By on September 24, 2015

1978 VW Rabbit Diesel

I recall a few years ago when gearheads and tinkerers happened upon waste vegetable oil as the answer to the high fuel prices of the day. In theory, recycling used fryer grease seems like an elegant solution. In practice, however, restaurants quickly realized there was gold at the bottom of the vat, and the price advantage diminished.

Back in those days, the hot car for WVO conversion was the Volkswagen Rabbit. Cheap, reasonable reliability, and light weight meant a 45-50 mpg package for a few grand out of pocket. I knew of a few people who converted and, for a while, the cost savings was tangible.

I can’t, however, imagine what driving one of these was like. I happened upon a period road test from Car And Driver of the then-new 1977 Rabbit Diesel, and they go out of their way to praise the performance and the relative lack of “diesel-ness”. I have to imagine that they were holding something back, however, as 48 horsepower and a 16.8 second 0-60 time had to be dreadful even in the context of the late ’70s.

So, considering the mess VAG currently finds themselves in, I figured we’d look back a bit. This 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit three-door is the oldest VW diesel I can find for sale. At $3,900, it seems entirely too-high priced for a rusty, underpowered crapwagon. VW owners are an interesting lot, however, taking on more lost-cause projects than most other enthusiasts, and I can see this one getting snapped up offline for around $2,200 or so. Besides the obvious panel rot, the car seems reasonably solid and, with virtually no options, there isn’t much to go wrong here.

A great line from that CD review: “The Diesel/gas Rabbit team should be every bit as irresistible as the Carter‑Mondale ticket last fall.” With hindsight, we can draw parallels between that ticket and what is happening to VW now. A few years later, everyone ran away from both Carter and Volkswagen diesels.

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56 Comments on “CrapWagen Outtake: 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel...”


  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    My 79 diesel Rabbit was very reliable. It reliably broke on Thursdays. Fridays the issue would be diagnosed and parts ordered. Monday the parts arrived and Tuesday it was fixed and returned. Thirty-six hours later the cycle repeated.

    This sad cycle ended only when the woodruff key in the camshaft sheared one afternoon on the way to work, leaving me with a freewheeling top end, in the worst way. Overheated and the aluminum head broke out around the front left corner, gushing coolant. And that was that. Traded it to the same salesman who had sold it to me, with its engine in the trunk, for a new Nissan Sentra and never looked back.

    My last VW experience. My previous 62 Kombi was a paragon of reliability, but I had foolishly sold it to a trustifarian who offered me about triple what it was worth. Paid for most of the Rabbit. Oh well.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    They weren’t quick, but they were quick off the line in the city. Low weight, good traction and good torque will do that.

  • avatar
    Toad

    I had one of these as my college car; it was great transportation if you racked up some highway miles. Forget about passing anybody, especially on a two lane road but the fuel economy was awesome and diesel was very cheap in the mid 1980’s. Compared to domestic economy cars the VW Rabbit was fun to drive and the hatchback was incredibly practical (which is one reason the modern CUV is so popular).

    Tweaking the injection pump was a popular mod that would up the performance and was a predecessor to today’s “rolling coal;” the more things change, the more they remain the same.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I feel very grateful to you old car pioneers, using all this unreliable, slow, uncomfortable stuff during your college time. Because for the same price I bet (adjusted for inflation), I drove around in an I30 in college, and had none of those problems.

      • 0 avatar
        rocketrodeo

        The same time I had this Rabbit, my project car was a 1967 Mustang S-code GT fastback that I picked up for $1200 in running condition. I paid the same for a 1959 Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite, $1000 for a BMW 2002tii, and $450 for a Ford Galaxie XL GT convertible. The Kombi was $500. So there were compensations.

      • 0 avatar
        Toad

        Corey, cars cost more (relatively) 30+ years ago because the supply was constrained; due to rust and inferior engineering a 10 year old car was often worn out, and a 15 year old car was generally junk (particularly in the rust belt).

        Today’s cars are far better designed and built, plus far more resistant to corrosion. As a result cars stay on the road much longer and that gives used car buyers many more affordable purchase options.

        While I have fond memories of my old VW diesel, I have no desire to turn back the automotive clock. You were much better off in an I30.

