the beta version of Beard the summer I was 17, but took it off for my last year of high school. The release version went live my first year in university when it dawned on me I could sleep an extra 10 minutes by not shaving, and I’ve had it ever since, with the exception of a brief job I had as a cater waiter (described at the “Colorado Boulevard” link in the post). I haven’t seen my chin in 24 years.
It hadn’t occurred to me that dad might’ve worried about me sabotaging a Japanese car. I think that probably wasn’t it; he knew I was all mouth about it—see my comment below in reply to Tankinbeans. I think it was more that Japanese cars just weren’t on my folks’ radar for whatever reason. Too bad, because there’d’ve been a lot less car-related expense, time, and aggravation.
I have long wondered what engine is featured in (Kraftwerk’s) “Autobahn”. H’mmm. Quite sure it’s a Beetle? I can’t sit here and outright deny it—maybe Paul can chime in; he’s surely heard more Beetle startups than I ever will—but it doesn’t sound very beetle-y to me; it sounds more like a diesel of some kind cranked by a Bosch starter. There seems to be some debate on the matter; see here, and search this page for the word diesel.
As to the serious stuff: more I’ve thought about it over the years, plainer it’s become that my distaste for whatever nationality or group, however substantial or spurious it might be, is an objection not to the people but to aspects of their culture—and my own culture is just as flawed, often in very similar ways. I file it in the very thick file of evidence that we’re most bothered by whatever and whoever reminds us most closely of our own faults.
Although I don’t live too far from scottn59c, I can’t say that I’ve noticed these Jetta’s to be thin on the ground, perhaps because they were once so common I just assume they’re still running around without really noticing. I think this, more than the Rabbit/Golf, is the car that defined the water-cooled VW in the US; certainly it’s name became a household word. The other day I was watching a video about 4wd access into a remote lake in Canada. The narrator, who may not have been born when this car was new, described the campsite as having “its own private Jetta”. It did have a small dock, but no VW.
Wow, its own private Jetta, eh! That makes me realise, speaking of Depress Mode songs from that time, “Your Own Personal Jetta” fits easily:
Great article, this generation of Golf/ Jetta was the last that felt really VW-ish to me. After these they were more like all other cars.
I see you ascribed to the same school of 90’s shorts that I did 😄
I don’t know that we had much choice in the matter!
“felt really VW-ish to me”
Well-stated. That may have been my favorite part about mine – when you shut the door the car felt solid as a rock much as the old Beetles did, even to the air pressure disturbance.
Another great entry in this very entertaining COAL series!
The first new car my wife and I bought together was a 1990 Jetta, to replace her 1983 Jetta that had been totaled in an accident. It too was a leftover 1990 model purchased in late fall 1990, partly because it was the last model year in which U.S. Jettas were built in Germany. The other contender was also a Volvo 240 DL, but we went with the Jetta because it was cheaper and we wanted to save money, knowing that we would be replacing my ailing car in the near future. Ours had a five-speed manual, which was noticeably more responsive than the ones with an automatic, and we wanted something fun to drive (fahrvergnugen) an area in which the Volvo, for all its virtues, was conspicuously lacking.
The Jetta served us well and we actually had very good dealer experience (in fact, we would go on to buy four more VWs from that dealer over the next 20 years). Problems were few and they did a stellar job repairing the damage from another accident, to the point where even a dealer could not tell where the bodywork had been replaced when we traded it in (even though I had disclosed the accident).
Six years later, we had two kids and we needed something larger to fit two child safety seats in the back while still preserving front seat legroom and wanted an automatic to keep one hand free to attend to a fussy baby. We replaced the Jetta with a Volvo 850 and have not had a manual transmission since then (car guy credentials withdrawn!).
Thanks kindly, WH!
I really think a dealer can make or break a car owner’s experience (and a car’s reputation) to a very large degree. Sounds like you had an excellent dealer and that, plus a car that was well put together in the first place, added up to an experience opposite ours.
And I’ve never been to a Hyundai or Kia dealership, but I can’t imagine any amount of 10/100 factory warranty could’ve powered those brands’ giant leaps in esteem without competent, well-behaved dealers.
