COAL #4: 1981 VW Scirocco S – Peak Sporty Efficiency

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…