Curbside Classic: 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit – Lucky

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

I have recently rewatched episodes of the “I Love The ’80s” specials that first ran on the VH1 cable channel starting back in 2002.  It wasn’t wasted on me that these shows that were created to spark nostalgia for the Eighties were now close to twenty years old, themselves.  It remains hilarious to watch some of the stars and public personalities from the early Aughts give their takes on some of the things people spent money on.  In my early elementary school days, popular items for kids my age included the “Speak ‘N Spell“, Rubik’s Cube, Scratch ‘N Sniff stickers, and the lucky rabbit’s foot.

We never had a Speak ‘N Spell in our house, but there was one in my second grade classroom that some fortunate boy or girl who had first pick of the toys during playtime would invariably claim immediately.  I remember occasionally trying to make it spell out and say words that would have earned me a spanking or some other punishment had such language come out of my mouth, just out of curiosity, but the good people at Texas Instruments were apparently way ahead of me.

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

Most forms of entertainment for young folks back then was non-electronic in nature, in an almost complete reversal of what is true today.  Looking back, it seems like the early ’80s was the time that the marriage of technology and entertainment intended for mass consumption had started to pick up serious momentum.  Nothing remotely electronic was generally allowed on desks in any of my classrooms until high school, and even a Casio watch with a rudimentary calculator was forbidden by teachers for fear or suspicion of cheating.  (What was the point of getting something that cool for Christmas if you couldn’t show it off to your classmates?)  Now every student learns with a laptop computer.  For many children my age, though, a lucky rabbit’s foot was the kind of drug store or grocery store trinket that was allowed to be kept in the laminated, flip-top box on our desks that also held our pencils and other school supplies.

Gumball Machine at Dominick's grocery. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, January 7, 2010.

The lucky rabbit’s foot always intrigued me, and I had so many questions.  Was it the actual hind foot of a rabbit?  That sounded gross and not lucky at all, at least for the rabbit.  Why wasn’t it badly decomposed in that plastic bubble in the vending machine?  What happened to the rest of that poor rabbit?  Was it served for hot lunch?  How much luck could come from the maiming of a poor, defenseless rabbit?  I wouldn’t have purchased one because in our family, we kids were taught not to believe in luck for some pseudo-spiritual reason my mom or James Dobson had come up with.  I honestly don’t believe in luck today as a matter of personal philosophy, even as I acknowledge that some things are just random but can have beneficial outcomes.  Many of my own less-than-ideal life situations have had some resulting lesson from which positive growth was possible if I could get to seeing past my anger, sadness, or disappointment.

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

Of course, in my young, isolated, uber-conservatively raised naivety, there might have been some kid who would have me eighty percent convinced that their rabbit-foot-on-a-ball-chain was indeed lucky, and that there was some farm where bunnies were bred and raised, with their hind legs being harvested for just this purpose.  This was supposed to make it all okay.  I don’t know.  I never ended up owning either a pet rabbit or its “foot”, whether or not it was real.  There are lots of stories on the internet about the origin of the rabbit’s foot as a lucky object, with different traditions coming from the majority of the seven continents.  Apparently, this wasn’t just a European thing, or an African thing, or an Asian thing, etc. – which I also found fascinating.  Maybe there’s just something inherent about a rabbit that lends itself to good fortune.

Life Is Beautiful. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

I thought that downtown Las Vegas was a particularly apt place to have come across this beefed-up looking Volkswagen Rabbit during the weekend of the annual Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival in 2016.  With its Oregon plates and rough-and-ready stance, it seemed to possess a look-at-me presence that was unlike that of many of the black cars, taxis, and general traffic in and around the area.  By standing out as much as it did (when’s the last time you saw a Rabbit or Mk I Golf?), it seemed to blend in perfectly with the accent on individualism of the Fremont Street area and many of its tourists.  No Rabbit in the U.S. came with four, round headlamps, but the vertical, segmented, rectangular front and rear side-marker lights might peg this one as a 1979 or ’80 model.  (The related Cabriolet would sport quad lamps starting in ’88, one of which may have been the source of this one’s grille.)

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

By ’79, the Rabbit was being built in Volkswagen’s former Westmoreland assembly plant in Pennsylvania about thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  Factory power came from a 71-horsepower, 1.5 liter four cylinder gasoline engine.  A diesel with the same displacement churned out 48 horses.  The first Rabbit / Golf was a highly successful and influential car, which you can read about at CC in Paul Niedermeyer’s essay from 2013.  I couldn’t find any 0-60 mph times for the gasoline-powered version, but according to Consumer Guide, the ’79 diesel took 21.2 seconds to get there, being named the slowest diesel-powered car that year.  This one ain’t no diesel (confirmed in the comments, as evidenced by the side-marker lights).  I can’t imagine any vehicle that would have regularly tried the patience of its driver and passengers in that manner having made it into the last decade in this kind of shape.

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

Volkswagen sold over 215,300 Rabbits in the U.S. for ’79, easily making it the company’s volume seller that year.  Also sold here that year were over 24,500 Dashers, 26,000 Sciroccos, and 10,700 Beetle convertibles, for a total of 292,500 cars.  Only the gasoline-powered Rabbit was built in U.S., with the diesel version and those other models being manufactured in and imported from what was then West Germany.  This was good for about 2.4% of the market share in the States, which increased to 3% for 1980 despite similar volume at 293,600 cars in that recession year.  These numbers were but a fraction of Volkswagen’s peak of 569,700 units sold in 1970, its best sales year to date, which amounted to 5.6% of market share.

1979 or '80 Volkswagen Rabbit. Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. September 2016.

If wheels could be thought of as the “feet” of the car, the rear-mounted spare could perhaps be thought of as an extra “lucky Rabbit’s foot” on the back of this car.  Supposing this Oregon-based car was from Eugene, the 862 miles between that northwestern city and Las Vegas could make for quite a long, long fourteen-hour drive at legal speeds.  In order to accommodate as much gear for this Vegas trip would mean that the spare would have to go outside of a car this size, which makes sense if its occupants were here for the festival.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it luck, but rather an actual blessing to have a solid, full-sized spare available should something run amuck on the road.

As for this particular Vegas trip with my friends, one might be wondering if I got lucky and won big.  The randomness of the slot machines and my favorite video poker games didn’t make me a rich man, but I left with the bounty of another memorable set of experiences with some of my best friends.  Life is beautiful.  I may not consider myself lucky, but I am indeed blessed.

Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada.
September 2016.