Throwback Thursday: 1983 VW GTI test drive

vw-1983-gtiThis week’s Throwback Thursday takes us to Thanksgiving morning 1982, 31 years ago, and a test drive of the new-to-the United States VW GTI. The great new import direct from the Autobahns of Germany. New to the United States? Yes, since Canada already had it in sale for a couple of preceding years (and in Germany since 1976). The USA was playing catch-up to the Canadians!

Here’s how it started: the Southtowns Rally Club held their annual Thanksgiving TSD Rally two weeks before Thanksgiving and the rally started at the local VW dealer. Inside the showroom was a glossy black GTI, surrounding  by the rallyists. And why? Because for rallyists the GTI “had it all”: terrific engine, seats, handling, and suspension travel. At $7995 the price was right, and with front wheel drive you could drive it all year – negating the need for a winter car!

And because it already had a well-earned reputation in Europe. With more than a bit of mystique because “Europeans always got the best cars” and this was the perfect example of that sad truth.

The salesman was signing up rallyists for test drives and anticipating quick sales. But since we all had to leave with the Rally, none of us had time that day. For me, the day would come during Thanksgiving week – in fact on Thanksgiving morning. In 1982 it was very unusual for a car dealer to be open – in those years nothing was open on Thanksgiving day. All-night shopping and Black Friday was many years in the future.

My first impression upon entering the car was the driving position – the Recaro-OEM’ed (but not labelled) seats provided the perfect driving position, and the sitelines all around were excellent. You sat very high in this car and could see everything all around you. I was immediately thinking about this as an autocross car… foreseeing the following autocross season where the courses would be full of GTIs. The shifter, complete with golfball-knob, wasn’t very precise, kind of rubbery (a trait that continues to this day), and *way* down there near the floor.

Starting the car produced a nice little sporty exhaust note. And the clutch was light and engaged at exactly the right spot. Despite having only 90 HP, I accidentally spun the wheels leaving the parking lot. It was that sensitive – and in a fun way. But I should also say that I spun only 1 wheel because of the open differential; the GTI needed a limited slip. It was clear that the right front tire would need frequent replacement.

Underway, the car was easy to zip thru traffic. It was the type of car that is quick, not fast, but with stable handling and very light weight (2100 pounds), it was be easy to drive quickly. The car would be perfect for rallying.

With encouragement from the salesman, I drove the GTI faster and harder around corners. It’s limits were well above this test drive; it wasn’t even strained or challenged (not like the fugly Ford EXP Turbo I’d try 2 years later, which was left smoking and with a bald tire). Body roll was fairly high, typical of front wheel drive cars with a high seating position. The GTI was the best front wheel drive car available in those years, and it set the stage for any number of “hot hatches” around the world in years to come – even though in years to come it got heavier and a whole lot less interesting. A problem to this day, where all personality has been boiled out of it, especially in contrast to the far more fun Focus ST. Although we’ll give VW kudos for bringing the car to North America continuously for all these years, where Ford took 30 years to finally get it right. The 1983 GTI was also an immediate hit with Car and Driver, who named the GTI a 10-best for many years to come.

Did we buy it? No, although about a quarter of the Rally club did. And then there was the brother of a friend, we’ll call him Disco Duck. A fan of Rick James and C3 Corvettes (which in his mind went together so well), and much in need of a winter car. The Duck also enjoyed his test drive that same day and wanted to buy it. Only to be shot down by his domineering Father, who despite being a strict German, wouldn’t have anyone in his family driving a VW. A contradiction, and too bad – his loss.

And that’s Throwback Thursday, where our editors bring their dead memories back to life. Some need to stay buried, some will be fondly remembered.