Edmund S. generally avoided performing work for others, instead staying busy on his own cars; a couple of 1980 beige Rabbits, and a faded black one of same vintage. Also, on his enclosed garage, a mid-70’s Beetle painstakingly being restored. In all, his hands were more than occupied. Why he took on me and my ’68 Beetle, I can’t answer for… Maybe my quiet ways got the best of him? Maybe the Beetle itself, triggering some fond memory? Then again, maybe he wasn’t as busy as I suspected and just found me a way for distraction. Whatever it was, from the end of ’95 on, the Beetle ended under his care when major work was needed.
Of German origin, Edmund was a veteran of WWII; a Wehrmacht soldier (yikes!), who had fought on the Russian front (double yikes!). After performing some ‘kind of work’ for the US Government during the postwar, and being granted US Citizenship, he moved to California in the early 60’s. There, he worked a couple of decades in the maintenance departments for both Mercedes and VW dealers. Briefly married to an American woman, who didn’t seem to understand the joys of a husband who owned a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz, he divorced and raised their sole child on his own, a little girl of blonde hair. This being in the 60’s, said ex-wife probably expected a Buick, maybe even a Mercury… Under my court, grounds for divorce more than justified.
Whatever stereotypes there are of Germans being fastidious and obsessed, I’m sorry to say, won’t be dispelled by this text. Edmund was meticulous in ways that defied most earthlings, and took to mechanical work with an attention to detail, so thorough that most US mechanics would fall into seizures. His workshop, were he spent time almost daily, was a spotless organized wonder rivaling Craftsman Tools brochure photos. To seem him work was to witness mastery at work. The Beetle tune up, for example, was a whole day affair, with him fully concentrated on the task. In such days, I would walk into his garage every so often, to wander and see work progressing. As he acknowledged my existence, he would invariably point out some piece in the Beetle’s mechanics that wasn’t up to spec.
- Why’s the pulley perforated? Also, there should be metal plates sealing the engine area. What’s wrong with this? Who put this together?
He would look with scorn at the shoddiness of previous mechanics. I shook my head “I don’t know… I bought it like that…” He would then return to work… only to fix an even more scornful eye at the Taiwanese spare parts–by then the norm–that would go onto the Beetle. The idea of these cheaply made parts going into the precise German tool the Beetle was just drove him with inner but visible anger.
The hours would pass slowly under his hand, all adjustments done accurately, with the utmost care. By day’s end, the Beetle would be in the driveway, idling with the precision of a Swiss clock. No one on earth ever left the car running as he did. It was a beauty to see him work; and the engine, after his touch, was a testament to the precise engineering that went into its creation. Somewhere on the garage’s entrance, I was sure, the soul of Ferdinand P. was watching in approval (either that or thinking of more ways to tinker with the VW platform).
Not long before I met him, Edmund had gone through a string of botched contentious jobs for other ‘clients’. He generally referred to these in utter contempt, with more than a few expletives. The memorable ones, mostly Latinos, who would suggest cheap, quick fixes. The kind we’re accustomed to down south.
- The rubber doughnuts that hold the exhaust are broken, we need to replace them…
He would explain, logically, not expecting any other alternative. Then, Latino thinking appeared.
- Really? Can we just hold the exhaust with some hanger wire instead? Se puede, verdad?
At which point, he would explode, and sent said ‘client’ back to… Honduras… or wherever they came from.
Acerbic, opinionated, strong-minded and inflexible, Edmund didn’t take fools gladly. I assume this led to a somewhat isolated life in the US, who although a welcoming lot, prefer a “live and let live” frame of mind. Not Edmund though; if he had an opinion, you were bound to know it–in ample detail. It reminded me of a Turkish acquaintance at the YMCA who acted similarly, openly giving his thoughts on everything and everyone while exercising, sending most patrons running for cover. “Now you know what’s on my mind… that way there’ll be no surprises later, you know who I am!” He explained. I had to admit, he had a point, even though I was about to run for cover myself.
Not that Edmund seemed to mind this lost in translation fate in the Americas. Who needs dumb acquaintances when there are sockets to arrange in the workshop? Or rusty Beetle screws to dip into cleaning solvent? He kept most of his days devoted to mechanical work, keeping his trim, active frame busy. The occasional stroll to the nearby park added variety to his days, from which he would invariably bring fresh cut flowers to the dining table. In general, he seemed a man to cherish simple pleasures.
Also lost in translation; the VW Golf, aka Rabbit, in its Westmoreland edition. Edmund’s own Rabbits being testament to that, having aesthetic and engineering deviations to please the American public, at least in the minds of the GM sourced executives at VW’s US Operations. The two beige Rabbits, as if following a Buick textbook, with color-coordinated interiors and cheap plastic-wood accents. Formica must have been a happy client. Meanwhile, the faded black Rabbit, in full Oldsmobile mode, with a sea of red plastics and fabrics in the interior (maroon, in US VW speak). The car’s cockpit was a full assault on the senses. Was said color interior even legal? Hadn’t safety regulations recently gone into effect?
