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.

Those “passive” front seatbelts weren’t quite so halfassed as GM’s door-mounted belts, but they still offered poorer protection than a conventional 3-point belt, in part because it was so easy to forget to fasten the separate, manual lap belt. About the only good thing about them was they could be used to yank the door shut rather than leaning out and grabbing the door pull. There was a trilingual label on the dashboard:

English: Fine, that makes sense; this was the U.S.-spec model, and most buyers would be literate in English. French: H’mm. This makes less sense; the Canadian-spec cars got conventional 3-point belts. Perhaps VW wanted to make sure potential French Canadian visitors were catered for.

But instead of catering for potential Mexican visitors by including Spanish on the label, they put German? C’mon, now; these belts weren’t installed on European-spec cars, and even if they had been, there’s a reason why things spelt out in America are presented with pictograms in Europe: there are many languages there, of which German is only one. How do you say “wankery” auf Deutsch?

As I say, nominally the Jetta was my parents’ car and my sister was just allowed to use it, but practically it was sister’s car (until the Town Car finally finished dying to death, anyway). A structural element of this arrangement was that she was allowed to drive it to school if she took me along. One day not long after the car’s purchase, I finished up classes early and thought I’d go sit in the brand-new car, play the radio, read the owner’s manual, etc. Sister had one or another of her after-school activities, so I wouldn’t be catching a ride home with her that day. I didn’t have a key, but she’d left the sunroof open a few inches, so I thought to use my backpack as a stepstool. Clever idea, but I couldn’t make it work. A couple of tall upperclassmen happened by before long. I don’t remember exactly how I talked them into shinnying up and reaching down through the sunroof and unlocking the door for me, but I did; bad ideas coming from one teenager don’t sound all that bad to another, I guess. No alarm system to make noise, no immobiliser to worry about.

Anyhow, access attained! All fourteen-and-a-half of me, within tasting distance of being able to drive, thought sitting in the driving seat and operating the controls of even a nonrunning car was a very fine afternoon’s business. When it came time to go catch the bus home, I left my backpack in the back seat so I wouldn’t have to lug it from the bus stop to the house. But I carefully erased any trace I’d been in the driving seat: I turned off the radio, put the seat back where my sister had left it, stashed the manual back in its pouch in the glovebox, and all that.

Well, or almost all that. I got home on the bus and went out for a long bike ride. When I got back, mother was waiting for me with steam visibly puffing from her ears. She was furious! I’d run down the battery in the car, she said. She knew because I’d left my backpack in the car, she said. The car wouldn’t start, she said. Sister was stranded in the school parking lot, she said.

Mother drove us over to the school in the ’84 Caprice, screaming at me the entire way. As soon as I drew up to the Jetta, I saw the problem: so lost had I been in my own little world, blasting down mental motorways, passing and changing lanes, that I had failed to shift back into “Park”. With that done, the car started immediately.

Teenagers are like cats: They eat a lot, they sleep a lot, they break stuff just because, they do random things for no reason, and they find it profoundly embarrassing to get caught at any of this. And I had been triple de luxe intergalactic caught. My sister enjoyed the hell out of a thousand variants of “You still have a year before you have any business sitting in the driving seat, Daniel, you’re still only 14!”.

Was I at least out of trouble? All’s well that ends well, and all that? Sure, if only it had been Opposite Day, which it wasn’t. I’d inconvenienced my sister and my mother—they had me bang to rights on that—but every time they told the story, my crime grew more heinous. By the time dad got home from work the two of them had fish-storied the events up to my having broken into the car. It was their word against mine; I stood no chance.

What had I learnt from the newspaper incident shortly ago? Absolutely nothing, as it seems, because I made out as though my original backpack-as-stepstool plan had succeeded. That is, I lied again. I guess I figured it was maybe sorta less bad with only myself involved, or something. Dad marched me out to the driveway and ordered me to demonstrate exactly how I’d got into the car; mother and sister came along to spectate and heckle. (Habbout now? Now is it beginning to dawn on us that lying isn’t going to make things better?) The driveway was sloped, I protested, so the backpack wouldn’t sit at the same angle as it had in the car park at school, I protested. And it had a different mix of books and stuff in it, I protested, stacked in a different order that wasn’t conducive to use as a stepstool, I protested. I might as well have been using an actual shovel rather than my mouth. But somehow or other I eventually managed to wriggle my way up on my belly on the roof and reach in through the sunroof, whereupon another charge was added by the prosecution: dad saw the spring-loaded sunroof wind deflector folding down under my weight and declared this as damage. I don’t recall what the penalties were, but whatever they were, they certainly were.

