Driving My Diesel Rabbit

When I get into my little Rabbit in the morning, I feel like I am stepping into a small airplane. If you don't know what that's like, imagine contortioning yourself to strap into an aluminum can with wings and plexiglass and a big propeller in front. My little Rabbit is a little different to be sure, but the metal is thin and its size and handling are reminiscent of a light aircraft. I am 6 feet and 4 inches, so I really have to squeeze in. But it doesn't matter, I have it down to a science and I love this machine.

First thing I do is turn the key on for power. An orange indicator lights up to tell me the glow plugs are heating the cylinders and while I wait, I pull the advance timing knob all the way out which helps the engine to start when it's cold. I give it 5 quick pumps on the accelerator and by this time the orange light winks off and I start the engine up.

It rumbles to life like an airplane and grumpily wakes up. I have to give it a little fuel or it runs so slow that it will shake the car to pieces. I tried to adjust the throttle, but it won't take. Several tries have proven to me that this old beast has its own way of doing things. She has character alright. I carefully push down on the shifter and pull right, then up. That's a VW for you. Different. Shifting into first is no different than any other car and the engine revs easily and I pull away. Turning on to the road, I balance the accelerator with the clutch for a near perfect take off. It's a little hard to achieve with this European style heavy-smooth transmission, but when I get it right, it feels good and I pull up smoothly and when the RPM's are high I punch the clutch and release the pedal and just as quickly I synchronize the same way backwards putting it back into gear when I've shifted into second. I'm coasting now.

When I get to the second stoplight, I wait till I come to a full stop before shifting into first. She's a bit old and likes to crunch into gear when down shifting and still cold. But the engine's warmed up enough and I push the timing knob back in. Immediately the rattle  from the engine smooths out and it idles quieter. Before I knew about the timing knob, she made a huge racket in the mornings. Until I read the manual, I assumed it was normal for a diesel engine. Well, you still can't miss the noise I make when I drive into a parking lot, but after learning how to start her up the right way, she runs much better. But if I leave the knob out too long, she gets grumpy again and sounds like a gas engine with a pre-ignition problem.

And this is where it gets fun. Once I push that knob in, I feel free to rev the engine faster, and I need it for that Sacramento traffic! I wait for my opportunity and when the coast is clear, hang a right and snap over to the left most lane. This machine is the fastest non-turbo diesel animal around, but I'm still careful to wait for the right moment to pull into traffic. And that's what makes this vehicle so fun. She's a little sporty in handling and shifting methods, but with enough lag to give me a challenge navigating traffic. Oh, if only this was a TDI.

Driving to get to the freeway is a rip, there are lots of nice curves just perfect for this very tame sports car, and somehow, the VW engineering features incorporated into this Rabbit have survived twenty seven years of wear and tear and I zip left and right like I'm in a sports car rally. I nimbly move to the left side of the left lane to avoid the bump that will shake the broken strut, (not attached to my right wheel), like it's been hit by a mortar shell. I actually look forward to dodging potholes to avoid that terrible noise, but more for the challenge rather than avoiding possible damage.

After some very costly repairs and soul searching about the prudence of keeping the Rabbit, she and I have established a good working relationship. I now know never EVER to let her overheat. When that needle starts to climb, I had better find a place to pull over or I'll never hear the end of it. She'll start spitting dubious fumes out the back end and make me sweat, and wonder if it's actually vapor or just the regular diesel smoke. After one expensive head rebuild, I am very careful and watch the temperature like a mother hen. I replaced all the hoses and the thermostat, and thankfully the rest of the cooling system is in good shape so I hardly ever add water.

All VW's lose oil, and she's old as well, so I watch the level religiously. And the funny thing is that there is no real precedent for when and why the oil gets low. But I know it's burning because there is very little oil residue, if any, under my regular parking spots at home and at work. Sometimes I will go on a long trip and the oil level will not change. But a week later, it's gotten low even if I didn't go on the freeway very much. I have finally learned to listen and watch the telltale signs of oil loss. The old Rabbit sometimes idles too fast, sometimes too low, (at that point it seems like it's going to shake itself apart), and sometimes just right. But when the oil becomes a quart low and I haven't noticed, she will consistently idle way too low and the temperature gauge will go slightly to the higher side when running normally and rise very quickly in stop and go traffic. Goofy car.