The 70’s, a decade from hell, were inflation, gas shortages, unemployment, strikes, and a myriad of military conflicts that took place across the world. That should have been a cosmic warning to VW that as General Westmoreland was losing Vietnam, they opted to set their new plant in a similarly named site, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. A project that had been ongoing at VW, at least since 1973, as the Deutsch Mark increased in value, and rhetoric against imports was gaining steam with both politicians and unions.
The usual stream of state government incentives seduced VW into the site, a halfway finished Chrysler assembly plant abandoned since the late 60’s. The state had been in the lookout for investors, hoping to gain votes alleviate the plight of the locally displaced work force. Incentives in place, VW took to it, hook line and sinker, taking a 30 year lease, and acquiring tooling from AMC. “We did it!” corporate videos proclaimed, as the plant was opened in 1978 to much ballyhooed expectations. VW proudly touted that they were the first foreign car manufacturer opening operations in the US since the 1930’s.
Truth to be told, Edmund didn’t really enjoy working on Beetles, or any other rear engine vehicle. Instead, as his driveway showed, Rabbits were–by far–his darlings. He vowed by their easy to access innards, the effortlessness of their maintenance, the logical passenger layout, and-–how could it not?– their driving dynamics. This being California, all of his Rabbits were of Westmoreland provenance. Under his diligent care, the vehicles ran in ways few from the same line did.
One caveat; the black Rabbit, not driven as often, wasn’t as well cared for. Still, it came with an intriguing background… Paint buffeted one too many times and faded, afflicted by the eye-searing maroon interior, the vehicle had been in possession of a VW salesman who revamped it to European GTI spec. A 1980 Westmoreland GTI? Yes, indeed. And much closer to what Europe had than what the US ever got, even in ’83, when the US GTI was launched. The black GTI had been on sale for a few weeks by then, and was right within ballpark of my “… below 2K” requisite purchase price.
For once, good fortune appeared to blow my way, as I got a well-paying 9 month gig in Los Angeles. Spending the next few months between SF and LA, I embarked on a too ambitious plan to keep the Beetle as a weekend car and acquire the Rabbit for daily use. After exchanging hard cash, shaking hands, and enjoying a beer at his place (Could it be otherwise?) the car was in my possession, in all its faded-buffeted-marooned-velveted glory.
So… was Edmund’s Rabbit really up to European spec GTI? There’s no way I can attest to that scientifically… but, behind the wheel, putting the foot on the accelerator, gunning the engine, and hearing it rev like no other US Rabbit… the vehicle just felt… GREAT! Ok, the Beetle was no great introduction to driving dynamics. But still… Feeling the Rabbit’s engine, as it revved up, sounding absolutely fantastic, and pulling the car with a force that made the cockpit feel in a different time zone, is an experience I still cherish. The sound of that engine, still lingering in my head after all these years.
It took me a couple of weeks to finesse my pressing of the accelerator, my foot still in Beetle mode, as I kept exceeding the speed limit ceaselessly. In spite of the faded paint, and the eye searing maroon interior, the car’s mechanicals were spotless. The chassis and suspension well sorted, moving in unison with the body. Can’t recall any issues with the stick shift, which felt direct and intuitive, so I assume it was also modified to Euro spec. (I know what the vague-shifting Golf feels like, as I endure it daily on my current A3).
If we’re to trust Edmund’s word, what did I exactly get? The European Golf/Rabbit had a 1.6 engine, with Bosch fuel injection, a high performance camshaft, and enlarged inlet valves. It was a 110hp pocket rocket that revved to a then lofty 6100 rpm. Suspension was set up for sportiness, with an additional rear sway bar, different springs and damper rates. Top speed, 110 MPH, reaching 0-60 in 9.5 secs. Can I attest to any of this? By seat of the pants, yes, absolutely… The vehicle just felt awesome behind the wheel.
By today’s standards, the cars numbers don’t seem that outstanding. On its day, though, it was quite a revelation. Launched in Europe in 1976, the GTI brought joy to a world immersed in full malaise mode. Even by the mid 90’s, the car kept up easily with traffic, and could pull ahead of most, as long as it wasn’t a real sports car. Still, it was a great fun car. Funny what can be accomplished with tuning and engine mods on a plebeian model. The GTO legacy.
As the months accrued in Los Angeles, heated arguments with my Puerto Rican girlfriend (still in SF, distance taking its toil) started to become commonplace. Pissed, I would take the car for solitary drives on winding roads, either late at night, or early mornings (Not the most common marriage counseling tip. Handle with caution). Without surprising anyone on this site, the car was just a joy in such excursions. I would steer and toss the vehicle with ease, the chassis responding immediately, taking on curves, speeding away effortlessly. After a couple of hours of driving, and aggressively working the shifter, I would come out feeling… almost elated. What girlfriend trouble?
