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Zero Rust Diesel: 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit

A1 and A2 Volkswagens remain one of the more affordable members of the emerging class of collector vehicles, save for some iconic models like the GTI and Jetta GLI that have already taken flight. That’s no surprise that the performance models would get top dollar first, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had. Take this cherry VW Rabbit Diesel, showing under 90,000 miles and in incredibly nice condition, listed here on eBay with bidding just over $3K and the reserve unmet.

Now, make no mistake – there’s a big difference in the driving experience between one of these and a DOHC-equipped MK2 chassis. What you’re looking for is that tossable quality, the lightness that defined cars from the middle 80s. The diesel powertrain will never deliver thrills, but the Rabbit’s light curb weight should make it feel more powerful than it is. Of course, for anyone looking for an A1 car, finding an example as rust-free as this should be a priority.

What’s always surprising about these incredibly nice survivors is that they look this good with 90,000 miles on the clock. That’s plenty of time for an owner to neglect a car, or for a decent driver to fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t apply the same level of attention to detail. When you see the automatic combined with the diesel powertrain, it’s practically unanimous that this Rabbit was owned for a very long time by an older person who drove slowly and carefully, everywhere.

The seats are in beautiful condition, like the door panels. The seller claims the car is healthy enough to be used as a daily driver, but of course, you don’t want to use a survivor like this in that fashion. The current bid is heading in the right direction, but there should be more meat on the bone – just remember, though, these aren’t cars you buy for any sense of exhilaration, just what comes with driving a time capsule specimen of Volkswagen’s highly efficient hatchback.


  1. angliagt angliagt Member

    The eBay link shows a ’93 Mustang.

  2. Wonson

    Wow, I did not know they made a diesel automatic. The manuals barely got out of their own way I couldn’t imagine getting on a freeway with an auto. Cool ride though, I remember when these were a dime a dozen.

    Like 9
    • nlpnt

      On the stats page under 0-60 it just says “Yes”.

      Like 2
      • Rabbit Mike

        Many many years ago I had taken window paint and put on my 1981 VW Rabbit Diesel windshield “0-60 YES” and many people always asked why and laughed

    • Ron

      Had a new one got 65 miles to a gal bet that

  3. alphasud Member

    Rabbit diesels with the automatic are extremely rare. I never saw one at the shop. We did work on a MK1 Jetta with the auto. That one like the Quantum’s had a E position on the shifter which basically caused the trans to slip into neutral at stops so the poor thing wouldn’t shake itself to death. With 50 HP and a stick they are extremely slow. I think a Mercedes 240D would beat the auto in a drag race. Also really rare it the velour interior. Not many L models were sold.

    Like 4
  4. ace10

    My best friend’s family had a 5 speed diesel in the mid 80s. It drove fine. Has enough pep to get away from a stoplight. Pretty bad on the highways, though.
    The shifter was quite vaque, but wow was that a short throw.
    Cannot imagine what a slushbox would do to the “performance.”

  5. Gregory A Smith

    I think this is an “American” version built in Pennsylvania. The side marker lights, the interior material, etc. I bought a new 1979 Rabbit Diesel. It supposedly was the last built in Germany in that era. Loved that car!

  6. Car Nut Tacoma

    Awesome looking VW Rabbit. Although I was way too young to drive at the time, I remember when this was on the market. I find this way more attractive than what’s currently on the market.

    Like 2
  7. Spud

    90K miles in 40 years is basically testimony to the fact that the driver more often than not just gave up and walked as a quicker means of transport than this 52 HP diesel automatic. My diesel with a 5-speed (’84) could eventually move along…but no way that could happen with this one. “Tossable”………….not.

    Like 2
  8. Justin Gassaway

    Knew you could get an Automatic Diesel Chevette, but not a Rabbit.

    • connbackroads

      I owned 3 Chevette diesel Automatics (still have lots of parts from these), and an 85 Jetta diesel 5 speed, and an 86 Golf diesel 5-speed (both quietly rusting in the back yard now). The VW’s were better cars, and the 5-speed helped acceleration tremendously. I can’t imagine acceleration in this diesel rabbit with an automatic. Perhaps the rate of speed merely evolves . . .at glacial speed.

      That Isuzu diesel in the Chevettes was a great engine.

      Like 2
    • Spud

      Yep…one of the things about the diesel Chevettes is that they were not available with air conditioning as running the AC would make the car nearly undrivable. Those had about 50 hp too. This Rabbit has air conditioning!! (check the eBay pics) I mean, no wonder it has PA plates. In 40 years, they weren’t even able to get it out of state from the factory :-)

      Like 4
  9. Peter

    I only saw one single picture that showed the auto shifter and it was taken through the open rear hatch. No mention of the transmission anywhere in the listing. Are they trying to hide something?

  10. cmarv

    My Dad bought an 82 Rabbit Black Tie Edition new , it had a 5 speed ,sunroof and A/C . It was lame but went 315K before it rusted in two , (sold the motor to an Amish family to use on a refrigeration unit) . I have owned a used car dealership in PA. for 35 years and years back I got all the trades from a small local Dodge/Chrysler dealership . I got a low mile 79 diesel Rabbit automatic that was traded on an Omni . It ran along pulling until you let off the throttle and the coasted , when you came to a stop it would go into “neutral” when you hit the throttle it took off smoothly . One of the strangest cars I have ever had , and I’ve had lot’s .

    Like 2
  11. Bernie Chaziquasidence

    I bought a Dasher diesel wagon from a friend. Around town, meh, but out on interstate is where it shined(comfortable, quiet, great fuel mileage). After putting almost 300K miles on it, I could foresee problems arising, so I traded it to my VW mechanic for diesel Rabbit 2-door. Racked up almost 300K on that one. Before I bought the Dasher, I swore I’d never own a diesel. How wrong I was! Sure, they’re
    like a moving chicane around town, but most of my driving at that time was on the interstate. I absolutely loved the fuel mileage. In addition to that, both cars were problem-free. I can no longer drive, but if I was
    looking to purchase another car, I’d consider the Rabbit, without the automatic transmission. Nothing but good memories of those 2 cars.

  12. Joe Alexander

    eBay shows picture of rear and under the emblem is clearly rust bubbles

  13. TommyFarfegnugkin

    This thing can’t go up a hill
    It slows down when you turn on the ac
    And you better buy some spare head gaskets cause they blow like the wind

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