By on January 21, 2011


The pickup-truck version of the Volkswagen Rabbit might seem like a terrible idea nowadays, but these things actually turned out to be pretty useful in the real world. You couldn’t haul 1,500 pounds of hog entrails in one, but you couldn’t do that in a Luv, Courier, or 620 either.

It’s just weird seeing VOLKSWAGEN on a pickup tailgate! I was surprised to see this reasonably solid-looking example in a Denver self-service junkyard last week, because the Mk1 Rabbit fanatics worship these things and rescue far rustier ones for their fleets. Maybe that’s just a California thing?

With a mere 62 horsepower, the Rabbit pickup for 1980 wasn’t exactly what you’d call quick (though it wasn’t quite as miserable as you’d expect, due to its sub-ton weight), but you had to plan ahead at freeway onramps. The 48-horse diesel, on the other hand, made for a terrifyingly underpowered vehicle; I took my driver training classes in a dual-control Diesel Rabbit and I still get the shakes thinking about taking that thing on the Nimitz Freeway.

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65 Comments on “Where Have All The Front-Wheel-Drive Pickups Gone? Crunch, Crunch, Crunch!...”


  • avatar
    K5ING

    I would love to have a Rabbit pickup with a MkIV TDI engine transplant in it.  It’s done all the time and actually pretty easy to do.  You would never have to worry about merging into traffic again and still get 50mpg while hauling beer kegs around.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    I had one of these a few years back. Ultimately it was far too rusty to keep but it was also a highly useful vehicle for a homeowner (me) to go to Home Depot for home improvement stuff or to bring a load of construction debris to the local recycling center. I’d buy a FWD pickup (or perhaps AWD) in a second if they offered one again in the U.S.

  • avatar
    ktm_525

    Honda Ridgeline is essentially FWD.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      The Ridgeline is neither fish nor fowl. It is more like a FWD version of the Explorer Sport Trac. I’m thinking along the lines of a car based pickup. Like something based on the Cruze, Focus or 200.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    Here’s one that became a family heirloom-no crusher in this Rabbit’s future…
    http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/3-the-stars/star-truckin/572-1982-volkswagen-diesel-rabbit-truck-the-little-tonka-that-could.html

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    One of the old fellas here in the city has a lemon yellow one with a white cap on it, looks as if he’s had it since the trucks were brand new.  No serious rust, he treats it like a truck, but it’s still well taken care of and mechanically sound.  (If one can judge by the lack of any fluids dripping or foul smells from the exhaust.)
     
    @K5ING, yeah I see VW pickups like that on eBay all the time.  Even a few that were high school auto shop projects that the kid decides to sell when he goes to college.  I wonder how long it takes the kid to start kicking himself for selling?

  • avatar
    findude

    Actually, a truck version of a small, economical, FWD sedan sounds like a really, really good idea today.  Any of the good small sedans would work for me: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, VW Jetta . . . . .
     
    Bring it on. I can appreciate the utility of a small pickup.  I have absolutely no use for a full size one.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      One especially useful ability of a FWD truck is the ability to lower the loading bed as there is no longer a need to clear drive shafts and differentials. Use a torsion beam layout in the rear and you could lower the bed enough for the tailgate to become the loading ramp while still offering decent ground clearance; an ideal city truck.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      You could also offer a car based AWD setup that wouldn’t take up all that much space but would provide an option for those who insist a FWD truck isn’t a real truck.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      @Felis
      Seems like the Ford Transit Connect would make an ideal platform for a light-duty FWD pickup. But it would take careful engineering to retain some torsional rigidity without adding a pile of excess weight with the whole rear roof section removed.

    • 0 avatar
      forraymond

      MazdaSpeed 3 without the stupid smiley face

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I remember how quickly underwhelmed my father and I were with our first test drive in VW’s mini truck offering. Of especial annoyance was the fixed front triangle of glass by the A-pillar: that they would make wing windows an extra cost option was anathema to us. Add to that the easy discount afforded by visiting a Datsun dealer that year and asking for a 620 in “any color but construction orange” and we quickly crossed VW’s offering off our short list.

