Curbside Classic: 1990 Volkswagen Fox – International Wildlife

1990 Volkswagen Fox. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, May 7, 2022.

The animal kingdom is alive and well in the northeastern Chicago neighborhood where I live.  While maybe not as densely populated as other areas of the city that are closer to its core, Edgewater is still very much an urban area, with many giant residential towers on North Sheridan Road that border Lake Michigan, and a mixture of continuously adjacent mid-rise structures and single-family dwellings as one heads westward.  On any given spring day, one may hear the loud squawking of Canada geese as they fly overhead, be awakened by the cheerful chirping of robins and cardinals in the early morning hours, and / or see the random rabbit or rat darting furtively across an alley.  I have even seen a few raccoons, hawks, and what appeared to be coyotes here on the north side.

Deer at Berger Park. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, May 24, 2013.

Berger Park. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, May 24, 2013.

I had even seen a couple of deer at a local lakefront park not far from a bus stop where I was deboarding.  The one facing me above looked like it didn’t play, but I couldn’t not get a quick picture of it before heading on my way.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be one of those deer, having wound up there, caught between Lake Michigan and a busy, four-lane thoroughfare, and at an intersection, no less.  What chain of events had brought them to this spot, and where was their home?  It’s not too hard to draw a metaphor between the trek of these deer to Berger Park and how life happenings can sometimes lead a human being to a place of danger outside of a safe, familiar space.  A return to an inner place called “home” can feel all the sweeter after having experienced that separation and unease for whatever length of time.

1990 Volkswagen Fox. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Chicago typically gets about five minutes of spring, and this year has been no exception.  We went from thick, wet snowflakes falling in the beginning of April to temperatures reaching just past the 90 degree Fahrenheit mark just four weeks later.  I’m not complaining about either, but it is just my observation that the two times a year, in the spring and fall, when I’m able to have all my windows open seem all the more precious given that we are plunged almost immediately into summer’s heat or the chill of a windy winter.  I’m happy that it’s again warm enough for me to resume taking my long, extended walks, like the one during which I had spotted our featured car.  A couple of weeks ago, I had set out on foot to get to an area called Little India on a stretch of West Devon Avenue in a neighborhood called West Ridge when I came across this red Fox while on the way.

1981 Volkswagen Jetta print ad, as sourced from the internet.

1981 Volkswagen Jetta print ad, as sourced from the internet.

It was in fantastic condition for any car of its era, and especially for an economy car.  It was the first Fox I can recall having seen in a very long time, and it clearly looked well taken care of.  The Fox was sold in North America from between 1987 and ’93, and it always seemed like something of an enigma to me.  When had first seen them around, I honest-to-goodness thought that Volkswagen had dusted off the tooling for the first-generation Jetta, given it some updated mechanicals, made some minor tweaks to its exterior, and had given it a new name since the Mk II Jetta had gone on sale in the U.S. for model year ’85.  This was not the case, with the Fox being slightly smaller in most dimensions than the first Jetta, with a wheelbase of 92.8″ (versus 94.5″), an overall length of 163.4″ (168.1″), and a height of 53.7″ (55.5″).  A 63.0″ width was common to both cars.

1988 Volkswagen Fox print ad, as sourced from the internet.

By its second year, the base price of the Fox two-door had risen by $300, to $5,990.

The Fox was an imported version of the Volkswagen Gol that was designed and built in Brazil.  All of them had a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine with 81 horsepower.  Volkswagen had to have some idea that the Fox wasn’t going to be a runaway success in the U.S. even at its low price since there was no automatic transmission available, and many of us North Americans are lazy that way.  (I love a manual transmission, though it has been years since I rowed through the gears.)  Base cars had a four-speed, but only the GL Sport got an extra gear early in the Fox’s run.  The regular GL would get the five-speed for ’91, which was the year the Fox got a minor exterior refresh.  The other thing I thought was curious was the Fox’s availability as a two-door wagon, a body style that hadn’t been available in the U.S. following the last 1980 Ford Pinto.

Fresh Farms International Market. Little India, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, May 7, 2022.

At the West Devon Avenue shopping district, also known as “Little India”.

The Fox was competitively priced, but de-contented to a level I’m not sure I could have lived with as a new-car shopper.  The ’87 Fox had a base price of just under $5,700, which was about the same as the Subaru Justy, while the Hyundai Excel had a starting price of about $700 less.  Initial options were limited to metallic paint, air conditioning, and what was referred to as a stereo-prep package, since one couldn’t even specify a radio on the early cars.  The Fox’s strong suits were said to be its handling and fuel economy, but they were also somewhat noisy and unsurprisingly not fast.  I have no firsthand experience with one, but it was conceptually very similar to an ’85 Renault Encore that graced our driveway: a well-engineered economy car with some tie to Europe that was stripped to the bone, but fun to drive.

1990 Volkswagen Fox. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Over 188,400 were sold over its seven model years in the U.S., of which the ’88s were the most plentiful, with 56,900 sold.  That figure represented a healthy 42% increase over first-year sales of 40,000, after which numbers continued to fall with each passing year.  Our featured ’90 model is one of only about 22,600 total Foxes that found buyers that year, which was also the wagon’s last.  Fewer than 6,700 units moved off dealer lots in final year ’93.

Another connection between the Fox and the West Devon Avenue shopping district was that they both had a distinctly multinational flavor.  The Fox was a German-branded car that was designed and built in Brazil, and imported to North America.  West Devon may be called “Little India”, but among its many retail storefronts and restaurants, there’s also representation from Pakistan, the Middle East, northern Africa, and other areas of the world.

Little India. West Ridge, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, May 7, 2022.

As I walked down Devon Avenue on that warm Saturday afternoon, it felt like total immersion in one of the kinds of travel shows I enjoy watching so much.  Hearing languages different than mine being spoken and seeing Roman characters and numerals next to Arabic script on adjacent storefronts made me think about what an amazing, wonderful thing it is to be part of this beautiful mosaic as a cohabitant of what the good people of Schoolhouse Rock had termed “The Great American Melting Pot“.  As the son of a west African immigrant myself, my world has always been richer for all the diversity in it.  It would be hard to imagine either the West Devon area or this Volkswagen Fox having even more international flavor than either possesses.  The Fox never set the sales charts on fire here in the U.S., which makes this red two-door among my most prized “wildlife” spottings in Curbsideland so far this year.

Edgewater & West Ridge, Chicago, Illinois.
May 2022.

Related reading on the VW Fox from J.P. Cavanaugh may be found here.