That said, my Puerto Rican girlfriend did take a shine to the vehicle. Its red maroon interior and eager engine earning it the nickname… Satanás. Yes, Satan. Bestowed by her, who had a rather contentious relationship with the church.
Also, without surprising anyone on this site, the Rabbit was not quite a paragon of reliability. Regardless of Edmund’s previous maintenance, issues started to appear; a failing alternator first, and then, never ending troubles with the exhaust system (Original sin, or poorly sourced US metal?). Some were just 70’s legacy, an era of new technologies and materials that left no automaker unscathed. The rear view mirror, whose glue had given out long ago, had a tendency to fall out every three months or so, no matter what I attempted to keep it in place. Also, the driver’s side vent window, were the lock -also glued- wouldn’t hold in place, falling and leaving the car exposed to any passerby.
I took to correcting some of these as much as possible. Thanks to my recently acquired mechanical skills, I took to self-service junkyards, common in SoCal, in search of elusive parts. My favorite one, located in Sun Valley, where I tanned myself under the relentless heat quite a few times.
After months of search, the Rabbit’s driver’s vent window just refused to appear. Should I shut it with glue for eternity like many had done? Not likely. If Edmund ever found out, he would certainly send me back to Honduras. Then, on one visit, a GTI Rabbit with the striking GTI blue-red-stripped seats in pristine condition. Should I take on the mission to ‘reduce’ my Rabbit’s cockpit redness? (Brougham lovers, I feel your blood boiling… take a deep breath…) The new seats found their way onto my car, and to my eye, the looks improved greatly. Even Edmund approved. Now… if I could only replace… the roof liner, the dashboard, the door panels…
Said interior, in the sedate 90’s, was always a point of contention, as passengers boarded. “Your car… is red…” Came invariably out of their mouths. Yeah… Really? Never noticed! Your succinct eye could certainly have been of use at purchase time! Then again, it was a conversation piece, so… success?
Autumn arrived. I returned to SF, and more car woes appeared. One memorable night, after Thai food, driving past the dreaded Tenderloin, with my Puerto Rican girlfriend having made some jokingly exchange with an ex-hippie friend of ours. Him, well in his 50’s, always irreverent, doing some role playing about some religious matter. She, annoyed, finally loudly blustering:
- Oh, F*** GOD!!!
The fuse box in the light switch melted, immediately, smoke coming out and filling the cabin. The headlights went dark on the spot. Was the GTI possessed?
- Oh, no! Now you’ve done it! We’re all gonna die now!– our friend said.
We erupted in laughter, as the car rode down the street lightless; other drivers indicating we were riding in the dark. No kidding! Didn’t notice! Still, I sped up, hoping to reach home before the wrath of the heavens ended our lives any instant.
Visits to Edmund had become more or less regular, as he occasionally serviced both Beetle and Rabbit. One early morning I joined him for breakfast, while we waited for the Beetle to cool off before he could start working. After coffee and pastries, he pulled out a photo album. The images within were the product of his travels in Iraq and Iran back in the 50’s, when he performed some kind of unspecified ‘work’ for the US Government.
There were countless photos on the album, endless shots of the desert and distant outposts. A few locals would appear here and there, mostly caravan travelers. Finally, on a series of shots, a caravan nomad showing proudly a handcrafted book, each page a colorful manuscript. Edmund went on as to how this one nomad brought out the volume at the sight of his camera, and by gestures, excitedly indicated to shoot away. Each image on the series, exhibiting one more page of the mysterious and gorgeously handcrafted book.
- What was that all about? – I asked.
- No idea… I didn’t understand a word the guy told me. Quite a mystery, huh?
Indeed it was. Should anyone know or wish to speculate in the commentariat, go ahead. Darker secrets have been revealed here at CC.
Finally on one visit was the only time he allowed some glance into the hell of WWII. News of the Yugoslavian conflict was playing on TV, with additional dreadful news from Sarajevo. While tending to his daily chores, as the report went on, Edmund making brief mention of his brother’s fate, who had lost his life in the Russian front. I could tell, Sarajevo had upset him. After that, silence. No further translations were necessary.
Another year, and a new temporary gig in SoCal. This time, I was staying in sunny Tujunga, a somewhat lost-in-the-boondocks area in the surrounds of Greater LA. The GTI wasn’t helping matters either. The 40 miles back and forth from work, on clogged freeways, were hard on the vehicle, and my left foot tired of shifting in stuck traffic. No wonder all my coworkers wanted Camrys. Halfway into the three-month gig, the car just gave out. Some steering/suspension matter, if I so recall. Time to take the car to… Stuart, my old SoCal mechanic.
Stuart remembered me alright. And as soon as he saw me in the Rabbit, he started rolling with laughter… “Another Volkswagen?” Did I arrive after his daily partaking of narcotics? Under different circumstances, I could’ve soured on the relationship… but it was a purely transactional affair; he was after all, a good VW mechanic, narcotics aside. Also, I, as owner of used VWs, had NO pride by then.