Now, this Jetta was built in Germany, mind, complete with a W as the first character in its VIN, and I want that on the record before I get into describing its faults and failures. It wasn’t nearly so godawful as the Lincoln had been, but it was not very well put together. Consumer Reports had cooed and babbled that the Jetta “exuded quality”, which we came to conclude was either a hallucination or a typographical error; evidently they’d meant to say it excluded quality. The transmission had problems with the valve body more than once, and the shift knob came apart. The rubber band-style exhaust hangers failed more than once. For awhile the starter went “OOOgah!” after the engine fired, then whichever bearing was noisy finished failing and a new starter had to be put in. If I recall the count correctly, it ate four factory radios. There were rough idle issues. The car began running very poorly when the engine was cold; the air cleaner thermostat had failed. The air conditioning system forgot how to say “Cold” in any language. The car sometimes acted like it had a flat battery; that was improved by a service campaign to install a cutout solenoid which opened the circuit to various nonessential accessories during cranking. I think there was a recall, too, for a replacement heater core designed not to spew near-boiling liquid into the car—to be fair, this didn’t actually happen on ours. But the front seats wouldn’t stay bolted in securely, and the liquid-filled engine mounts emptied themselves at least once, causing annoying noise and vibration until they were replaced.

Really I think the Jetta’s problems were due in good chunk to a bad dealer—Mountain States Volkswagen on Colorado Boulevard, like it matters; horror stories of careless, callous, customer-hostile North American VW dealers were ten for a Pfennig. Problems carried on happening, but they tended to stay fixed better after dealer service was no longer involved. I remember a radiator fan motor and I’m sure there are others I don’t recall. It was enough to make me think the weirdest thing about that German-made, purchased-new Jetta was that occasionally, completely at random and with no warning, the car would sometimes get us there and back without drama or failure.

Not very long after it was bought, my folks let sister drive the Jetta from Denver to Lake Mcconaughy, Nebraska, with some friends. They left on a Sunday midmorning, and a phone call came in at home late that afternoon. It was sister, calling collect (that was a thing) from a payphone (that was also a thing) at an abandoned gas station where she’d mistakenly stopped for fuel. The car refused to restart, and showed no signs of life at all. Not my fault this time! Over the phone, I—still not yet old enough for a driving licence—choreographed a bevy of 18-year-old girls through systematic hands-on diagnosis of VW Jetta electrics. Back and forth my sister went between the car and the phone booth (that was a thing, too), following my instructions and then reporting the results to me. In the end, I had sister sit in the driving seat and hold the key in the “start” position while one of the other girls grasped and twisted the battery cables. That did the trick; the car came to life. One of the car’s battery cables had broken internally (in a precision, German fashion, I’m sure, compliant with all applicable DIN standards) and twisting them pushed the broken ends together inside the cable jacket. I could hear happy yawps over the phone despite the heavy wind at their location.

Having defused the immediate emergency, I headed for the full-width bottom shelf of my closet where I kept all the cattledogs—there were many; it was a pretty good facsimile of the counter bookracks at parts stores of that time. I pulled the Belden book and buried my nose in it for a few minutes. Application section: ’90 automatic gasoline Jetta takes such-and-such battery cables. Spec section: they’re made of № 6 cable (actually I think the OE cables were thinner than that) configured thus-and-so in terms of length and terminal styles. More spec section to find similarly-configured ones made of № 2 cable. I called up the NAPA where I had a cash-and-carry account with a nice discount, and had Jerry over there order me in those cables. They got installed probably at Clay’s Texaco or South Denver Automotive, and there was never any further trouble directly from the battery cables in that car. I say “not directly” because during one of many subsequent trips to the dealer’s disservice department, they straightfacedly tried to blame air conditioner failure, driveability faults, and loose seat mounts on the American-made battery cables. These same clowns installed the fourth factory replacement radio upside down. Which shouldn’t be possible, but.

The Jetta was also the car wherein I had my first accident.

A portrait of the Author as a young dork. I think this was taken very shortly after the car’s purchase, one morning early in the 1990-’91 school year. The lawn’s still green and we’re in summer clothes, which comports with Denver’s September weather, so that reckons.