Another fine Saturday morning read.
Loved the part about you going into your closet to your stash of catalog to find the right cable. Wonderful!
I’m really getting to know you better through this series, needless to say.
(…and my parents, and my sister, and—if you’re reading thru these comments—my sister’s cat!)
My Dad’s first VW was a 1986 (I think) Jetta TX mk2. TX was mildy sporty, with check seats and black exterior trim, and it implied 1.6 litre, 5 speed. I think it was either only trim level with 1.6 litre/5speed combination or the lesser of 2 trim levels, and Dad chose it despite the sport overtones, not because of them. Dad liked it, bought 2 more then a Vento (Golf mk3 Jetta in Europe)
And it was Tornado red; as you say, a truly superb colour (if you like red cars) that VW kept in the list for years – my sister in law has a 2015 Golf in tornado red.
So they carried on using it even longer outside North America, eh! You’re reminding me that on my second-ever trip to Europe, in 1995, I saw several Golfs in what looked to me like an absolutely perfect deep metallic green. At the time I was considering getting my Valiant painted, and thought that colour would look fantastic on it, but once back from the trip I couldn’t get the paint code. There were metallic green VWs here, but not that particular metallic green. In the end it didn’t matter, though; I didn’t get the car painted.
Tornado Red to this day is still available on the Jetta and GTI, possibly others. Became an iconic color on those. It’s a bit bright for my taste, but when it was on the older cars with black trim it does “pop”. That said, there is a GTI VR6 From around ‘97 up the street in a medium metallic (spruce?) green from me I wonder is the color you refer? I’ll have to get a photo…
PaintRef to the rescue—apparently they carried on using the name “Tornado Red”, but not the same actual paint. Our ’90 was PPG № 72652 (’85-’08); the ’09-up cars were № 72769.
I know that green you’re thinking of—not a bad colour, but not the deeper one I swooned over in Europe.
But back to that red colour: I’ve heard of white tornadoes, but what are these referenced red ones?
Wait a sec, now, it’s just come to me…from “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”!
To close the loop, the ’85’s (first year MKII) GTI and GLI red was actually lighter, more orangey than the Tornado Red for ’86 and on, they used the lighter color on the ’84 GLI as well whereas the ’83/’84 GTI was an entirely different more brick red color. The orangey one is the same color Audi used, named Mars Red in both cases, used on the early UrQuattros before they too went to Tornado Red, in their case though starting in 1983 for the UrQ and CG, as well as the 4000Q as of ’84 and the C3 5000 was in there too from the beginning. For ’83 BOTH reds were available on the UrQ, apparently Scirocco too in late ’85, I think the 8V were Mars and the 16V were Tornado in that case. It’s a bit of a mess and difficult to parse if not super familiar. I used Mars Red to paint my first motorcycle 🙂 Neither is metallic, that would be Titian Red, yet another color that’s quite a bit darker.
Older Tornado Red on both VW and Audi is not clearcoated, confirmed that when waxing an ’86 GTI, my ’95 Jetta and a friend’s 1995 Audi S6.
VW confuses with their colors, when we bought our Touareg in 2012, there were actually two different whites available at the same time, same model year, same trim/engine level. Campanella white and I want to say Pure white, one was very blue-white and the other was almost an eggshell color, really creamy when parked side by side. The average dealer schmo of course had no clue what they had, so it was difficult to find the one we wanted as my wife liked one of them and not the other…
Thanks for the details. Yeeee! My head’s a little spinny. I guess the lack of clearcoat on the ’90 was why it grew chalky (and why it buffed up so nicely).
I do remember that orangey Mars Red. I dislike it whether it’s on a VW-Audi product or on an early Valiant, and whether it’s in new condition or chalked and faded.
Two different whites, eh! This pic is from the 2018 Detroit auto show. If any model could be had in any of these colours, what a wonderful world this would be. But per industry standard practice (there might be an SAE standard about it) the real colours are mostly only for limited-edition versions of specific trim levels of particular bodystyles of certain models; for most everything else you can choose from a subset of the following: silver-grey or two, a beige/brown or three, a black or two, a white or two, a blue or two, and maybe a subdued red. 😠
Jim Klein is right – the 1985 GTI red was very orangy, much like Ford’s Rangoon Red of the early 1960s. I am not much of a red guy, but I absolutely hated that one. The 1986 color was darker and altogether different.
