Vintage Views: VW Rabbit GTI

To fully realize the impact the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI made on our scene, we need to take a ride in the wayback machine. The early ’80s were desolate times. The once-mighty Mustang GT made only around 150 horsepower. The Corvette could barely muster 200. Many of us wore mullets.

A few bright spots existed, including the Rabbit GTI. While available in Europe since the ’70s, this uprated Volkswagen finally came stateside for 1983. Here was a little bundle of performance wrapped up in a practical package.

By today’s standards, no, it’s not a rocket. Zero to 60 took around 10 seconds. In the context of the ’80s, however, it offered a real driver’s package.

First, the exterior: a deep chin spoiler, blacked-out trim and tacked-on plastic fender flares. The grille was outlined in red instead of white. The GTI received some racy rocker panel graphics. This wasn’t just a tape-and-stripe upgrade, though.

Starting at the pavement, the GTI received 14x6-inch alloy wheels–meaty for the day–wrapped with some equally impressive 185/60R14 Pirelli P6 tires. The springs, shock absorbers and anti-roll bars were tuned for performance. The solid front brake rotors found on the garden-variety Rabbit were replaced with vented models.

There was more go, too: Engine displacement was stretched from 1715cc to 1780cc. The compression ratio also increased, while the head was reworked and fitted with larger valves.

Engine output? Are you sitting down? The new-for-1983 Rabbit GTI produced 90 horsepower and 105 ft.-lbs. of torque. Those numbers sound dinky today, but at the time the Camaro’s base engine only made 92 horsepower; the conquering Z28 didn’t even offer 200.

The Rabbit GTI only received one transmission choice: a close-ratio, five-speed gearbox. Its lever was topped with a distinctive golf ball shifter–don’t forget, in Europe, the line was already known as the Golf.

The interior was equally as effective. In addition to the neat shift knob–true, not exactly a reason to fall for a car–the GTI received a meaty steering wheel, full instrumentation, and some of the best sport seats ever produced. The subtle red accents found outside the car continued in the interior.

The GTI may have come from humble stock–the masses viewed the base car as just a front-drive hatchback–but it made a mark on our automotive world. Road & Track’s initial test closed on a high note: “At an estimated price of $8500, the Rabbit GTI is the most exciting automotive news of the year.”

Enthusiasts flocked to the GTI in droves. It quickly became a staple of autocross and road racing events. For many years, it was one of the go-to chassis for SCCA Improved Touring B road racing competition.

Hotrodders found that the GTI made a great starting point. Arkay and Callaway offered bolt-on turbo kits–and remember, this was before the sport compact boom of the ’90s.

The bad news? Today, the biggest issue is finding one. Production was limited to two model years, with the redesigned, larger Golf appearing for 1985. The GTI package was adapted to the new chassis, but the Rabbit GTI was only produced for 1983 and ’84.

At one point in time–figure a decade or so ago–these cars were viewed as disposable. Countless examples were destroyed in pursuit of plastic trophies. Many more rusted away to oblivion. Just $1500 bought you a great, rust-free example.

Today, budget a few more bucks–but nothing approaching Ferrari money. Hagerty lists close to $4300 as the average price for a Rabbit GTI, with nicer examples trading near $6000.

The Rabbit GTI has now been with us for 30 years, but we’ll still echo Road & Track’s comment: It was a big deal then, and it’s a big deal today. The trickiest part is finding one.

Shopping and Ownership

Geoff Zimmer’s orange 1977 VW Rabbit has been a fixture on the SCCA Solo scene for years. It may not be a GTI, but the two cars share a chassis. As per SCCA Street Prepared rules, Geoff can use some GTI goodies where he sees fit.

When setting up the chassis, increased front caster is your friend. It stabilizes the chassis and limits the amount of negative camber required. That means the tire can remain more perpendicular to the road, increasing braking and acceleration performance. Geoff fabricates his own offset Delrin bushings.

Geoff once asked noted suspension guru Carroll Smith about spring rates for those autocrossing Rabbits. Smith’s answer: Make them as stiff as possible in order to limit body lean. Without tipping his hand too much, Geoff did note that his rear springs are only around 50 lbs./in. stiffer than the fronts.

To save weight, Geoff doesn’t run any anti-roll bars. However, he notes that fellow Rabbit racer Kevin Wenzel runs a giant front bar and no rear bar. Once spring rates are factored in, both setups produce nearly identical wheel rates. Both cars are top competitors, too. Geoff has found that his setup also works well on track.

For dampers, Geoff runs double-adjustable Konis front and rear. “They just work really well.”

Ground Control still stocks coil-overs–either add-on tubes or fully built units–for the car.

“It’s critical to have the strut bars on the front–top and bottom,” Geoff notes. The lower bar is a must, he adds, as that’s a huge flex point.

SCCA rules now allow Geoff to run the later 1.8 liter 16-valve Scirocco engine, but for many years he had to stick with an 8-valve engine originally installed in a Rabbit chassis. The hot setup? Enticed by the 10:1 compression ratio, he went with the 1.8-liter engine from the last of the Rabbit-based Cabrios. That’s about two points higher than the GTI’s.

These cars benefit from a lightweight flywheel.

You may be tempted, but don’t mess with the CIS fuel-injection system. When stock and unmolested, it works just fine–good enough for Porsche and Ferrari, in fact. “You can only make it worse,” Geoff explains. For extra top-end performance, though, look to the aftermarket. Geoff runs a programmable injection setup from Simple Digital Systems.