Under Stuart’s care, the car was ready for pick up three days later. By then, what I had soured on were the daily $45 dollars Taxi trips from home to work. “Gosh… another $45 dollars ride to Burbank… to pick up the Rabbit… ” Then, an idea: I went to the patio, where an abandoned faded pink girl bike laid on its side. Who knows when it had last ridden? Rust in the spokes, tires barely holding air, and little faded pink tassels on the handlebars. I went into the house, and looked at the Rand McNally map… 12 miles or so downhill to reach Stuart’s shop. Should I?
I took off mid-afternoon, the bike barely holding itself together under my weight. The brakes, not in the best of shape, had me planning each stop way beforehand. There better not be some emergency stop on this ride. Also, I didn’t really know the neighborhoods I would be crossing on those surface streets. Was I to come across some dodgy areas? Not that I cared much. Riding a girl’s bike, I probably looked too loony to invite uncalled-for exchanges. Ever see anyone messing with the baby-pacifier-sucking gangsta? Nope? Me neither.
I descended the long trajectory, barely pedaling, just gliding down. Luckily, the brakes kept up more or less doing their job. As I advanced, I tried to remain as Zen as possible, invoking good karma, hoping I wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of needing a tow truck for my little girl bike… Then again, one more breakdown would have been fitting. Still, the bike managed, wiggling down the way… through Tujunga, then Sun Valley. Then, it was pedaling time. Pretty flat terrain though, the bike, giving what little it had left on that final stretch.
I finally arrived to Stuart’s shop by afternoon’s end. I tossed the bike in the Rabbit’s back (not without some baffled glances from Stuart’s assistants), paid my bills and took off. In a funny way, I felt kind of proud of sticking to plan, and not giving a rat’s ass by that point.
Eight months later, back in SF and back to translation issues. Or in this case, non-translation issues, as in those last fiery exchanges we understood each other TOO well, the relationship with my Puerto Rican girlfriend finally coming to an end. Life, deciding to give me the full Frank Capra treatment, left me without work few weeks later. The company that had brought me to SF was closing its doors for good after 20 years of existence. Finally, the Rabbit added to the climax, its gear shift going out of whack a couple of days later. Pissed beyond belief, I went on a printing spree, posting ‘For Sale’ ads for both the Rabbit and the Beetle around the neighborhood. It was time for cleansing, and get Satanás out of my life.
No Clarence Odbody came to the GTI’s rescue in this story. Being a non-running vehicle, price set accordingly, the Rabbit went away first. Bought by a couple of young blokes who drove a late 80’s Camaro and kept trying to emulate Smoky and the Bandit burnouts on each stop. I hung on to dear life as I rode along the way to the bank. So wrong… I should have told them… burnouts in SF must be done on a ’68 Mustang, or a Charger. A couple of days after the sale, my now ex-girlfriend, pleaded me not to sell the Beetle. Not that she had to plea that hard, my heart feeling nothing but relief as I tossed away the sale signs.
Regardless of whatever ills early Golfs/Rabbits suffered from, one must admit there’s still a fair amount of them running around in various states of disrepair. So there must be some soundness to the design, in spite of the car’s iffy quality. In El Salvador, European built and Westmoreland samples appear fairly often, and even in larger numbers than the A2 Golf. Then again, maybe it falls to that elusive factor: Luck. Were some, depending on the position of the stars, better assembled than others?
If one wished for isolated road manners, the Golf/Rabbit was not the car to have. A bit noisy, and darty on long freeway drives… but in GTI guise, a blast to own. Somewhat coarse, fun to toss around, and slightly unpredictable, the car added quite a bit of color to my life, much in the same way as Edmund did. I won’t deny it, I miss both greatly, even to this day; pains, headaches and anxieties included.
More on the Golf/Rabbit:
The Most Influential Modern Global Compact Car
The Maroon Rabbit – No Hope for the Hopper
I know what you mean with the vague shifting, my Golf 3 had the same. That was until I was at a traffic light standing next to a van. He honked, he wanted a drag race. I agreed, the pedal went down and I shifted as fast as I could. He beat me, but as I slowed down the shifter wouldn’t shift anymore! After half a minute of kicking the shifter it got loose again, but strangely from then on it shifted better than most brand new cars… I still don’t know why!
The “Rabbit” (“Golf” in the civilized auto world) showed me that FWD could be done right. The car was new to us (everything we owned was junk) and I was pretty happy. I grew up in a ’57 Beetle, this was more like an automobile. It sure beat the Civic. Then it set the bar.
It was snowing and slippery, maybe 20-30mph, when I got angry at VW. The speedometer is broken? Damn. The needle is all over the place. Then I realized that the front tires were spinning. But there was NO torque-steer. I couldn’t feel a thing on the wheel. I knew, and didn’t really like, FWD, after that ride I was sold.
We’ve never been able to own another VW (the new Taos is so smooth I want to take it to bed). Chevys and Toyotas since then, but every one has had FWD or AWD (except the S10s, of course).