Those “mother meltdowns” are especially entertaining (and sad at the same time).
Now if only you hadn’t left that shift lever in “Drive.” Obviously, this was just before the introduction of the shift lever interlock.
Or if only I’d taken my backpack with me!
Mother’s tantrums were often funny and sad at the same time as they were terrifying and injurious. Once I was sitting on the laundry room floor, finishing up installing a new doorknob and lock on the door that went out to the garage. Mother looked over my shoulder and started hollering—I couldn’t just leave the screwheads exposed like that; it meant just anyone could come along and take a screwdriver and just take the whole thing off!!. I just looked up at her silently for what felt like a long time, but the penny didn’t drop until I said “…and commit what? Breaking and exiting?”.
There were others that’ll have to wait so I don’t spoil future COAL instalments, but the one that takes the all-time championship gold was when she called me a “son of a bitch”. Time stopped, and—just like in the cartoons—a little devil appeared on one shoulder, and an angel on the other. The angel said “Let it go. This isn’t safe; you’re at the top of a staircase. Just let it go.” The devil said “C’mon, when are you ever going to have this chance again? GO!”. Time resumed and I said something like “Okeh, I’m a son of a bitch. Hi, have we met? I’m your son.” That had her temporarily speechless and she went deep red; the vein in her temple pulsed visibly, but it held.
My favorite Mom meltdown was at the grocery store when I was like maybe 12. I asked he if I could get another box of Cheerios (the plain kind, no less!) and she absolutely lost it. “No! You ate the last box already!” in a very aggressive tone. The other woman in the isle made eye contact with my Mom with a “What the hell is she thinking” face of disapproval and went the other direction almost immediately, and Mom started to laugh uncontrollably for a few moments. When she finally got her breath back, she calmly tells me “grab the big box”. We laugh about that one today, but I was so confused then. I think she was sleep deprived that day…
Mine built tantrums on some truly bizarre imaginary foundations. Once at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport we were waiting at a gate for relatives to arrive when a nearby payphone began ringing—this was long ago in another life on another planet. It rang and rang and rang without surcease, and I stood up with intent to pick it up and then…I donno, probably just hang it up again, or maybe leave it off the hook awhile. Mother blew a head gasket: DON’T TOUCH THAT PHONE! IT COULD BE A DRUG DEAL STING AND THEY’LL ARREST WHOEVER ANSWERS IT!
And not long after we got that godawful ’80 Stinkoln Town Car I described in last week’s COAL, she suggested we fill the ashtrays with baking soda to help get rid of the lingering smell. So I went to do just that. She saw me headed out the door with the box of baking soda, asked what I was doing, and then screamed YOU MORON! IF WE EVER GET STOPPED BY THE POLICE THEY’LL THINK IT’S COCAINE!
Another self-pwn, aside from the son-of-a-bitch incident, happened one day when she came downstairs to find my sister’s cat, Tiger, resting placidly atop mother’s lovely prized 1941 Steinway piano. This was in the ’80s, before we knew better than to declaw cats, so Tiger had no front claws. A thoughtful person might’ve stepped over, picked up Tiger and lifted her down to the ground, perhaps while crooning “No-no, Tiger; no kitties on the piano”. Instead, my mother took a ready-FIRE!-aim approach; she gasped and hollered TIGER GET OFF THE PIANO!!
Tiger, who did still have rear claws, detected urgency to the situation and so made every effort to comply immediately. You’ve probably seen how a cat tries to gain traction in a hurry on a shiny, slick surface, and that’s how mother came to be looking at many freshly-made deep scratches and furrows on the catless piano.
Another song that begins with horn sounds: “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors. These guys actually met at a car crash!
Ooh, good one! Now I’m off to Wikipedia to see if I can learn more about their car crash meeting.
Update: Not a word about it, nor in a Google search. Got a link?
Jody Watley’s Looking For A New Love has some horns at the beginning.
