The vintage Volkswagen Rabbit springs to life with collectors
I personally don’tremember the day I went homefrom the hospital after my mother gave birth.
I do remember the car. Not from that day, of course, but from a few years later, tucked in the back seat playing games with my sister. It was a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit in robin’s-egg blue, which my father had purchased from its initial owner with 40 $100 bills still crisp from the bank. “He counted them out one at a time in front of me, gently handling every bill,” Dad told me. “Mom sold her Plymouth Duster, and I sold my GMC Gremlin to help pay for it.”
Funny what cars prompt us to recall. Today, 45 years after their debut, the indelible VW Rabbits (or Golfs, as they were known in the rest of the world) have increased in value rather significantly.
In September a Rabbit with 100,000 miles sold online for a record-setting $33,000. In February a similar one took $30,000 at the Retromobile sales in Paris. The coronavirus pandemic seems not to have affected the surge: In April, Steve Serio, president and general manager of Lotus Motorsports/Aston Martin of New England, bought a Rabbit for $38,000 on BringaTrailer.com.
Such a humble coupe was quite the change of pace for the longtime dealer of blue-chip Aston Martins, Lotuses, and Porsches. (He’s also a car-guy whisperer to the rich and famous.) But even at that record price, the diminutive hatchback has more than delivered, Serio says. After all, shouldn’t owning a car make you smile?
“Nostalgia kicked in, and the first drive proved it was well worth it Wahooo!” Serio noted in an Instagram post after sealing the deal. “Fun comes in many shapes and sizes. This covers the hot-hatch lunchbox pretty nicely.”
Volkswagen introduced the Golf in 1974 as the intended successor to its popular Beetle. By 1975 the Golf had landed on U.S. shores rebadged as the VW Rabbit. (In 1985, VW saw fit to call the car the same thing worldwide and badged the second-generation versions Golf.)
Its styling was revolutionary. While the rounded rooflines, headlights, and fenders of cars such as Beetles, Karmann Ghias, and Porsche 356s had dominated the imaginations of car lovers through the 1950s and ’60s, the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Rabbit was shockingly square, with rectangular headlights and a rear end as flat as a pancake. It would prove to be the first “hot-hatch” (a sporty hatchback car) with any real lasting power for consumers. (The prolific Italian Giugiaro also made his name designing chic Alfa Romeos, sporty BMWs, stylish Maseratis, and powerful Bugattis, as well as Nikon cameras, Beretta firearms, and Ducati motorcycles.)
After blazing first-run success with more than 30,000 Golfs sold in the first year of production, VW introduced myriad variants, from the more powerfully tuned Golf GTIs of the 1980s to the clownish “Harlequin” Golf from 1996, its boldly painted body panels pieced together haphazard with no regard to keeping the color of the car uniform. That series had four base colors: pistachio green, ginster yellow, tornado red, and Chagall blue.
Whatever their model designation, Rabbits were lauded by their devoted owners for their mechanical reliability, superior gas mileage (a most important criteria for my father then as now), nimble nature, and easy five-speedstick shift. (Until 1979, models came with four speeds.) They were also loved simply for their style: Some came with cool tartan interiors; others were covered in striped velour-like material. The gauges behind the steering wheel were shaped like pillow-cut diamonds, as were the two rectangular headlights with their rounded corners. That flat rear hatchback door was a big panel of glass. Sunroofs were a factory option.
They weren’t sports cars by any means, but they were quick enough off the line. Early GTIs had just 109 horsepower but weighed a mere 1,800 pounds, so they could get to 62 mph in around 9 seconds impressive performance in the early ’80s for such an affordable hatchback.
All told, sales have exceeded 35 million units globally, double the total production of the more-bulbous Beetle. Today, the Golf is produced in five assembly plants and is exported to 155 countries worldwide.
Rabbit Values Growing
Over the past five years, values of the adorable, affordable Rabbits have risen considerably, according to Hagerty. The ones from the ’80s are worth the most and promise to continue that upward trajectory as many cars from that era are doing. Three years agoa 1983 Golf GTI in excellent condition would cost roughly $7,500. Today, that price is closer to $12,000, while the value of the best ones routinely hits $25,000 to $30,000.
An original Harlequin Golf with manual transmission in mint condition can be expected to fetch more than $10,000, according to VW records. That is less than its initial manufacturer suggested retail price of about $13,000 but more than non-Harlequin counterparts from the same era a good sign that its value will continue to increase.
Credit the rise in price to the same idea that drives millennials to go for vintage Audi Quattros and Group B cars and what led their predecessors to go for the Porsche 911 Turbos from the ’70s. Everything becomes cool again from grunge to economy cars to Prince after about 30 years.
All said, you can still find plenty of vintage Rabbits for less than $10,000 the average value of a ’90s-era GTI is just $5,000, according to Hagerty. A concours-level one will cost you closer to $13,000, and the very special Callaway-tuned ones cost in the high $30,000s. Bring a Trailer lists one from ’86 that was bid to $5,786 in May; in April a ’83 GTI sold for $7,600.
How to Find Your Rabbit
They key to finding a good one is to pay attention to how well it has been cared for, said Hagerty valuation analyst Adam Wilcox. As with any inexpensive vehicle, Rabbits were used daily, and many examples from the ’80s bear the scars of thorough use and abuse. Those with hundreds of thousands of miles may have the common problem of transmission issues, especially with those that came with the optional automatic transmission. (Power windows, too, were a problem with some of the Rabbits; if given the choice, opt for one that has manual windows.)
“The Holy Grail for many is an early 1.6-liter car with original interior,” analyst Bryan Joslin wrote in a Hagerty valuation report. “In its place, the later 1.8 model is every bit as much fun to drive, and you may have an easier time finding one of these, despite their shorter run.” More of that engine type came to the U.S.
Bottom line: If you can find one that’s been owned by only one or two people who can also proffer extensive maintenance records, buy it. It will cost more up front than one of opaquer provenance, but you’ll have less mechanical catching up to do from the outset, which means you’ll be off making memories in a plucky stick shift of your own sooner than you think.
Even my frugal father would agree the reliability will be worth the extra dough.