The classic VW Rabbit on the Solo trophy hunt

Scott
By Scott Lear
Jun 3, 2021 | Volkswagen | Posted in Features | From the June 2018 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

The Volkswagen Beetle was a tough act to follow. In 1972, after being manufactured for 34 years, the iconic Bug claimed the world record when production hit 15,007,034 units, dethroning the Ford Model T. That number only climbed as factories around the world continued to churn out more. But sales were slipping.

Back in Germany, VW’s leadership decided to present the world with something new: a more modern version of an affordable, reliable and practical people mover. In 1974 they took the cover off the first-generation Golf, a water-cooled, front-wheel-drive hatchback with seating for five, good fuel economy and solid handling.

When the car hit North America in 1975, the name was split; the United States and Canada got the Rabbit, and Mexico got the Caribe (Spanish for piranha). Whatever the badge on the back, that A1-platform Rabbit ultimately became a sales success in the States and helped bring front-wheel drive into widespread acceptance among U.S. buyers. The market shifted heavily in the VW’s favor when the oil crisis of the late 1970s drove frenzied demand for fuel-sipping cars like the Rabbit, which was advertised as making nearly 60 miles per gallon in diesel trim.

Enthusiasts, of course, were more interested in the Rabbit’s sportier variant: the GTI. It managed performance figures on par with much more expensive hardware thanks to 110 horsepower and an extremely svelte sub-2000-pound fighting weight. Though some other earlier cars shared that same basic layout, the GTI made “hot hatch” a thing, and many young enthusiasts discovered that their sporty-car aspirations and bank accounts were no longer completely out of sync.

One such early adopter was Geoff Zimmer. He was born into a Volkswagen-owning family and insists that he was disassembling VW Beetles before he could walk. “Putting them back together came much later,” he admits, “much to my dad’s chagrin.” 

As Geoff explains, “I learned about working on cars and living life from John Muir in the ‘How to Keep Your VW Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot’ series. I was taught that you can teach yourself to do anything by reading.”

Geoff’s first car was a 1969 Beetle that he converted into a Baja Bug. The procedure typically involves upping suspension travel and ground clearance, exposing the engine, and fitting bigger wheels and tires under pruned fenders. The result is a mutant Beetle suited for off-roading on California’s desert terrain. 

Geoff did this despite living in Connecticut. “Who needs heat in Connecticut?” he jokes, referring to the heater boxes he sacrificed in the Baja conversion. “Of course, this led me to a great admiration for water-cooled cars with heat, and since I was already reading all the VW magazines, [I knew] the Rabbits were special.”

On the brink of his 20s, Geoff upgraded to a 1-year-old Rabbit GTI, black with a red interior. The car lacked air conditioning, but the heater fans must have sounded like a chorus of angels to a frostbitten Connecticut Baja Bug pilot.

Rascally Rabbit

Unfortunately, after some time autocrossing and road racing his Rabbit, Geoff exceeded the limit in his GTI during the very rainy ARRC revival event at Road Atlanta in 1994. “I believe I went from 17th to seventh on the first lap, being one of the few front-wheel drives in Improved Touring B at the time, but then I got caught in the raging river at the bottom of Turn 5 and went off,” he reports. “The car was totaled.”

Geoff decided that he needed to diversify his racing stable so he could continue competing when one car was out of commission. Not long after his GTI crash he bought a Panama Brown 1977 Rabbit as a no-compromises autocross car. “The previous owner had transplanted a GTI engine and transmission into it. He said that the car was done, I would never have to do anything to it to autocross competitively. If he could see her now!” Geoff laughs.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

One glance at the car now reveals a great deal of hand-fabricated upgrades. “I enjoy tinkering and making everything myself for the car. The only things I cannot make yet are shock absorbers and tires, but we have very good suppliers for those,” Geoff says, giving a nod to the Koni dampers and Hoosier racing rubber.

“I work in a steel mill, so I redesign everything there making it three times heavier. My home/car life is quite the opposite,” he explains. Weight is very clearly the archrival of Geoff’s Rabbit, and he’s made every effort to shed mass from the car. Considering the stock Rabbit tipped the scales in the mid-1800-pound range when new, a completely stripped and prepped autocrosser–which doesn’t even require a cage or much of an interior–can be very light indeed. 

“The best part of the first-generation VW Rabbit is its simplicity and lightness,” he says. “It is certainly not as torsionally rigid as more modern cars. But specifically for autocross, when you are constantly accelerating in one direction or another, weight is the absolute enemy.”

