The challenge for Volkswagen was far from simple. Create a new, still-popular and more modern follow-up to one of the most successful automobiles of all time: the Beetle.
A tough act to follow, but the result was the Rabbit, a groundbreaking invention that raised the import bar several notches. It’s a car whose popularity spawned many visual copies from other manufacturers as they hurried to create their own versions of this successful little front-wheel-drive runabout.
Originally developed in the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche, the Beetle became the salvation of the German economy following World War II. Starting in the early 1950s, millions of Bugs were exported around the world. In North America, the quirky rear-engined, air-cooled wonder quickly attained cult status, attracting people of all ages who wanted cheap wheels and to stand apart from the crowd.
But, by the late 1960s, Volkswagen’s one-trick machine had become more like a quirky contraption and sales suffered, especially considering lower-priced competitors from Japan. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. were also playing the small-car game with the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto. The wheezy, underpowered and overpriced Beetle simply couldn’t keep up with the pack.
Volkswagen had a successor in the pipeline, one loosely based on the Audi 50 (Audi became part of Volkswagen in 1964). Called the Golf in Europe, the car was given the cutesy Rabbit label for models exported to our shores. It was also as far removed from the venerable Beetle as you could get. Styling was the work of famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The water-cooled engine was placed in the front (the Beetle’s air-cooled engine was out back) and power was sent to the front wheels. The rest of the car blended both the passenger compartment with the stowage compartment, a layout previously reserved for bulkier station wagons. Access to the cargo hold, which could be expanded by folding the rear seat, was through a hinged opening that included the rear glass. It was the dawn of the hatchback.
None of the Rabbit’s features seem particularly outstanding by today’s standards, but the car caused a sensation when it was introduced in 1975. Although lacking the Beetle’s charm, the blocky looking Rabbit made up for this deficiency by being ever so practical. Both two- and four-door (or, three- and five-door, if you count the hatch) versions offered plenty of passenger space and could carry more luggage than some cars twice its size.
The Rabbit was also capable of quickly getting up to speed, a feat that was nearly impossible with the Beetle. The standard engine was a transversely (sideways) mounted 70-horsepower 1.6-liter overhead cam four-cylinder, while a similarly sized 50-horsepower/50-mpg diesel was optional.
In short order, compact hatchbacks, dubbed “econoboxes” by automotive scribes, sprouted up everywhere. Numerous Toyota, Honda and Datsun (Nissan) products were joined by those from Italian Fiat and the French Renault companies. On the domestic scene, Chrysler’s Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon duo, introduced for 1978, were obvious copies of the Rabbit and even went so far as to borrow its engine.
Like the furry genuine articles, Rabbits began to quickly multiply. The car received a mild restyling in 1979, the same year Volkswagen opened its first North American manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. The next year, a cute little pickup, known as the Caddy, joined the fleet, followed by a convertible sent to replace the Beetle ragtop that had managed to hang on until 1979.
Performance buffs were also included in the Rabbit’s expansion plans. Predating today’s sport compacts by nearly two decades, the Rabbit GTI, launched in 1983, featuring a larger fuel-injected 1.8-liter engine that delivered its 110 horsepower through a five-speed gearbox. The rest of the package consisted of a dropped suspension to aid handling, alloy wheels, front air dam, sporty Recaro bucket seats and special trim. To this day, the original GTI is considered a classic for its sports-carlike handling and punchy throttle response.
Sadly, the Rabbit name, which was well-known in North America, was dropped in favor of the Golf (the name means Gulf in German) brand for the sake of uniformity.
Like the Beetle that predated it, the Rabbit had become the prime ambassador for Volkswagen in Canada and the United States. It introduced car buyers to the benefits of front-wheel drive efficiency and made popular a body style that nearly every other mainstream manufacturer attempted to copy: the hatchback.
Sure, it lacked the icon-level status of the Beetle, but the Rabbit/Golf line was, and continues to be, a worthy successor.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note online at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase is a worldwide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.