It was fall 1981, and my Camaro was still providing dependable, sporty performance. I was working in downtown Los Angeles for the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA), and wasn’t relishing another summer commute of over two hours a day without air conditioning. Being married and making good money, I had a number of options, so what to buy?
As you may recall, I began driving when OPEC and gas lines were common, and the inevitable rise in gas prices was still a concern. I wanted something sporty yet practical and efficient. We didn’t have any kids yet, so room for car seats wasn’t a priority. I liked to think that I marched to a little different drummer, so choosing a Toyota Celica like the nine million drivers in Southern California (or so it seemed) was out.
Honda Accords were also incredibly popular, but this was the older, more rounded first generation body style. Efficient? Check. Sporty? Compared to the four door, sure. Compared to the rest of the automotive universe? No. Even though there were only about eight million Accords, fewer than the Celica, that was still too many, with most being that shade of green that Honda must have copyrighted.
What about a VW Scirocco? Sporty? Check. Efficient? Check. Not so many driving around that I can’t tell which is my car and which is someone else’s? Check. I liked the first generation styling better than the second, so I found myself at the VW dealer negotiating on a six month old “S” model. Four hours later, the sales rep and I were both a little bruised but we each got what we wanted, and I drove away in heavenly air conditioned comfort.
The Mark I version of the Scirocco was first sold in 1974 and featured clean lines without a lot of wasted swoops and curves. It had a style that I liked, as the Scirocco was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro who had also created my 850 Spider. The first Sciroccos were developed with the VW Rabbit/Golf, and used the same mechanicals in a lower, sexier body. They actually hit the market about six months before the Rabbit/Golf and were used to test out the production of the new transverse engine, front wheel drive platform.
All Sciroccos were a hatchback design with a fold down rear seat, boasting 19 cubic feet of storage capacity with the seat folded. The US never got the GTI version available elsewhere, but the “S” model did have Recaro type seats, additional instrumentation in the console, front air dam and more. The five speed transmission had a dimpled golf ball type handle that fell readily to hand and shifted easily. Only three colors were offered on the “S”, and mine was Cirrus Gray Metallic.
The 1981 models came with a larger 1,715 cc fuel injected engine. This, combined with excellent aerodynamics and the five speed transmission, allowed for a 105+ mph top speed and returned 29-36 mpg. The downside of all this efficiency was that this was another car that you “wore” rather than rode in, so NFL linebackers were definitely not VW’s target market.
My new gray beauty did pretty much everything that the Camaro did only better. It was light (only 1,900 lbs.), nimble, and a blast to drive. The first generation Scirocco had non power assisted steering that was wonderfully direct and communicative. It’s funny how times change though. For me, manual steering, windows, mirrors and locks were a feature, not a penalty box. It meant less to break, less weight to carry around, better economy, better performance and a more direct driving experience. Today? I’m not sure if anything like this is available in the US, and if it is, then it’s viewed more as a Chevy Biscayne instead of a light, nimble and direct sports coupe.
One of the features that I was unaware of when I bought the car was the patented Wolfsburg Wash-O-Matic passenger foot cleaning system. This was one of those features that the Wunderkind engineers didn’t put in the owner’s manual, but followed the business maxim to “surprise and delight” your customers.
It was summertime, and my wife and I drove from Southern California to visit my sister in Rock Island, IL. The car drove beautifully and, with the five speed, was an effortless highway cruiser. The AC really proved its worth through the heat of Arizona and Utah, and the suspension soaked up the twists and turns of the Rocky Mountains. Somewhere in Nebraska, the AC began losing its cool in the oppressive heat and humidity. Things were definitely getting a bit tropical inside as we neared Omaha to stay with an aunt & uncle for the night. What was going on?
The answer came cresting over me in a flood of epiphany. Those Wolfsburg engineers had certainly provided “surprise” but maybe not “delight” as the AC condensation line had become blocked somewhere in Colorado, water rising to Hoover Dam like levels, finally letting go in a Niagara Falls torrent into the passenger footwell. The screams that filled the interior told the story as the 45 degree water rapidly washed my passenger’s lower extremities and the carpet located in that general area.
