By on January 19, 2010

luck, not staged

Despite everything we tell our kids, sometimes procrastinating and prevaricating actually pays off. Like this photograph, for instance. I’ve been wanting to do a Rabbit/Golf CC focusing on its role in succeeding the Beetle ever since I started this series, but the cars I kept finding weren’t genuine early (’75-’76) versions. So I just kept pushing it off. Then one day on our daily walk: bingo! A superb red specimen, exactly like the first Golf I ever drove. I shot its profile first, than moved  to shoot it from the front quarter (above), and just as I was about to push the trigger, I realized there was a red Beetle in the background. Kazaam! It doesn’t get better than this if you want to tell the story of how VW replaced the Beetle with the Golf, especially considering how much dithering and just plain luck played into its birth and existence. It also perfectly captures the day I stepped out of my ’64 Bug and drove a new ’75 Rabbit; I couldn’t have staged it better. Children: there are times when dithering and dumb luck trumps all the (business) plans in the world.

a timeless profile

From a modern perspective of short model cycles, it’s difficult to fully grasp VW’s situation in the sixties and early seventies. They had been building essentially the same car for some thirty five years. The Beetle and its offshoots were a global phenomena and success story of remarkable scope and dimension. But VW knew it would some day have to replace its cash cow, but it was terrified of the prospect and possible failure. What could possibly replace the most widely built and iconic car in the world?

a familiar faceThe Type III (1500/1600/Squareback/Notchback/Fastback) was a tentative step to reduce its dependence on one model. But it was really just a boxier body on the VW chassis with a slightly bigger engine. And despite some decent success, it still had most of the Beetle’s limitations. The traditional RWD competition from Opel, Ford and many others were getting consistently better, and a whole new generation of advanced space-efficient FWD cars inspired by the Mini were increasingly showing the way forward. VW’s rear engine format was looking more ass-backwards by the day.

VW’s development department cranked out numerous prototype projects all through this period; there’s a great photo I can’t find right now of a whole parking lot full of prototypes from this era. The most promising one that was almost put into production was designed and built by Porsche, with its water-cooled engine flat under the rear seat. But VW was profoundly concerned about the profitability of complex new designs, given how cheaply they had learned to build the Beetle and its offspring.

The VW 411/412 of 1968 is the most extreme example of VW’s inability to break the over-ripe mold. Essentially a giant Super Beetle, it failed to gain traction in the mid-sized market that was dominated by RWD and FWD sedans that had better performance, economy, handling and trunk room. The 411/412 was the wake-up call, and VW entered its final performance-anxiety stage, knowing the long-procrastinated Beetle successor had to come, and come quick. In Europe, Beetle sales had started dropping off much sooner than in the US, where VW was still selling half a million per year and making enormous profits.

In the end, and just like in my serendipitous picture, the answer was right under their nose, and where it had been since 1964: Audi. VW bought Audi from Mercedes in that year (imagine if that hadn’t happened), and Audi had been building FWD cars since the twenties. In the early seventies, Audi had just finished developing their superb Audi 80 (US Fox), including a very advanced and compact OHC four to power it, the EA827. And Audi was already at work on an even smaller, highly space-efficient transverse-engine FWD hatch, the Audi 50. Bingo! Everything VW needed was at hand, if they could just get their arrogant head out of their rear (engine stubbornness).


Out of desperation and the failure of the 411/412 and even the advanced but flawed NSU-sourced K70, VW finally sucked it up and got on with it. The Audi 80 was co-opted, hatch-backed and re-badged into the highly successful Passat (US Dasher). And the development work on the Audi 50 was highly useful: by blowing it up one size, kazaam! The Golf was born.

That’s probably understating things a bit, and perhaps the Audi 50 and Golf were in development more simultaneously. TTAC’s Bertel Schmidt, who was there at the time, may (will likely) weigh in with his perspective. But lets just say that the Golf owes a huge amount of its existence, and its engines, transmissions, suspensions, basic form and all kinds of other technical and conceptual aspects to the very advanced and competent work being done at Audi while VW was busy gazing at its navel for fifteen years.

no rear engine at lastBut in the end it was worth all the anxiety. Despite VW’s great concern that the Golf wouldn’t really catch on and truly replace the Beetle (that’s why they kept building it for years still), the Golf is in every way as iconic and influential as the Beetle. Just like the Beetle’s design had borrowed heavily from Tatra, the Golf was hardly original. But that’s how it often is in the car world: the true engineering pioneers often don’t succeed technically, because of a lack of pragmatism. The Golf was highly pragmatic; an assemblage of the best that Audi, Simca, Fiat, Austin, Renault and others had pioneered, and refined into a practical, palatable and handsome box, thanks to its styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The Golf went on to define the whole class it dominates; well, outside of the US that is. In reality and with the benefit of hindsight, one can rightly say that VW’s anxieties were not all that misplaced. Because just like Toyota and Honda have in recent decades generated a lion’s share of their profits from the US, the same was true for VW in the sixties. And in truth, the Golf/Rabbit really never lived up to the Beetle’s huge success here. VW’s long decline from domination of the US import/small car market began in earnest just before the Rabbit appeared, and the Rabbit never properly stopped it, despite massive efforts such as building it in the US (we’ll cover that ugly chapter another time).

spartan, but sporty

But to those who could appreciate the Golf then, and like those that still do, as this featured car’s obviously enthusiastic owner, the Rabbit was a revelation. Count me as one of them. The picture above is so particularly meaningful to me, because it perfectly captures my first Golf drive. I was driving a ’64 Beetle at the time, exactly like in the photo. And a friend had bought one of the first Rabbits in Baltimore in the fall of 1974. He picked up one of the ultra-stripper models like this one, that was especially made for the US only, in order to be able to meet a sub $3k price ($2,999). It had textured hard-board for the partial door-panels (covered with some cloth on this car), and was utterly stripped of all excess and then some more. Ironically, VW wouldn’t have dared to sell this version in Europe! The closest thing to it was the Chevette Scooter some years later (coming to CC soon!).

