The cars we loved.
Launched as a replacement for the iconic Beetle, the Rabbit (called Golf in Europe) was sold alongside the Beetle for a few years until 1980 in the US. The Rabbit’s biggest legacy might have been that it established the basic shape of what would be called the “Econobox”, a silhouette that would be copied by sub-compacts all over the world for years to come.
The Rabbit/Golf was responsible for many firsts related to the business of making and selling import cars in America. For instance, as Americans were making the transition towards smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, the traditional domestic offerings were lacking to put it nicely. Declining market share and pressure from the Big Three‘s lobbyists in Washington (with slick PR too) would eventually convince the public that foreign built cars were the problem. VW must have realized that this was where the political winds were blowing and sought an American manufacturing base early in the game.
Fortunately for VW, Chrysler’s need for quick capital led to the sale of a not quite completed new factory, which VW got and instantly had a manufacturing foot in the door in America to offset import tariffs and unfavorable exchange rates. VW was not the first Foreign company to build cars in America (Rolls Royce was), but it was the first one to do it since Rolls Royce closed up shop in Connecticut in the 1930’s. The first car from this transplanted German would be the Rabbit.
The Rabbit was introduced in 1974 as a 75 model. Over time it would become would become VW ‘s most popular model with a string of variations being introduced to fit market niches that in some cases were refined and popularized by Volkswagen. At one point a truck based variant called the Caddy was introduced in 1979. The mutations did not stop. The four door hatch and later a two door sedan would become its own model called the Jetta. All Rabbits were characterized by business-like interiors that were short on creature comforts, but big on ergonomics and efficiency. Plaid center seat patterns added 70’s style to the otherwise spartan look, with just enough European influence to suggest a slightly upscale alternative to a Corolla or Vega.
Another of VW’s pioneering concepts was that of the “Hot Hatch”. The GTi was not the first small car that was performance oriented, but it was one of the most practical and efficient. American Motors established the segment when they dropped a V8 engine in the ungainly Gremlin in 1970 (considered a small car by 1970’s standards). The Rabbit GTi was released a few years after the initial car in 1976 as was one in a range of VW’s built at a new factory in Pennsylvania. The punchy 1.8 L four produced 110 hp, but was enough to make the taunt handling GTi a true driver’s car and an early press favorite.
The Rabbit based hits just kept coming. In 1980 a stylish drop top version called the Cabriolet introduced the emerging upwardly mobile to VW chic. The popularity of the Cabriolet grew almost as quickly as the GTi, despite its rather high initial cost. At one point from the early to mid-80’s every one seemed to have driven one to the tennis courts or went shopping in one if you believed the movies. The popularity of the cabriolet was so widespread, that it was featured as the typical clueless yuppie car of choice in the 1985 Steve Martin comedy film ‘All of Me.’ Part of the popularity of the cabriolet was due to the small selection of convertibles in its price range that offered anything close to German engineering and near luxury. The Cabriolet lasted through the early 90’s and has since seen similar (in spirit) cars in VW’s line come and go over the years.
For everyone else there was of course the standard Rabbit with it’s 1.6 L 74 hp 4 cylinder and later a diesel (introduced alongside the GTi in 1976). Even in base form the Rabbit handled well. Often they came equipped with a 4 or later a 5 speed manual transmission. During this time it was expected of German cars. A three speed automatic stayed the standard self-shifting option for the life of the Mk1 cars. The range was beginning to show how versatile the Rabbit line was with a notch back sedan called the Jetta coming in 1979. The final variant in the Rabbit family was a quirky looking pickup truck similar in size to Subaur’s brat (but better looking?) called the Caddy. It like all Rabbits was front wheel drive, but had a little more cargo space a hatchback with its seats folded down.
Rabbit sales began to wane as the 80’s continued just as exchange rates became unfavorable. The Mk2 had started production there in 1985, but would eventually stop in 1988 with the plants closing. VW decided to consolidate North American production in Mexico. The Mexican production facility helped VW avoid all the issues that came with the UAW, and had the added benefit of offsetting any currency exchange discrepancies due to the low wages in Mexico. Quality was slow to improve and even to this day, there are still random quality control issues with Mexican built Jettas and New Beatles.
The VW line has grown significantly and the Current Golf was no exception. Now a compact car, the niche left by the old Rabbit had been filled by the Polo in markets outside of America. The Golf continues in the spirit of the original Mk1 by offering plenty of interior space in a sport fun to drive package. Although not a Toyota or Honda in terms of build quality, Rabbits offered much more personality and driving fun for the enthusiast on a budget.