    Down the street and across the intersection is a coin-op car wash station which is visited regularly – though never in the wash bay – by a similar vintage VW pickup in bright red: I haven’t talked to the owner yet but hopefully will do so one of these days to see what sort of story (s)he has for that survivor.

  • avatar
    alfred p. sloan

    What about the other FWD pick-up : the mighty DODGE RAMPAGE!

    Uhg… Never really was a great idea, the guys who want trucks don’t want a FWD and the guys who want an FWD don’t want a pick-up.

    Besides, having a car based truck without RWD means all the tail-swinging fun is gone.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    That one looks like its in beautiful shape, someone should rescue it, do a GTI conversion with the aformentioned TDI swap!!

  • avatar
    brettc

    Makes me very sad that a Rabbit truck like that will be scrapped. But at least the one in the pictures has a gas engine and it’s not a diesel.
     
    I’ve been considering buying one of these for years, but I don’t really have the time or funds to invest in trying to fix one up. The better alternative is a hitch and a trailer for my Jetta. But if VW offered a Caddy TDI brand new, I’d buy that and get rid of my Jetta. From what I can tell the Caddy is no longer offered in pickup form. All I can find for a smallish VW pickup is the Amarok.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    I dated a woman in Virginia whose father had a fleet of little VW Rabbit diesel pickups on his tree farm… in 2002. He bought them up whenever they came on the market and his employees repaired and maintained them. They’re pretty good for running around with a load of garden tools. Unfortunately, her father had a stroke and disengaged from the day to day business of the tree farm, so I don’t know if the VWs are still around.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    GM, Ford and Fiat manufacture solid little FWD, car based trucks in Latin America and South Africa. Most have a diesel engine offered. In South Africa the highway speed is 75mph but seldom adhered to. These little trucks are able to maintain those speeds there while loaded. Most owners use them as transport mostly and appreciate the car like ride while having the capacity to move small loads.

  • avatar
    cafe

    They’ve gone to Brazil:
    - Chevrolet Montana (= Opel Corsa pick-up)
    - Fiat Strada (= Fiat Palio pick-up)
    - Ford Courier (= Ford Fiesta pick-up)
    - Vokswagen Saveiro (= VW Gol pick-up)
     
    Add to this list the european Dacia Logan Pick-up (aka Nissan NP200 in some countries).
     
     

  • avatar
    tejasjeff

    I distinctly  remember seeing  a diesel version   having a hard time getting  up a hill with  a few kegs of beer in the bed back in the day.
    Where  those made in the  short lived VW  American plant?

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    We did not know at that time how big the FWD craze would be. So, it was not a stretch to justify using a popular FWD car and modifying it enough to see as a small pick up. If it worked, you not only paid for the modification, but you also earned even more money to add to the profits coming in from the FWD sedan models. If it didn’t work, you still discovered that a FWD pick up market wasn’t doable and perhaps didn’t lose too much money finding out.

    We just didn’t know at that time what would sell. FWD pick ups came from a few brands in order to see if a market existed and how large such a market would be.

    Volkswagon looked at opening their first US plant and convinced itself that what Americans wanted was a Rabbit pick up. They were wrong and closed the plant later.

    Chrysler added to the Omni/Horizon sedans with coupes that didn’t resemble the sedans. To help pay for this, they added pick ups. These didn’t sell any better than the “Charger” and other “sporty” versions of the Omni/Horizon coupes, but Chrysler probably got their money back from the experiment.

    By the time Detroit discovered that FWD pick ups were a bridge too far, they did recognize that the market for RWD mini pick ups were large enough to invest billions into domestically manufactured Chevy S-10s and Ford Rangers. Chrysler still imported Colt pick ups from Mitsubishi while they euthanized their Ram mini FWD pick ups and abandoned the mini pick up market for an intermediate sized pick up where there wasn’t yet any action from competition.

    So I see the mini pick up history this way – imported pick ups to determine if the Toyota and Nissan pick ups represented a viable US market with a pick up someone else invested into building, such as Mazda for Ford and Isuzu for GM, FWD domestic mini pick ups to test the market further with a off-shoot from popular FWD sedans, then a realization that the mini pick up market was viable enough to invest domestically with S-10s and Rangers, and finally, the market shrinking enough to drop domestically produced mini pick ups for light trucks like the Chevy 1500 and Ford F-150, whereby maintaining profitability and reducing costs.