      • 0 avatar
        Roberto Esponja

        Cute, CoreyDL

      • 0 avatar

        What ? You’ve never flooded an engine, or had to pump the gas to get it to start ? You’ve never added HP by advancing the spark curve by heavier weights in the distributor ? I’ll bet you’ve never felt the W-AAAAH as the secondaries open up…..

        Can you diagnose engine problems without OBD ?

        Fuel injection ! Coil Ignition.

        Get Off My Lawn !

        • 0 avatar
          msquare

          The overwhelming majority of engine problems back then were related to either ignition or carburetion. Fuel injection and coil ignition raised the bar for reliability across the board.

          Sure, you’d see classified ads for TR6’s that needed a “valve job” but even those were sadly outdated by the 1970’s. And how did those valves get burned out in the first place? You guessed it, out-of-tune carburetors.

          Most OBD codes have less to do with how smoothly the engine is running versus how clean. It’s why those problems are so difficult to diagnose. How many times have we seen those check engine lights with the engine running just fine? And yet when the idle control valve sticks, no code. Just rough running. And cured by removing the valve and cleaning it with WD-40.

          You still have to know your stuff working with modern cars. It’s just different stuff.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Ah, I see you’ve found a nice picture of Abject Misery. I hope nobody purchases this for -any- amount of money. The disgusting bumpers are enough to put me off, much less the rest of it.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      What exactly is so miserable about an early Rabbit? Clean lines, big windows, great seats, really good handling, 50mpg without trying too hard. The speed limit EVERYWHERE was 55mph when this car was built. Those bumpers can actually bump things without $1000s in damage.

      Your age, or lack thereof, is showing.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        If it were 1980, my opinion might be better. But it’s not for sale in 1980, it’s for sale in 2015. Ignoring current context would be foolish!

        Carry on though.

      • 0 avatar
        VW16v

        Did Corey basically just say “ewww” to a metal bumper? And yes to a middle aged granny I30? This does explain a lot about a person. Just kidding. But I did own 3 Jetta’s mark I. And they had very durable and strong bumpers. Non plastic was nice back in the day.

      • 0 avatar
        CobraJet

        They weren’t much to brag about in 1978. A friend had one as a company car. Vibrated the whole interior at idle and could barely climb a hill.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Gas Rabbits were perfectly OK. I owned one.

        The diesels should have all been killed with fire, as should any car that can be outrun by a kid on a Schwinn and a stiff breeze at his back.

      • 0 avatar
        VolandoBajo

        I second krhodes1. My 76 gas/carb Rabbit was great, quite quick after a legal CAT delete, a Canadian down pipe to cure backfire on throttle close, and a larger main jet to cure leanness due to reduced backpressure. Added antisway bars front and rear, and it was a helluva lot of fun, especially for the money.

        Later had an 82 diesel, after the 76 met an untimely death against a tree on a windy road on a dark night. The rest of the story will remain untold for now.

        But the 82 would flood the passenger floorboards, because an engineer chose to delete a leaf screen on the intake vent ahead of the windshield. The dealer finally got it straightened out after about six or eight cases of a gallon of dirty water on the floor mats.

        But there is more to the screens in the 82. That was the year that the engineers decided to put a screen inside the tank, as well as to use a fuel filter. And for months, the car would cut out at random times, fail to start no matter how much I cranked it, and then after a passage of time, it would start again and run normally. Drove both me and a couple of good mechanics nuts, as we didn’t know about the useless screen in the tank. Until finally a third mechanic agreed to tear the car apart at no extra charge, after his initial work yielded nothing. A few days later, he dropped the tank, found and removed the screen, and the car ran flawlessly for another 75K miles or so (this all happened between about 70 and 90K miles).

        Totally turned me off to VW, until the early nineties, when I was married, on the road a lot for my business, and my wife was back in college. In a moment of weakness, I bought a puke lemon yellow diesel VW, of about the same vintage, except not the year with the tank screen.

        Must have had a problem with the valves or something. Began “dieseling” even when I tried to slow the motor down and even when I cut it off. Had a hell of a time trying to get it shut down and after a couple of minutes, it just grenaded.

        So much for a bargain price on a good car, not. But the 76 gas/carb Rabbit got mileage above 30mpg and could outrun a new BMW of the same year by over a second zero-sixty, and even more in the quarter. And it could corner well enough to keep up with whaletail 911’s in the VT mountains.