But who gave a damn when you were twenty-one and lived a spartan existence? I parked my 34 (net) hp Beetle and walked over to his Rabbit, and he handed me the keys. Its 70 hp 1.5 L OHC engine might have been a Golf R32 compared  to the poky little slug-bug. Weighing barely 2,000 lbs, the Mk I Golf was a driver’s nirvana. The engine pulled and revved; the un-assisted steering was light and direct, with just a hint of torque steer; and the handling was just superb: I zinged, zigged and zagged it on the winding back roads of Baltimore County, and it was as much fun as I’ve ever had driving a car. Getting back into my Beetle was like taking off the latest Nike running gear and putting on a cave-man’s dirty old fur. That’s me below in 1974 taking a smoke break to absorb and ponder my rite of initiation into the cult of the Golf.

that's me in 1975 reflecting on my first Golf drive

The European Golfs came with either the little 50 hp (EA111) 1.1 liter  from the Audi 50, or the 70 hp (827) 1.5. In the US, VW showed an bizarre restlessness about the Rabbit’s engines. In ’76, it went to a 1.6 with 71 hp. The best year for early Rabbits is 1977, when it got fuel injection and pumped out 78 horses. I so lusted after one that year, especially after my boss bought one, a properly trimmed LS version. It was a somewhat-poorer-man’s BMW 2002 at the time. Very German, nice quality interior, tight;  just all-round perfect. But they were getting pricey. The dollar’s slide in the early seventies was a terrible problem for VW, and was the reason they built the first modern import brand factory in the US in 1979.

In 1978, VW did a strange thing and reduced the Rabbit’s engine size to 1.45 liters and down to 70 hp. And from then on, they dicked around with engine size and output on an almost yearly basis. What was in the beer they were drinking?

I need to wrap this up for now. The Golf/Rabbit story is a huge one, especially outside of the US. And I’m going to do CC installments on all the key stages: the Malibuized Rabbit, the Diesel, the Caddy pickup, the GTI, the Cabrio, and of course the Jetta Mk I offshoot. They’re all in the can waiting to tell their story. Stay tuned!

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91 Comments on “Curbside Classic: The Most Influential Modern Global Car – 1975 VW Rabbit/Golf Mk.I...”

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’78 Rabbit.  Not only was it fun to drive, it was easy to work on too.  I rebuilt the engine myself, in my parent’s garage, with only basic tools. I once had to do a roadside transplant of the alternator, and the entire procedure, from opening the hood to driving away, took about five minutes.

    • 0 avatar

      Guessing that one didn’t have A/C … it took  considerably longer than that to change the alternator on my ’84 GTi.   I did that job three times in 100,000 miles, the “easy way” was to take out the radiator.

    • 0 avatar

      Simple, clean, and practical. I adored the Scirroco offshoot. But now, I fear, that I fear VW’s reliability.

    • 0 avatar

      I learned to drive on a ’76 (?) diesel Rabbit.  It was a blast.  I learned early that fast reflexes and a good shot of torque could regularly beat plain ole’ horsepower.  I loved that car.  Utterly simple, top quality, and totally useful.

  • avatar

    I’ve been there, and you’ve got it down pat, Paul. Perfect. All I can contribute to this great flashback is this.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Thanks, Bertel. I followed that period very closely via auto, motor und sport, and although they avoided making too many less-than-flattering conclusions about their biggest advertiser (VW), the real story came through pretty clearly.

    • 0 avatar

      Nice, Bertel.  Your avatar is creeping me out BTW.
      Couldn’t you put up a pic from your days at VW as your avatar?  Or maybe that is you in the 1970s (shudder).  ;)

    • 0 avatar

      Another stunning CC. My Corrado loving friend will eat it up, just as he has all of Bertel’s VW tales.

      BTW, I think your cropped wedding photo makes a fine avatar, Bertel.

  • avatar

    My mom had a the Audi 50 this was based on and it was an awesome car. VW was lucky to have purchased Audi at this time as they had made very little progress with the Beetle, despite having a massive R&D budget. They really needed the next wave of small car and Audi had it ready to go.
    I know that most folks in US associate this car with VW, but to a German born migrant like me, the credit for this car will always by with Audi and their revolutionary Audi 50.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    I had just gotten a several years’ old Beetle (in fact the first year Super) when these came out.  Got to sit in one (and the sibling Scirocco) at an auto show in Ohio.  What a change from the Beetle, which I had already gotten to love despite its obsolescence. 

    My senior year of college in ’79, a good family friend who was moving let my folks buy their nicely kept ’77, the model year that Paul likes.  Man it was fun, and that frog Green paint stood out!  I loaded that car up the day after my graduation and headed out from Ohio to New Mexico for a summer job.  It did fine especially with the K-Jetronic FI, even though it was a big shortwinded in the mountains and with no A/C in the New Mexico summer (but it WAS a dry heat).    Then loaded it up again and drove it all the way back to Boston to start grad school, and it kept me out of trouble even in Boston traffic for the next couple of years. 

    The only car that could possibly succeed it at the time was an ’84 Rabbit GTi, my first car bought new.  But I still kept Froggy the ’77 for a couple of years after that. 

  • avatar

    “Just like the Beetle’s design had borrowed heavily from Tatra, …”
    I would say a bit more than just borrowed

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Wonderful pix, great copy, thank you Paul! 
    Here’s a European perspective. In 1979 I helped my mom buy a slightly-used, 70HP Golf from Walther Leisler Kiep, a politician of international repute who lived nearbye. Yes exactly, it was a car that was driven by young people, housewives, statesmen and all. What a car! I liked to take it on late-nite dashes into town, just to buy some beers with friends at 3 AM, and would push it to 110MPH, which it took in stride. In terms of relaxed sportiness, the only car I drove back then that bettered it was a 110HP Scirocco GLI that a friend’s dad had.  I compared the Golf with BMWs and souped-up Opels and they all felt ungainly and wooden and heavyweight in comparison.
    BTW, if the Golf as such was influential, then the 1976 GTI may have been even moreso. It was an incredibly likeable vehicle I’d immediately put on a list of cars you have to drive before you die. And it spawned about three generations of copycats.

