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The early 1980s were a trying time for auto enthusiasts in the U.S. Thanks to the oil crisis and government regulations, muscle cars were fat and slow, sports cars were festooned with giant bumpers and choking emissions equipment, and sporty sedans like the BMW 2002tii were simply not made anymore. The U.S. needed a miracle to keep the notion of the fun car alive.
Thankfully, Volkswagen was there to perform one. Nearly a decade after introducing the first front-wheel-drive econobox that Americans could actually be coerced into buying–the Rabbit–VW brought over the version that Americans actually wanted to buy, the 1983 Rabbit GTI.
Packing more power, improved handling and more attractive styling into the same practical shell proved to be a winning formula for Volkswagen, and the GTI sold exceedingly well. As one of our first real “hot hatches,” the GTI simultaneously created a market and dominated it.
One Bad Bunny
While a fast, inexpensive, well-balanced, good-looking hatchback is enough for most people, for others it’s merely an invitation to turn the knobs up to 11. Reeves Callaway, an industrious driving instructor with a knack for turbocharging, belongs to that second camp.
After founding Callaway Cars from his home in 1977, he began selling his turbo kits straight to consumers. Rather than being loyal to any one manufacturer, he instead made kits for whatever he felt deserved them. “It was a point to choose only cars that could stand a substantial increase in power and still remain reliable,” he explains. The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI earned a place on his list.
Under the hood, nothing has really been touched since 1983. The turbo kit is nicely made, and everything looks factory. Notice the intercooler up front.
Callaway’s turbo kits bumped the Rabbit’s 90 ponies to either 120 or 186, depending on the chosen option. Both turned the GTI into a legitimately fast car, but the 186-horsepower stage two kit turned it into a rocket ship. Callaway calls the stage two car “a quite amusing torque steer proposition.” That’s a chilling evaluation of a little front-wheel-drive econobox packing twice the power it was designed to handle.
One of these ludicrous stage two turbo kits was bolted onto this particular car, a white 1983 Rabbit GTI with a red interior. This car is special, and not just because of the rare upgrade. It’s special because its original owner only drove it 18,000 miles. Besides some rock chips, this Rabbit still looks like it did the day Callaway Cars installed its $4500 turbo kit.
The driver’s view reinforces the fact that this car is over 30 years old. The gauge cluster is simple and to the point, while creature comforts include a radio–and not much else.
Lance Miller, owner of Carlisle Events, bought this pristine Rabbit GTI on eBay Motors from its original owner’s widow. Lance had fond memories of his father’s Rabbit GTI, and he already had one of his own. It was by chance–and a spontaneous eBay search for “Callaway”–that Lance stumbled across this time capsule. He had to have it, and after a quick inspection by a VW Vortex member and a bid on eBay Motors, it was his.
Lance Miller paid what may be a record-setting sum of money for an early GTI, but it’s obvious it was worth it. He never stops smiling when he’s near the car.
He didn’t just get the car, though. He also got a giant binder stuffed with documentation, and we’re not just talking oil change receipts. The original owner saved every scrap of paper that bore any relation to his Rabbit GTI: service receipts, the window sticker, Callaway brochures and advertisements, handwritten lists of questions he asked during phone calls (with answers noted in a different color of ink), correspondence with Reeves Callaway himself, plans to fly to Callaway Cars to pick up the Rabbit, magazine stories comparing hatchbacks in 1983, notes the owner made to himself comparing cars, and fuel mileage data for every single tank of gas that passed through his Rabbit. Even by enthusiast standards, the original owner was maniacally meticulous when it came to recordkeeping.
Lance had only owned the Rabbit for a few months when he offered to share his new toy with us. So we took it somewhere every A1 Rabbit really belongs: a tight, twisty autocross course, one that we happened to have all to ourselves. Yes, that meant unlimited autocross runs in a Callaway-turbocharged Rabbit GTI bearing 18,000 original miles. Sign us up.
We hopped in the driver’s seat of this hopped-up Rabbit, turned the key, and heard the little four-banger fire up. This car doesn’t exactly sound like a V8 Mustang, but it’s obviously not your standard Rabbit. Shifting into first is like flicking a nice toggle switch. There’s just enough resistance to assure you that there’s a transmission attached, but not so much that you have second thoughts about what you’re about to do: floor it and sidestep the clutch.
Launching this Rabbit GTI does not feel at all like launching a Rabbit GTI. We figured the turbo would just add a little more oomph, but it completely changes the character of the car–in a good way. This Rabbit still wears boring, rock-hard street rubber, so our first lap of the course produced a combination of terminal understeer and wide smiles on our faces. Any application of the throttle vaporized the front tires into a cloud of warm, fuzzy feelings.
The original owner was so meticulous that he installed Kleen Wheels wheel covers to keep brake dust off of the stock, 14-inch wheels.
By lap two, we were starting to get a feel for things. Once the novelty of seemingly unlimited power wears off, the 2100- pound Callaway Rabbit is a great autocross car. Its chassis is remarkably neutral for a front-wheel-drive car, and with just a touch of trail braking it’s easy to pivot the car around the cones.
Our one complaint? The Rabbit exhibits the body roll typical of an econobox–but that’s nothing a big anti-roll bar wouldn’t fix. Though the turbo feels disruptive at first, there isn’t actually that much lag, and the powerband seems fairly wide. Through careful use of the throttle, we were able to click off exceedingly fast laps on the tight course. By lap four, we’d figured out the car. So we did some more laps–you know, for science.
The car is a joy to autocross, and though its modern rivals can best it in a straight line, the GTI can beat them through the cones.
Afterward, we took the Rabbit out on the open road to answer one question: Was this another great autocross car that’s miserable to drive on the street? Nope, it behaves like a well-built economy car. Sure, it isn’t a new Mercedes, but it doesn’t squeak or rattle or ride rough. If someone rode in it blindfolded, they’d probably guess they were in a vehicle 20 years newer–it’s simply better than a car from 1983 has any right to be. And on the highway, the turbo’s 10 psi of boost makes passing easy, even as the little hot hatch rockets to ludicrous speeds.
Our verdict? This is one of the best cars ever made, and it’s been made even better with a little forced induction. Let us know if you have one you’d like to sell, because we’ve found ourselves cruising eBay Motors looking for one of our own.
“Certain specs have changed due to turbocharging,” one plaque under the hood reads. We wish there were more cars that required this warning.