Fine lines: Volkswagen Rabbit 1975-1983 – how to surpass your own legend?
The challenge for Volkswagen was far from simple. Create a new, more modern sequel to one of the most successful automobiles of all time: the Beetle.
A tough act to follow, but the result was The Rabbit, which was a revolutionary creation that raised the import bar by several notches. It is a car whose popularity has spawned many visual copies from other manufacturers.
Originally developed in the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche, the Beetle became the salvation of the German economy after World War II. From the early 1950s, millions of Bugs were exported around the world. In North America, the rabbit achieved cult status, attracting people of all ages who wanted cheap wheels and stood out from the crowd.
But, by the end of the 1960s, Volkswagen’s single-lathe machine had become an eccentric contraption and sales were suffering, especially given the cheaper and better-performing competitors from Japan. General Motors and Ford also played the game of small cars with the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto. The hissing, malnourished, overpriced Beetle just couldn’t keep up with the pack.
Volkswagen had a successor in the pipeline, which was loosely based on the Audi 50 (Audi became part of Volkswagen in 1964). Called Golf in Europe, the car received the cute Rabbit label for models exported to North America.
He was as far removed from the venerable Beetle as possible. The style was the work of famous Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The water-cooled engine was placed in the front (the Beetle’s air-cooled engine was in the rear) and power was sent to the front wheels. The rest of the car mixed both the cabin and the storage compartment, a layout previously reserved for larger station wagons. Access to the cargo area, which could be enlarged by folding down the rear seat, was through a hinged opening that included the rear window. It was the dawn of the tailgate.
None of the features of the Rabbit look particularly noteworthy by today’s standards, but the car caused a stir when it was introduced in 1975. While it lacks the charm of the Beetle, the Rabbit does. the massive allure compensated for this shortcoming by being very practical. The two- and four-door versions (or three and five doors, if you count the hatch) offered plenty of room for passengers and could carry more luggage than some cars at twice its size.
The Rabbit was also able to level up quickly, a feat almost impossible with the Scarab. The standard engine was a 1.6-liter, 70-horsepower, transverse-mounted overhead cam four-cylinder, while a similarly sized 50 horsepower / 50 mpg diesel was optional.
Like real furry items, rabbits began to multiply rapidly. The car underwent a slight restyling in 1979, the same year Volkswagen opened its first North American manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. The following year a cute little pickup, known as the Caddy, joined the fleet, followed by a convertible sent to replace the Beetle ragtop which had managed to hold out until 1979. Performance enthusiasts have also been included in the Rabbit’s expansion plans.
Predating today’s sports compacts by nearly two decades, the Rabbit GTI, launched in 1983, features a fuel-injected 1.8-liter engine that develops 110 horsepower from a high-speed gearbox. five speeds. The rest of the package consisted of a lowered suspension for easier handling, alloy rims, sporty Recaro bucket seats and special trim. To this day, the original GTI is considered a classic for its sports car-like handling and dynamic throttle response. The name Rabbit, well known in North America, was also dropped in favor of the Golf brand (the name means Gulf in German) for the sake of consistency.
Like the Beetle that came before it, the Rabbit had become Volkswagen’s first ambassador to Canada and the United States. He introduced car buyers to the benefits of front-wheel drive efficiency and popularized a body style that almost every other mainstream manufacturer has attempted to copy: the hatchback.