  • avatar

    Hey, I win the clue-guessing contest! whoo hoo!
    Of course a Diesel Rabbit was my college-and-early-work days car and I stared at that dashboard for five or so of my formative car-guy years. I loved that little Rabbit mit oelmotor. It carried me all over the West, on (literally) pocket change.
    I traded it in on a Mk2 GTI after I landed a pretty good paying gig in the late 80s, but the Rabbit had covered 150,000 trouble-free miles, all the while getting between 45 and 55 MPG. What a great little car.

  • avatar

    I remember my aunt and uncle each bought one of these. He got a 76 blue automatic and she got a 78 red stick. The stick was way faster than the 76 auto but the interiors were very auster and plain black compared to our mid size Chevys at the time. Going 60 MPH required yelling just to be heard over the cresendo of obnoxious road and wind noise and the automatic car had one of the worst shifting transmissions in the industry. The sheetmetal used on these cars must have been the thickness of a piece of paper because an out of control basketball put two Silver dollar sized dents in the hood much to the shock of my uncle. By 1982 both cars were rotted out and undriveable and had to be put out to pasteur but I do remember how well those cars handled and how they sipped gas at the time.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    This is a wonderful piece. I enjoyed it tremendously and wish there were much more of this kind of writing here.  Many thanks!

  • avatar

    Just to get the record straight on Audi in the `60s.Up to the point when Mercedes loaded off Audi to VW, their product line-up consisted of DKW bastard vehicles with updated 4 stroke engines, that were designed by Ludwig Kraus, a Mercedes engineer that remained with Audi after the sale.VW bought Audi not because of their technical leadership in vehcile design, but for additional production capacity for the Beetle. Which actually was manufactured at the Ingostadt facility at 300 units per day( total about 350.000 units) and made sure that the plant remained open and people employed (12000 at the time) .
    It also is a fact that because of the genius of Ludwig Kraus,Rudolf Leiding( Head of Audi) the Audi 100 evolved and later the 80 and the 50 .So irony has it that the Beetle safed Audi at Ingolstadt during their hardship times and Audi safed VW some 10 years later.

  • avatar

    Had a ’79 green 2-door, 5-speed manual for 11 years and loved it—drove it like a sports car, used up a couple of clutches, and with its useful hatchback design proved itself as the definitive urban runabout.  The fold-down back seats and the well-designed front seats were far superior to the  ’76 vinyl benches of our Malibu!  Gas-mileage was amazing—‘up to’ 52 mpg on highway cruising.  Made it to 139,000 km—but by then it was really ‘done’.  It was the first car I actually ‘enjoyed’ driving.

  • avatar

    And of course VW is still handicapping the Rabbit/Golf/Rabbit/Golf in the US , engine-wise.   I mean the GTI engine is obviously nice (enjoy the heck out of it in an Audi myself), and the TDI is attractive if you can find one… but I just do not get that antiquated 5 cylinder lump one bit…
    If I wanted to buy a cheap commuter Golf and TDI didn’t work for me, well there’d be nothing to buy…

  • avatar

    A great article on a car that had a major role in automotive history. I can’t believe how nice the car you found looks. Is it freshly painted, or is it the result of keeping it washed and living in a salt-free area? Either way it looks like it just rolled off the line from the outside at least.
    Can’t wait for your writeup on the Rabbit diesel (don’t forget, they even made some Turbodiesel Rabbits) and the “Americanized” Westmoreland Rabbit.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Hope you can find a first-gen Scir0cco (I think I spelled that correctly) based on this platform….that was the one car I lusted after in high school….

  • avatar

    I’m just astonished at just how good that Rabbit looks after 35 years, especially if it’s lived its entire life in Oregon. There must have been a paint job or two in its past. Anyway, Giugiaro’s clean lines have clearly aged nicely. I’m glad that the Mk. VI Golf has moved towards simpler lines and gotten rid of that yawning maw of an Audi grille.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I’m actually surprised on how “clean” the design looks. It’s one of those times when the designer got everything absolutely “right”. I can’t find any line I don’t agree with. And it still looks fresh. And better throughout the years…

  • avatar

    That car looks great, and the photo featuring the old Beetle in the background is priceless.

    Around here, the Rabbits have virtually disappeared, despite being popular when new. I remember what a shock these cars were at the time, at least for those of us to whom “VW” and “Beetle” were virtually synonomous.

  • avatar

    Thanks Paul! Great article! I had a 74 Dasher (loved it, but what a terrible car) and a 79 Rabbit diesel. I miss them both still. Assuming the car in your photos is a 75 or 76 (likely, based on the interior), it has had some rebuilding, as the rear panel is from a 1978 or newer Rabbit. Very subtle design clue.
    Keep up the good work.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I could have been wrong. I went by the fact that the ’75-’75 had a plain Rabbit emblem without the “fuel injection” below it. What changed with the ’78 rear panel?

    • 0 avatar

      Look at the bottom of the rear lights. The metal rises flush with the light lens. Moving inboard the line drops about 3/4″ to form the license tag panel. On the early ones this drop was a gentle 3-4″ reversing curve from the bottom of the light to the bottom of the (European) tag. An elegant line. When American production started they had a tarted-up “LS” model with a wider light, but the lower steel panel still had the drop as shown in your photo, in (not quite) the middle of the light.
      We architects get so persnickety!

      As well, a base model from 75-77 or later had silver painted bumpers. You got the car right, but it is not quite original – hardly surprising.

      • 0 avatar

        sorry i came very late, but i just saw this today. the car is a 76. we got the car from someone that had stripped this down to almost a bare shell as he was making it a race car. its very hard to find body parts for a car this old.

