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The History of the Golf - Part I

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The History of the Golf - Part I

Post by VWVR6T on Sun Dec 21, 2008 8:22 pm

First-Generation Rabbit/Golf: 1975-1984

Why did Volkswagen decide to call the new front-drive small car it called the "Golf" everywhere else in the world the "Rabbit" in America? Go ahead and guess, because VW has never offered an official (much less believable) explanation.

The Golf debuted during 1974 in Europe but didn't make it to the U.S. as the Rabbit until the 1975 model year. While it was clearly intended as a successor to the Beetle, it wasn't VW's first attempt at replacing that icon. "So many new models have been hailed as Beetle successors without ever even approaching its production figures," wrote Road & Track on its first exposure to the European Golf, "that we have learned to be careful. But probably no car in the VW range has ever had a better chance of taking up where the Beetle might leave off. Volkswagen expressly says that production of the Golf will not interfere with the Beetle program — at least for the time being. This sounds quite reasonable, for you don't drop overnight a car of which 5,000 units are produced daily — 3,000 in Wolfsburg and about 2,000 in other branches of the company — especially when it's the only model on which you make money."

So, conscious of its own profitability, VW was hedging its enthusiasm for the new Golf/Rabbit by keeping Beetle going full bore. But to buyers, that the Golf was a radically better product than the then nearly 40-year-old Beetle was obvious.

The Golf formula was essentially the polar opposite of the Beetle's. In place of a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine driving the rear wheels, the Golf used a front-mounted, water-cooled inline four driving the front wheels. In place of the curved metal that defined the Beetle's appearance, the Golf had sharply creased lines drawn by the famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Beetle was a two-door with a dinky trunk in the front, while the Golf was available as either a two- or four-door and both opened up for maximum cargo hauling thanks to a large rear hatchback door. The Beetle was built atop a stamped steel chassis, while the Golf had a simple unibody structure. But the two at least had this in common: Just as the Beetle's layout was the most efficient possible considering the limitations of 1930s technology, so too was the Golf's design the most efficient possible in the 1970s.

At just 146 inches long, the first Golf was a small car even by European standards. But the wheelbase was a relatively long 94.2 inches and that effectively put the wheels at each corner of the car, and at 63.5 inches it was pretty wide for its size and era, too (a contemporary Toyota Corolla was 3.6 inches narrower). The result was excellent space utilization and an interior that felt huge — because it was huge — in comparison to the competition. And the interior was comfortable and contemporary with a simple instrument pod in front of the driver and bolt upright seating.

Power for the Euro-spec Golf came from either a puny 1.1-liter four or a more reasonable 1.5-liter version of the same basic SOHC, eight-valve engine. The transaxle featured either four manually selected gears or three cogs when automatic operation was preferred. The suspension consisted of simple MacPherson struts up front and a unique trailing arm independent system for the rear. Drum brakes were used at all four wheels on the 1.1-liter car, while front discs were part of the larger engine package.

With a curb weight under 1,900 pounds and precise rack and pinion steering, the first Golf was a revelation and instantly set the standard for small-car handling and overall performance. Throw in competitive prices and the car was an instant hit with sales far exceeding VW's most optimistic forecasts and just about everyone acknowledging that, yes, this car would replace the Beetle.

The Rabbit actually followed the Scirocco sport coupe (built atop the Golf/Rabbit chassis) to America debuting for the 1975 model year. Bumpers mounted on hydraulic pistons to meet American regulations stretched the car's length to 155.3 inches and pushed the curb weight above 1,900 pounds, but it was still very much the Golf and built on the same assembly line in Wolfsburg, West Germany. Only the 1.5-liter engine model made it to the United States and that engine was rated at a modest 70 horsepower while breathing through a single Zenith two-barrel carburetor.

