During the early 1980s, memories of the fuel shortages and gas lines of the 1979 Oil Shock remained vivid in the minds of American car shoppers (who had no way of knowing that oil prices would crash back to earth a few years later). Diesel fuel was once quite a bit cheaper (or at least easier to find during shortages) than gasoline here, and so diesel cars became fairly popular starting in the late 1970s. Volkswagen offered a diesel version of the US-market Rabbit starting in 1977; the Dasher (Passat) and Jetta followed soon after. Here's one of those Jettas, spied in a self-service yard in northeastern Colorado last month.
The build tag shows that this car began life with a diesel engine, but the decklid badge (or perhaps the entire decklid) has been replaced with one sourced from a gasoline-engined Jetta. Sure, the diesel engine had fuel injection, but all diesels have fuel injection.
You wouldn't think that mattered, but drivers 40 years ago appreciated the knowledge that they were stuck behind a severely underpowered vehicle, and the big DIESEL badges served as a useful reminder that you'd better pass as soon as possible. This 1.8-liter oil-burner was rated at 52 horsepower when new (which was an improvement over the earlier 48-horse version), and these cars were hilariously slow. I took my driver-training classes in a 48hp Rabbit Diesel, back in 1982, and its poky acceleration was terrifying though funny. Fortunately, I have since had the opportunity to drive a VW at 206 mph.
The first-generation Jetta showed up in the North American market for the 1980 model year, with the larger second-generation car arriving for 1985. It was available in two-door and four-door versions, with gasoline or diesel power.
Volkswagen of America went to six-digit odometers starting in the late 1970s, so we can see that this car just made it to the 200,000-mile mark.
The interior looks worn and faded but not abused, which tells us that this car was properly cared for during most of its long life.
Amazingly, the original buyer opted for air conditioning, which added a stunning $690 to the $9,240 list price (that would be about $2,115 on a $28,330 car when reckoned in 2022 dollars). If you insisted on an automatic transmission, that option tacked on an extra $405 ($1,240 now).
The studded snow tires show that the car's final owner was serious about winter safety.
Volkswagen kept selling diesel cars here for decades to come, but the 1980s drop in gasoline prices coupled with the Oldsmobile diesel V8 debacle meant that they never again sold as well as the Malaise Era oil-burners.
The Jetta was, at heart, a stretched Rabbit with a trunk… and what a trunk! The 8.8-second zero-to-fifty (yes, fifty!) time in this commercial was for the gasoline version, obviously.
I believe the Toyota Starlet later stole the Best Mileage in America crown from the VW diesels.
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