But the rewards are worth it. She's fun to drive, finally reliable, runs on alternate fuels, (yes, mine does), and gets phenomenal fuel mileage, (45 miles to the gallon). I do not want to get rid of this car now, and see that the future with her is bright. I talked to a fellow diesel Rabbit owner, (his is in perfect shape and has the round headlights while I have the square ones and a few dents), and he drives from Sacramento to Oregon with his regularly. He and I laughed about mechanical repairs but he loves his Rabbit too.

I do plan to move up to a nicer newer vehicle in the future, likely a GTI or a Golf TDI, but I am tempted to keep and restore my Rabbit bit by bit and make it my everything vehicle. I can run this thing on jet fuel, (really),  and I definitely want to convert it to veggie oil when I have a place to put the barrel and filter the fuel, so perhaps this little Rabbit will have a second life. I didn't realize when I bought my Rabbit, that I wasn't just buying a car with excellent fuel economy and a decent amount of problems, I was buying a relationship. I think I'll keep her.

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Comments 26 comments

Gypsy Willow profile image

Gypsy Willow 7 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

Wow I think you are in love, great hub!


Kloria 7 years ago

Leuke Hub Mark, ga door is lees het graag. Kloria


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 7 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

thanks!


botterguy 7 years ago

Would she consider it cheating if you drove another diesel VW?


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 7 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Most likely, she's real moody and possessive and thinks I have eyes only for her.


jakemw 7 years ago

Awesome write-up. I have the same car (well mine's a silver 4-door), and I'm still loving driving it everywhere after 5 years. After I got it past all the little quirks that it sounds like you've got (I also had a head go, have replaced all the shocks and will need to again, and mine loves to burn up alternators so I carry an extra at all times) it's been stone reliable. I've nicknamed it the Spaceship since the headliner has been replaced with aluminum bubblewrap, although airplane is pretty suitable too. It's taken me up and down the coast from Maine to Florida once, to Quebec, Philadelphia, or western NY state many times, and countless shorter trips. 250,000 on the body, 112,000 on the motor and still burbling along.


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 7 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Wow, what a cool story jakemw, I wish mine was as reliable! I like the name Spaceship and the aluminum bubble wrap, I might have to try that. Got any pictures? Sounds like your story would make an excellent hub.


Tyler 6 years ago

pumping the accelerator makes no difference, you have a mechanical injection pump that only works when the motor is spinning. Restrain yourself from touching that pedal. I have two Diesel Wabbits, loves of my life.


Tough Hare 5 years ago

I bought a 1979 Rabbit CIS two years ago and it has been solid! I use it for Sunday drives in the country and to commute to work. It has few comfort options but it is still a joy to drive! It even gets around in the snow storms we have been having! Take care!!!


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Neat to find other Rabbit lovers, and glad to hear that your Rabbit runs great Tough Hare. I wish mine could have been as reliable :-( But it was a great ride and fun to get into with its solid little diesel. Nothing beats a VW stickshift.


Sunnie Day 5 years ago

Good morning,

I could not decide which hub to read first but the rabbit caught my eye. I am a fan of old volkswagans. I don't own one yet but it is on my list. I came close last year to getting a 1963 I believe restored one but didn't work out. I love that you treasure your rabbit so. You will find even if you get a new car, she will be the one you love forever. Thanks for a great hub! Look forward to reading more.

Sunnie


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Oof, I regret to say that I sold her, I hit a turning point when the cost of never ending repairs escalated past the purchase price within the space of a year.

I really enjoyed the ride though, I love the feeling of that firm little diesel engine and the fun shifting and fast cornering characteristics.

I agree, driving one is an out of this world experience, and I still remember my 1970 VW bus - that one I should never have sold. Thanks for coming by and reading this particular hub.


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

VW rabbits are cool cars. MY dad fixed a maroon rabbit that I drove acouple times. IT was super fast and quick, and it was a 5 speed standard. That car did work, but my dad sold it to another soldier. Thanks for sharing.


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

That sounds like more of the fighting relationship you two had. Rabbits are really fun to drive, especially when they work! Thanks for reading this hub about mine.