Now, finally, to the subject: my father bought the first, cheapest, white 4-door US Rabbit built (he loved the trouble-prone first year models, sigh). Ours was some older up-market grey German 2-door. The two cars weren’t a good comparison, old “hot rod” against a brand-new stripper, but even he, with his love of the new/strange (often “POS”) vehicles, admitted that his brand new car was junk compared with my ratty old one. It was a common joke by then, but we were both “car guys” and could see it. Sad, but not surprising, reflection on our auto industry. (I hope I’m not posting this twice?)
What a great story! I got the Westmoreland experience vicariously, when my sister and BIL went from a worn but fun to drive 1977 Rabbit to a 1981 Diesel from Westmoreland. It was painted black and had the same wheelcovers as shown in the ad above. They avoided the red velour, but got light gray vinyl. The whole thing looked very GM to me, and years later I understood why.
Isn’t it funny the different traits that come from different cultures. Having been raised in an area where German was a dominant ethnicity (including my mother, whose maiden name was Keck), I understand everything you say. When I moved to another city for college, it had an entirely different flavor, being heavily populated by southerners who had migrated north to man factories in a couple of large waves in prior decades. The two places were not the same *at all*.
And how could anyone have ever thought the glue used for vent window panes was a good idea?
Your GTI was built at Westmoreland as well. As was mine, but I think I had far better luck with my ’86 than you with your ’85, in fact I’d absolutely buy mine again. My later 16v was worse but it was very well used when I got it, so not fair to blame the factory.
My later mid ’90s Mexico built VW’s were not very well put together, but then the German one (’12 Touareg) was excellent while we had it.
My understanding (someone can correct if I am wrong) is that the former Chrysler, then VW factory, went on to produce Sony TV sets. I presume the quality of those was good…
I like Mk1 and Mk2 FWD VWs, especially GTIs–and I really enjoyed your write-up about Edmund and the Rabbits, thank you Rich!
You almost Golfed (get it? Golf… lol) a 72, but you lost it on the last hole…the “chapter ending in 1988” picture was not quite up to the level of your fine prose and pictures. That is not 1988, and I don’t think it’s Westmoreland either*
Those are 1975-1978 US-spec Rabbits, probably 77-78 (the 5-mph bumper with somewhat inboard turn signals)
*I always thought that ALL Westmoreland Rabbits had rectangular headlights, and color-keyed interiors. Perhaps some round headlamp 1978s with black or beige interiors were built in PA at launch? Calling Paul or a VW expert…
My first new car was an 86 Westmoreland GTI. Good reliability/quality, very durable, GREAT car! Of all the cars I’ve owned, that is my favorite one–and my 2nd favorite was a used 86 GTI I bought in 2000 with only 70k miles–it also held up quite well, though it led an easy life–garaged, nice weather driver.
You’re probably right on the photo (and Google would be wrong). I chose it for crispness, and the inability to scan these two images (here taken on cell phone).
Here’s the other.
That’s it Rich! I see your point about scanning, but that engine/cradle marriage to body picture, could be among the last days… I still give you a 9.95, only 0.05 deduction for that picture, lol.
Your story shows a finished car–the “end of the line” as it were, just not in 1988.
I missed the obvious earlier–the last car had to be a Mk2…duh, Tom!
Still, I really enjoyed the entire piece, including the story…Edmund, the girlfriend, “Satana” and all (I think there was a VW “Santana” in S. America, like a Quantum/Dasher car—perhaps your gf had seen that).
As a child, our family car was a Beetle in the 70s (first car I can remember), and my favorite car then was the original Mustang. If my parents had said, “just wait, when you grow up, you’ll buy a VW too”, I would have said “No way, NEVER!” Different from your experience, but that’s my Beetle and GTI story…
There are currently a very neat 77 Rabbit and same year EURO GTI on bring a trailer, if you want another shot are reliving the 90s (my current Mk2 GTI gives me a little shot at reliving the 80s, lol!), with two decades more life experience and what looks like a better starting point, maybe you should check ’em out 🙂
…I forgot what prompted my comment, lol
Glue was fairly new in the 1980s. Now I bet ALL fixed car/truck glass is “glued” in.
My Westmoreland cars weren’t perfect–the first one, the inside mirror fell a few times–I finally got the glue right, lol!
I thought all the mechanical bits in PA cars came from Germany. Maybe not. One day in 1997, I decided to replace the valve cover gasket. Besides being please with how clean things looked (I was diligent in changing the oil, I found… “Hecho en Mexico”. I don’t think they shipped compenents from Mexico to Germany to make engines for the US.
That engine burned about 1/4 quart between 3k oil changes…at 140k miles. I thought, “Bravo Mexico, good job!!!”
“Your GTI was built at Westmoreland as well.”
I knew that at the time I bought mine. I was disappointed, because (rightly or wrongly) there was a general perception that German-built VWs were better built cars than American-built counterparts. I suspect that perception came from bad experiences with American cars of the late 70s and early 80s, and that those experiences were attributed to American assembly plants rather than American management and engineering practices.