Jesus, your VW experience sounds bad, even by commonly held by VW standards…
I think the quality was inconsistent on these cars—not generally great, certainly not up to the Japanese standards of the day, but if you happened to get a good one you could do well with it…if you had a good dealer on your side. If not, brother, you were hosed.
My folks bought a new Westmoreland built VW Rabbit in 1980 and it developed a mysterious habit of consuming antifreeze. It wasn’t leaking and there wasn’t an antifreeze smell, it was just using antifreeze. Several useless trips to the dealer without result convinced them to live with it and keep a bottle of 50/50 in the car to top it off when it cooled down. It never got worse or better.
They sold it to a friend in 1990 with 100,000 on it after a myriad of electronics faults had made themselves known. The friend decided to rebuild the engine to find the leak. A head bolt was missing and the gasket showed where antifreeze had made it’s way into one (or two) of the cylinders from the coolant passages.
You’d think a competent dealer would have known to do a pressure test and perhaps a visual examination to find the leak under the valve cover – which would have possibly found the missing bolt, right? You’d think VW would have been able to build a motor with all the bolts included. I guess not. I considered getting into a Golf a few years ago and the games a different but still sleazy dealership played convinced me to keep pressing my luck with Nissan, as they weren’t going to look after the customer just by how I was treated. At least the VW dealership that sold my folks their lemon went under, they deserved that and more.
Same on them.
So many parallels. I too had to wait a couple of years when dad told my brother and I that “this car will be yours when you start to drive.” For two weeks or more the door open buzzer rang constantly when the ignition was on. I finally figured it out. The car was “radio delete” and the cigar lighter and radio were on the same fuse. If the fuse was blown the door buzzer rang as long as the cigar lighter was pushed in. With no radio who would know other than a smoker that the fuse was blown.
As far as how the fuse blew… I have absolutely no idea… what flashing red light? speeding… are you kidding? that couldn’t have been us… no… you have no proof… What? the neighbour saw us?… Well you know how he likes to drink…
1.”I have long wondered what engine is featured in (Kraftwerk’s) “Autobahn”. H’mmm. Quite sure it’s a Beetle?”
No, definitely no Beetle (I owned one). It sounds like a L-4 engine, Bosch starter, rear drive (noisy diff on launch), not much noise insulation. So, we have a 1970’s Opel Rekord or similar, what else!
2. VW quality: Yes, it was inconsistent, and you needed (and need) a good dealer. Execute a precise maintenance schedule and have detailed knowledge yourself: Then you can drive 400,000 on such a Jetta w/o a single break down. That did a guy who I know well – and he knows his Jetta well.
Hi, Joe. Thanks for your comment. It does sound like an inline-4. What do you think: petrol or diesel? I agree about the Bosch starter.
Thanks for the info on Autobahn.
This saga makes me glad that when I decided to replace my modified Scirocco with a more adult car I declared the A2 car’s rear mounted fuel filter a deal breaker and bought an 84 Jetta with a 5 speed (last of the A1 cars). As a shade tree mechanic I kept this running nicely until my wife’s back problems made her insist on getting a car with automatic. Apart from a wimpy air conditioner and a tendency to flood the left rear footwell I really liked the Jetta, and my ability to be in tune with its needs since I could feel when the front tires needed air and see by the oil temp when it was a quart low.
As a coda to this tale of woe I will note one of the best bumper stickers ever from circa 1990 was “No Mas Fahrvergnügen” on the back of clapped VW Rabbit driven by two Latinos.
My mom had a 85 Jetta with the manual Trans, also red, though it was a slightly darker and metallic than tomato. Quite a different experience than I recall with it, as ours was pretty trouble free to the day we traded it in 1997, though my dad fitted an aftermarket stereo into it, solving that problem anyway, I don’t remember it having seatbelts like that, but probably because it was an 85 prior to passive restraint laws. I have a great fondness for that car, I learned the fundamentals of car ownership as my Dad did his own oil changes and pretty much everything else needed to it (I don’t think he particularly valued the dealer experience) and changed things like the stereo himself, and I learned how to use a manual transmission from watching my Mom driving it. The Villager and Quest minivans that replaced it proved to be the real lemons for our family.
