Apr 3, 2020 update to the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI project car

Project Rabbit GTI: Finding a Survivor That’s Been Turbocharged by Callaway

A lot of our project cars lived turbulent lives. By the time we find them, they’re often broken in half and left for dead. Then we do the only sensible thing with the remaining husk: Put it back right. 

But not every project has to involve so much heavy lifting. How about a more reasonable project—something that most people can tackle—that involves buying a cool car on the cheap and fixing it up over just a few weeks or months? That describes our Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

First, let’s go back to the very early ’80s. Performance was nearly dead and buried by 1982. That year’s Corvette only made 200 horsepower.

And then came the 1983 Volkwagen Rabbit GTI. In a landscape of tape stripes and fake scoops, the GTI offered real performance thanks to a free-revving, 1.8-liter engine, close-ratio transaxle, stiffer suspension and meaty 14x6-inch wheels wrapped with sticky Pirelli tires. 

Then add in a true driver’s cockpit featuring well-bolstered seats, a grippy steering wheel and full instrumentation. 

The icing on the cake was a subtle graphics package. Subtle. 

The Rabbit GTI arrived to rave reviews, with Road & Track’s test closing with strong accolades: “At an estimated price of $8500, the Rabbit GTI is the most exciting automotive news of the year.”

While Volkswagen first offered the Rabbit GTI to European markets in 1974, this was all new to the U.S. Production of the A1-chassis Rabbit GTI ended after the 1984 model year. 

After writing a report on these cool little cars early last summer, we received a letter from a reader offering up his 1984 Rabbit GTI, white with blue interior. 

As this car was built the same year that we started publishing, we had a soft spot for it. Plus, like most other ’80s icons, the GTI is getting more popular these days. We decided that we needed to have it.

The car was offered to us for $2000, but not everything was good news: It had been left outside for the winter, and the engine hadn’t run in a decade. (We feared the worst regarding that early Bosch hybrid mechanical and electronic fuel injection.)

There was one more bit of bad news: The car was located some 2600 miles away from us in Helena, Montana.

But there was good news, too. The car still wore most of its original paint, and except for some broken glass—windshield, headlights and parking lights—there was nary a rip or tear anywhere on the car.

The last bit of good news clinched the deal for us: When this car was about a year old, the first owner had taken it to Callaway Cars, Inc., and had one of its super-cool turbo kits installed. (But, of course, that news was tempered by the fact that the turbo housing was now cracked.)

We said yes right away, transferred funds to the owner’s PayPal account, and decided to drag home the little GTI. We’d put it back on the road. 

Our reasoning behind this one? While fun to drive then and now, the Rabbit GTI is a truly iconic car. It ushered in the hot hatch craze of the ’80s. At that time, everyone had one or wanted one. 

Volkswagen sent more than a few GTI Rabbits stateside—we have heard about 12,000—but how many clean ones remain? And how many sporting that now-rare Callaway turbo kit?

It was time to get to Montana. 

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