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The Harvey brothers dominated autocross in an obsolete Datsun a couple decades ago.
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.
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.
Loving the GTI archives. Running around town eating mustangs as a passenger in my older brothers GTI was great fun.
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.
Is the accompanying photo from the archives, or is that a current photo? It certainly looks new.
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.
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