German engineers are, of course, famous for their sense of humor, and I’m sure that I heard their guffaws even in the far removed American heartland. A coat hanger and some probing in the engine compartment opened the dam’s floodgates, and towels took care of the 43 gallons of water inside. What other surprises did those Germans have for me?
My Mom, sister and newborn nephew came out from Denver and Rock Island respectively to visit one summer. We were living in Fullerton, as I was finishing up my degrees at the University. Driving down PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway), we enjoyed the beach views, as they remembered what it was like to live in a non-landlocked state. We were talking and laughing as we stopped at a red light for traffic.
I looked up in my rear view mirror and suddenly saw a pickup truck behind us that definitely wasn’t going to stop. I yelled “BRACE!” a second before the full force of the truck slammed into the back of the car. The rear hatch exploded on impact and we, particularly the baby, were covered in glass. The back end of the car was crushed to the rear axle, but amazingly, we were mostly unhurt. Our 5’4” Mom required restraint however, as she was going to kill the obviously intoxicated driver of the truck. Police were called, the baby checked out at the hospital, and a rental car procured.
The Scirocco had saved us, and although the back end was destroyed, it wasn’t totaled and lived to drive another day. Strike one.
A Mitsubishi Tredia was provided as a rental while the Scirocco was being repaired. Wait, you ask, “What is a Tredia?” A Tredia is the answer to a Jeopardy question of “What is the poster child for a generic four door economy sedan for $400 Alex”.
One day I returned to the car after doing some shopping. A semi beat-up Chevy pickup had parked next to me with its wheels cocked at a 45 degree angle, and the amorous couple inside were going at it hot and heavy with the engine running. As I went to open my door, I heard the Turbo Hydramatic click into reverse and suddenly knew how this story would end. I jumped out of the way as the truck slammed into the side of the rental right where I had been standing. In his amorous haste, the driver had apparently forgotten about the front wheel’s 45 degree angle. I was uninjured except for a bruise and dirt everywhere from hitting the ground. Another tow truck was called and another rental car procured. Strike two.
Eventually I got the car back, and it drove and looked great. I worried about the frame repairs being done properly, but someone had done their job and the car drove as well as ever. Commuting was a pain, but at least I had my car back and all was right with the world. Until that one day…
At that time I lived in an apartment part way up a hill across from a regional park, with a stop light at the top of the hill above and another at the bottom of the hill below. Heading to work one day, I was stopped at the bottom of the hill and listening to some good music as I waited for the light. Everything was great – until I heard the screeching of tires and my car again exploded. A woman coming down the hill apparently couldn’t find her favorite cassette tape. Just like in a bad movie, she bent down searching her passenger floor, finally looking up to see a red light and my stationary car. Again, the back end was folded into the axle, and again the car left me with soreness but no serious injuries. Police were called, the car towed and another rental car secured. Strike three.
The car was again repaired, but life had changed. This was my fourth accident in 18 months, and none of them were my fault. This was the third time being rear-ended in that period, the unmentioned one entailed being a passenger in the backseat of a Mazda 626 that was crushed by a semi-truck, sending my wife to the hospital. I was definitely getting skittish about cars slowing (or not slowing) behind me, and I wondered exactly how many times a car could be repaired. I also pondered whether there was a big red bullseye painted on the back of the car that I couldn’t see – maybe another secret German Wunderkind engineering feature.
I finally graduated from the University and began thinking about buying a house. Houses require money, especially in Southern California, so maybe my whopping $188 a month car payment could be reallocated to that cause. With sadness, I put the Scirocco up for sale. He had given me everything he had and more, and I was grateful for his protection to get me to the next chapter of life.
But what do I replace the Scirocco with? What do I buy without a car payment? And how outlandish can a car really be? I didn’t know it then, but project “beater” was born…
First off, I always really liked the original Scirocco. By the time I was looking at new cars in 1984-85 they had moved on to the second generation which I did not find at all compelling. And, like you, I loved having a car with minimal power equipment – simplicity is a virtue.