    So this vehicle is a one-off hybrid trial balloon which popped.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      This is a rather interesting take on history. The VW and the Rampage pickups were released about the same time as the Ranger and S10 pickups. VW started an assembly plant here in order to produce locally, and I believe the VW Pickup created in the US became the contemporary Caddy that was sold in South America. VW may have convinced themselves that the Americans wanted a Rabbit PU, but a combination of exchange rates and the downturn in the late 80′s killed production at the plant. Ford and GM had too much invested in their trucks to experiment with any FWD pickups, it just wasn’t in the plan. I doubt that the Rampage made any real money for Chrysler, but the VW Pickup/Caddy lived on in South America and South Africa. The Dakota has a mixed record, but I don’t see it having much of a future.
       
      I would say that the economies of scale producing standard sized pickup trucks ultimately will kill off the mini trucks in North America, unless Ford has the guts to bring the ‘international’ Ranger to North America. It doesn’t look likely however. FWD pickups would have flourished here if gas prices had been consistently high, as they do in other lands, but with cheap gas and cheap full sized pickup trucks, it didn’t happen.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeffer

      I worked at a West Coast VW dealership from 1981-85, and these just didn’t sell. It took three years to move the one we reluctantly put on the showroom floor. As time passed it slipped farther and farther back on the lot. Funny to hear people getting excited about one now.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      These rigs were made to maximize space in the pickup bed, sizing the cab for doors off a 4-door rather than the longer doors from a 2-door car, so they ended up with not enough legroom for a 6-foot or taller driver. I suspect that this was one of the sales-killing problems.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      I would suggest that they were perhaps ahead of their time and the market wasn’t ready for such vehicles. While passenger cars were slowly moving to FWD, trucks were still the way God intended them; body on frame, hose out the interior and above all, American. The pretenders of the era, the LUV/ S-10, Courier/Ranger and the Datsun/Nissan and Toyotas of the world, while small, were basically scaled down big trucks. 30 or so years later and I think that with the advances made in small car design (like reliable AWD from a transverse engine layout), rising fuel prices and a distinct lack of small trucks like the original S-10 and Ranger, make car-based unit body trucklets an interesting proposition once again.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        Though I find them interesting I’m not sure the average American suburbanite will. Remember we got the Subbie Baja for a while and not enough folks bought it. Don’t know if it was expensive or just too weird. I like it but then I didn’t buy one either.

        I was too busy getting the miles out of our existing cars to go buy a Subbie.

        It’s a problem in my mind for alot of the car companies – they release a new idea or recook an old one and they put it on the market and then pull it after 2 or 3 years. Alot of us aren’t going to change vehicles on a whim. Too bad it wasn’t still around when we were ready to move to the next car.

        Now I know my idea wouldn’t sell but rather than a car based trucklet, I’d rather have a 1st gen CR-V based trucklet (small CUV of any type) along the same ideas as the car based trucklets b/c the seat position is better i.e. not seat directly on the floor like a Rabbit/Rampage. It would probably look ungainly of course.

        As a driver who has put 237K on a first gen CR-V often with a trailer and four passengers I see AWD as a necessity b/c anything in the back of the vehicle or on the trailer unloads the front wheels/drive wheels so that climbing gravel/dirt/snowy hills leads to alot of wheel spin or would if I didn’t have AWD. When I drive up my parents’ driveway for example the AWD comes on and stays on until I get to the top. No drama.

  • avatar
    JMII

    The Honda Ridgeline’s problem is its about 30% too big. If it was Accord size they would have something. Think CrossTour, minus the ugly stick, rear seats and hatch. Take the current V6 and tune it for torque instead of HP. Mileage in upper 20s should be within reach even with AWD due to the weight savings on the removed items.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Bingo. Ridgeline is a Odyssey cousin sharing chassis and suspension.

      Yeah, would rather see the Ridgeline on a Civic or Accord chassis. I don’t need or want a V-6 though but that’s just me.

      However if I was going to need a big truck I would go look at the Ridgeline. I think I’d like it much better than a Detroit BOF truck.