That’s my sister at the wheel, and I’m wearing a tee shirt with Bart Simpson—who was less than a year old at the time, with 13 episodes under his belt versus the current count of 698 or so—saying I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything. I’ve got my Casio digital watch on, too, and a toothy smile worthy of a kid in a 1950s popsicle ad or something.

I’m not sure what is the piece of paper I’m holding, and I don’t recall why we put on that steering wheel cover (sloppily, as it seems). Sister put a tape in the deck. It could’ve been –Depress– Depeche Mode or Paul Simon or Phil Collins, but it was a brand-new record for 1990:

The first track after the intro has a car horn honked twice in classic “beep beeeep” fashion. Sister honked along with it if there weren’t other cars around to think she was honking at them (and sometimes even if there were). The horn was unusual: two notes right next to each other on the scale, like a C and a D; I don’t recall the actual notes, but it was a musical “second”, the disharmony of which might be more attention-getting than horns tuned to a harmonious third (like C and E) as in most American cars, or fourth (like C and F) as in many Japanese ones.

Speaking of honking, the car developed a bizarre electrical fault: sometimes the horn would honk by itself while the engine was being cranked. But only during cranking, and only sometimes. The dealer wasn’t able to replicate the problem, and for quite awhile we were at sixes and sevens about it. It wasn’t related to weather or ambient temperature or position of any of the electrical controls or anything else we could suss out. It might happen once and then not again for weeks or months, or it might happen almost every time for days on end. If it happened (or didn’t), it might or might not happen moments later if the engine were stopped and then restarted. It made no sense; the horn circuit and the starter circuit don’t talk to each other and don’t interconnect.

One day I was looking at just the right angle at just the right moment to see and reckon out what was going on. The original keys looked like this:

We’d had copies made at the local Ace Hardware store, and they looked like this:

There was a gap between the steering wheel and the top of the steering column housing, and visible in this gap was a metal disk, which was part of the horn switch. Many horn switches work by completing a ground path for the horn relay’s trigger circuit, and this was one of those. See where this is going? From time to random time, when the driver would grab a fistful of keys on a keyring and turn the metal-headed ignition key in its lock, another key on the keyring would swing into contact with that horn disk, which would then have a path to ground via the keyring ➞ ignition key ➞ ignition lock ➞ steering column, and the horn would sound…sometimes…only during cranking. Sokath, his eyes uncovered!

Speaking of sound during cranking: the starter sounded like gravel in a blender. If I correctly recall my starter-alternator expert’s explanation, it was because Rudolph (the red-nosed ring gear) was made out of stamped sheetmetal rather than the usual—and much quieter—milled steel.

In 1995 sister finished university in Illinois and I either volunteered or was volunteered to move her, her stuff, and the Jetta back to Denver. I was 19, so nobody would rent me a Sundance, but Ryder had no qualm tossing me the keys to a big Ford box truck with a flatbed car trailer, cha-cha-cha:

I don’t recall whether mine was the only name on the papers or I was just being a chauvinistic showoff, but one way or the other I was the only one who drove the truck. It had a 460 gasoline engine, an automatic transmission, and a thoroughly annoying governor set to 64.5 mph. I wasn’t annoyed by the speed limitation—with that rig I didn’t care to go any faster—but by the way the accelerator aggressively pushed back up against my foot as the governed speed was approached. My leg would’ve ached a lot less with a “floor the pedal all you want; we’re still not going any faster” arrangement. Here’s a pic of me in the truck. I never did figure out which end of that breadstick I was meant to light.

I hoped we’d see the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign again, for the first time since our arrival in 1980, but because we came in on I-80/76 instead of I-70, we saw this relatively lame thing instead:

My folks decided to sell the Jetta, and offered me a commission to do the job. The car got detailed for the first time, which really brought back the Tornado Red; we hadn’t really noticed how chalky it had gone. And all the brake dust came off the wheels, and the interior fairly glowed. “Holy shit”, said my mother. By and by, buyers came along, a price was agreed, and I drew up a sale contract. When one grows up in a house with two lawyers, one learns things; I included phrases like “final sale”, “as-is and where-is”, “no express or implied warranty”, and “sellers relinquish all interest and obligation”. Good thing, too; I no longer recall the details, but it was something like the buyers called a day or two afterward and said they’d found a car they liked better, so they wanted to undo the deal. Uh, no.

And that was that. The Jetta went away. It was replaced with a decent car purchased badly. We’ll get to that eventually, but next week I’ll tell about my own first car.

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