And wow, you really did have a bulls-eye on the back of that car. This was much more serious than the way the light metallic green paint on my first and third cars carried some kind of supernatural attraction to birds with digestive issues. Who would wait until they got over my car to unload on it.
I also share your question on how many times a car can have major body damage repaired. Those situations always seem to result in insurance complications down the road. At least in my world.
Quite a dramatic story – there’s not many people who can say they’ve walked away from multiple accidents in a first-generation Scirocco! I can’t imagine who this car’s second owner was.
I have quite a fondness for early Sciroccos because my father owned one when I was a little kid. He wasn’t quite the prototypical buyer though, being in his mid 30s, married and with two children. But like you, he wanted an enjoyable car that was reasonably efficient for commuting to work, and he prided himself on driving unusual cars. So he bought a first-year Scirocco in 1975 (the ’75s are easily identifiable because they had two windshield wipers).
The car was indeed fun, and fuel-efficient, but was plagued with problems. Being a you kid, I don’t recall most of these problems, but there were a lot of fit-and-finish problems…. The most memorable being that the radio worked its way loose, fell into the dashboard, and crushed the heater controls underneath it. And then there were fuel leaks, which for some reason occurred more than once.
Regardless, it was a fun car, and I suppose Dad had a high tolerance for hassles because he kept it for five years. I think both this and the second-generation Sciroccos were great looking cars, and if I were in the market for a sport(y) car at any time in the late ’70s or ’80s, I would have considered a Scirocco for exactly the reason that you did… that it’s the unusual choice, and a good one at that.
Oh, and that’s one of my favorite Far Side cartoons…
Great COAL. I look forward to the next one. The crease in the sheetmetal below the door handle that runs the length of the car makes this design. It gives the car mass, yet is taut, w/o being slab-sided. In so many photos of the 1st gen Scirocco, the car appears to be painted two tone because of the impact of shade on the lower surface. It is really striking. Then the “blunted angle” thus created into the fenders and body is carried into so many other details, tail end etc., unifying the concept. It really is a masterwork.
I bought an ’80 S in ’89, the same gray metallic. Generally liked the car but even at a svelt 5’11” / 150lbs, those big-bolster seats were a PITA to get in and out of. Fine for highway drives, not so fine for running errands around town. The only mechanical problem was leaky A/C connections which required bi-monthly top ups with R-12.
Yes, the big bolster seats were a PITA. Although I’m not 6’4″ like Paul, I am all torso which meant that the seat had to be in in lowest position. Of course, only the rear of the seat bottom moved, with the front as the pivot point, so knees up, butt down was the driving order of the day. The sunroof took away headroom, so it was a tight fit for us long torso types.
Loved the gen 1 Scirocco, although at 6’4″, it wasn’t exactly designed for me in mind. A friend in LA had one, and I got to drive it once or twice, and it was more like wearing it than driving it. In a good way, once ensconced. What a ball.
My xB reminds me more than a bit of the gen1 Golf/Rabbit/Scirocco, albeit with a big boxy body to suit me. Similar directness, very crisp steering (despite power assist), similar sized engine and performance, a very firm ride and resultant handling. It’s my way of reliving the past with the roominess (and a few minimal convenience features) of the present. Oh, and noisy too!
Oh, I am definitely never going to be a passenger in your car whatever it may be.
As far as the Gen 1 Scirocco my high school friend had either a 78 or 79. An upgrade over his VW Bus which we drove north once in 1977. Do the Grapevine in a Bus. I liked the car a lot as what you said about how it rode is true. I don’t know about long term reliability but would hazard a guess that a 79 Celica would be still on the road vs a 78 Scirocco discounting rust.
For car spotters I remembered a 1980 Kodachrome with my friend washing his car the day before his wedding
What I didn’t like about this car were the materials used for the interior. I remember the dash was made of a sort of cardboard. I think the seats were stuffed with hay like the beetle. The shifter knob was a huge golf ball looking thing that always broke.
Paul Y, also, the panels trim panels on the Mk1 GTI also tended to discolor and look aged.
