Guest contributor: Graham Blyth on doing 6,000 miles (in ten days) in a 1984 VW Rabbit GTI

Guest contributor Graham Blyth’s latest adventure perfectly epitomizes, we feel, what Motoring Con Brio is all about. Read on..

Earlier in 2013, I decided that I wanted to go for a substantial roadtrip. I settled on taking a 318is, but figured I’d sell mine and buy one in better mechanical condition. After a 1,500 trip to make that acquisition, I wound up with a car that needed the drive shaft to be balanced, had less AC than the seller implied, and needed 4 new tires. Normally these would be simple enough fixes, but I wasn’t able to get the car ready in time for the trip. So, I decided to take my 1984 Rabbit GTI and every tool I own.

I had just driven my GTI, ‘the Git’, to the Tail of the Dragon on Dunlop Z1 Star Specs (and demolished them), and during the first 50 miles of my road trip, I realized that their ability to, um, not kill me while driving through a rainstorm was limited. So, I rerouted to Peoria, IL, where my friend Andrew would let us stay in his apartment so that I could get some tires mounted in the morning.

After getting the tires mounted in Peoria (and resisting the temptation to spend hours in Harbor Freight), we started for Seattle, and didn’t rest until we made it there.

Once underway, there were only two instances of undesired shutdowns.  The first was the result of water dripping down the windshield onto the cowl, and through the old seal onto the fuse box.  All of the relays take on water when this happens, but the first to go was the fuel pump relay.  After an hour of troubleshooting, we figured this out, and were able to make a jumper to get power to the fuel pump.  Later on, I bought a switch to make the start-up process quicker and more fun.

The second issue was my unskilled interpretation of the fuel gauge.  Luckily, we were 2 miles from the gas station in Brandon, IA when the car sputtered to a halt, and even more fortuitously, I had packed a skateboard, which made the descent from the Interstate into the town a breeze.  I’m surprised that my girlfriend didn’t have me drop her off at the nearest airport at this point.

After that calibration exercise, we made it to Minnesota, where the sun began to set. That state is so green that I can see Al and Tipper Gore settling down there, if they ever get back together. And I really hope they do, because the love story at the beginning of An Inconvenient Truth is the segment that everyone can agree upon.

Getting back to the drive, South Dakota took up the whole night of driving, during which I took a sleeping shift, so I have no idea what happened there. Here’s my best guess: We drove straight for hundreds of miles.  I woke up in the Black Hills area and took over driving again. With my girlfriend asleep, the GTI managed to hit 104 on a downhill section.

A quick note on food: I had chicken-fried steak in Illinois for my meal of the day. As in, I ate that in the morning and let the fat burn for the rest of the day. I ended up doing the same thing in Wyoming.  I’m not a fan of food-strategy or dieting in general, but I liked the lump-in-the-stomach energy delivery that it provided.

The mountainous ascents in Montana and Idaho were the next major obstacle, though the GTI made quick work of them.  Having recently driven my 318is at altitude, I would say that the GTI felt less anemic.  Passing power remained adequate and it wasn’t a strain to maintain our typical hot hatch driving style.

After crossing the flat plain of eastern Washington, the dark descent into Seattle was particularly perilous.  I-90 seemed to spiral endlessly to sea level, challenging my fatigued brain along its tortuous path.  Heavy traffic arranged in 3-4 lanes made for an adrenaline-soaked final stint.

Making our way out of Seattle, we spent an entire day courting Mt. Rainier.  Following a quick oil change in the Autozone parking lot, I gave the GTI a proper workout through the breathtaking surroundings, driving at 9/10s for  200+ miles.  That drive alone justified the trip.  When traveling so far from home, the front wheel drive comes to be an advantage, as it makes the driver really work to get the ass-end of the car out.  And really, once the car starts to get sideways, the odds of returning home in one piece suffer drastically.  The GTI simply excels at safely guiding its occupants through punishing drives.

The route we took along the Oregon Coast was scenic, with a more relaxing drive in store. And, the GTI’s tall greenhouse and sunroof made for some excellent touring.  The cloth seats remained cool and dry, the vent windows maintained a great cabin temperature in the absence of AC, and the foam seat cushions made up for any harshness in the suspension.

After visiting Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, and Portland, we started to make our way back to Indiana along the Columbia River, eventually arriving at Boise.  Two long days through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois culminated in our arrival back in Indiana.

We were mostly lucky to make it so far with so few problems.  That being said, there is something to be said of taking a simple car, investing the time and money into maintaining it and developing intimate mechanical knowledge of it, then hoping for the best.

The route

Brandon, IA

Big Horn Range, WY


Zip’s, Eastern WA

Columbia River


Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

Oregon Coast

Haystack Rock, Canon Beach

Oregon Coast

Mt. Hood

Instantly recognizable MkI fuel cap

Mt. Rainier

Southern WA

Oregon Coast

Grand Junction, CO

Back Home Again In Indiana 

Images © Graham Blyth

This story originally appeared on BlythBros.

~ by velofinds on January 7, 2014.

8 Responses to “Guest contributor: Graham Blyth on doing 6,000 miles (in ten days) in a 1984 VW Rabbit GTI”

  1. Totally should’ve had your last picture caption as “Back Home Again in Indiana,” but that looks like a killer drive. And you got to experience my home town for a few exits in the first few hours of your trip.

  2. Good stuff Graham! definitely like the pictures as well…nothing like a machine engineered by man paired with vast landscapes untamed by man.

  3. Excellent photo-essay! I can’t believe you made it that far in a 30 year-old VW without more mechanical/electrical trouble, but that must be a testament to your ability to maintain it. I spent a few years driving a Mk1, and now I drive an older BMW, and have always found old VWs to be particularly trouble-prone. We have an annual German car “convoy” here which drives from the Seattle area, over the mountain pass, and to the small town of Leavenworth. Thousands of German cars of all makes & model participate, and without question 90%+ of the cars seen broken down on the side of the road are VW/Audi products. It’s really quite remarkable how skewed the break-down statistics are.

    Nevertheless, your photos make me wish to hit the open road! Nice car, too!

    • Thanks! It was surely an excessive distance for a 30 year-old car, and my success can be attributed to a nice mix of proper maintenance and good fortune. Parts wear out, so it was a matter of keeping my car up to date with replacing wear components and understanding the risk of certain components failing. I don’t let any new sound or stray fluid go undiagnosed on that car. It isn’t my only car, so I can afford to let it sit in the garage for a week while I work on it. I don’t doubt that other VWs are unreliable though.

      Interestingly, my BMW experience was much more painful on both 318is cars I owned. I imagine that an M30 or M20 car would be excellent on a longer trip.

  4. Oh my God!!!!
    Golf GTI first Model!
    Very nice shot! 🙂

  5. Great article but having owned an ’83 GTI I found myself wondering about how you tolerated the gearing of the car. I thought the GTI was fabulous for cutting through commuter traffic or blasting along rural roads but it was geared such that you were turning nearly 4000 rpm @ 70 mph. I can’t imagine doing a long road trip without changing the final drive.

  6. Excellent Article! I also own an 84 GTI (cashmire white also) and this is so inspiring. As stated by Andy, the biggest issue with driving these at high speeds is the close ratio box. Some covert to a “diesel” fifth gear, to make them more usable on the freeway. As to the reliability, they aren’t bad if you keep up with the maint and parts are very reasonable. I’ve owned BMW’s also, and will just say that the VW’s are lighter weight and more delicate in general. However that delicate-ness provides a driving experience that is even more “connected” than in the BMW. You spend more time wrenching, but the driving feel is unrivaled in some ways, so it’s worth it.

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