The key to happiness is a classic VW.
Last month, Volkswagen held its first annual Chattanooga Motorcar Festival, the final day of which included a classic car rally that kicked off at Coker Tire, a famous tire company and automotive museum located nearby the VW factory. We were invited to sample some of the classics at the event, including a 1964 Beetle, 1967 Deluxe 21-Window Samba Bus, 1967 Karmann Ghia Convertible, 1971 Myers Manx, 1972 Type 3 Sedan Squareback, 1973 Thing, and 1985 Rabbit GTI. Without hesitation, I made a beeline for the Rabbit GTI.
The Rabbit and I are kindred spirits. We were both born in the state of Pennsylvania (me in Philadelphia and the Rabbit outside of Pittsburgh) and one of this car's distant successors, a fifth-generation Jetta GLI, was once my pride and joy.
Hot hatchbacks are in my blood and my current car, a 2017 Ford Fiesta ST, feels remarkably linked to the original GTI, even though the two cars come from completely separate manufacturers. Volkswagen built the Rabbit GTI in Westmoreland, PA for just two model years - 1983 and 1984 - before the second-generation GTI entered production badged as the 'Golf GTI' a year later in 1985.
Much like the rest of the car, the key to this pristine GTI, which only showed a little over 60,000 miles on the old-school odometer, was a simple affair with no digital buttons, just a cool 'VW' logo cut into the center - this was 1984 after all. The car fired right up as if it was brand-new, the loud exhaust fitted to this particular example becoming instantly apparent.
Finding the bite point of the clutch took a moment, resulting in an obnoxiously loud exit from the starting point, but I quickly jelled with the GTI and proceeded to only miss one shift during the rest of my time with the car. Built more than 35 years ago, the car still felt modern and easy to live with. The red interior looks remarkably of its era but the seats are comfortable and the clutch is light - you could easily commute in one of these every day in 2019. It even has a radio (but more on that later).
The US-spec Rabbit GTI was equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder sending 90 horsepower to the front wheels through a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission with a golf ball shifter. As you'd expect from such a powertrain, the sprint to 60 mph takes over 10 seconds meaning every putz driving around in a modern economy car will beat it off the line. The performance was quick for the time but it doesn't matter today. The GTI communicates a level of driving feel not found in any modern vehicle I've driven.
It feels buzzy. So utterly joyful, the car communicates every ounce of road feel to the driver like an overly talkative best friend. Mash the throttle, and the steering wheel shimmies in your hands as the front wheels playfully transmit all 90 of those rampaging horses to the ground, a rowdy exhaust singing in the background as you aggressively snatch second gear. There were some odd vibrations coming from around the cabin but for the most part, the GTI ran like clockwork.
Every "feature" inside the car is manual - from the roll-up windows and sunroof to the controls for the heating and ventilation. The lone bit of electronic kit was a factory Graig radio, which worked remarkably well after more than 35 years in service. There was plenty of static coming from the original speakers, but I was able to tune to an '80s rock and roll station playing classics such as 'Summer of 69,' 'Jesse's Girl,' and '99 Luftballoons.'
As our convoy of classic VWs drove through Tennesee's stunning backroads and sweeping highways, I popped the GTI into fifth gear, cracked open the manual sunroof, and enjoyed the ride.
The GTI is remarkably comfortable as a daily cruiser but the car truly comes alive when the road gets twisty. As we hit the mountains, the radio static intensified as the GTI transformed into a hatch. Just like the windows, the steering is unapologetically manual, requiring a heavy hand at slow speeds. But when the GTI is on the move, the steering lightens up while still providing excellent feedback to the driver.
The GTI's diminutive size and weight yield feather-light steering under most circumstances and it is only when you approach a tight corner that the steering weights up and its manual nature comes through. Parking lot maneuvers will require some arm strength but on the move, the GTI's steering is a delight. On Tennesee's fantastic mountain switchbacks, the GTI never felt underpowered, especially in the company of its less powerful contemporaries. As the young gun of the group, the Rabbit quickly made short work of the road ahead while I wore the largest grin you can imagine. I could feel the heritage of the GTI nameplate coming through and I never wanted the experience to end.
Eventually, we approached the lunch stop, a private collection of mostly American classics owned by one of the rally participants. With a flight to catch, I waved goodbye to the GTI and opted for the orange 1967 Deluxe Samba Bus as my ride back to the hotel. The GTI encompasses the essence of driving but when it comes to delivering joy to everyone in the surrounding area, the Samba is unmatched.
From the moment I hit the road, nearly every person I passed smiled and waved - this is the happiest car on the planet, the automotive symbol of peace, love, and happiness. To drive, the experience was a bit terrifying at first, but you come to realize the automobile hasn't changed too drastically, even in the five-plus decades since this particular Samba bus was built. It still has three familiar pedals mounted quite awkwardly with the steering column between the clutch and brake, with a massive steering wheel occupying the space where my gut would be had I not been watching my weight.
Four gears plus reverse can be accessed using the long gear stalk jutting out from the floor and there isn't much precision involved with the shifting process. Just jam the stick forward and to the left for first gear, down for second, forward and to the right for third, and if you manage to get the bus up to highway speeds, pull down and to the right for fourth.
This particular Samba Bus was beautifully restored by the VW Collection but still features its original 1.5-liter Beetle engine producing just 54 hp. Getting it up to modern highway speeds takes effort and before taking an on-ramp at speed, bags and passengers better be fastened down properly. Sitting above the front wheels takes some getting used to but with a little bit of time behind the wheel, driving the Samba at highway speeds isn't too difficult or scary.
When I arrived at the hotel, the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival was in full swing with the parking lot packed with high-dollar classics and supercars. But those cars were quickly ignored the moment I pulled in with the Samba. Almost instantly, attendees at the show were no longer interested in the purple Lamborghini parked nearby, they wanted to know about the bus. I can not think of another vehicle, new or otherwise, which can attract the same attention from car lovers and non-car lovers alike, regardless of age. So many cars are the target of hatred for one reason or another but with the Samba Bus, it's all love.
Despite not having the time to sample all seven classics VW supplied for the event, I'm confident that they all would have provided me with pure driving bliss. These cars transport the driver back to a time when driving was unencumbered by the burdens of modern society. There were no emails to respond to or social media posts to make, just you and the car connected.
I later learned the price of my rare and well-restored Samba Bus - a staggering $160,000. That's out of my price range but many of these classic Volkswagens can be had on a more meager budget. A nice Rabbit GTI, for example, can currently be found for less than $15,000 and unlike most classic cars, you could theoretically drive it every day with ease. If you fancy yourself a driving enthusiast, I implore you to investigate the multitude of classic VWs on the market to discover which one suits you best. I have no doubt you will come away from the experience enlighted with greater respect for what makes driving such a pleasure.