During the time I had my 1978 VW bus I also acquired several other vehicles. Now that I was more knowledgeable about fixing cars, I was more apt to buy projects. I saw an advertisement for a 1978 Rabbit in the newspaper (remember those days?), non-running, for sixty dollars. I had to at least take a look at it. That’s how it always starts. And the inevitable end is still unknown, thankfully.
When I arrived, I found it was parked in the parking lot of some crummy apartments. It was a burnt orange two door. Being that it was a ’78, it it had the 1.6 liter engine, fuel injection, and was made in Germany, not Pennsylvania. So I was already interested. On top of that, the paint and interior were in great shape. Once I finally spoke to the owner she told me it had started running very badly and then one day would not start at all.
I asked her if she would be unhappy if I got it running right after I paid her the 60 dollars. She said no. So I went out and had a look at it. Engine oil not milky: check; coolant not oily: check; getting spark: check; getting fuel: not. I had learned a thing or two working on my friend’s white Rabbit. So I turned on the key and listened at the passenger side rocker panel. No fuel pump whirring. So I looked under the dash and found the fuel pump relay (learned this on the VW bus), I pulled it out and jumped a wire across the only terminals that form a T. Now it was whirring. I paid her the 60 dollars and we did the paperwork. After that I fired her up and drove her home.
It was obvious on the drive home that there was more wrong with it than a bad fuel pump relay. So I checked the compression: good in three cylinders but zero in the other. A peek down the spark plug hole found no hole in the piston, so off came the cylinder head. The exhaust valve on that cylinder had a nice pie shaped junk missing. Luckily, it somehow had manged to break off and be spit out without scoring the cylinder wall.
So while the cylinder head was in the machine shop having the valve replaced, I took the opportunity to clean the engine bay and polish the intake manifold. Eventually I took to making some modifications to the Rabbit’s fuel system. An enlarged throttle body, adjusting the air plate, etc. It all added up to about an 8 second 0-60 time. Of course a minivan can do better than that nowadays and my current 4×4 Chevy one ton van does it in eight too, but it seemed fast to me at the time.
All that new power eventually ate up the clutch. So I popped in a new cheapo Mexican Bug clutch. It lasted all of one day! I had wanted to figure out my ¼ mile time, so a few empty blocks served as my raceway. I put her in first and off it shot, second, third, big miss! The engine revved free and then there was no more connection to the wheels. I had missed the 3-4 upshift and engaged the clutch while at a very high rpm. So I towed her back home.
I should mention that home was a muddy field next to a VW junkyard and a leaky camper trailer. It was pouring rain and there was nowhere to fix it. So I put a board under the car to keep the jack from sinking in the mud and lit our kerosene heater in the trailer. When I opened up the bell housing it was full of ashes, springs and some bits of metal. The clutch had completely disintegrated. I really did’nt want to have to do this job again anytime soon, so I went in to my friend Andy’s VW shop and asked him for the best performance clutch he had. He presented me with a three puck bronze affair with no springs and a high pressure plate. So back into the mud I crawled and got it all back together.
That clutch lasted longer than the Rabbit, but it was an on-or-off situation; no slipping or half clutching was possible, and there were no springs to soften the engagement. So the front tires became the clutch in essence. Every take off was a burn out by necessity. In the unfortunate event that a police car was next to me at a light it became necessary to put it in 1st, drop the clutch and let it lug and buck up to second.
Eventually the little orange Rabbit met a rather inglorious end. I had raced it hard and it was starting to get worn out. The engine was still good but everything else was getting ratty. My friend Bill had several Rabbits and wanted a new engine for one. So I sold him the orange Rabbit for 300 dollars. We drove it up to his house in Kiezer from south Salem on I5. The exhaust had fallen off and it was very loud, the registration had expired and it only had the driver’s seat. All the other stuff had been sold off as parts. Bill drove his Rabbit and I drove the orange one.
We got into a full-on race on the way to his house with the orange Rabbit lagging just behind, darting in and out of slower lanes, people shaking their fists at us. As we exited the freeway into Kiezer the police were just turning around to get into the northbound lanes and catch us. They spotted us immediately and whipped around again. There were two cars but only one was able to turn around and get back off the ramp.
I saw Bill go west so I knew that he was going to go the long way to his house. I went north unto a little windy country road that eventually would take me to his house. The last I saw of the police they were just turning onto the road to pursue me. Surprisingly, we both made it back without being caught. No, dear readers, such foolishness does not posses me these days. Like the proverbial old man who yells at kids to get off of his lawn, I now shake my fist at youngsters as foolish as I was.
