The cars we loved.
When the VW Rabbit appeared in America in late 1974, it had very little in the way of direct competition. The few front wheel drives cars on the market oddly enough were big GM cars like the Eldorado and Toronado. This was a time when even small cars were still mostly rear wheel drive. It would be only a few short years before the floodgates opened up and Americans embraced front drivers. From innovation to innovation, Volkswagen went from rear driven/engine Beetle to front engine/drive Rabbit and America could not seem to get enough.
The Rabbit (called the Golf in the rest of the world) was developed from the same platform as the sporty Scirocco and was built-in Westmoreland PA. That kind of gene pool endowed the Rabbit with a sporty nature right out of the box. The Rabbit like the Scirocco was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro but was less controversial. The stylish yet modern exterior would not change much as the Rabbit packaged German engineering and Italian style in a rare mix for a small car (or any car for that matter). The Rabbit’s good breeding included an odd independent rear suspension that insured stability and better road manners than virtually anything in its class.
The Rabbit’s excellent road manners got many discussing performance, a subject not usually associated with economical small cars in America circa 1975. VW had sold a performance variant of the Golf in Europe called the GTI (Grand Turismo Injection (?), but held it from the American market in a prolong tease.
It couldn’t hold out for long. The competition was making rapid advances, especially the Japanese who with Honda’s new 1981 Civic S was matching the Rabbit in the fun to drive factor. Volkswagen would respond with a S model of its own that amounted to dressing up the softer riding Westmoreland built cars with a stiffer suspension, but with regular engine. It was a stopgap measure during a difficult time for Volkswagen America.
The S made little dent in sales as a one-two punch of a bad economy and problems at the Westmorland plant conspired to lower Rabbit sales in America. In the meantime the Civics and Corollas of the world were grabbing market share with improved reliability and new found sporting appeal.
VW responded by finally bringing the GTI model to America. Europeans had enjoyed some version of the top Golf shortly after the car’s introduction. Unfortunately the American GTI would not get the same 110hp engine as the European cars. American’s would make due with a federally approved and emissions blessed 1.7-liter four with only 90 hp. The Yankee GTI did share some suspension components with the European car like the same stiffer spring rate and front shocks. Visually they were nearly identical except for the clunky bumpers required by US safety regulators. European GTI’s had a distinctive quad headlight arrangement that would appear later in America on the popular Cabriolet. The Stateside GTI, like other Rabbits had square headlights.
GTI models did not announce their performance with the same vigor as the Japanese or American competition. At first glance a GTI looked like regular GL model. At closer inspection subtle clues to the performance nature of the GTI could be seen: blackout trim, distinctive 14 inch star patterned alloy rims and the all important GTI badge.
Even with less power than its Euro counterpart and being 200 pounds heavier, the GTI changed many minds about the concept of small car performance. A crisp shifting five speed manual transmission with a closely match final drive ratio was tailored to the more powerful engine (vs. the GL and base models), making 10 second 0 o 60 runs possible. The Rabbit name was once again at the top of the magazine comparison lists. The GTI made larger cars like lesser versions of the Camaro and Mustang look cumbersome, prompting terms like pocket rocket and dragon slayer in the media.
The quality of the simple straight-forward interior, ride and driver feedback were unlike anything small sold in the US prior, accelerating a new small performance car war with nearly every major manufacturer trying to make a competitor. The Rabbit would retain those attributes that made German cars German in the eyes of Americans, like a solid build quality and direct no-frills ergonomics.
The GTI’s success is said to have help saved VW’s American operations in its darkest hour. In the process of allowing the company to stay in business, the GTI had become something of a small legend in compact car circles. Today the first generation or Mk1 versions of the GTI are some of the most sought after collectible Volkswagen. They leave in their wake a continually evolving line of GTI cars that have not strayed too far from the original Giugiaro design. The pocket rocket market is once again crowded, but the GTI remains as much a standout today as it was over 30 years ago.