By on June 11, 2011


47.2 percent of all cars bought in Germany last month don’t run on gas. They run on diesel. It wasn’t always that way. A quarter century ago, a diesel car was unheard of in Europe. Well, not quite: The Mercedes diesels had a characteristic tractor sound. The diesel Mercedes was popular with taxi drivers because it was so sturdy, and with farmers. Farmers could buy low-tax diesel for their tractors. Allegedly, some found its way illegally into their diesel-Benz.

Success is not built on lawbreaking farmers and taxi drivers. What made the diesel driven car so popular?

It was the Volkswagen Golf D. And it didn’t make sense at all.

Late 1975, I was briefed by Volkswagen on their diesel plans as the basis for the launch campaign in the coming spring. A Golf with a diesel engine! Why not, said I, I didn’t care. I didn’t have a driver’s license. Its consumption was amazing: Only 6.5 liter per 100 km, breathtaking at the time. For a diesel. The gasoline version: 8 liter.

Also, diesel was cheaper at the pump! So I came back with a campaign that exhorted the savings. Mr. Plamböck, the gentleman who had to vet the campaigns before the big boss would see them, looked at my grand savings plan, and said: “Let’s have lunch.”

Over a Currywurst (it was a Thursday, and Thursday was Currywurst Day in the VW cafeteria, probably still is) Mr. Plamböck said: “Bertel, did you check the added cost of that engine?” I forgot how much it was, but it was a lot. “You will have to drive 80,000 kilometers to get your money back!” said Mr. Plamböck and banged on the table. He looked around, lowered his voice and added: “And then, the engine will fall out of the car.”

At that time, Volkswagens had a bit of a corrosion problem.

Also, that engine did not last as long as the legendary indestructible diesel engines before. That secret was imparted on me by a real Volkswagen engineer. “As you hopefully know, a diesel needs a much higher compression ratio to initiate combustion,” the engineer said, knowing well that I was utterly clueless. “The problem was, we had no idea about what’s really going on in that diesel engine. We didn’t know when the engine would explode. So the engine was overbuilt.” Using a huge mainframe computer which probably had less computing power than your mobile phone today, Volkswagen found out what’s really going on in that cylinder when it goes bang.

Armed with that knowledge, Volkswagen could use a common gasoline engine, their run of the mill EA 827. The engine block was beefed-up slightly, sturdier pistons were used. The cylinder head was modified for the “Wirbelkammer-Einspritzverfahren.“ Voila, a diesel engine. Wait, a diesel doesn’t need a distributor. In its place, a pump created vacuum for the power brake. The engine made breathtaking 50 hp at 5,000 rpm and sounded nearly like a gasoline engine. Except when it was cold.

People soon found out that in real life, a diesel car used much less than a gasoline powered car according to the DIN-norm. Especially in city traffic. We weren’t allowed to talk about it. Word-of-mouth did it.

In 1982, there was another revolution: The diesel received a turbocharger. And diesel turned into a runaway success. In the early 80’s, Volkswagen was so swamped by diesel demand that there was an engine shortage. At that time, 45 percent of all Golfs already burned oil. Now, it’s nearly half of all cars all over Europe.

Diesel mania, started by a little car that didn’t make sense.






Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

42 Comments on “Autobiography Of BS: The Senseless Car That Started Europe’s Diesel Mania...”

  • avatar

    Great story, Bertel. It’s a great illustration of how accepted norms and assumptions can sometimes blind one to future possibilities.

  • avatar

    A very cool story indeed and who says a car had to make sense to be a success?

    I’ve always have loved the first generation Golf/Rabbit and still do, it’s design holds up well some 35+ years later.

  • avatar

    Farmers in the US have ag diesel they can put in their road going vehicles as well, but it has red dye in it. If you get caught, you will pay a hefty fine for it.

    I see oil burning VW Caddys pop up on Craigslist now and then. Sellers typically want well north of 3 grand for them, regardless of their condition.

    • 0 avatar

      Filter red diesel through a certain brand of kitty litter and the red dye goes away. The only way to tell then is to take a sample of the fuel for testing… don’t ask me how I know these things.

  • avatar

    Don’t forget, Bertel, the rise in Diesel sales in W. Germany in ’84 and ’85 when Bundesinnenminister Zimmermann was going back and forth over unilateralism for Waldsterben-related exhaust standards and lead-free gasoline, neither of which affected diesel cars. From what I’ve read, it seems like many Germans started switching to diesel because they were afraid that W. Germany would switch completely to Bleifrei and no one would be able to drive to Italy for the summer holiday, where they’d only have leaded gas for sale.

  • avatar

    If at first you don’t succeed, overbuild and turbocharge. VW could have learned that in a season of LeMons racing!