I remember we had a Jetta as a rental car in 89 after ma hydroplane in her wretched hairshirt 86 Sentra and totaled it. The Sentra was a painfully miserable car with horrible vinyl seats, a horrible vinyl interior, no ac no radio no nothing. It constantly reminded you of how for a few dollars more you could have had a pretty nice car but this was designed to punish you for your miserly ways. The Jetta was a revelation and was comfortable, roomier, had nice cloth seats, an interior designed to be inexpensive but attractive, and that teutonic body structure. It was about 3k more than the $6k sentra but felt like the queen mary compared with a rubber dinghy.
Ma didn’t replace the Sentra with a jetta. She, not knowing much about cars and refusing to take my advice, drank the honda look aid and bought a used 85 accord which launched its transmission in two years and then DID follow my advice and bought an oldsmobile Calais which was far superior.
Based on your story she apparently dodged a bullet with the jetta but dang it was nice. Of course, compared with the sentra, anything above the tumbrils used to carry the doomed to the guillotine was nice.
Terrific story, thank you. My brother in law owned a 5 speed 1996 Jetta that, I was convinced would be unreliable, given the reputation. It turned out to be very reliable, the only breakdown occurred when driving through a deep puddle which soaked the distributor, mounted low on the front of the engine.
I found the car delightful to drive. He sold it at 210,000 km, working perfectly and still on the original clutch.
It was his first new car and, in my opinion he was lucky to have bought a good one.
One is tempted to opine that one get what’s deserved if insisting upon a Bulkswagen Golf, (aka Golf Schmalzarsch). Why not buy the original, and maybe just buy less Stuff, I mean really, I know it’s America and all, but is there really a need for a car with seating for four and luggage for 11?
I’ve always thought the Jetta was a silly-looking piece of rectilinear gawk, the ill-proportions and absurdity of a Riley Elf but entirely without the charm.(The Elf was a comically booted original Mini, with wood and leather interior).
Enough of that.
This car was bought right at the time the Japanese were fully learning the game, and your prejudice against them – I shared it – was fast becoming meaningless. Till about this time, the Euros WERE always better-driving, and more interesting in design right across the board, but it was also well-known, begrudgingly, that the Japanese cars were without doubt the ones to recommend to fathers, or aunts, or dare I say it, sisters. I know: I too recommended a Euro to a sister at about this time, with even worse results!
I have long ago concluded that glories of Euro-car build quality are a tale from mythology, arising from a cultural reverence for old Europe that is understandable in terms of rich history, but not justified by the reality of how they built cars. There isn’t a question that Japan has for the longest time built the best cars in the world, and does still.
Great story-telling, Mr Stein. With perhaps a slightly less intense experience, and leavened a great deal by a change of type as the pressures of motherhood left her, our lot are all still living amongst some of the wreckage my dear departed mum left.
Actually, she drove a VW for years, when i think about it…
I am really enjoying this series, of course I knew I would.
I can relate to a lot of it being the only car person in our family.
I must confess to a guilty enjoyment of the Mother Meltdown Incidents, (The Piano, and Son of a Bitch as mentioned further up) my Mum was a fearsome but incredibly caring mother who did not tolerate fools, maybe that was the problem.
I look forward to the rest of these tales, I think there’s some Mopars in the future.
These could be good cars properly equipped. My dad had a 1986 turbo diesel until he died in 1997. It had over 450,000 km on it when mom traded it in on, get this, a Saturn. The Saturn started to self destruct the day after the warranty was up.
Dad’s car had every toy except sunroof. After a decade or so, only the power windows, a/c and radio were still working.
Mom got $3000 on the trade. Not bad
Another wonderful Saturday read! Thanks for the laughter, too. I read your responses to the commentators and laughed so hard about your mum’s meltdowns even though they sounded like “bark is worse than bite”. I think you should include them more in your forthcoming articles.
Anyway, your family’s experience with the VW dealership in Denver wasn’t any different from what my friend experienced. She wanted to lease a new 2002 A4 Jetta but was very angry and frustrated about their inflexible attitudes toward her. At VW dealership on West Colfax, we went through four stubborn salesmen in five hours before the general manager came in to salvage the negotiation at eleventh hour. With my help, my friend got what she wanted: 48-month lease with 12,000 miles each year and without deposit for $305 per month.