    • 0 avatar

      I may be wrong, or remembering the wheels on my sister’s 78 Fox, but I think the wheels on the example in the photo are from the Golf II.

      Interesting crossing of trajectories of VW and Chrysler … IIRC … VW on the way up took over a newly-built, never-used plant in Westmoreland, PA, from a on the way down Chrysler, and built Golfs until closing it in 1988, it later became a TV plant, then closed again…

      Meanwhile, in 1983, a newly resurgent Chrysler took over a former LTV missle plant, from an on the way down VW, the plant having been bought by VW in hopes of growth, but never really used, in Sterling Heights, MI, and renamed it SHAP and builds Sebrings there… this plant will close in 2010.

  • avatar

    My dad had one of these. It was used and an auto IIRC. It was quite unreliable, but I’m guessing it was a lemon based on everyone else’s stories.

  • avatar

    Didn’t the first Dashers in the US have trunks (despite their slantback shape), not hatches?

  • avatar

    In the early 80s, my sister and her then-new husband bought an orange 77 Rabbit.  I had not paid much attention to them before this, and this one did not leave me impressed at first.  Mostly because it had been made out of two cars – the orange car had been hit in the back, sawed in two behind the doors and a rear half from another car was welded on.   Chalk up another advantage for front wheel drive.
    Anyhow, the car had somehow been left at my mother’s house and needed to be driven to Sis’s about 60 miles of country roads away.  I got to drive the Rabbit and became a convert.  What.  A.  Hoot.  That little car was FAST compared to anything I had ever driven with a 4 banger (and even compared to my mom’s leaden 74 Luxury LeMans with a 350 that was better at drinking gasoline than it was at accellerating).
    They didn’t keep the little orange Rabbit long, they switched to an 81 Rabbit Diesel soon thereafter.  It was a US built car and drove a lot more like something from GM, but it did get an honest 50 mpg.  They have been VW diesel people ever since.
    That 77 Rabbit is as responsible as anything for my first new car purchase in 1985 – a Golf GTI.   Add another 20 horses or so to a Rabbit, and what’s not to like?  I missed the Rabbit GTI by 1 year and frankly always thought the Rabbit GTI had an extra bit of charm that my Golf version lacked.   Much like the new Honda Fit vs. my 2007.
    Thanks for dredging up my dormant VW memories.

  • avatar

    As a new driver, I spent many hours “Rabbit hunting” in my father’s ’78 Ford Fiesta along with my friends.  To my dismay, the Fiesta was often mistaken for the popular Rabbit.
    The Rabbit you’ve captured here is a nice one considering its age and propensity to rust.  But the Fiesta was even more delicate, and precious few exist today, particularly due to Ford’s inability to pose a serious sales challenge to the Rabbit.

    • 0 avatar

      I always thought the Fiesta was a little more stylish than the Rabbit, what with it’s slightly curved beltline vs. all the rectilinear shapes on the VW. To me the Fiesta was sort of halfway between the Rabbit and Scirocco sylistically…

  • avatar

    Great write-up, Paul.

    “In 1978, VW did a strange thing and reduced the Rabbit’s engine size to 1.45 liters and down to 70 hp. And from then on, they dicked around with engine size and output on an almost yearly basis. What was in the beer they were drinking?”


    If my memory is correct, VW and Audi suffered badly from poor quality valve guides during this time. The problem was misdiagnosed as the long stroke in the 1588 cc engine at first, and the delightful 1460cc engine was born to correct the perceived problem. That small engine revved as if there was no tomorrow, and was a delight. The engine was then remade as the new 1.6 liter.

    The original Golf, the Dasher, and the Audi 80 died from tin worm disease in a few short years around here. The Dasher was the worst.

    Got me a new Jetta in 1980 to replace my Audi 100LS. Couldn’t stand the Jetta — it was a pile of rubbish and I got rid of it within 18 months. Oh well. At least it didn’t burn oil!

    • 0 avatar

      Your memory is correct. My 74 Dasher used a quart in 4 – 500 miles when new. By 100,000 miles, a 200 mile highway trip followed by an overnight cooldown required new plugs to start again. In the end it became my “Wednesday – Saturday car” – a quart on Wednesday and a quart on Saturday. When the cable on the hood latch release stretched to the point where the latch would not release and the hood would not open, I sold the car. Quickly, while it still ran.
      The condition was exacerbated by wear. Much credit for theses cars’ performance goes to the low gearing – my Dasher was turning 3700 RPM at 60 – and that helped wear these engines prematurely.

  • avatar

    My grandfather (the same one who owned the F-100) had ’75 Rabbit.  It was a deep, rich brown, and I loved that car when I was a kid.  It just seemed to hit the Platonic ideal of “carness” in my young eyes.  Also, our first family car that I can remember was a silver VW Dasher hatchback.  Thanks for three excellent trips down memory lane in as many weeks, Paul.  I love these CC posts.

  • avatar

    >>>Beetle successor had to come, and come quick
    I’d hate to be in that position

  • avatar

    I had one of these back in the day.  A ’77 Wolfsburg Edition with air, 4 speed (the 5 speed came in ’78) and those weird “automatic” seat belts. Got 100k troublefree miles out of it in about 4 years. Only flaw that stands out was a propensity for road spray to completely soak the rear brakes in the rain. Could be interesting on the freeway.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    If the front directionals on the Bug were amber ,then it was a 64 or 65.   My  BIL  bought  his  twin daughters a diesel Bunny for high school.

  • avatar

    This car also has a Scirocco steering wheel. I had two first gen Sciroccos in college, a 78 special edition with Recaro style seats and stripes to commemorate an SCCA championship and an 81 which the previous owner had fitted with the 16V engine and leather seats from a wrecked 87.  Both were great fun to drive and easy to work on and I spent a lot of hours with that steering wheel and the more attractive two gauge version of that instrument panel in front of me.  I finally got tired of re-engineering the swap and replaced the 81 with an 84 Jetta for a full decade (87-97) of A1 VWs. Also a friend had the spiritual successor to this car, one of the US built cars with a stripper interior and a carburetor at a time when the rest of the range had fuel injection. It wasn’t quite as fun to drive but it gave good service, however you needed to wear your seatbelt because he armoralled the vinyl seats.