    Great story, Bertel!

  • avatar

    It was handy not only for farmers, but everybody in construction. Excavators, caterpillars, virtyally anybody that made any kind of earning on any kind of Diesel engine. In Sweden, I think the tax was 25%, so it was a 25% drop in consumtion costs already there. Most of the contractors drove Mercedes diesel cars, some drove Peugeots or Fords. Though, Ford didn’t have a diesel engine of their own but bought in Peugeot units.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Currywurst. You guys have all the good stuff.

  • avatar

    I’m a wee bit confused about the fuel consumption numbers you cite, equal or more than the gas engine. Everything I’ve ever read about the VW diesel indicated it was at least 25% more efficient than the gas version.
    The EPA numbers for an 1984 (oldest they have) diesel Rabbit are 35/43; the comparable gas engine: 23/31. That’s even more than a 25% improvement.

    In CA during the second energy crisis, diesel Rabbits were selling for insane premiums, up to 50% over MSRP. It was as much or more of a mania than the Prius during the height of the 2008 gas run-up.

    • 0 avatar

      European cars had no emissions controls at the time. They were much more efficient, since they weren’t strangled by primitive emissions controls and they ran much higher compression ratios using leaded fuels.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, but that doesn’t fully explain it. The VW and Mercedes diesels of the time were about 25% more efficient than their comparable size (European) gas engine equivalent. That’s the reason they made them, right?

      • 0 avatar

        We’re talking about the specific comparison of the first Golf diesel to the european gas Golf, when the gas version used less fuel according to the German test regiment. They built it because the price of diesel was much lower than the price of gasoline in Germany due to taxation that was meant to favor truck drivers. I was getting CAR(UK) magazines when europe was getting ready to require catalytic converters, circa 1986. Ford had cat versions of the Pinto powered Ford Sierra available against non-cat versions, and the performance and fuel consumption differences were drastic at that time, something like 30% in fuel consumption and 15% in power.

      • 0 avatar

        Ok, my fading brain was fooled by the German Wikipedia, which claims: “Trotzdem waren die Motoren sparsam, ein Kriterium, das beim Markteintritt unter dem Eindruck der ersten Ölkrise 1973/74 eine hohe Bedeutung hatte. So betrug der Verbrauch des 37-kW-Motors nach DIN 70030 6,4 l pro 100 km bei 90 km/h und konnte mit der Formel E-Ausstattung auf 5,2 l gesenkt werden.”

        Just for Paul, I found one of the first Golf ads, and it says: “Und ein temperamentvoller Front-Motor mit 50 oder 70 PS, der 100 Kilometer schon für 8 Liter Normalbenzin liefert (Nach DIN mit der 50 PS-Version).“

        So 8 liter it is for the gasoline version. Story improved. As intimated, the real savings were greater. But we weren’t allowed to touch it, DIN was sacred, and cars optimized for it.

        Nevertheless, the engine was so expensive that the savings kicked in at 80,000 km. Nonetheless, people bought it: “Savings at all cost!”

    • 0 avatar

      Paul – if you ever do a VW Diesel CC you should link to this piece.

      Bertel – I really enjoyed this well written insider’s perspective on an interesting and historically significant car. Thank you.

  • avatar

    My sister had a first gen Rabbit diesel on lease. Due to New England winters, her boyfriend reguarly added gallons of rustoleum to the underside, but it looked great. The resale value would have cost her at lease end, but she lucked out when it was stolen.

    Speaking of VW leases, I’m seeing lots of brand new VWs in San Diego, driven by yuppie types who typically lease. Is a sweetheart leasing deal part of Mr. Piech’s plan to conquer the American market?

  • avatar

    I’m not so sure about those consumption numbers…I learned to drive in one. It was a car my grandparents kept at their summer property. We used it all the time…and only had to fill it a few times a summer. And up there, the nearest store (Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Napa, etc) is 15 miles away.

    That was a fantastic car though.

  • avatar

    I could swear there were Peugeot diesels long before that Golf. Of course, Peugeots never got around as much as VWs. But the French are always first with cars, starting with Cugnot’s (1769) Fardier a Vapeur. Anyway, great story!

    • 0 avatar

      Sure there were diesel Peugeots. Maybe even some others. However, they were never bought in large numbers. That little Golf turned it into a diesel wave that took over Europe. And in the first years it really didn’t look like it. I vaguely remember that sales dropped after a first pop. The real mania started in the early 80s.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s a reason you could buy a “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Peugeots” bumper sticker off the rack.

  • avatar

    I’m driving a friends 1991 VW Golf Pick-Up (called “CADDY”) almost daily with its 1.6l 54hp diesel engine. It’s great fun, quick on 60mph (even though it won’t go any faster than 75 mph) and average consumption is less then 5,0l on 100 km in real life.