      • 0 avatar
        Joe McKinney

        Yes, the Odyssey, Ridgeline and Pilot are all based on the same platform and are built in the same factory. The Pilot is a minivan configured as a CUV. The Ridgeline is a minivan configured as a double-cab pickup. The Ridgeline even has a minivan-style under-floor storage compartment.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I thought these were very odd, but in a good sort of way. One of these, that is, a modern equivalent, I believe, would make sense. I remember back in the day, some poorer individuals used to make their own car/pickups by taking an old station wagon, cutting off the roof behing the “C” pillar and cutting off the sheetmetal along the sides behind it along the bottom edge of the side glass, fitting a piece of plywood for a cab bulkhead and cutting a small hole in it covered by a piece of plexiglas for a rear window, caulking the daylights out of the gaps and either welding pieces of sheet metal over the now-bedsides or laying fiberglass to seal it up! They were, of course, real rattletraps, but resourceful if you didn’t have anything else! Legal, too, but I’m talking Missouri, pre-1969, before state inspection laws came into effect!

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      One guy around here cut the trunk off a jellybean Escort and welded on the back half of a minitruck bed. It later picked up the hood from a CJ to replace the original. Haven’t seen it for a few years now.

    • 0 avatar
      forraymond

      Subaru did this a short time back, but the bed was too small for any real usefulness.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      The Subaru Baja was basically a wagon with the roof cut off from the c-pillar back, or a sedan with the decklid removed. The bed was way too small to be useful for anything.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Too small? You could carry an engine back there. A transmission. Muddy camping gear. Some bagged potting soil. Bikes. Some 5 gallon buckets of paint. Just not all at once… GRIN!
      Too small for 4×8 ft building materials yes but big enough to carry stuff.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      I’ve carried in the bed of a Subaru Baja:
       
      A dirty and oily 5hp wood chipper
      1/2 cubic yard of loose compost (many itmes)
      About 1/4 cord firewood rounds (more than once)
      3 greasy dirty leaking chainsaws. (more than once)
       
      All of them fit just fine thank you, and none are things I would (or in the case of the compost, could) put inside any sort of vehicle with carpeting without have to take precautions to avoid damage. It may not be able to haul as much as an F150, but it suits the needs of its owner (my mother) perfectly.

  • avatar

    These things are a dime a dozen here in Brazil. In fact I reviewed 4of them already for ttac.

    Follow the links:
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/gm-do-brasil%e2%80%99s-new-mini-truck-big-change-no-gain-why-is-gm-so-shy/

    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/09/vw-and-peugeot-do-brasil-we%e2%80%99ve-got-the-pickup-blues/

    And in the comparo you can see how the Rabbit pickup developed and what became of it:
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/05/brazilian-brawl-battle-of-the-mighty-mini-pickups/

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “a mere 62 horsepower”

    That K&N sticker on the intake tube is good for another 3.375 horsepower.

  • avatar
    Tosh

    I’d like to take a New Beetle diesel and put a truck bed on the back. Perhaps the modern interpretation?

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    One of my dad’s old friends has a few of these in diesel trim. Whenever the local VW indy shop gets ahold of one he passes it along. I don’t know where he gets them but he always puts in a 5-speed manual in place of the 4-speed to raise the cruising speed to ~60MPH. He managed to do a wheelie at Home Depot once with 1300 pounds of concrete in the bed going up a slight incline!
     
    Now the same guy is putting the engine and trans from a 2009 TDI in one- hopefully it will go a bit faster!

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    Holy crap the body on that thing is in nice shape!  Perfect tailgate (rare), even more rare are what appear to be intact rear taillight lenses which are worth $$$ (buy them at pull-a-part for $20 each, sell on Ebay for $60 ea, PROFIT).

    In Seattle that thing would easily still be on the road, there are a surprising number of them still driving around here (I know two friends who each are using one as a daily driver, one is a gas, other is a diesel).

