Guest contributor: Nate Brown on his 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
I suppose the way I got into Volkswagens and why I bought one in the first place is as typical as any other. Although I wasn’t raised in a ‘car’ household in the strictest sense – my dad was into cars but we didn’t have the money for one decent car let alone something fancy – my uncle had a bunch of VW Buses, and I always liked small, compact cars. Seems odd, right? I don’t know why it was, but as much as I loved crazy sports cars, when I was out and about it was the CRX, GTI and various small Nissans and Toyotas that I liked the most.
After my older brother Josh got his 1986 GTI and added the various must-have parts of the day (Neuspeed sport springs, stress bars, Techtonics exhaust, TSW EVO wheels, etc.), it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I was going to get a VW. We started going to meets and shows, and that was it. I was convinced on getting a Mk1, however, as I liked the idea of them being older (and cheaper); plus, it seemed a more natural fit than the Mk2s that everyone else had. This was 1994 so the Corrado was still new and very little else was out there… and who had ten grand for used G60?
At any rate, I knew that I would eventually find one in my price range, and after some searching I did. A red-on-red 1984 Rabbit GTI, all stock, and still in the hands of the original owner, a guy by the name of Glen. The car was far from perfect – the paint needed love, and it had a few of the ‘usual’ rust problems that a Mid-Atlantic car would have - but the $2000 price was right and otherwise it was pretty solid.
I was without a doubt beside myself to have a Rabbit GTI at this point. It was older and cooler (in my opinion) than the newer cars even if it was a lot slower. And man was it slow. I had read quite a bit about the ’83 and ’84 cars and they never seemed quite that glacial. The fuel mileage was terrible as well— something like 10-15 mpg. I eventually had enough money to take it to a proper VW mechanic (Desmond’s in Baltimore, as most people with VWs will know of), and after a fixed vacuum line, new injector o-rings, some tune-up parts and all that, it was transformed.
Now, it wasn’t quick, but it was certainly tossable, and it was a pretty superb car to learn car dynamics in as it was also quite forgiving. The roads surrounding Loch Raven Reservoir are some of the best in Maryland, and I went through them once a week at least. My brother Josh and other friends with VWs and Hondas would actually get together and go driving on Friday nights rather than going to parties, as we enjoyed our cars that much. Suspension upgrades, an exhaust, header, performance camshaft, and wheels and tires were added as soon as I had the cash, and the level of performance was raised accordingly. On more than one occasion I can recall getting more than a little out of shape (that throttle-lift oversteer will get you everytime), but with the way the car was set up it was just so easy to bring back in line.
I went to shows, read magazines, got bad ideas— the usual. I learned how to wrench on my car and make changes (thanks to friends more knowledgable than myself), as I couldn’t afford to pay a shop to do the same, and I really got to know every nook and cranny. Eventually the car was stripped down, a European front end was put on, and the car was repainted and visually cleaned up, in addition to receiving new wheels. It was the neverending saga. I had other VWs during this time but none of them captured my fancy quite as much as my old Rabbit GTI. I also made the mistake of thinking it would be fun to show the car, but I soon realized I’d much rather be driving than cleaning.
The final iteration came around 2001 (six years after buying it), when I dropped in a bored and stroked bottom end, big cam, lots of headwork, and even more suspension work. By now the car was quite hardcore and not an easy one to drive everyday. I had transitioned from hanger-on into performance shop employee at NGP Racing and my long commute was killing me and the car. Mainly me, since it was a cold winter and the GTI was a little drafty at times.
For a short time I had a 1995 Jetta VR6 as a daily driver and I tried keeping the GTI as a “fun” car— which would have worked, but a severe lack of money (I took a pay cut to take the NGP job) and a particularly persistent NGP customer waving $4500 cash under my nose conspired to convince me that it was the better thing to let it go. I was getting older, right? I didn’t need this old car anymore— it was time to grow up! I won’t change a thing, I’ll take care of it and give you first dibs to rebuy and everything else were all things I should have known better than to believe when the buyer uttered them, but I sold it, and so in 2003 I was no longer the owner of my GTI.
After some time, the hacked-up heap that was once my pride and joy came back around and was for sale, but I didn’t have the heart (or cash) to buy it back at the time. The owner was asking something like $8500 for the car now that a 1.8t had been “installed” in the car. So it went, and then seven years after selling my GTI, it showed up back in Maryland, at the big H2O International show in Ocean City.
It was a little weird seeing the car, like seeing an old girlfriend from high school who is still quite a looker, but not that same girl you were in love with all those years ago. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get the chance to buy her back again, and maybe we can patch things up and it’ll be like old times. Then again, maybe some things are better left in the past.
Either way I’ll always have my Rabbit GTI to thank for many of my friends, my job, and many of my memories. And sometimes that has to be enough.