My father had same thinking about German cars as you did. He leased a 1984 BMW 318i (our first brand-new German car) and gradually had a lot of misgiving about the “German quality”. He ended up with a very expensive German lemon that he couldn’t make a lemonade out of it. The laundry list of quality issues got longer and longer each year until the lease expired and the car returned to the dealership. What’s funny, my father proceed to replace it with new 325i…despite his experience with 318i and BMW service centre. I guess the dealership made a sweet deal that he couldn’t refuse.
My brother’s ex-wife bought a Mexican-built New Beetle then dumped it at him after the divorce, citing it very unreliable car. He couldn’t sell it for the price he wanted due to its reputation. Over the time, he replaced lot of problematic parts with German-made ones (OEM or better artermarket ones). The reliability improved greatly, and his daughter still drives it to this day.
I’ve had a few Jettas as rentals, but I’ve never lived with one and it seems to be a love-hate issue. A friend of mine had two of the same generation as yours (one a 16v). He was quite happy with both cars and he still misses them. My oldest sister (who generally buys Hondas) had a late ‘90’s Jetta for a while, and it was never out of the shop. She thought it was a piece of junk and she was glad to get rid of it, trading it for a nice, reliable Honda Accord. My in-laws also had a late ‘90’s Jetta – a gold TDI. They were the third owners, and they got good service from it, racking up over 300,000 km before the transmission died. While I’ve enjoyed driving them as rentals and they’ve never given me any trouble, I’d be a little hesitant to pull the trigger on a Jetta based on the stories I’ve heard about them. That said, thanks for a good Sunday morning read and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.
Really enjoy reading your work. Cheers
Back in the ’90s it was common to see a funkengrooven bumper sticker on the back of VWs, particularly older Type 2s.
I had an ’84 coupe 5M in a brown metallic (antelope??) as my DD from 87-90, with air an that great crankin sunroof. That car was a HOOT to drive with wider 205’s on the stock rims. Loved to chirp in 1st and 2nd. Considered it my baby 1802 tii / GLI Coupe. Sold it after putting on 60k+ and still had original clutch and high compression numbers.
Only issues were you always had to have spare fuel pump relays which would blow out after a heavy rain (tiny leak through firewall), plus AC vent line would clog and flood passenger foot well, and sunroof drains had to be kept similarly clean.
I had one (albeit a Golf, rather GTi) of the A2 generation, having sold my ’78 Scirocco which it replaced. My Dad’s VW was a ’59 Beetle, but though I never owned an aircooled VW myself, 40 years ago I plunged into the watercooled with the Scirocco and haven’t yet emerged…haven’t owned any other make since, all of them manuals, all hatchbacks (including my current ’00 Golf).
I liked the A2 a lot, mine was one of the Westmoreland ones, and I kept it about a year past buying my current car (so about 14-15 years). Actually had people lining up to buy it, though it had been in a minor fender bender a couple years before, of course it was totalled (a 12 year old car) but I bought it back from insurance and replaced the damaged hood, radiator core support, and with some help torqued the body some so the fenders would line up with their mounting holes, but never painted the replacement panels, so a bit of a harlequin effect…but the 86 GTi had a one-year engine with slightly higher power than the ’85 (which you could further tinker with by advancing the timing) so despite the appearance, I had lots of interested people, including one guy who wanted me to dismiss viewings of the car prior to his slot, and upon showing up proceeded to pick the car apart but after leaving called me to say he’d pay above my highest offer, I declined and ended up selling to an independent VW shop mechanic who pulled up in an A2 Jetta to buy it for his wife…felt better about who I was selling my longterm possession to.