I think that enough time passed that we all eventually figured out that a well-run company could build good cars here just like they could in Japan or Germany or wherever else the company’s homeland might be.
I did find the vent window, eventually. There’s a passing mention of that on the Audi 50 post I had some days ago. It was in SF, with the mechanic looking at me, filled with anger, while removing the piece (he seemed used to American cars, and made sure I KNEW he didn’t enjoy the process). I installed into my car and gave no further trouble.
If it hadn’t been for the Dot Com bubble loudly bursting, I would have kept the GTI longer. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be…
At the risk of being pedantic, I have to set the record straight re a common misconception about the origin of PA built Rabbits.
There is NO SUCH PLACE as “Westmoreland, PA.” The Volkswagen plant was in New Stanton, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. I grew up not far from the plant and drove by it regularly. The facility was originally built by Chrysler with the intent of building tanks, but was never used for that purpose.
I was working for Chrysler Defense at that time and there never was any consideration to using New Stanton (Westmoreland) to assemble tanks. Primary tank plant was in Warren, MI with planning underway to convert a plant in Lima Ohio for M1 production. The Warren plant closed in 1995.
VW officially called the plant “Volkswagen Westmoreland”. So there is such a place.
Not all the factories in “Detroit” are actually in Detroit.
Chrysler’s New Stanton plant was not built to produce tanks. It was built in 1968 to build cars, but the market slowdown of 1969 scotched those plans, so it sat as an empty shell.
Meanwhile, in Australia – where that interior colour is pronounced “marr-oan” because we speak real good, like tha Inglish – Golfs got made here as well, in ’75-’76. Well, they got assembled here from Wolfsburg CKD kits with some local bits, and alas, they too soon got a name for both flimmery and flammery. Great cars, of course, local COTY, rave reviews, but in reality only a nice place to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there (and the number of breakdowns meant some owners practically had to).
Part of the problem was the local build, proved by the better full imports from ’77, but the truth is that the fundamentals were simply too skimpy. This wasn’t out of cheapness, but a Germanic doggedness of belief that all roads were like theirs, and thus roads where cars of really clever lightweight build throughout were robust paragons of reliability. Of course, elsewhere, roads were shitful, sun was searing, dust was invasive, and drivers were less, er, engaged with their task than Germans. Perhaps most importantly, cars elsewhere had to pollute way less than they could in Germany and a whole bunch of the (now) super-green European countries, and elsewhere-assembly like Westmoreland can’t be blamed for that.
As a result, Golfs just rattled and kind-of shed stuff, a lot, with stories of them arriving as running but otherwise panel-less bare shells at the end of rough roads not entirely impossible. Those who loved them gave them love, and cash, often, and those who just wanted a nice car – the vast majority – could not trade in for a Toyota quick enough.
Many moons ago, our family had a German ex-Wermacht mechanic, as the Oz ones often just wouldn’t work on our VW van, but unfortunately, ours had most of the swearwords and firmness of opinions yours did without the level of skills. Less one to have a beer with than to have it thrown over you, especially if his work was questioned. (Dad, of German birth himself, burst out with some choice, child-eye-widening, and distinctly Anglo-Saxon words to describe old Wolf on the final visit, but I’m digressing).
Great article as per, Mr Baron.
All of the early Golfs had pretty serious quality and reliability deficiencies. There were at least three reasons: VW was obsessed about lightness. And they and their suppliers were simply not yet familiar with building these new FWD cars with components that had been proven over time. The also rushed things, as they were desperate to get these new cars to the market. It’s quite similar to what happened at GM when they rushed their new X-Body FWD cars into production.
VW had been building nothing but air cooled rear engine cars since 1939, so this was something totally new. They botched it, and had to scramble to fix things quickly.
The early ’75s were a disaster. Things got progressively better, and by ’77, the German cars were mostly pretty well sorted out.
The US built cars were plagued by issues with new American suppliers as well as the iffy changes to its interior and such. But the fundamental cars built in PA weren’t really bad. Mostly some detail issues. The engines, transmissions and some other key compnents all came from Germany.
Thank you Paul for lending your considerable weight to setting the record straight–Westmoreland cars were NOT bad!
Not in terms of quality/reliability/durability anyway. If anything, the Westmoreland cars were better than the German ones
(VW had been building them for 4 years when they started in PA in 1978, that helped. We can argue whether Americans or Turks/Yugoslavs/Germans or Mexican were better factory workers, or labored under a better system, or both, but the fact is, the 80s Rabbits and Golfs were not as troublesome as the 70s variants–especially the 75/76)
The Westmoreland Rabbits were “Malibu-ized”, especially the 1981-84 non-GTI models. It was a dumb marketing move. VWoA was moving away from that, with both the “new” Jetta from Germany, and the Westmoreland Rabbit GTI.