  • avatar

    Ah!  Brings back memories of my old 1975 Mk1 Scirocco.  I drove that car all over the U.S. (including three cross-country trips and trips up and down the East and West Coasts).
    1900 lbs, great gas mileage (consistently in the 40 mpg range), and fun as hell to drive.
    Man, I miss that car!!!

  • avatar

    On a lark I went to the dealer and drove a GTI.  I’d never own one, since I’m too old and it’s too “boy racer.”  Yet it’s really a great car and in the spirit of the originals.  The current model underscores how continuous improvement to a proven design produces a classic.  Unfortunately, the current plain jane US Golf has nothing really going for it.  What about the TDI?  Nice, but too expensive: it’s easy to reach 30 large with an optioned out diesel.   Must be be a hard sell for VW to push out Golfs at Passat prices.

  • avatar
    Kyle Schellenberg

    “I couldn’t have staged it better.”

    Magical photographic moments are truly a special thing.  For everyone else, there’s Photoshop.

  • avatar

    My first wife and I were pre-breakup and seeing the marriage counselor when the Golf came out.  The MC had one…and no end of trouble with end…she had a tow-truck on retainer.  Of course, the Beetle was God knows how old when it hit America and the bugs had long been flogged out….so it had a stellar rep.  But Golf was imported brand-new with lotsa teething problems….came as a shock to everyone that thought that VW meant no problems

  • avatar
    John Rettmer

    Can,t wait until you feature the VW Rabbit Cabriolet. I have a 1991 VW Cabriolet that i use as often as possable. It has the original 1.8 GTI engine with a five speed and is a great car to drive. The car only has 40,000 miles and was in storage for about 10 years. Other then a new top and a good cleaning the car runs like new. I get quite a few offers from people but i am having too much fun with it. I retired last year and gave my business to my son in law and now only work  a few hours a day. I purchased a new VW TDI for taking vacation trips and i am so impressed with the power and mileage i might just put the  Cabriolet in storage and make the TDI my daily driver.   

  • avatar
    rm -rf

    Dad had a ’75 Rabbit. The odds of it starting on a cold winter morning and making it 2 miles to work were 1 in 3. And that was the first winter, when it was brand new.
    It spent so much time at the dealer that they offered him even up on a new ’76.

    It really was junk. But the alternatives weren’t much better.

  • avatar

    I cried the day I totaled my ’77. I had it re-painted white with gray stripes and just replaced the rod bearings in only a few hours time the week before. Even though I broadsided a pick-up at 45 MPH, I walked away from the crash only feeling a little bit sore.

  • avatar

    There’s so much I could say here, but I see you’re going to feature a diesel in the near future, so I’ll reserve my comments until then. They won’t be kind.

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    Wow. Great writeup. I had an 80. It had the square headlamps, which I thought looked better at the time. But they really didn’t. I drove this thing up until 225,000 miles. Every piece of interior plastic broke at least once. If it weren’t smacked at an intersection, the damned thing would have probably run forever.

  • avatar


    You’re right about the two different lines under the taillights.  Not sure what year it changed – I think it may have been around ’77.   Keep in mind, however, that in ’78 when American production began, they were still using the same German taillights (just with different side markers and square headlights).  The “tarted up” LS (and the elongated taillights and wraparound grille) didn’t arrive until ’81. 
    The switch to US-built Rabbits really killed the Germanic feel of the interiors.  Car & Driver did a great article in ’78 which clearly illustrates this point.  In comparing the old world model with the new, they went on a great length about the new “baby-blue” turn signal levers…”Malibu-ization”, I believe they called it.  IIRC, they also mentioned that the ride had been softened.
    Here in Canada, we continued to receive German-built Rabbits until the end of model year ’80.  In ’79-’80 we even saw our own GTI model (all the trim but without the 112-hp engine, alas….).  Then in ’81, we were also stuck with the US-built cars.  There is absolutely no comparison (if one ever got the chance) between an early-Eighties gen 1 European market Golf (Rabbit) and any VW that was ever built in Pennsylvania.  The ’83-’84 GTI’s come close but still cannot escape their crap-tastic interiors (Recaros not withstanding).  Did you ever notice how, on the ’81 thru ’84’s, the dashboard was redesigned in such a way that when using the window cranks your knuckles brushed up against the corner of the dash, because the position of the window mechanism was fixed and they never took that needed clearance into account…!! 
    btw, the photo car has the American-ized (non-GTI) seats (LS, even)… and the carpet has been removed likely because the windshield leaks…!!  Been there….

  • avatar

    My oldest brother’s friend had one of these in the mid 1970’s (1975-76?). He had traded in a sweet 1969 Z/28 4-speed for it. Most of us thought he was nuts, but with the oil embargo that had just wrapped up and the next one to come in 1979, he turned out to be a genius. Feeding that Camaro would have been painful back in the day. Everyone who drove his Rabbit ended up liking it, as it was a zippy drive. I was too young back then to drive legally, but I remember the handling far better than that of my parent’s huge Mercurys.
    The funny thing about the particular car in the pix, is that it reminds me of the Fiat 145 or more commonly known in the US as the Yugo. As noted in the article, Fiat, Renault and several others all produced cars similar to this, a rather utilitarian type of car we don’t see much of anymore in the US, the hatchback.

  • avatar

    I love me my Volkswagens (two in the driveway and the aforementioned Type 3 in pieces in the garage) my memories of the Rabbit are a bit mixed. My first exposure to to the brand was the Pennsylvania-built ’79 Rabbit C my father bought to replace the family ’73 Impala wagon. I loved the car in all its Mexican beige glory, but the electrics, particularly the fuel injection system, sucked. The car would flat shut off as the fuse for the ECU would blow. We kept the car for a couple years before trading it in on an ’81 Olds Cutlass wagon.

