VW Rabbit GTI: What to know before you buy

Photograph Courtesy VW

Something happened while we weren’t looking: The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, the car that introduced the low-buck hot hatch concept to millions of enthusiasts, has quietly crept up in value.

Like many automotive icons-the Shelby Mustang, the Mini Cooper S-the GTI has roots in a machine designed for the masses. In this case, that base lump of clay was the VW Rabbit.

The Rabbit may have been built for general consumption, but its looks came from the talented Giorgetto Giugiaro’s pen. His work from the ’50s and ’60s featured soft curves-witness the Alfa Romeo 2000, Iso Grifo, Maserati Ghibli and various 250 GT-series Ferraris. But by the ’70s Giugiaro had entered his “folded paper” period, in which creased angles and strong horizonal lines dominated. Other Giugiaro icons sporting this same design language include the BMW M1, Lotus Esprit, and everyone’s favorite time machine, the stainless-steel DeLorean.

The base Rabbit-called the Golf in Europe-debuted in 1974. Volkswagen unveiled the high-performance GTI a year later, although U.S. customers had to endure a wait until the 1983 model year.

That American-market GTI made 90 horsepower-stout for an era when a Camaro Z28 couldn’t even top 200. The GTI added a much-needed spark to the day’s performance scene, but by the end of 1984 it was replaced with an all-new version.

Why You Want One

■ Road & Track’s initial test closed on a high note: “At an estimated price of $8500, the Rabbit GTI is the most exciting automotive news of the year.”

■ Classic, subtle looks: a deep chin spoiler, lower ride height, alloy wheels and blacked-out trim. The GTI also received more power, bigger brakes and a stiffer suspension.

■ All U.S.-market cars sported a close-ratio, five-speed gearbox.

■ The GTI’s interior received a meaty steering wheel, full instrumentation, and some of the best sport seats ever produced. The subtle red accents found outside the car continued inside.

■ Enthusiasts flocked to the GTI in droves. It quickly became a staple of autocross and road racing events.

VW Rabbit GTI Shopping Advice

Our Expert:
Collin Gyenes 
President, Techtonics Tuning

I’m seeing customers who want to build their dream GTI. Now that the values have come up, people don’t mind putting the money into them because there’s a good chance they’ll get their investment back.

The good ones are going for a lot of money because they weren’t water-proof.

People want the old-school look, so we’ll make a 1900cc that looks stock.

People will lower it and do wheels because you can always go back. The GTI was a little softly sprung stock.

Mk1 Engineering and MK1 Autohaus specialize that in Mk1 rubber. Volkswagen has a classic parts division. It’s almost easier to redo a Mk1 now than 20 years ago.

We still have the European GTI camshaft. One of the down-pipes that had discontinued we had put back into production because of demand. Every day, some kind of Mk1 part leaves Techtonics Tuning.

They now make the snowflake wheels in different diameters. It’s cool that you can do the classic look with a modern tire.

Lift up the carpet in front of the front seats if you can and look for rust.

Buy a good body. Some people may not be aware how expensive it is to get a car painted these days. You can spend five grand or more on a paint job.

Some of the CIS parts are getting hard to find, but there are kits for rebuilding the fuel distributors.

Any electrical issues are easy to fix. Any mechanical issues are cheap.

It was an easy car to drive fast. The high roofline is nice. Like a BMW 2002, it has a lot of glass. As far as driving experience, a GTI will spank a 2002.

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studepilot New Reader
4/29/20 4:04 p.m.

while not a gti ,I have very clean 89 cabriolet sitting in my lot .i have to get it running again after the vermont registration is taken care of .I think the fuel is not flowing but have to further test .already has  wheel discs  new struts , new brakes a/c delete , an old crusty vert hood in the british lexicon . I cries out for more ,but alas corona has sucked away the funds for now .The free stuff will get done as it is nice out now .if you can't build what you dream of ,build what you have ..... 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/2/20 11:39 a.m.

In reply to studepilot :

So your Cab has the full bumper covers, right? Need to get that to Radwood. 

5/1/21 3:16 p.m.

Encouraging news.  The GTI has long been a favourite.  Had two over the years.  Makes me think my current toy, an '84 Scirocco might be increasing in value too.  Same mechanicals & suspension only - some would say - nicer looking!

wspohn SuperDork
5/2/21 1:25 p.m.

I recall when I started racing back in the early 70s, there was a feeling that 'real' sports cars were somehow superior to those sedan things.

Then they amalgamated the classes to run together (it was a power to weight group like a showroom stock class with very limited modification allowed - the improved production (SCCA style) remained segregated. 

It was immediately apparent that the handling of cars like the Wabbit was excellent - no doubt they were torsionally stiffer than a body on frame old style sports car  and it showed as it gave a more stable platform for the suspension. It didn't help that the organizing body didn't really distinguish between the old gross power ratings and the post 1971 net figures until a couple of years later, so my 80 bhp and a post 1971 80 bhp car were significantly different in terms of grunt.  But the handing was our biggest surprise, and it made us drive harder and cleaner and was in retrospect a good thing - we just didn't think that way at the time.

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