        The 82 got over 40mpg, when it wasn’t stalled, and was very steady…took a while to get up to speed, but would run all day and all night in any weather. A little 1-K kero when it was really cold to keep the fuel from gelling, and open the sunroof and turn on the heat when climbing a long hill in hot summer weather…those were the only two concessions I had to make to keep it happy.

        Used to run up a long hill in WV where cars would overheat all the time, a high percentage of them, trying to climb it at forty miles per hour. I could run it with the heat on and the top open, at 65, and the needle never budged. Saved me about five minutes or so on every trip over that hill that summer.

        My third Rabbit, with its catastrophic failure at 140K miles, cured me of VW-itis, though.

        But if I could get my hands on a replica of either of those first two, provided it passed a checkout, I’d buy another in a heartbeat.

        As krhodes1 pointed out, comfortable to ride in, great visibility, etc. etc.

        That era, and that VW, were the pinnacle of VW’s, given that you had to make a few tweaks to them. But once you did, they were as solid as anything I have ever owned, driven or heard war stories about.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Oh Corey, that car is a hot commodity for a certain niche – possibly even asking price.

      A family friend had one of those back then (’75, I think), which was a real clatterbox. They were very loud and smelly, but 50 mpg was common. They had problems with electrical systems, little heat, glow plugs, and water in the fuel. They became popular after the 1st and 2nd Gas Crunch.

      In contrast, my dad bought a 78 Ford Fiesta (German-made) which was more reliable and much more fun to drive, IMO.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        It sounds awful, but I’m apparently A) wrong because I didn’t live through the time, and thus cannot see this car’s awesome in 2015 and also B) not a man because I have never owned a piece of crap car which was difficult.

        So there you go, today’s B&B lesson for me.

  • avatar
    kmars2009

    I had this exact car…except mine was gas fuel injected. It was my winter beater and very reliable. Plus, I could park it anywhere…nobody wanted it. So great!

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Don’t be so sure. My sister had a ’79 diesel Rabbit, and her husband just barely got it off the freeway before it stopped running. He hitched a ride, got a tow truck, and arrived at the spot to find the car gone.

      After checking if the town towed it, he called his insurance agent who told him to report it stolen. Months later, the police told his agent the stripped engine block showed up, but the rest of the car was likely chopped.

      So yes, somebody might want it – a chop shop for the parts!

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    ” I have to imagine that they were holding something back, however, as 48 horsepower and a 16.8 second 0-60 time had to be dreadful even in the context of the late ’70s.”

    My 1976 300D had 77 HP and an 18 second 0-60 time.

    The “diesel pause”, as the Germans called it, was even worse on the “economical” 240D; 65HP and about 20 seconds to 60.

    16.8 is not so bad in that context, thanks to the Rabbit’s low weight.

    (A web search suggests a ’75-80 Pinto, in the same class of “cheap small car” as this thing, had a 19-20 second time.

    The late 70s was not a time of fast economy cars, unlike now.)

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I have a friend in the Greater Toronto Area who still runs two quite old VW’s on waste oil from restaurants. Both cars have over 350,000kms on them.

    Since there are no bio-diesel outlets in the GTA, he has a regular round of local restaurants that he visits and removes their waste oil from.

    He has a large sealed drum/barrel in his driveway with a home built heating system to stop the oil from freezing/coagulating in the winter.

    Sometimes he augments the waste cooking oil with left over fuel oil from people who have converted their home heating from oil to natural gas.

    According to what he tells us, he has not paid for fuel in over a decade.

    • 0 avatar
      toplessFC3Sman

      Hasn’t paid for fuel… besides whatever the large sealed barrel & heating arrangement costs, plus how much energy he spends on keeping it heated, plus the time & effort of collecting waste oil from all these various locations, plus the conversion on the cars…

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        I’m sure there are exceptions out there, but anybody I’ve ever heard bragging about how they run their car for “free” on Biodiesel had non-negligible associated costs that they were not counting.

        If you assign any reasonable dollar value to your free time and labor it quickly becomes more cost-effective to just buy Diesel from a gas station like a normal person.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          He’s retired.

          The heating coil he uses is the type that you use on your gutters or downspouts to stop them from freezing. Cost is about $40 at Home Depot. Electrical cost is relatively negligible.