It’s more correct to say that VW’s in the US were not of “consistent quality”. I’ve been very satisfied with the QRD of my Westmoreland VW GTIs, one bought new, the other bought 14-yrs old used, gave me 20 years of good service. Kind of like GM cars in the 1970s (Vega excluded). If you got a good one (my dad did), just add gasoline and do maintenance. If not…good luck.
Others I knew were not so lucky… I used to give them rides to the VW dealer to fix their warranted (or not) 86 and 87 Jettas in the late 1980s. Both German. One didn’t always want to run….
I agree. The Westmoreland cars were mostly quite good. The Rabbit had been well sorted out by then. I would not consider them to be inferior except for subjective issues like the interiors of the “Malibu-ized” versions.
The number of diesel Rabbits that have survived here in Eugene is amazing, although they are starting to get thin. But the overwhelming majority of them are Westmoreland-built.
And the later versions and the GTI were fine.
The Westmoreland cars have a rep that’s not consistent with their reality. I probably derives from the negative response to the aesthetic changes made, which really turned off VW die-hards.
Yep, agree totally. I looked at an early Aussie-built Golf as a potential first car. I knew they had a bad rep, but I was prepared to maybe kind of overlook that a bit, as that orange three-door in the local car yard just looked so cool. Not cool was the assembly quality though, worse than the Cortina I wound up getting.
My uncle got a later German-built one – no troubles at all that I remember. It drove beautifully. But the word on the street by then was that a Golf was a car to avoid. Shame.
I never thought of the rush-job aspect: it has to be true. They had 25 running protos of that EA 266 by late ’69 – I do wish that’d been the Golf, btw – but then turned out an FWD box by May ’74. That’s not enough time, at that time, for such a dramatic change, even if the engine had been proved somewhat in the Audis.
Actually, one bit of lightweight engineering in the 80 and Passat can give a good illustration of the problems, one I know from direct experience. The radiator on those was weeny, not to mention new-tech aluminium and plastic. It was designed to operate with high efficiency and light weight, but also had stuff-all redundancy. The gauge ran between medium and hot, where the thermo-fan cut in, and this was all good until a tiny leak made that unstable: overheating was mighty quick thereafter, made worse in a hot climate. That sort of tiny leak was totally inevitable with the new-tech AND underdone mountings for even mildly crashy roads. Same for exhaust mountings and many clips and hoses – just too little allowance for slightly tougher usage. Add carbies ill-done for pollution controls, and you got a fragile, unreliable sort of car.
I imagine it’s lots of those details that VW sorted over time, a pity, as their beta testing on customers killed them here entirely, and, it seems to me, did long-term damage to them in a US market where they’d once been massive sellers.
Great stories! Is the US built Rabbit a poster child for the Malaise era? In execution, at least. Though my German-built Scirocco was a poster child for poor component durability as well. It was very reliable though: in less than a year of ownership I could rely on something breaking almost every time I drove it. By contrast, the two Mexican built VW’s we owned over the past 21 years have been great.
And now, VW has a US plant in Chattanooga TN making large, 3 row seat SUV’s and not “proper small cars”. Can’t even get a base model Golf, only the higher priced models.
Who knew back then how auto market would turn out? We were all “supposed to be driving smaller cars” by 1985, per early 80’s predictions. Where are those “experts” now?
With VW making bigger Utes, now they are playing “follow the leader”. Again, who knew?
Americans like big vehicles, always have. Now that we (collectively) are rather
puffy, small cars are even less appealing.
Best Rabbit story I’ve got is this. I worked in a hospital for a time, 6-7 years. The radiologist there, a specialist, a big shot position, drove a beater Diesel Rabbit. Smoking, always dirty, not even a nice one, let alone a doctors car. Didn’t seem very friendly, but electricians and radiologists didn’t tend to hang out much. 20+ years later I see him at Home Depot in the parking lot. Gruffy at first, but as I introduced myself be became more friendly. And what was he driving, the modern equivalent, a ratty, beat to crap, bumper hanging off Toyota Prius.
My Dad had a ’59 Beetle when I was growing up…and he drove early 50’s Beetles when in the Army in Germany in the early 1950s. Still, when he asked me about buying a Passat (probably instead of one of his 2 Impalas, the last of which was the last car he was to own) I didn’t recommend he buy it, despite my owning nothing but watercooled VWs since 1981.
I’m not quite like my Dad in that I’m willing to tinker a bit with my car, and tolerate some of the issues they seem to have; knowing he’d be the audience I had a hard time recommending the brand of car I’d been driving for some time.