    Moreover it was one of the last “Golf I Caddys” ever made since the production plant was bombed in 1992 in the Bosnian War and they had to stop the assembly line.

    What I find funny is that you mention the “currywurst”. In 1977 Volkswagen made a deal with the former GDR, the German Democratic Republic. The “VE Außenhandel Transportmaschinen Export und Import” in Comunist-Berlin ordered 10.000 Volkswagen Golf I back then and paid with machines and two hydraulic presses which are still being used today. I happened to see both of them still in action, one is located at Neckarsulm’s AUDI plant and the other one is producing the new VW Jetta in Puebla, Mexico.

    However shortly after the deal was made with Eastern Germany, workforce at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg noticed that something had significantly changed at the Volkswagen Cafeteria…it is said that payment for those 10.000 Golfs included not only machinery but also tons of “Thüringer Rostbratwurst” (, sausages made in the Eastern part of Germany.

    A great article comparing East and West Germany and its technology back then for those who understand German:

    Maybe VWoA has found a new great marketing tool and allows all of those yuppies in the San Diego area a Wiener-Payment plan on their new Jettas?!

    • 0 avatar

      The Thüringer Rostbratwurst probably was a welcome diversion.

      The currywurst is made on premises by their own butcher. The “Volkswagen Currywurst” is trademarked now and is sold elsewhere. It is also a big hit at the annual Christmas Market at the German Embassy in Beijing, sold by members of Volkswagen. Ironically, the Chinese wurst is made by the former military attache of East Germany, even more ironically, by the name of Schindler.

      The deal with East Germany had to be a barter deal because the currencies were not exchangeable. Volkswagen also received a planetarium, which was donated to the city. Most of all, they received a lot of rolled steel, which people fingered as the reason for the rust. It was propaganda.

      Little known detail: The parts department convinced East Germany that they would need inordinate amounts of replacement parts, which were part of the package. Amongst the package were even more inordinate amounts of green paint (most of the Golfs sold the East Germany were green.) The paint was rarely used to repaint cars. But it ended up on the outsides of the summer cottages (“Datschen”) of party members. All painted in high quality green enamel.

      • 0 avatar

        Really Vdub were still painting cars with enamel that went out in the early 60s with the advent of acrylic laquer no wonder they rusted away

      • 0 avatar
        bill h.

        That pic brings back memories, as I had a ’77 five door Rabbit in exactly that “East German” green color. Generally was a good car, with little in the way of equipment to complicate maintenance (other than the K-Jetronic fuel injection). This was pre-diesel days, of course. The car actually held up reasonably well against rusting, with the main rot starting at the lower corner of the windshield. Took it down to New Mexico for a summer (no a/c!) and then up to Boston for grad school, where my German-born landlady called it “der Frosch.” Finally it gave way to the ’84 Rabbit GTi that came afterwards.

  • avatar

    “A quarter century ago, a diesel car was unheard of in Europe.”
    Didn´t you mean about “half a century”?

    25 years ago (1986), most European manufacturers had diesels in their model lines, although much less numerous (of those who didn´t Saab and Jaguar jump to my mind, not counting the usual sports cars suspects).

    It should also be mentioned that Peugeot was first to introduce diesels in smaller cars than the Mercedes, first with the 404 then with the 204.
    Nevertheless it is fair to say that VW made the concept more acepptable and less work(taxi)-oreiented for a wider audience, even more so with the first turbo-diesel Golfs (70 bhp!).

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    One of these days I will visit the Karmann museum.

  • avatar

    PSA diesels have been around a long long time Something you missed is the top of the range models in a lot of Euro line ups are diesel not petrol like FORD the Titanium Mondeo is diesel only here. Peugeot started the performance hot hatch diesels with the XUD9 engines I have a later 1905 Turbo D in a Citroen Xsara its a quick little car but gets 50 mpg on a run and 44mpg in town Jaguar Landrover Ford and BMW use Peugeot engines they lead the diesel world not VW.