Road & Track pitted the new $2,999 Rabbit against eight of its competitors and proclaimed it "the winner, and not by a hare (sorry, couldn't resist)." After that agonizingly obvious pun, the praise just got more effusive. "The Rabbit is also the handler of the group. It's the only car besides the Honda [Civic] to break the 0.7G barrier on the skid pad and that 0.73G figure puts it right up there with many much more expensive sports cars and sport sedans. It's also the best balanced of all the cars tested, with mild understeer turning to gentle oversteer if you back off the throttle during hard cornering. The steering is a little on the heavy side but exhibits remarkably little front-wheel-drive effect (a tightening when you accelerate through corners) and is precise and quick. The ride is firm and well controlled; you can take dips and large bumps almost as if they didn't exist…. Best of all it's almost sinfully fun to drive." That excellent cornering and those delightful manners were achieved on modest 155-section Semperit radials wrapped around 13-inch wheels.

The four-speed Rabbit's 12.7-second 0-60 time for Road & Track is disgraceful by 21st-century standards, but it was the quickest car of the nine in that batch with its brother, the Beetle, bringing up the rear with an 18.1-second clocking. The Rabbit's 19.0-second quarter-mile performance was also the test's best. The magazine criticized the Rabbit for lackluster brakes (high pedal effort and quick fades), hazy shift linkage and some engine jerkiness, but those were minor quibbles.

Meanwhile in Europe, the '75 Golf was now available as a GTI version fitted with a fuel-injected 1.6-liter engine making a stunning 110 hp, a revised suspension, full instrumentation that included a tachometer and big (sort of) 175-millimeter-wide tires. The GTI instantly created the "hot hatch" market segment in Europe and America wouldn't get its own version for…well, read on.

For 1976 the Rabbit got a carbureted version of the GTI's 1.6-liter engine making one more horsepower than the superseded 1.5 for a total of 71. The car was already selling in big numbers in both Europe and America, so VW wasn't about to mess with it much. However, minor tweaks like a heat shield between the exhaust pipe and fuel tank, revised window trim and some carburetor adjustments significantly improved drivability and overall enjoyment. In its test, Car and Driver measured a '76 Rabbit getting to 60 mph in just 10.9 seconds.

Diesel power came to the Rabbit lineup for 1977 with the addition of a 1.5-liter diesel four to the options list. Rated at just 48 hp, this engine delivered phenomenal fuel mileage with the EPA ratings coming in at nearly 50 mpg on the highway and nearly 40 mpg in the city. Slow? Yeah, acceleration was absolutely glacial but many diesel Rabbit buyers wore their lackadaisical performance as a sign of their own obvious virtues. And the diesel option was cheap, carrying a premium of only $170 over that of the gas-fueled version.

The Rabbit carried over into 1978 visually unchanged but once again was powered by the 1.5-liter version of VW's water-cooled four. Now rated at 71 hp (the same as the previous 1.6-liter) it made little difference in performance. However, big changes were on the way.

In July of '78, VW started production of the 1979 Rabbit in a new plant it had built (using the shell of an old Chrysler plant as a base) in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. Volkswagen became the first foreign manufacturer to establish a significant production base in the U.S., opening the door for Honda, Toyota and just about every other German manufacturer to follow.

The Rabbits produced in the U.S. differed from their German cousins in having square instead of round headlights, larger taillights, color-matched interiors, some spectacularly ugly hubcaps and a suspension softened for domestic consumption.

A newly available five-speed manual transmission was the major addition to the 1979 Rabbit's mechanical package. That helped the diesel version achieve an astonishing 53 mpg on the highway and 40 mpg in the city, according to the EPA.

Initially, German and American Rabbits were sold alongside each other and were easily distinguished by their headlights. But soon all gas-powered Rabbits sold in America were American made, even as all the diesels still came from Wolfsburg.

The last Beetle in VW's U.S. lineup, the convertible, was finally gone after the '79 model year and in its place was a new Rabbit convertible for 1980. Like the Beetle convertible, the Rabbit version was built with coachbuilder Karmann doing much of the work. As in the Beetle, the top dropped back into a rather tall stack at the car's rear, but that's about all they had in common.

Turning the two-door hatchback Rabbit into a convertible entailed some rather radical surgery. Naturally the steel roof was hacked off, but the frames around the door windows were excised as well necessitating new glass and new seals. The rear fenders were also reshaped so they now had a slight kickup leading to their trailing edge and contained roll-up quarter windows. In place of the hatchback a flap now allowed awkward access to a small trunklet below the convertible top and access to the interior when the rear seat was folded forward. But the ragtop Rabbit's most distinctive element was a padded steel hoop that ran across and over the cockpit just behind the doors that added both structural heft to the unibody and rollover protection. In all, the Rabbit convertible was just flat-out adorable and was soon filling sorority house parking lots across the country. Power for the convertible came from a new fuel-injected 1.6-liter version of VW's SOHC four rated at 76 hp and mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission (a three-speed automatic was optional). Car and Driver's test of a 2,170-pound, manual-transmission convertible had it getting to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at 71 mph.

While the convertible was made in Germany, virtually all other '80 Rabbits were now made in America (a few diesels still came from Europe). The standard engine was still the 1.5-liter carbureted four with the convertible's injected 1.6-liter version and the diesel optional. In a comparison test against its new be-trunked brother, the German-made Jetta, Car and Driver found the lighter American-made Rabbit to be slightly quicker but still suffering the squishy suspension effects of its Americanization.

While both the Jetta and convertible proved to be amazingly popular variations on the basic Golf/Rabbit theme, the most bizarre twist came with the introduction of the Rabbit pickup, also during the 1980 model year. Available with both gas and diesel engines, the pickup wasn't much more than a Rabbit cut down at the B-pillar (just behind the front seats) with a bed grafted on behind. The most significant mechanical changes were a longer wheelbase and a revised leaf spring and solid axle rear suspension for better load carrying. The pickup would never be a big seller, but it sure was unique.

For 1981 the Rabbit's nose was redesigned and now used wraparound front turn signals. The big mechanical change was the adoption of a new 1.7-liter version of VW's SOHC four that, using fuel injection, was rated at 74 hp. It was the only gas engine available that year and the optional diesel engine also grew to 1.6 liters and 52 hp. Car and Driver clocked the gas-powered version traipsing to 60 mph in 11.6 seconds while the diesel took a languorous 18.8 seconds to achieve the same velocity.

For all intents and purposes, the 1982 Rabbit was a rerun of '81. It was the lull before the storm. That storm was the 1983 Rabbit GTI — arriving nearly a decade after the first Golf GTI had gone on sale in Europe. Featuring a 90-hp, 1.8-liter version of the fuel-injected four, the $7,995 GTI also got a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission, a revamped interior with aggressive seats and full instrumentation and a revised suspension wearing 14-inch wheels and Pirelli P6 tires. It wasn't as quick as the Euro GTI, but it was mighty good in comparison to other small cars then available in the states and Car and Driver immediately put it on its "10Best" list proclaiming, "This product should be a cause for rejoicing among all those people who ever owned a Beetle or treasured the high-protein goodness of a BMW 2002, because this car marks a return to the fundamental German verities by Volkswagen's badly withered American manufacturing and marketing arm…. In our introduction story on the GTI we called it 'the car we've all been waiting for,' and that's exactly what it is. A fast, entertaining, high-quality car at an affordable price built on an American assembly line by American workers."

The other Rabbits carried through '83 and 1984 pretty much unchanged in anticipation of the next Rabbit to come — though the Rabbit name would die. How lovable were these first Golfs and Rabbits? As this is written — a full 30 years after their introduction in Europe — the original Golf/Rabbit and, almost unbelievably, the Rabbit Pickup are still in production in South Africa as low-cost entry-level models. And they still sell solidly down there.

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