CrapWagen Outtake: 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn

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.

Chris Tonn
Chris Tonn

Some enthusiasts say they were born with gasoline in their veins. Chris Tonn, on the other hand, had rust flakes in his eyes nearly since birth. Living in salty Ohio and being hopelessly addicted to vintage British and Japanese steel will do that to you. His work has appeared in eBay Motors, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars, Reader's Digest, AutoGuide, Family Handyman, and Jalopnik. He is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he's currently looking for the safety glasses he just set down somewhere.

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  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 24, 2015

    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....

  • Amca Amca on Sep 25, 2015

    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.

  • Calrson Fan Jeff - Agree with what you said. I think currently an EV pick-up could work in a commercial/fleet application. As someone on this site stated, w/current tech. battery vehicles just do not scale well. EBFlex - No one wanted to hate the Cyber Truck more than me but I can't ignore all the new technology and innovative thinking that went into it. There is a lot I like about it. GM, Ford & Ram should incorporate some it's design cues into their ICE trucks.
  • Michael S6 Very confusing if the move is permanent or temporary.
  • Jrhurren Worked in Detroit 18 years, live 20 minutes away. Ren Cen is a gem, but a very terrible design inside. I’m surprised GM stuck it out as long as they did there.
  • Carson D I thought that this was going to be a comparison of BFGoodrich's different truck tires.
  • Tassos Jong-iL North Korea is saving pokemon cards and amibos to buy GM in 10 years, we hope.