Curbside Classic: 1978 VW Dasher/Passat Diesel (B1)

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1978 vw dasher passat diesel b1

We have so many facets of VW history to cover, and in the inimitable randomness that defines CC, we’ll do it non-linearly (except for Honda). But the Passat (and that’s what I’m going to mostly call it) plays a very pivotal one. It marks the beginning of VW’s successful entry into the modern world of light, roomy FWD cars, and it presaged the Golf, the mother of its category. But before we give VW too much (any) credit for this brilliant car, let’s not forget that the Passat was nothing but an Audi 80 (US: Fox) with a sloping hatchback rear end.

Now that’s the car I would really like to be writing about, because in the early seventies, the Audi Fox/80 was perhaps the most influential and desirable compact car available in these parts. Its perfectly clean and uncluttered design was a profound contrast to the heavy baroque styling theme that hung over the seventies like an old wet shag carpet. But I have been unable to find a B1 Fox/80, although I know inevitably I will. In the meantime, let’s throw some of our Foxy adulation the Passat’s way.

Before any VW/Audi historians in the cyber-house yell K 70!, we do need to acknowledge that VW began building and selling NSU’s FWD sedan in 1970, after VW’s takeover of NSU in 1969. We can’t do that interesting car full justice here, but let’s just say that it was typical of the very advanced yet compromised designs the smaller European companies. It was very roomy for its size, but it suffered from rather mediocre fuel consumption and performance, and it was expensive to build. It died after a few years, but gave VW the heart to jump into FWD with both feet.

The Audi 80 was a natural evolution of Audi’s existing range, the larger 100 and the older 90, and it used their well-proven longitudinal FWD arrangement, with the engine canted a bit for a low hood line (the K70’s high hood due to its different engine-over-differential arrangement was one of its detriments). Audi designed the superbly compact and efficient 827 series engine that has powered a gazillion VW-family cars, and was also successfully converted to diesel as in this Dasher.

The B1 80/Passat was nothing like its current successors today: it was a delicate, compact and very light (2400-2500 lb) car, yet remarkably roomy. It was efficient, well built, and best of all, fun to drive. It opened a huge number of eyes to what advanced design and engineering could do, especially compared to Detroit. Just think Pinto and Vega, if you want to compare this with what Detroit’s B&B came up with in terms of a modern small car.

The more I write about this Passat, the more I realize this CC should really have a “Revolutionary Car” or some such grandiose title. We’ll save it for that Fox I will find. Back to the Dasher at hand: This is a ’78 or later car, because it sports the modified front end; the earlier ones looked like this. Also, this Dasher is a diesel, which first came out in ’78 too. With 48 hp on tap, the zero to sixty (un)dash took almost twenty seconds. My sister had a diesel dasher Wagon, and she loved that car; getting mid-forties mpg during the second energy crisis was the cat’s meow.

Non-diesel US Dashers shared engines with the Golf; using a 1.5 L 70/75 hp four, which was supplanted by the much more desirable fuel-injected 78 hp 1.6 after 1976. The FI 1.6 was a willing partner in the pursuit of Fahrvergnügen, as was the excellent steering, handling and brakes. The 1.6 B1 could give a heavier 98 hp BMW 320i a hell of a run for its money.

It’s a good thing I stick mainly to older cars, because I’m pretty clueless when it comes to current trends, like these Ronal teddy-bear wheels. I thought for sure they were cheap plastic wheel covers at first glance. Would someone please clue me in to their origin? Stephanie almost talked me into coming back late at night with a lug wrench and jack when she saw them… I find it a rather unlikely combination; the wheels must have cost more than what this venerable Dasher is worth today. Or did his wife talk him into a late night outing?

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  • Keith Tomas Keith Tomas on Jan 19, 2010

    Postscript; I junked my Dasher because it got smashed up in a pile up in Imperial Beach, California, ruining the axle. I didn't have the time or cash to get it replaced - by then it would have cost more than the car was worth and I had already replaced the water pump, wiper mother, tranny and starter and simply wanted to be free of the drama before I left on a deployment to the Western Pacific. When I came back, I went and got a 1989 Plymouth Sundance 3-door. One of the reasons (the second being a Neon) my TTAC name is NoChryslers...I wish I could change it to Dasher now...

  • Zbnutcase Zbnutcase on Sep 10, 2010

    Back in the mid 90's, I bought a pristine '75 Fox 2 door with a dying engine for $100. Found an '83 GTI 1.8L engine at wrecking yard for $150, and dropped it in, using most of the '75 fuel injection components. That car hauled A@@! Had it 2 years, only left me walking about every 6 months when a CV joint would explode (I think todays ATV's have bigger ones) cuz I drove the pizz out of it. LOVED THAT CAR, and never spent over $500 total on it, including purchase price. The fun factor? PRICELESS! Still miss her. How to tell a '75? The only year the battery was mounted in the trunk!

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