          The barrel/drum that he uses he got for free.

          There was zero conversion time or cost to switch over to using cooking oil.

          The car smells like a ‘chip truck’ when the engine is warmed up.

          The only drawback is that he is driving an ancient VW (actually 2) with many non functional bits and bobs; 2 power windows in one car, 3 in the other, one non functioning seat adjuster, one non functioning radio, plus assorted rust and missing trim pieces, pure ‘beaters’. Not the type of vehicle that you want to show up at the country club in.

          But he spends his money on overseas travel, so he has his priorities.

    • 0 avatar
      Japanese Buick

      I find “hasn’t paid for fuel in a decade” a little incredulous.

      The VW WVO drivers here in much warmer NC tell me they have to run standard diesel for the first and last few minutes of every drive because the veggie oil will congeal in the fuel system if not properly warmed up first or if it’s left in the system while the engine cools down.

      I’m sure they’d love to hear how he avoids that need.

  • avatar
    mmdpg

    In 1981 my boss loaned me his ’79 to drive from Framingham MA to Providence RI for a lab equipment auction. No problem going down, coming back on the slight uphill grade coming out of Providence on 95 the car started off at 60, then 55, then 50, then 45, then 40 with the pedal to the metal and old ladies in Buick’s passing me. I thought I’d never make it out of Rhode Island alive with Semi’s passing me at 70. First and last time I’ve ever driven a diesel anything.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I had a Powered-by-VW Volvo 245 Diesel. Sure, it was slow. It also got about 8 more MPGs than a similar gas Volvo.

    I didn’t run it exclusively on fryer oil, but I’d put a gallon or two of it in every tank of pump Diesel. It was a free fuel extender. It came from a Chinese restaurant.

    The car ran fine on this blend. The driver did not – at every red light, I would get hungry for egg roll. I probably spent more on egg rolls than I saved by using the oil.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    These cars did not feel particularly slow. Light weight, and a decent amount of low end torque will do that. A diesel Rabbit will cruise all day at 70mph getting 50mpg. More than adequate even today, other than than in the minds of some members of the spoiled B&B.

  • avatar
    GTL

    My in-laws had one (an ’80 IIRC) of these. The front seats were comfortable, it was a good handling car and with the diesel torque and low 1st gear was quick off the line. But never try to pass anything on a 2-lane road! It did get over 50 mpg.

    On the negative side, it vibrated like a magic fingers bed at a stop light and the rear bumper and hatch was always covered with black soot.

    • 0 avatar
      rocketrodeo

      I had almost forgotten that Harley-Davidson-quality idle. I learned the hard way that the little braces that clamped the fuel injection lines together were absolutely essential. The lines were prone to split otherwise from the constant vibration.

  • avatar
    FAHRVERGNUGEN

    I cannot imagine the thrill of driving a car fueled by something that smelled like whatever it cooked. Wesson-ality my @ss.

    Or that idles with a sound like “Die. Sell. Die. Sell. Die sell. Die sel. Diesel, diesel, diesel.”

  • avatar
    ktm

    Back in 1980 when I was 9, my family (with a 7 year old sister) moved from Marietta, GA to Juneau, AK. We drove from Marietta to Prince Rupert in a 1979 VW Rabbit diesel. We lived in Juneau for 9 months before moving on to Anchorage, where again we drove the ALCAN highway (before it was paved) to Anchorage in the same car.

    While I can not comment on the reliability of the car, I offer the comment up as a testament to what our parents (collectively) put us through. Could you imagine the same trip today (no smart phones, DVD player, etc.).

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    I learned to drive stick on a 10-year-old one. I loved that it was a stick and that it had unassisted steering and breaks. As far as I could tell the only additional loads on the engine were the alternator and the windshield wipers (via vacuum). Good thing, too, since all 49 horses were needed just to get up some of the hills.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      VW’s have never had vacuum wipers .

      Diesel engines don’t have any vacuum so there’s an add on vacuum pump to create the vacuum needed for the assisted brakes .

      Both my Brother’s bought Rabbit Diesel two doors when first they came out and paid extra to do so .

      I wasn’t impressed but they were pretty solid little cars if slowish , most other ‘economy’ non Sports Cars were also slow back then .

      If you ever had Diesel smoot on the back end , you weren’t taking proper care of it , period ~ , one Brother had a white one and it never once had any smoot on it anywhere .