  • avatar

    On the basis of the 1974 Golf that they had owned and enjoyed when stationed in Germany in the early 1980s, my parents bought me a 1975 Rabbit as a college graduation present after they returned to the USA in 1982.  While it was fun to drive, it was the car that taught me how to wrench – I had no choice, as it was broken all the time.  I got to where I could take the carb out, take it apart, clean the float bowl, and put it back in by the side of the road in 30 minutes – I even had a 13mm deep socket I kept in the car just for that job.  I finally put in a conversion kit that used a Ford Pinto carb – that fixed the problem.

    I don’t think there was anything I didn’t have to work on – the timing belt broke (good thing it was a non-interference engine), the engine mount broke off (fixed by drilling through the inner fender and installing a big bolt), the AC compressor stripped its threads and fell off.  The most entertaining failure was the dashboard clock catching fire in Houston, Texas freeway rush hour traffic.

    The most nasty example of a design flaw was that the cable from the radio to the antenna was arranged so that it looped down just over the fuse box.  When the seal at the base of the antenna failed, water came in and dripped off the cable onto the fuse box – I spent many an hour  cleaning the fuses and relays until my dad finally took pity on me and bought me a new fuse box.

    Yet I do miss it, the way people miss their first love – it was pretty in a delicate way, it held lots of stuff with the hatchback and the folding rear seats, and it handled well on twisty roads (though you had to turn off the AC if you were going uphill).

    For a young guy in college, though, it had one feature that made it ideal – the slots in the stock wheels were just the right size to pop the tops off of beer bottles.  Oh, what a car…

    • 0 avatar

      Ease of maintenance was something I loved about my Rabbit. Just about every fastener on the car was either a 10mm or a 13mm, so literally a couple of combo wrenches was all you needed to fix anything. As mine was a normally aspirated oil burner, vibration tended to loosen stuff over time and miles. I had the pivot bolt fall out of the alternator in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Spent at least two hours looking for that damn bolt on the road! Finally found it but never found the nut. Likely fell off miles before.

      I finally rigged up a temporary solution with some climbing gear (a Chouinard #8 Stopper wedged between the alternator and timing housing!) and limped into a small town to buy a new bolt & nut at a NAPA.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I know you don’t get much sunshine in Oregon, but how can you keep a car that age with red paint from fading?
    My town, is pretty cloudy too, but red cars fade around here.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I really don’t know the exact history of this car. It may well have been repainted, but it may not. I run into old cars that have held up remarkably well. Often they were garaged for a big portion of their lives.
      Also, from my experience, VW used to use a very good enamel that you could polish to bring back the luster even when quite oxidized.

  • avatar

    For many years I was intrigued by thoughts of the mid-engined Volkswagen Beetle Sedan replacement.  It supposedly offered excellent handling and had been engineered by Porsche.  Supposedly the prototypes were all destroyed.  I googled and googled and could never find any photos.
    Then Bertel Schmitt mentioned in his earlier story, about how he helped Volkswagen tell the ridiculous story about how they made a success out of the Golf, that the prototype went by the name of the EA 266.   So I googled that and up popped this picture at this link:

    The car looks surprisingly similar to the Audi 50 and Volkswagen Rabbit, although without Giugiaro’s squared-off sheet metal and with a solid metal panel in front instead of a grill.
    The same website offers glimpses at a lot of other interesting prototypes at the following link:

    Oh, and if you look at some of the earliest VW prototypes from the 1930s you’ll see the strong resemblance to the Tatras.

  • avatar

    I have a long love affair with Rabbits, the cars, not the rodents…..
    The first time I drove a Rabbit was about 1983 when I was looking for a reliable car to drive to college and one what would not break  me on gasoline. A friend was selling used cars and he a 1978 Rabbit Diesel L model in brilliant safety orange. The interior was in fact very nice but what is more important, the car drove better than any small car I had ever driven to that point. I loved that little car and it cost peanuts to run, it got like 50 mpg. It wasn’t at all fast but it drove and handled so well, light years ahead of anything made in Detroit at the time. Then, like a total idiot, I sold it to buy a motorcycle for summer.
    A year or so later, I was working the the aforementioned buddy selling used cars on the side while going to school at the same time. My dad owned a Firestone franchise so we had a complete shop and tools to do our dirty work. All Rabbit parts were interchangeable. We buy three Rabbits and make two of them, one always being a rust bucket. We had no trouble flogging them either, people absolutely loved them and in 1985 we could easily get $3500 for a clean diesel, more if it was a 1980 (last year of the German Rabbit in Canada) and a 5 speed.
    My Rabbit tour de force was a 1980 two door L with 5 speed and sunroof. The motor was blown due to neglect but the body was perfect. I got the motor out of an ’84 Jetta turbo diesel and it dropped right in. The extra torque transformed the car and we enjoyed many km together until my insatiable greed caused me to sell it like a total moron.
    I have a 2008 Fit and it is in many ways like the first Rabbits. In fact, it is the only small car I have driven that I like as much as my Rabbit turbo-diesel. The Rabbits were way ahead of their time and still had VW advantages of being easy to work on and well bolted together. It is too bad they rusted like crazy but all cars of the era did. Also, in Canada anyway, the cars were never cheap, a Rabbit L diesel cost as much as a loaded Chevy Caprice in its day. I won’t even mention American Rabbits. The were too awful to mention.

  • avatar

    On the similar topic, VeeDub built 4-5-6 cylinder Oel burner aka Diesel.
    The 4 & 5 cyls were pretty ghe #1 ood, never heard too much complaints.
    But the 6 were pretty well Lemons. They were sold to Volvos, some say they had oil supply issues to Cam shaft, I had a Volvo diesel that suffered from cracked head at 150,000 km, thats wasn’t much at all. It blew a stack of black smokes upon first firing up.
    The #1 cyl only register 260 lbs of compression #2 was ~ 300, the rest has 400 ish psi.
    I was forced to sell her pretty cheap.