    Too bad it’s probably already been crushed – I hate going to the local pull-a-parts and finding cars that are so darn nice that they have absolutely no business being out there (sigh) . . . but by that time it’s just too late.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      +1 redmondjp. I remember when I was looking for instruments for my 69 Valiant – this was while I still also had my 58 Plymouth convertible – I saw a 58 Plymouth 2-door wagon that was straight as a die with no rust; the floors were all exposed with the mats gone and there was no rust anywhere in the floor, even behind the pedals. And no rust in the tailgate! I should have bought that tailgate just on speculation. Alas, so many parts were gone that it would have taken more than one parts car to get the old wagon back into usable condition.

  • avatar
    vantucky cajun

    They’re still available as new in South Africa:
     
    http://www.vw.co.za/models/pickup/

  • avatar
    Terry

    See any Subaru BRATs  in your salvage yard quests?

  • avatar
    nikita

    The “Chicken Tax” makes it uneconomical to import anything currently made outside the NAFTA zone and the demand is probably not there for a dedicated NA assembly plant. The BRAT got around the tax by welding in rear facing seats in the bed, something current safety standards would never allow. Transit Connect is imported with rear seats, that are removed after clearing customs for the cargo version, hence a “car” instead of a truck. Those Rabbit pickups all came from the PA factory for the same reason.

  • avatar
    Garak

    That vehicle was called the VW Caddy in Europe. Here in Finland, due to a taxation loophole, a diesel Caddy was the cheapest car to own and operate up until a couple of years ago, and even nowadays it has pretty low taxes. That’s why used Caddies, even the most rusty piles of junk, often cost several thousand euros, while the golfs of same vintage were given away almost for free.
     
    Nowadays we have the Dacia Logan pickup for the fwd crowd, it’s a neat little vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      Sounds like the hot ticket would be to keep one as rust free as possible, and swap in Golf mechanicals as needed. Do you have emissions or equiment rules which would make upgrading to later dirvetrains unnecessarily bound in red tape?

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      That. Is. AWESOME.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      @Steve
      My understanding is that it is generally OK to put newer powertrains into vehicles, but not older ones.
      California is a case of its own, of course.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Generally in the US, those states that have some sort of emissions testing specify that if an engine swap is performed the vehicle then must meet the emissions standards for whichever was manufactured LAST, the engine or the vehicle.

      Example, if you buy a 1975 Corvette and drop an LSX into it, the vehicle must now meet the emissions standards of the ENGINES year of manufacture.  YMMV. 

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Educator(of teachers)Dan,
      Per the VW pickup, if it was diesel from the beginning it probably didn’t have to pass emissions. My cousins had a several similar year diesel Rabbits and they were emissions exempt in NJ. Sadly, the cars were not rust-out exempt…
      I also don’t know that the emissions is tied to the engine year unless the car is a kit car or specially constructed car or new street rod, etc. Why would someone want to complain if a ’75 Corvette is running cleaner than it was originally?
       
       

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear, cause what you’re saying is what I meant.  If I said it poorly, I’m sorry.
       
      If I were to buy say a 1975 Corvette with the original engine that it was factory equiped with, all I would have to do is keep it running at 1975 emissions standards.  If I decide to drop an LSX out of a wrecked 2010 Corvette into it, now that car has to meet 2010 emissions standards.  IIRC, Hot Rod Magazine made a point of pointing that out in an article about a decade ago in relation to California’s emissions laws.  I believe that California’s laws also specify that you can’t drop truck engines into cars and expect them to be fine with it.  BTW I think that provision is pretty stupid, if I want to drop a 5.3 V8 out of a Silverado into an early 80s B-body, you can be dang sure that the new V8 is cleaner than the old 305 that it came with from the factory.

  • avatar
    wolf_walker

    I drive one every day, 615K on it, who knows on the motor.  Been in the family since 86 or so I guess.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  • avatar
    grzydj

    Somebody was selling a diesel powered VW Caddy here not too long ago and wanted 4 grand for it, and got it.

  • avatar
    fastwagon

    A factual error in the article: I had a ’77 Datsun 620 King Cab, and though it was nominally rated for 1400 lbs, subtracting the curb weight from the GVWR yielded a capacity of 1555 lbs, and I had far more than a ton in it on occasion. It could carry a ton without a problem, if it was loaded toward the front of the bed. At any rate, hauling “1,500 pounds of hog entrails” was a day in the park for the 620.


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