I won’t go into all the sordid details of our St. Patricks day bender, but let’s just say there was a point where we decided that pissing into the Orange Rabbit’s gas tank would be a good idea. It went downhill from there.
A short while after that fiasco Bill pulled the good bits off the Rabbit and decided to scrap it. But I had lost the title. So we came up with a brilliant plan. We would grind off the VINs and simply leave it along a road somewhere. Problem was, there were no seats, steering, brakes etc. So we built a tow bar for it out of what we had available. Which turned out to be 4×4 timbers, rope, screws, and plywood. Yes, it did work (after a fashion). But yes, there really are secret VIN locations on all cars. When the authorities called me threatening to charge me 60 dollars for removal of the car I simply told them I had sold it to some guy named Bill. Surprisingly that was good enough for them.
So I may not have been a very responsible. But it was a really a great little car and I went on to own several more Rabbits and variants. And just as I am a bit more responsible now, I am also a bit less tolerant of the many foibles of these old VWs. So while it holds a dear place in my memory, I would not get another one. In my seasoned opinion, Rabbits and most old VWs are best kept in our memories, where they can remain forever perfect.
When I had my A2 Jetta I learned to keep a spare fuel relay in the glove box.
You have the worst luck with bomb cars Michael I thought some of the junk Ive nursed thru its last few miles was bad but you have a magnetic attraction for bad cars
Luck favors the well prepared my friend!
We had an actual, living, highly-placed Germany-based engineer come to our yard de la wrecking to inspect a Rabbit, I believe it was (or a similar VW mobile from that era.. memory isn’t el perfecto) that had been totaled by the insurance company and the boss bought it really cheap at the local auction since it had some usable suspension components we could sell and we had nothing in stock or sitting in the yard with interchangeable parts.
It was an engine fire that led to its ending up in our yard and what led to that engineer arriving to inspect the vehicle, staying an entire THREE days for several hours daily as he poked, prodded, peeks, took pictures, disassembled this and that, stared at various manuals and joined us during breaks to assist us in consuming the large boxes of beer containing 24 aluminum cans of watery calorie-laden glory.
And, since it has been so many years ago, I feel safe in mentioning he also was delighted with our doobie quality, though I will declare vehemently that last utterance was a made-up addition to create a “cool story, bro” scenario merely to “spice up” this tale of a rare occurrence for the yard.
Unless he had reasons for not sharing his “real” conclusion supposedly the fire began in collected leaves in one of the underhood crevasses caused by an unknown outside ignition source.
The fire then spread to various plastic materials under the hood.
I had no reason to doubt him and before he left we had an adios doobie delight before he ambled off to grab the flight back to his Germany base.
Nice guy. Spoke English very well but with a strong German accent.
I refrained from the joke about how my “grandfather” died at Auschwitz… falling from the guard tower.
I bet he appreciated that.
The bit about the relay made me laugh. My boyfriend drives an A2 Jetta and any trip of significant distance involves swapping relays around or digging one out of his toolbox.
It doensn’t look like John Muir wrote the VW Rabbit book, but in the Beetle book he wrote “You must work with Love or you will fail”
Sounds like that poor Rabbit could have used a bit more love. Ah, youth. We were all there once….
Muir did publish it, and it was my apprenticeship in turning a wrench. Got me and my ’80 Diesel Rabbit through college until I could buy the GTI I really wanted.
Turned out after all the Diesel had won my heart and I’ve been driving them ever since I outgrew the GTI (or it + tickets slammed my insurance!)
One of the cars I’ve always liked but never got to drive or own at the time was the first iteration of the Rabbit, all versions up through 1979 or so before they got new side marker lights, square headlights and such. But the basic body was wonderful and I loved the interior as well.
That basic look is rather timeless now some 30+ years later as not many cars from that era hold up as well as that with the first gen Honda Civic and Accord coming in a close second and third would be the 1986-89 Civic based Acura Integra.
The difference between the US Pennsylvania made Rabbits is huge. During the time that I had this one, my friend had a late Rabbit. The seats were overstuffed but too short and soft, the springs were too soft, and the shocks were mushy. It felt very American.
Mike, I am sure we were going well over 100 MPH. I was sure they were going to catch us. Many great memories and I will need to begin writing some of them down.
You need to get talking to Paul about taking over for me when I run out