No, my A2 GTi wasn’t the most troublefree car but it was easy to fix and very entertaining. You mention the Jetta as being the first FWD, 4 cylinder, fuel injected car in your family, but I had gotten that on my prior Scirocco (mine were manuals, so didn’t include your automatic floor shift as “first”). The GTi added first 4 wheel disk brakes, first “wide” 60 series tires (OK, laugh, but they were in 1986) and first airconditioning (main reason I got rid of the Scirocco, which didn’t have it, having been bought in New England, but having been moved to central Texas in the meantime, where lack of AC was severe detriment. It was also my first (crank) sunroof car. The most chronic problem I had was with the (Motorola) alternator which went through voltage regulator/brushes with regularity, must have had 5 sets on it during my ownership..the headlights would start “pulsing” bright then dark, and I knew I needed to put in another set (kept some on hand since it was so common). Oddest repair was to replace the weatherstripping after a number of years in Texas, rubber goes bad, couldn’t find any parts in salvage yard even as good as mine, so I mail-ordered it from yard up north, the weatherstripping is attached to a huge rubber piece that goes from the bottom of the “A” pillar to the back of the hatch (also used on the Jetta, the black color gives the car a distinctive appearance). It arrived looking like a giant hockey stick, and fortunately wasn’t bent (the piece has metal stiffeners in it but they are easily deformed ). Also had to replace clutch when fluid seeped onto it and fouled it….took me a month, part of it I was sick, but most delay was a conceptual error I had about how it engaged, must have put it in and out of the car 4-5 times before figuring out I’d actually done it right the first time). Timing belt was really easy, my cousin gave me the tensioning tool he no longer needed from the Jetta he had just sold (have done this job on current Golf, about due again, bit of a pain since engine mount connects to engine right inside loop of the belt). However the biggest pain I had was when I tried to get it aligned after buying new tires, the shop I took it to had uncalibrated rack and they kept trying to shim my rear stub axle to correct misalignment that wasn’t there..must have gone back 10 times unnecessarily.
Don’t know exactly how many miles I had on it, as the GTi had multiple odometer setup, but the speedometer cable mount often broke the plastic where it went into the housing, so none of them would register mileage. I really prefer the A2 Golf to my current A4, the A2 seems a lot higher (upright) seating, and though it also had a center stack, it was for minor stuff like ashtray and cassette storage bin…the radio and climate controls were mounted up high. The downside was probably a bit less aerodynamic due to more vertical windshield, but the A2 was lighter than the A4, so even though I had the 1.8 liter (high output) engine on the A2 vs the 2.0 on my A4, the A2 felt a lot peppier. Fortunately I never had the GTi-unique self-machining problem on the close-ratio transmission that many ran into that trashed the case.
One thing I forgot that right after this VW hit a low point, think they sold very few cars around 1993 or so …maybe at the transition between A2 and A3. They didn’t have SUVs back then, of course, but still had the Passat, the Eurovan, and the Corrado, though they sold in tiny numbers. But I was between cars and by the time I bought my A4, things had improved a lot. Also when I bought my 2000, VW had a 10 year limited powertrain warranty, but a very short 2 year bumper-to-bumper warranty….which suited me fine, VW dealers aren’t known for support of their cars, so I didn’t mind that the period was short. My A2 had far fewer power assists than my current A4, and I wish I could have bought my A4 that way, as these were the things I’ve had problems with that the A2 didn’t have (excepting power sunroof, which hasn’t given me any probem on the A4): power windows fell into door, power locks stopped working on 2/4 doors due to poor solder joints on controller. But they didn’t offer 4 door Golfs at GL level (and even they had power locks, albeit without power windows back then).
Don’t know if I’ll buy another VW, believe it or not the thing that puts me off is the vinyl seats (whatever they are called). My Scirocco had vinyl seats, but after I got my GTi I didn’t want to go back to them….for awhile the base model still had cloth, but they’ve gotten rid of those. Also will likely have to opt for automatic in my advancing age. They don’t plan to offer the Golf after this year, only highline like GTi, don’t really need to get another one of those, but hatchbacks are disappearing in favor of SUVs, but I don’t need or want anything with AWD or 4WD, nor the space wasted (in the 2WD versions built on 4WD platform). Maybe end up with a Mazda 3, Hyundai and Kia also stop making the Forte5 and Elantra GT which I’m too late in the market to buy other than used. Maybe a Corolla Liftback or Civic Liftback? about the only choices left, since there’s no Ford Focus hatch nor Chevy Cruze hatch anymore either.