The Mk2 used much better quality plastic trim parts in general. An 83-84 in good shape easily looks a LOT older than an 85-91 car.
These managed and still manage to look very good and interesting even when they were in their middle years. I’ve driven a few and like early Rabbits they’re a lot of fun, the light weight and low gearing makes the relatively low power a non-issue. Those early silver-barely-blue metallics look excellent on this (and related) shapes, giving off a far more premium vibe than they sold for. This series is shaping up to be really interesting with lots of cars from lots of different places, something for everyone!
I thought these were great when they came out and they’ve really aged well. I’ve always felt that a small car like this doesn’t need power steering.
I’m only six feet tall and back in the day remember having to slightly recline the seat so that my head wouldn’t touch the ceiling of the Scirocco. (I didn’t have to do this in the first generation CRX.) It seems to me that the Scirocco was popular with women and I kind of think it might have been because so many men, usually being taller, just didn’t fit in it. Taller people fit better in the lower-priced Rabbit.
Yes, but the Scirocco also had that unusual front hinge mechanism that tilted the seat bottom (plus the normal vernier seat recliner that most cars have).
I never had a Scirocco S, but rather a ’78 Champagne Edition, which is still my sentimental favorite of all the cars I’ve owned…sentimental in that it was great for me in my 20’s when I owned it, but I’ve come to think of even my current Golf as being a bit hard to get in and out of, and it is not nearly as low as the Scirocco was. I had mine transported when I moved to Texas 37 years ago, and the total weight of my shipment including all my earthly possessions at the time and the car was 4200 pounds (and a fair amount of that was textbooks, which I still have and have kept me from moving much since). Mine didn’t have air conditioning (nor sunroof) but I still kept it for 4 years after moving…even though I could have added A/C, I ended up buying my ’86 A2 GTI (which had both sunroof and A/C, but no power steering). The Scirocco is the most visually striking car I’ve ever owned; 40 years hasn’t dimmed that part of my opinion of it. It did have its quirks, I didn’t have the accidents with mine (actually I bought it after having an accident with my ’74 Datsun 710 where I hit a patch of black ice, not too much damage, but I didn’t trust a light RWD car in the winter (my parents were 3 states away at the time and I drove up frequently).
I’ve stayed in the VW fold since then…the A2 GTi, then my current ’00 Golf…I tend to keep cars awhile (if I like them, I tend to like them a lot). Haven’t owned a non-VW since the Datsun, and (so far) all of them with manual transmissions.
One comment on the materials, I liked my A2 GTi, but some things like the seats had to be redone frequently ..not just the aggressive bolsters that would wear, but the seat foam would deteriorate (which made the fabric over them wear even more quickly). There were other things like the Motorola alternator that I kept having to replace brushes in, oil fouled clutch. Luckily I didn’t have the problem with the self-machining close ratio transmission in the GTi. I prefer the “upright” seating position in the A2 models (also A3, but sadly lowered on my A4).
Great write-up on a great car!
In jr. high, I thought this might well be the perfect car–30 mpg and a quarter mile in 17.5 seconds, wow ! (with the 1.6 FI engine). Our Woodshop teacher had a 1976 or 77 with the 1.6 FI 4-speed
Yours was the ultimate US spec–a 1.6 FI with 5-speed, too.
Those are some bad breaks, but you have much to be thankful for.
I do have much to be thankful for – including not being in another accident since those in the early 80’s. I swear that I had a bulls-eye painted on my cars….
I miss the early Sciroccos. I had two, a 78 special edition and an 81 S similar to yours but mine had an 87 16V engine and Bilstein sport suspension. For a college kid it was fast cheap and slightly harsh riding but great fun, except when I had to re-engineer the conversion. This was 1989-90 so pre-Internet but plenty of magazines and specialists. I eventually sold it after buying a motorcycle, since I wanted something bone stock. I ended up replacing the Scirocco with an 84 Jetta. In hind sight I should have bought the 81 Jetta 2 door instead of the second Scirocco since I could have lightly modified it with less aggro.