The cars we loved.
Small cars are now a major fact of life in the American market. There was once a time when they were the occasional novelty with so so reliability. The VW Beetle changed that and accelerated America’s drive to go small. After years of Beetle improvements, it became clear that the company need a new car based on modern front wheel drive architecture. Volkswagen’s new Group A platform became the basis for a versatile range of cars under the Golf name. In America it would be known as the Rabbit.
The Rabbit is one of the most recognizable shapes in small car design. The angular “two box” shape would define small car aesthetics for years and would be the form factor of choice for modern compacts. Development began in 1969 and would be influenced greatly by VW’s purchase of Audi. Audi’s experience with front wheel drive would be influential in shaping the Rabbits mechanicals, which would be completely different from the rear drive rear engine Beetle. The Rabbit’s innovative shape would be penned by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. For a few years the Rabbit was sold alongside the rear wheel drive Beetle until 1978.
While the first Rabbits appeared in late 1974, they few direct competitors mechanically. Front wheel drive was still new in America. In fact the Rabbit often compared itself with Detroit’s two front wheel drive pioneers; the Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado. As odd as that might sound, the Rabbit was seen as a somewhat premium entry-level car, as it still is today. Many early small cars sold in America during the 70’s were still rear wheel drive. The Rabbit and later the Civic would change the small car market with sporting variants, that would lead to a new descriptor: the Pocket Rocket. The Rabbit got a head start in Europe with the first GTI launched in 1975. That car’s 1.6-liter fuel injected engine produced 110 hp, an impressive figure for the time.
All that Audi engineering would not go to waste as VW decided to capitalize on the Rabbits already good road manners by bringing the GTi to America. It was a simple ideal: take small car, endow it with a bit more power and a spruced up the suspension and the “pocket rocket” was born. The GTi might not have been the first small car with good performance, but it was the first one to be practical.
While the 1.8-litre four in the base cars made 70 hp, in the GTi’s fuel injected four made a healthy 110 hp. The power infusion made an already fun to drive car a blast in the right hands. At well under 2,000lb, the GTi had a favorable power to weight ratio had more in common with small sportsters of the ’60s than with any of the new breed of econoboxes that had begun to flood the market. 0 to 60 was in the 9 second range and the top speed approached three digits. The level of performance was not unlike that of some so-called pony cars like the V8 powered Mustang II .
Buyers had the choice of a three speed automatic or the popular four-speed manual transmission. Seemingly premium technical features like an independent rear axle aided road holding and ride quality. VW capitalized on the versatility and fun factor of the Rabbit in much of its advertising, often at the expense of Detroit’s Big Three.
Early Rabbits did not look much different from the base car. The only concession to its sporting nature were special wheels, black window trim and a small GTi badge. The general design of the interior was typically German, but materials were of high quality and controls and switch gear suggested a more expensive car. This set the Rabbit apart from other cars, mainly US domestic ones that were notable for their inferior in workmanship. Not that the Rabbit was a perfect car, it had its share of reliability issues, starting with its Americanization.
To lower its starting price around $3,000, VW opened a plant in Westmoreland PA. The facility was run by a former GM official who notoriously tried to cut cost by using sub par materials and other short cuts. Quality went down and sales did too. Fortunately, VW noticed in time to repair the damage, but not before the Rabbit got a spell of bad press.
The basic design of the car stayed the same through its production cycle of the Mk1. The boxy silhouette, unmistakable for anything other than a Rabbit (or possible a Chrysler Simicar) slowly evolved, keeping its trademark shape. Larger tail lights and black bumpers mark the most noticeable exterior changes around 1980. Today’s car called the Golf GTi like in the rest of the world, is still identifiable as a VW due to this slow evolution. Some curves and rounded edges are what separate todays Golf/Rabbit from its Mk1 forbearer. Volkswagen know a good thing when it saw it.