Geoff recalls a marathon dyno session he spent testing exhaust headers: “I burned every part of my body that day.” The winner came from Eurosport. It’s still listed on their website for around $400.

A bad windshield seal can allow water into the fuse box, and that’s bad.

We have seen reproductions of the rocker panel stripes on eBay Motors.

Parts & Service

Euro Sport Accessories, Inc.: eurosportacc.com, (800) 783-3876

Neuspeed: neuspeed.com, (800) 423-3623

Techtonics Tuning: techtonicstuning.com, (800) 821-0598

VW Heritage: vwheritage.com

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Comments
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kanaric
kanaric Dork
12/20/16 12:12 p.m.

Speaking of shopping for them these days if you really wanted a clean GTI and don't care paying a bit extra you could probably find a clean first gen overseas and import it as well. Though if I did that and wanted an 80s hot hatch it would be hard to not look at a Peugeot 205 GTI as well...... then you have the Familia (323) GTR and Pulsar GTIR....

The Euro GTI would be worth the extra price.

84FSP
84FSP Dork
12/20/16 8:44 p.m.

Loving the GTI archives. Running around town eating mustangs as a passenger in my older brothers GTI was great fun.

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
12/20/16 8:49 p.m.

of all the people, my Grandmother owned one. In 1983, I was 13 and I remember her ripping through the gears all the way from my parents house to hers a good 20 miles away. This was a women who had owned big block caddies and V8 novas, she LOVED power and speed. Obviously she learned to enjoy handling too.

pinchvalve
pinchvalve MegaDork
12/21/16 10:05 a.m.

Is the accompanying photo from the archives, or is that a current photo? It certainly looks new.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/21/16 10:30 a.m.
pinchvalve wrote: Is the accompanying photo from the archives, or is that a current photo? It certainly looks new.

It's a recent photo. The tires give it away.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/21/16 12:33 p.m.

Ironically the Featured Readers' Ride just showed my old GTI.

It was a good car. We did a full project car series on it. This was back when GTIs were pretty much disposable.

JohnnyBquick
JohnnyBquick Reader
7/5/18 2:43 p.m.

In the later part of the 80's I was looking to buy one, but also test drove the Dodge Omni GLH.

The GLH was so much quicker. Ended up with a GLH and then a GLHS.

USGUYS
USGUYS New Reader
7/5/18 6:49 p.m.

My favorite SCCA Showroom Stock race car. Bought it used in 1985 and drove it everyday to work and raced it in both autocross and club races.  

I put about 27000 miles on the clock including nearly 3000 racing miles.  Other than tires, the only parts I replaced were the front struts, a water pump, and front brake pads every race weekend.  

Many wins and 2 track records. Ran the 1986 Runoffs at Road Atlanta.  Started 10, battled for 3rd, got spun, and finished 10.  
Sold the car when was no longer eligible for SCCA Nationals.

It is with fondness I look at the picture of the car at the Runoffs that hangs in the race shop. It is and was my favorite race car.

Datsun310Guy
Datsun310Guy UltimaDork
7/5/18 7:27 p.m.

I always ask. Besides a Miata: What’s  today’s $1500 (or $3500) disposable GTI that has a bucket load of reasonable performance parts I can buy?

thale
thale None
7/5/18 8:32 p.m.

I own 4 1983 Rabbit GTI cars. One completely gone through the others are rough. I live in Northern Maine.  The Rabbit served me well. I tried autocrossing it a couple years ago and it and its driver were slow compared to modern cars. I had rock hard tires and little experience. I hope to sell all of them in one fell swoop. Moving on to other things

 

cchristo
cchristo
7/6/18 10:15 p.m.

I have many fond memories of driving my black 1983 GTI. And one horrible memory when it was stolen shortly after I moved to Manhattan in 1985. It lasted about 2 weeks on the city streets. After that I only drove crappy cars, until I moved out in 1997 and bought a Miata. I still have that Miata.

sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
7/10/18 3:02 p.m.

Flashback... in 1988, I threw myself somewhat seriously into autox in the San Francisco Bay Area, driving my trusty steed, the Biscuit Tin of Steel, a silver '84 GTI. Budget dictated stock class, so while I read all about the upper and lower stress bars, they were forbidden in my class.

After the ubiquitous shoe-polish test showed lots of rollover at the front even WITH higher tire pressures, a friend with an '83 GTI showed me the neat trick of adjusting front camber. You needed two tire-changing wrenches, and we had two GTIs, so we went at it. 

The procedure involved loosening a lock nut and then levering the eccentric adjuster. Since we were in the paddock at an autocross at the time, we didn't have a camber gauge, or even a level, so we eyeballed it, adjusting the eccentric (and no, that's not a euphemism for the nut behind the wheel) till the top of the brake disc looked as far inboard as it was going to go.

I ended up taking second in E Stock for the season, and always considered that a trophy for Not Giving Up rather than for any actual talent.

I drove the Biscuit Tin of Steel with that front suspension setting for about a year, and saw flat wear across the A008s (remember those, kids?). Then I got a different daily driver, my wife started using the GTI for kids and shopping, and corded the insides of the tires within six months.

When we replaced the rubber, I had the tire shop do a stock front camber setting. The driver's side had maximum negative camber, on the freaking money. The passenger's side was a hair more positive. That was clearly when I still had good eyesight.

Every so often I get the atavistic urge to get another GTI and do it up the way I always wanted to do, now that the rulebook isn't the boss of me. Had we but world enough and time, as the poet says. And money, as his accountant always responds.

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