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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1984 diesel VW Rabbit powered by vegetable oil, svo, wvo, biodiesel
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