  • avatar

    I drove a Rabbit as soon as it came out in the US and I’d been a Beetle owner–not the super B., but the regular one, which VW continuedto make for a while.  The Rabbit was truly a totally different car in terms of acceleration, handling, and look. The road feel was amazing, but, the car was too different, so I didn’t get one.  However, in 1978 when the diesel came out, I bought a four door, sunroof, white model and truly enjoyed the car until the upstate NYwinters started to eat the body off the car, so in 1985, I sold it to a guy who wanted the diesel engine and I went back to a gasoline Rabbit, but never liked it as much as I did the diesel.  That was was amazing, got, 60 mpg on the road and 55 in town. I filled it up once a month.  Basic car, well built,but of course had no panache of the BMW 2002 or 320i.  Still a great car.

  • avatar

    IIRC living through the period, VWs sales slide accelerated in the US from half a million a year in 73 to under 100,000 at some point since, partially fueled by the poor reliability of the Rabbit.

    I also remember the first year of the Rabbit available in the US had to be continually recalled and turned a lot of people off of VW for good, icon or no.

    Rose colored glasses?

  • avatar
    also Tom

    My then girlfriend now wife bought a Pennsylvania built Rabbit new. It was, from the start, absolutely the sorriest most misbegotten badly assembled and unreliable piece of crap ever put on the road up until the time we bought new an Alabama made 2002 Mercedes ML320,  a conveyance we have had no luck getting stolen or victimized by arsonsists.

  • avatar

    It’s great that the 411/412 models are mentioned here, as you really never hear about them at all. I grew up with one of these as my father bought a 412 wagon in 1973 that became my hand-me-down first car in the early 1980s. I’ll never forget the look on peoples faces when they saw this rare car for the first time! I have never met anyone else that owned one. It certainly didn’t seem any less reliable than the domestic mid-seventies junk that was available at the time. I guess I think that folks loved the beetle and forgave it’s shortcomings because it was “cute”. The 411s and 412s….they just looked weird.

  • avatar

    That design of car was sold until recently in South Africa as the Golf City.

  • avatar

    What a great article–I can’t believe how lucky you got with those shots! very well written and very enjoyable. I am late to the Rabbit/Golf; I am still driving my 2005 1.8T GTI but it’s the only car that I can really say that I LOVE driving. Yes, there have been a few issues with electrics here and there but overall, it’s just great.

    Really enjoyed the piece, a great retrospective, both on a personal and…auto? level.


  • avatar

    Very late to the party,but, but, but.

    The story as I know it is very similar to what you told Mr. Niedermeyer. So that’s why I can’t warm up to this. If you said this was the car that introduced this kind of car to much of the world, then ok. But it has nothing original to it.

    The hatchback design was introduced by the French – Renault. Later Simca.

    Small car front engine – Mini, perfected by Fiat (127)

    Water cooled engine – more tricky as a host of makers came up w/ it at the smae time and in fact had been perfecting it since at least the 30s. And here’s one reason I hold a grudge against VW, they kept pushing air-cooled engines well into the 80s in this country. And even had the gall to make ads claiming the superiority of this kind of engine (sick! and a miseducation in a country getting on wheels)

    VW never invented anything. The Beetle as said was a Tatra, the Golf an Audi. And they keep holding back on new technology. Don’t know but I think VW’s actions in this country cloud my judgment. (Not to say the others are not guilty, but VW is so slow and acts so superior – they irk me).

    There – rant over.

  • avatar

    There, there From Brazil…..we’re all friends here, we all go off about something sooner or later and we’re all still friends.

    As to the *content* of what you said, well, no business is anywhere near perfect. As I came to understand while an IBM employee in that very screwy company that is, in many ways, doing a GM on itself, *every* business is screwy…that’s the only thing that saves IBM.

    As for car companies making cars that we can enthuse about, that are superlative, that are wonderfully quirky or even fun to drive….well, it’s almost that that happens by mistake when the management idiots are off at a conference, when the bean counters are getting moved to another building and fail to blight a car, when the inside people realize they’ve got a winner and very carefully….Don’t Tell.

  • avatar

    Great pics! Per my recollection (and experience of family members and friends), the mid-70’s VW’s and Audi’s were pretty to look at, but terribly unreliable. Honda’s Civic and Accord were the cars to own for reliability and quality build.

  • avatar

    Yes, excellent piece on the Mk1. The car in the photo looks beautiful and makes me hark back to the days when car greenhouses were as tall or taller than the sheetmetal. It’s a shame that visibility has gone out of style. Speaking of the Mk1 I just watched 2 Wheeler Dealer epiodes where they bought one and poor Ed China had to spend hours bringing it up to snuff. I’m addicted to the simplicity and backyard mechanic appeal of the show.

    Having test-driven a MkV GTI & R32 along with a MkVI GTI, it’s my opinion that the MkIV was the last of the series to have that fun, tossable feeling that started with the Mk1. My wife’s and my VR6 GTI & Jetta feel much more responsive and lively than their grown-up, heftier-feeling modern descendants.

  • avatar

    I have fond memories of my 1980 dark bronze 2-door Rabbit diesel that I bought new (after selling my 1978 Buick Regal Turbo, first year for that model) when I got spooked by the second 1970s oil crisis.

    I took a cross-continent trip with my Rabbit (complete with a Sears car-top carrier) from Ottawa, Canada to Vancouver, down to L.A. and back to Ottawa. It cruised all day long at 75 – 80 mph during that trip and still returned 55 mpg. Thirty years later and auto makers are still trying to top VW’s achievement in efficiency combined with fun driving! And I have yet to own a car with a structure that felt more solid – it felt like it was carved from a solid bar of steel.