      It also never stank of Diesel fuel , again : if yours did you were ignoring some service item .

      I can see why they’re cult cars , I can’t imaging paying more than slightly over scrap value for one .

      The ‘ !! FREE FUEL !! ‘ folks are all delusional , the labor involved to do it properly is great and never forget the smelly , greasy drum that sweats grease no matter what you do , in your garage or back yard….

      -Nate

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    I remember the Rabbits, along with the rare Isuzu, being considered the “good diesels” of the era. My only experience is with an infamous Olds 350, and a friend’s Chevette diesel (0-60 What’s 60? And a rattle at start up that made you think the engine had just exploded.)
    Yes, they seemed to smoke more than a city bus, but that was almost all diesels then.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      My mom’s car for most of my childhood was a gas Chevette with a 4-speed manual. It could barely do 30-35 mph up some of the freeway hills in the PNW. I can only shudder to think about the safety of a Chevette diesel on the freeway anywhere with hills.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      During a period of unemployment, my dad was given a Chevette diesel by a friend. It had 40k miles, and the man claimed he had never changed the oil. When we changed the oil, it poured out like molasses.

      Its Isuzu engine was very reliable and smooth at speed, but the idle was horrendous. Its top speed was 75 mph flat-out. The diesel Chevette earned the slowest 0-60 for 1982 – it was something like 25 seconds.

      I wonder what a diesel Cruze is like….

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    “I can’t, however, imagine what driving one of these was like.”

    The car itself was fairly pleasant. The powerplant was slow, noisy, and shook a lot, particularly at idle, especially if the A/C compressor was on.

  • avatar
    threeer

    My cousin had a 1979 silver four-door diesel. That thing was a rock. She drove it all through college and then for a few years after (her first brand new car came in 1988 when she bought a brand new Honda Civic). After she sold it, I saw it running around town for years after. Sure, it was slow…but manageable around town and not at all bad on the interstate (I rode in it from north TN to West Virginia and back. No issues). While my 1976 Rabbit (slightly modded) was certainly quicker, the old diesel was stonkin’ reliable and soldiered on for years. Gotta love square, bolt-upright boxes where you can actually SEE out of the windows!

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    Ive wanted Tempo coupe with the Mazda/Perkins diesel. 45-50 mpg in a larger, more comfortable car. Reliability of the engine was hit and miss just like VWs of the era.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Nice touch with the “wagen” reference.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    Brought the same VW diesel to ship to Ireland for taxi duty at auction but the fellow in Ireland wanted a 4 door so i registered the car for myself. It only had 18,000 miles on it and i used it as a DD. Got a ticket once in Pa going down hill for 80 MPH. It was a good car. Everyone in my family used it and we sold it with (wait for it) over 500,000 miles. The car is still in use today (not by myself) and has approx 800,000 miles on the original engine. Of course it went thru clutches, brakes, fuel injector pump, injectors and other items but the engine was never opened up. Always serviced by the book. It goes between Boston and Bridgeport, Ct everyday. It is rusty but starts everyday but the owner does carry a screwdriver and pliers for the day it stops running so he can remove the plates and call a taxi.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    “Besides the obvious panel rot, the car seems reasonably solid”

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

    Rusty cars are dead cars.

  • avatar

    We actually had two of these, inherited from inlaws. Each one had all of 45 hp. The later one had A/C, which we had to shut off while getting on the highway. The first was sparse german, the other was a PA build, complete with faux GM interior.

    We sold both of them on, with over 180k/miles. Rust was becoming an issue for one, and the buyer imported that car to Jamaica !

    The only problem we ever had was that the shaking would wear the alternator upper hole oval-the alternator was softer than the bolt holding it. The belt would slip off, and the alternator light would go on. The car didn’t need electricity to keep going !

    This was the car I was thinking about when I bought my current 2012 TDi. All the rough edges have been worn off, the shaking, nnoise, the coffee can full of rocks, and the back hatch dirty with oil, except the pollution part, apparently. I’m sure the new one won’t run with no battery, though….

  • avatar
    amca

    One of these was my first regular car. My Dad bought it into a late ’70s gas “crisis”.

    And I loved that car. I learned from it that power isn’t the key to winning in traffic. Quick reflexes are.

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