I’m on my 3rd VW; started with an A1 Scirocco, then an ’86 GTi (8v) and now own an ’00 Golf. First one built in Germany, 2nd at Westmoreland, and current one in Brazil. They’ve all had their issues and needed a fair bit of attention, but I’ve enjoyed driving them. I can’t say that they haven’t left me stranded…my current car has had a bad ignition switch and I wasn’t able to break into the steering column to get it going (didn’t have the right tools in the car)…it has also needed a power steering rack, as well as broken shifter cable mechanism (though technically didn’t strand me, as I was able to put the transaxle selector shaft into 2nd and nurse it home, it might have otherwise). And it has problems like weak power window regulators which caused the front side window to fall into the door (known issue) and 2/4 power lock mechanisms have failed due to cold solder joints, just haven’t bothered to fix the latter. So…if you insist on everything working as made, you might not be happy with one. Interesting to me are the problems I haven’t had with my current car that were problems with either my A2 or A1…I still have original CV joint boots, where my A2 seemed to eat them…….likewise I’m on my original exhaust (exclusive of catalytic converter which I have replaced) while my A1 and A2 (which had aluminized vs stainless steel exhaust) went through them regularly.
I’ve owned the ’00 since new; though I had my ’86 for 14 years, I’ve owned the ’00 50% longer than the ’86, but liked them for different reasons. The ’00 is pretty plush compared to the ’86, which had A/C but nothing else optional, manual steering, transmission, no power locks/windows and crank sunroof. Still I think of the A4 as a sell-out to get more volume; it has lower seating and controls, plus a center stack which I think is inferior to the A2 and A1 (never owned an A3, but it was similar to A1 and A2).
I came close to buying an Accord when shopping for the GTi in ’86; Honda still offered mid-sized hatchbacks then; but that year only offered fuel injection in the LXi, which had power windows/locks, which I really didn’t want (eventually had to settle since they came standard on my ’00 Golf and pretty much any car by that year). I had a friend that had an ’82 Accord hatch which I really liked, but guess it wasn’t to be for me. Not sure what I’d be driving now had I bought an Accord in ’86 instead of the GTi but likely would not be a VW. I really shopped around a lot when I bought the ’86 whereas almost no shopping around for the ’00, part of the reason being that hatchbacks (my preferred body style) had become pretty rare in the intervening 14 years as they no longer sold Accord hatchbacks (guess I could have waited a few years and got a Crosstour, but that really wasn’t the same as the Accord). I’m satisfied with the ’00 Golf, and would like to buy another hatchback for my next car (pretty tough when they are trying to convert us to crossovers or SUVs) and unfortunately will need to be automatic since nobody else left in my family drives manual and I can no longer justify having a car that can’t be driven should I become incapacitated as I get older. Probably a big part of the reason I’ve kept the 00 so long (besides the COVID premium for any replacement vehicle) is I’m in denial and don’t look forward to changing from what has worked for me for years. Open to another VW, but they no longer sell the Golf, and I’m not really interested in GTi anymore as I get older (abandoning sporty cars in favor of comfortable ones).
I’m loving the stories .
I had three A1 Rabbits, two rag tops and a black GTI, all were okay cars, I ran them pretty hard .
In general, German cars require more touching .
My vintage BMW Motocycles are the same way ~ dead nuts reliable and a joy to ride but I keep right on top of every little thing .
This article and the comments have made my day as I sit here fretting about the 1980 Westmoreland made Rabbit sitting my backyard that I’ve been trying to get sorted out for nearly two years. Long story short, a fellow apparently went sort of nutty at about 50 years old and the Rabbit sat in his garage for nearly 30 years until he died about 50 miles west of STL where I reside. A long time family friend was handling the earthly remains of the fellow who passed. He posted a 79 Fiat on Craigslist. For some reason I called about it. He said the Fiat is being trailered to Arizona and right before we hung up he said he was about to dig out an old Rabbit. I said please don’t post on Internet I will be out tomorrow because that was exactly what I really wanted because I had an 83 in about 1990 as a 20 year old which got crashed and I guess I’m having a midlife crisis.
Car exterior and interior were in shockingly great shape. Got it for a $1000 had it trailered to mechanic in STL. Nothing much got done except new tires and a new fuel tank for 6 months. Had it trailered again to the most reputable and pricey shop in the area who’s garage is always filled with old VW and Mercedes, etc. A lot got accomplished. This post is already long enough I’ll spare you the details except this story. I finally found the carburetor I needed from National Carb in Jax FL. The guy said it was new but had been sitting on shelf for 20 years lol. Car ran but was stalling upon deceleration but always restarted and I could move along. Finally figured out it was a solenoid issue with carb from another great shop that was much closer to home. The car was fixed! I’m thrilled. I’m driving daily. Ecstatic. Yesterday I do my daily couple mile drive to keep the car active and stalled again at a stop sign and then again.
So here we are again. I’m not giving up. Come too far. Thanks all for article and comments!
I posted an extremely long winded (or I thought I did, I wasn’t signed up yet} so it didn’t post. I’ll keep it short this time. Been trying for 2 years to get this 1980 Rabbit mechanically sound. It sat in a garage for 30 years untouched. Thought I was there but it it now stalling while decelerating at stop sings again. Always starts back up but can’t figure it out. So much work has been done I’m not giving up now!
If I could, I would buy one to fix up as well. That’s one car I do miss!