    The only “negatives” of that wonderful machine were having to wait 30 seconds for the dash glow plug indicator light to go out before starting at 20 below (or worse, having the diesel fuel turn to gel after sitting all weekend at 30 below). Plus, the brutal vibration at idle (which imparted a strange fuzzy appearance to the dash) seemed to be the cause of multiple alternator bracket failures.

    One of the best cars I’ve ever owned!

  • avatar

    My father would pass me his used cars in the days of my youth and young adulthood. One of them was a diesel Rabbit, which, like every other car my father ever had, was meticulously maintained by the book.
    When I got it, one thing after another broke….the real winner, as with islander800, was the vibration, which strain hardened *everything*…or at least the radiator, which kept springing leaks (solder-crack-solder-crack) until replaced and the exhaust which kept cracking (weld-crack-weld-crack) until replaced.
    The head gasket went….I took it to the dealership where the service manager tried 5 times to get it to seal. He was a good egg, but you could see his heart die every time I showed up. After the 5th, it sounded like the timing belt was loose so I showed up for it to be adjusted. On the way home, great clouds of steam from under the hood….but not water steam, fuel oil steam…the return line had broken at the clamp. Cut it off clean and reattach. The next day, I drove to work, parked and was sitting at idle when the engine gave a couple of very unhappy rotation and died. The timing belt had rotted from the fuel oil spray and the engine had tried to dance without its help with the valves.
    I go back to VW. The service manager wants to commit ritual suicide, but pulls himself together and sez this: “Look, let’s be done with this crap. My best mechanic, Donny Todd, left and set himself up in business 3 months ago; he’s crackerjack. I know where there a carburatted Scirocco that rolled that you can buy for $250. Go to Donny and pay him $250 to put the Scirocco engine in your Rabbit and don’t look back. I did (25 years later, I still do) , it was great. About 2 years later, its junk Zenit carb fell apart. I went back to Donny who said, ‘Yeah that happens and you don’t want a used one…putting a new one in will cost you $x.” Me: “How much more for a Weber?” DT (with gleam in eye): “$1.2x” Me: “Do it”
    And it was a freakin’ revelation. Effing VW equips all their cars with top-end asthma with pissy-ass carbs and rev limiters and the like. Strip the junk out and they rev like a Cosworth Ford.
    That little exDiesel/Sirocco would rev madly and wind its heart out….with the hammer down, it would suck the Weber’s bowl dry somewhere near the top of 2nd. It was a gas. In the end, that car ran and ran and ran…I never replaced the stock fuel pump with something gutsier. It never died…I finally gave it away when the rust was too obnoxious….and got a new ’85 GTI…with a God-cursed rev limiter that I didn’t learn about until I pushed it after the work-in period. It would go herky-jerky (no clean asthma thin out). It first happened to me on a turn and not losing control was a major achievement. My ’95 GTI VR6….well *it* got one of the first Garrett chip…tractable *and* powerful and would wind up to 7K+. 2nd gear was 10MPH/K RPM. 70MPH in 2nd. 1st,. 2nd, 5th….no need for the rest of the gears. Every bit the engine that my father 3500GT Maserati had :)

  • avatar

    Oh My God – the 3500 GT? That was one of my favorite 1:25 scale models I built back in the mid 60s!

    I have a black and white close-up pic of it in a “diorama” that I took back in the day, if you’re interested….

  • avatar

    I bought a ’78 diesel version of the Rabbit and loved it. Great mileage (60 mpg on highway), super handling, sunroof, four door. I drove it until 1986 when the upstate New York rust ate its body away, but that car, along with my ’72 basic beetle were the two best cars I ever owned, and I had a BMW 2002, 320i and Rabbit Cabriolet. That diesel would start up in -30F weather too! I wish VW would bring their Lupo diesel to America. Great article, thanks!

  • avatar

    I had a 1976 Rabbit.  Miss it to this day.

    Also had a German immigrant for a local mechanic.  He could take a beetle completely apart including the engine down the the individual parts and put it all back together.

    I later added a Weber carb when the original one started to act up.  Really gave the small engine a boost.

  • avatar

    sorry i am joining this incredibly late but i just found this today. the car is a 76 and the paint is original with the exeption of the rear hatch that appears to have been repainted to the original color. the car was gotten for free when a friend grew tired of the race car project that never took off. the car had no interior, a blown engine and cut suspension springs. fortunately the body and paint were in great shape so i thought my son and i could work on it and make it a great first car. the engine and tranny are out of a california emmisions 92 jetta, including the fuel injection and electronics. car now has great gas mileage and lots of power. the interios has also been replaced with gti seats from a late 80’s gti and carpet from an 83 gti the srings are HR sport srings. the car looks great and my son gets many compliments and offers to buy the car. the car will remain as it was in the picture. my son plans to drive this as long as possible and will be taking it to college in the fall.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit purchased used in 1977 in Dallas TX. It was orange with black interior. Automatic Transmission. A/C, basic radio. That’s about it. I LOVED that car. However, by 1979 I had relocated to northeast Arkansas and the repair costs were high. I would take the car to a local repairman, then find out what parts were needed and have my parents who still lived in Dallas at the time go to the Volkswagen dealer there and ship the needed part(s) to me. I eventually traded the Rabbit in 1979 for a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo (new, prior year model). I always regret not keeping the Rabbit. It would go in the ice/snow when no one else could go.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit purchased used in 1977 in Dallas TX. It was orange with black interior. Automatic Transmission. A/C, basic radio. That’s about it. I LOVED that car. However, by 1979 I had relocated to northeast Arkansas and the repair costs were high. I would take the car to a local repairman, then find out what parts were needed and have my parents who still lived in Dallas at the time go to the Volkswagen dealer there and ship the needed part(s) to me. I eventually traded the Rabbit in 1979 for a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo (new, prior year model). I always regret not keeping the Rabbit. It would go in the ice/snow when no one else could go.

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