Tough Hare 5 years ago

My 79 Rabbit is like the energizer bunny- it keeps going

and going! Are they by nature noisy? She's starting to show her age but I am gentle and patient. Best wishes to all!


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Hi Tough Hare, glad you found this article and thanks for sharing. I didn't think mine was very noisy, especially for a diesel and an old car. I enjoyed the heavy thrum of the engine and exhaust and that made it even more fun to drive.

It's a good thing you're patient, I didn't have enough patience and sold mine when the total cost of repairs equaled the cost of purchase. Since the main reason I bought it was to save on fuel costs, I made the decision to let it go.


84 rabbit 5 years ago

A couple week I bought a 1984 vw rabbit it's a turbo diesel 5 speed and I'm the three owner it's like brand new. I really joy the rabbit it's a fun car to drive, I think it the best car I own so far. And I like your post. And it nices to know there a lot of old rabbit still out there.


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

There definitely are 84 rabbit, congratulations on your 5 speed - wish I could have found one of those. In fact, I was missing my rabbit today as I took a sharp turn on a freeway connecter overpass, knowing I would have enjoyed racing around the curve in my rabbit at 70 mph if I wished. In my big Tahoe, I barely managed 60 for fear of slipping. Have fun with your rabbit.


stessily 4 years ago

AM, From your comments I see that you sold your Rabbit. It sounds as though it was a great relationship while it lasted! I could relate to your descriptions; my friend and I visited his uncle in Massachusetts one spring, and we explored New England in Uncle Doug's red, diesel Rabbit, which did have the shaking fits when the ignition was first turn on and did like occasional, unpredictable gulps of gloppy oil. It was a fun car with plenty of character.

Kind regards, Stessily


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 4 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

As I read your comment, I realized that throughout all my single years, I have had a lot of relationships with different vehicles, my substitute lol.

Seems like anyone who has owned or known someone who has owned an old diesel rabbit, has good memories. They have lots of character! I don't recommend owning one anymore unless you have money and a place to work on them ;-)


Alex 4 years ago

Hey Marcel,

I recognize that car!

It is Alex! The guy you sold your rabbit to.

You know this picture was one of the top on Google searches for diesel rabbit!

He is still running strong, and as always, a blast to drive. I have put some 20,000 miles on him; he is going to get to 200,000 sometime this year I think.

Random little bits keep breaking but mechanically I think your previous mechanic knew what he was doing.

I am still adding some fun additions. (Just got some OEM chrome window cranks, and some carpet for the trunk)

Cheers!

Alex


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 4 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Oh wow, great to hear from you here! I am really glad you still have it and are enjoying it, I felt pretty bad for you when you told me the window cracked on the way home, oy!

I still remember how much fun that machine was to drive, like a sports car even with that diesel.

If you send me a pic of you and the Rabbit, I'll put it on this hub.

Thanks for leaving the comment Alex, the Rabbit is in good hands I see :-)


definitions profile image

definitions 3 years ago

I really like the colour of this car. In Australia, you don't see many of these :) Brings back memories.. great hub!


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 3 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

He he, not quite a Ford Falcon but it definitely has its own appeal. Thanks for dropping by definitions.


oliversmum profile image

oliversmum 3 years ago from australia

Alexander Mark Hi. Reading through this hub made me smile (sorry). Firstly visualizing such a tall person squeezing into such a small car, it would be like trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans that are 2 sizes to small.

You must have the patience of jobe, working through all the problems you experienced with this little Rabbit, but as it turns out, it was well worth it.

Thanks for sharing your little Rabbit with us. It was great. Thumbs up :) :)


Alexander Mark profile image

Alexander Mark 3 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon Author

Not only tall, but big too - it is hilarious and I really had no clue at the time except it was a bit cramped. Later I bought a 97 Chevy Tahoe and took a picture standing next to it, and I still look huge, so I can only imagine what I must have looked like inside the rabbit!

I did get rid of it finally because it was costing me more to maintain than the money I was saving from the excellent fuel mileage, but it was so much fun to drive, it didn't bother me as much as it should have until I realized my bank account was always empty... lol.

Thanks for the read and thumbs up :-)

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