    • 0 avatar

      Err technically Jaguar & Land Rover use Ford Diesels which are also used by Peugeot Volvo Ford & Mini use Peugeot Diesels. This was part of the join development agreement where Peugeot develop diesel below 2.2 ltrs (1.6, 2.0, 2.2 I4) & Ford developed the units above 2.2 ltrs (2.7 / 3.0 V6 – 3.8 V8). Ford also have there own diesels below 2.2 ltrs (Lynx & puma engines)

  • avatar

    Well, well, well, you all know the story of how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. It seems there is a movement in America who dream about, and fantasize about how great small diesels with manuals are. Well, hear this, they all suck seriously, and their ONLY redeeming feature is fuel economy. Everything else is seriously bad. My lateset stint with such a machine was with an Alfa Giulietta Diesel rental car a couple of days ago; 300 miles on Scandinavian country roads, and I can share the following data with you, first of all mileage, the prime reason for getting an oil burner:about 43 mpg
    Then to the the data that is not so easily expressed in numbers:
    The engine was totally dead under 1500 rpm, so once revs dropped below this threshold, immediate downshift with the not-too-smooth tranny, pedal to the metal, and off we went again. Passing had its own challenges, first you find the right(?) gear, stay alert, floor it when it the road is clear, but oops, at 3500 it peaks, at 4000 it falls on its face, so what do you do if you’re halfway past a tanker at this stage? Would you believe it, you upshift, halfway past a tanker!! Need I remind you that all(!) diesel pump handles are soaked in diesel so your hands stink for the next hours. Conclusion, enjoy your gas-powered car while yoy can, you really don’t want a small diesel with a manual tranny!

    • 0 avatar

      Well first mistake was getting a fiat next you obviously have no idea how to drive a diesel manual Torque is the key not revs my car produces max torque at 2200 and max hp at 4000 and pulls between the two well you can lose youre licence in 4th @ 150 kph or 5th good for 170 kph just how fast do you need to go. Starting at 100 kph I can hit 140 kph by thr time I pass the cab of a Btrain during overtaking no downshift needed

    • 0 avatar

      You obviously don´t know how to drive.

      With my car, you don´t need to shift above 50 mph as it pulls strong in 6th gear.

    • 0 avatar

      The brand new BMW 320d that I had as a rental last year was farking great. Hammered that thing on the Autobahn and German backroads for about a week and got the equivalent of 39mpg. Plenty of torque and refinement that would work great on American roads.

  • avatar

    Gutless, noisy and smelly but what a tireless little worker, light on gas and surprisingly practical with the hatch back. How would it not be a success?

  • avatar

    I nearly swapped a ’83 Subaru wagon straight even for a ’81 Rabbit diesel back around ’90 or so. Something told me to walk away, I still wonder if I did the right thing.

  • avatar

    The beauty of those old VW Diesels was how simple they were to work on. I drive a Jetta TDI now, but a few years back I had a Diesel Rabbit Pickup for a yard truck. When I drove it home after purchase I could barely get the thing past 45 MPH and the motor was making a hell of a racket. I pulled the cam cover and found a chewed up cam follower and one of the follower shims (the Diesels had solid lifter cams in the early 80’s) floating around in there. The cam lobe was unharmed so I ordered up a new lifter and shim (I can’t remember how I determined what thickness shim, but I did) and the tools to do the timing belt. Fixed that problem, which solved the power issue, only to find a hammering injector. Ordered up some new injectors, swapped them in and the truck ran like a top until I decided it was a little too rusty to keep and I sold it. I still wish I had that thing but life goes on.

    • 0 avatar

      Ease of repair and availability of parts was whu I went for a 1905 PSA engine they are everywhere Companies from all countries bought PSA diesels from LADA to Suzuki and rumor has it Dongfeng is building them still in China all mechanical injection no engine management systems and no speedo needed our fuel tax on diesel is prepaid by distance so mine is dis connected navman tells all I need to know.

  • avatar

    I had a used 1980 Rabbit Diesel as my college car in the mid 80s. I recall that in the western US, circa 83-84 that Diesel was around .65¢ while gasoline was around $1.20. The Rabbit routinely achieved 45—55 MPG. I remember driving from Boulder CO to Lubbock TX on a Ten Dollar bill – and that covered all my fuel AND a meal!

    Got me all the way through college, with many road trips all over the west, and I sold it a few years after I graduated and bought myself a GTI to replace it. All it ever did for me was rack up speeding tickets!

  • avatar

    There were other diesel cars more than 50 years ago. The British Standard Vanguard in the mid 1950s was a mass produced model but in actual sales was really a niche product:
    For those that haven’t heard of Standard, their better known brand was Triumph which completely replaced Standard in the early 1960s.

    Then in the 1960s the Austin A60 was produced in diesel form and was popular with Taxi drivers.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Jeff S: @WalterRohrl–I don’t know how much of an auto enthusiast EBFlex is because he has more of a...
  • Jeff S: No recalls everything is better than I expected. Love my new Maverick.
  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Your persistence paid off. I have experienced the lazy salespeople as well. My salesperson at...
  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Regulations are still part of the reason but not as much as they use to be. Return on...
  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Congrats on finally finding a diesel Colorado. Are you going to keep your F-150 as a backup or...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber