Upon my return home from the 3-week adventure which we nicknamed “Coast-to-coast in the Swedish car”, a letter was awaiting me. The U.S. Department of Labor was offering me an interview to be considered for employment in their Bureau of Labor Statistics. I interviewed, was accepted, and was told I could start in mid-September. Elated at the prospect of full-time employment, I especially looked forward to a full-time paycheck! Since I was still without wheels of my own, having sold my Vega to my brother several months prior, my thoughts turned to consideration of finally owning a new car.
The car magazines which I voraciously devoured had said generally good things about Volkswagen’s newest economy car, the Rabbit. The vehicle (called the Golf in the rest of the world) was introduced in North America as a 1975 model. During its first two years on sale here, one of the few issues concerned its troublesome carburetor. In 1977, VW ditched the carb, switched to Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, and likewise jettisoned the catalytic converter in the process. There were other attractive features: front wheel drive, hatchback roominess, and great fuel economy. I test drove several models at my local dealer, Staten Island Small Cars. Frankly, I don’t believe I even considered anything else. At least there’s no recollection of test-driving anything but Rabbits.
It was now September of 1977, and the new ‘78s were on their way. The buff books had informed me that for 1978, VW was reducing the engine size from 1.6L to 1.5L, with a horsepower drop from 78 to 71. Determined to find the “best” ’77 I could, I bounced around VW dealers in Brooklyn, Queens, and NJ, but ended up back at the Staten Island store.
My salesman was Arthur McKeever, an interesting guy, and difficult to forget once you met him, as Mr. McKeever had no right arm. He shook hands with his left, and could shock you with his ability to drive a stick shift. As we climbed into his red demo, I reached for the seat belt. He said “oh, you don’t need to put that on”. I put on the belt, as I had been wearing one since the Mustang wreck six years prior. The Rabbit was quite peppy, and while the shift action didn’t have quite the precision of a RWD car, it wasn’t bad at all. My mom’s ’76 Honda Accord had tons of torque steer; by comparison, the Rabbit had almost none.
He had three 1977 2-doors remaining (the 4-door model was not sporty enough for me, and so was a deal-breaker). One was his red demo, but I didn’t think the car looked good in red. The yellow car was attractive, but the priciest of the choices. The white car was an anomaly: a base model Rabbit, when every other car I looked at was the “Custom”. The base model had these features compared to the Custom: 145-13 bias-ply tires instead of radials; houndstooth cloth upholstery instead of leatherette; vinyl flooring instead of carpeting; non-opening vent windows instead of opening ones; and a manual rod for the hatch instead of a gas strut. But the sticker price of $3599 was very attractive.
A deal was struck for the white car, which looked good with its black-and-white interior. My dad had to co-sign the bank loan, but he knew I was good for it. Taking delivery of my first new automobile still ranks up there with one of the great car-related thrills of my life.
Three weeks into the ownership, I ordered a set of Pirelli CN-36 radial tires in size 175/70-13. They truly transformed the car, and lasted 56,000 miles! I also was an early adapter of Cibie euro-style headlights with replaceable H4 bulbs, which did amazing things for night-time visibility. Both the tires and the lights were purchased from Euro-Tire, which advertised heavily in Car and Driver magazine. I put my own sound system in the car, and repainted the bumpers, but did little else other than maintain it and drive it.
The Rabbit served as my daily driver for over four years, from September of 1977 until December of 1981. I put about 112,000 miles on it, almost all of it trouble-free. The car started to use oil, a known issue with the valve stem seals, but oil was cheap enough that I just kept checking and adding it. There was also the start of some rust at the base of the A-pillars. My overall experience was so positive that I replaced this VW with another new VW. We’ll get to that story at another time.
All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.