[Check out our own first-generation Rabbit, a rare Callaway turbocharged GTI.]

Geoff is very cagey about the specific number on the scale, which he swears up and down is “too much.” Similarly, he trains anyone who drives his car to reply “not enough” when the topic of horsepower arises. Pressed for details, he was willing to share that in F Street Prepared autocross trim, the Rabbit weighs somewhere between zero and 1700 pounds, and the 1780cc engine makes about 140 horses. So, the power-to-weight ratio is more or less equal to a new Focus ST. 

Over the years, one of the trickiest parts of the build was finding a limited-slip differential that would maximize the ultra-lightweight Rabbit’s cone-carving potential on its wide 255mm front Hoosiers. “I have tried every brand of gear-type limited slip over the years,” he explains. “The most amazing improvement to the car has been going to a clutch-type, and then finding a clutch-type that would hold up to the abuse.” The right unit came from Gripper.

Geoff insists that the clutch-type diff makes the Rabbit easier to control on the autocross course, adding that any unwanted behavior can be remedied by applying more throttle. “Stepping on the gas corrects it,” he says. And while his setup is perfectly suited for sawing the wheel at full tilt, it’s not a solution he’d recommend for the street. “It pops and bangs at paddock speeds, but on course it’s wonderful.”

Photography Credits: J.G. Pasterjak

The end result is a nationally competitive Rabbit that Geoff and his co-drivers have taken to calling the Lamborbunni. “The Bunni has very good power to weight for [F Street Prepared] and has amazing grip in steady-state turns,” he notes. 

He’s been autocrossing the car, including yearly appearances at Nationals (minus one year due to a pair of broken ankles), for more than two decades. “In fact, she started in D Street Prepared before FSP existed,” Geoff says. The Rabbit won FSP overall in 2015 and 2016 with Steven Duckworth at the wheel. In 2017, Andie Albin drove it to an F Street Prepared Ladies national title, while Geoff and Steven both trophied in FSP with the car.

Brand Ambassador

As tight-lipped as Geoff is about the Lambor-
bunni’s performance figures, he welcomes the opportunity to bring others into the classic VW racing fold. “I have had many co-drivers over the years, including Chris Petersen, Matt Palombi–also known as ‘You’re not Chris’–Andrea Voisard, Aimee Fincher, Tim White, Steven Duckworth, Andrea Albin, and of course my family members. It’s great sharing the fun with others. I love seeing people’s faces light up when they ride in or drive the car,” he says.

At more than 40 years old, the Mk1 Rabbit’s age might deter shoppers from getting in on the fun, but it’s not too late. “There are still plenty of parts available for these cars,” Geoff continues, “and lots of interest in some parts of the country. The hard part is finding a good, solid car to start with. They seem to be very popular in the Pacific Northwest.” He adds that while the Rabbit looks tall compared to the rest of FSP on the grid, that doesn’t really hinder its performance ability.

Photography Credits: Perry Bennett

As he planned all those years ago, Geoff has indeed diversified his racing portfolio with Volkswagens for a variety of venues. During the winter he built a 2009 Rabbit for his wife and her friend to run in the SCCA’s STS autocross class. He’s also planning to use the newer Rabbit for Track Night in America events. “This year I’m hoping to keep a lower profile, relax and enjoy,” Geoff says. “I have made some minor tweaks [to the Lamborbunni] over the winter, but I also want to drive my turbocharged VW Scirocco some, too.”

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Volkswagen articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
noddaz
noddaz GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/3/21 5:59 p.m.

Excellent!

I want one!  Is the engine a 9a 16 valve?  I feel like if I ask any more questions I will just be blabbering..

Scott

 

 

 

BobbyBusso
BobbyBusso
6/4/21 4:26 p.m.

Love that intake mani!

But if he's trying to save weight, why the bumpers?  That's a ton of useless weight on an autocross car!

1SlowVW
1SlowVW HalfDork
6/4/21 7:18 p.m.
noddaz said:

Excellent!

I want one!  Is the engine a 9a 16 valve?  I feel like if I ask any more questions I will just be blabbering..

Scott

 

 

 

9A is a 2.0l engine, story states his is a 1.8. Probably a PL . But who knows how stock it is? 

Our Preferred Partners
vk3hJ09bCkOXGKdzociqhjUmHoDPV9lRRbW4Hj8ZBTjiUDuErS7pypZ0N1liOMD7