It was time to buy a car. My previous ride, a 1980 Pontiac Sunbird (3.8L V6, 4 speed, American Racing wheels, and a terrible shade of pale yellow) had given all it had to give. I was wrapping up my freshman year in college, my future wife wasn’t yet my current girlfriend, I didn’t have any money, and I was determined to find something fun to drive. After securing a small loan at the local bank, shopping commenced.
A trip to Wexford, PA, and its high density of dealerships turned up a few options. I was accompanied by Justin and Eric, my two best friends, and two primary characters in our story. We hit every lot that looked like it might have a potential candidate. I encountered my first Acura NSX in the shop area of Baierl Acura. We came up empty that day, except for the red ‘84 Rabbit convertible we test drove from a small lot on Route 19. The car was underpowered, way too loud on the road, and dripping with fun, quirky personality. It was not the right example, but I had identified my target.
On the ride home, we picked up a Pittsburgh Post Gazette for its then flush automotive classifieds. There was exactly one Rabbit Convertible. 1982, one owner, $3,400. The chase commenced.
Pete Tedesco was in his mid to late 40s and was the original owner. He had paid over $12,000 for the car in 1982 and had taken excellent care of it. He was in the process of buying a new BMW 535i. P&W BMW wasn’t interested in taking in a 12 year-old Rabbit as a trade. So Pete ran an ad. I called him and chatted, got the details, and promised a call back. The next day, sitting in Justin’s second floor apartment on Eoff St, the decision was made. I called Pete but he didn’t answer. After a seeming eternity of not being able to reach him, (probably an hour or so), Justin and I decided to do the only logical thing. We’d just head for Sewickley, PA. That way, when we did reach him, we’d be that much closer. And if we couldn’t reach him? Well, Sewickley’s pretty small, and the car is pretty distinctive. We’ll just drive around until we find it. We were hoping it wasn’t in a garage.
Upon arriving in Sewickley, we tried Pete’s number one more time. His daughter answered. “I’m sorry, my dad left on a business trip. He’ll be back in a few days.” Still determined to at least see the car, we asked if we could come by and check it out. “He took it to the airport with him.” We were not easily deterred. The daughter told us which lot he usually parked in and we headed toward the airport.
Somehow, we found the lot, drove around a bit, and located the car. I have no idea how we didn’t get arrested. The car appeared to be in great condition and the decision was made.
May 20, 1994
I still hadn’t driven the car, but the deal was done. Pete returned from his trip and we arranged to meet at the BMW dealership in Oakland. I’m not honestly sure I drove the car before handing over the check. It was a beautiful, blue sky kind of day, the perfect day to buy a convertible. We put the top down and headed for home.
A quick side note...Justin accompanied me on this trip, along with another person. That person’s identity has been lost to history. I’m still hoping someone will come forward with information leading to their whereabouts, but for now, it’s a mystery. Maybe I should offer a reward.
We left Oakland and decided to go home through the South Hills, ostensibly to avoid traffic, more likely because I thought it would be a better inaugural drive than the parkway. Sitting at the south end of the Liberty Tunnel, all seemed right with the world.
And then something landed on the very top of the windshield, splashing the occupants just a little. Bird crap.
We would not be discouraged. The sun was too bright, the mood too good. The top would stay down.
Early June 1994
By all accounts, the purchase was a hit. The car was fun, it ran great, and I quickly fell in love with its basic Germanness… the build quality, the quirky ergonomics... it was just different than most other cars out there.
I was still getting familiar with the various controls and indicators when a new light appeared. The engine was overheating. A bad thermostat was the diagnosis. No big deal, I’ve changed thermostats before. Except not on a Volkswagen. On this car, the thermostat is in a different location and doesn’t use the type of paper gasket I had seen on so many small block Chevys. I replaced the faulty part and reassembled everything. It seemed fine.
June 18, 1994
A day or two later, while on our way to a graduation party, the light was back on, indicating the engine was overheating again. I thought I would be okay to keep driving, the party was only a few miles away. And then a noise, followed by steam from under the hood, and finally a complete loss of power. We have a problem.
Justin’s Uncle Roger rescued us, tying a rope from the back of his Ford Bronco to the front bumper of the Rabbit. He pulled us to Justin’s parents’ house.
My thermostat installation had been incorrect and allowed all of the coolant to drain from the engine. At this point I learned what happens to an aluminum head when it gets too hot. We had a head gasket to change.
With no money, no garage, and no experience with a German, front-wheel drive, fuel-injected car, Justin and I figured we could buy a book and do it ourselves. Justin’s dad agreed to the use of his garage and we began wrenching. The temporary tags were still on the car.
Mid July, 1994
The temporary tags had expired, but after a month or so of busted knuckles, very late nights, and much head scratching, we had the car running again. Sort of. It didn’t seem to idle quite right, but we’ll figure that out later. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
I had learned a lot about the engine. We thought the idle issue might be related to the ignition timing. Or maybe a vacuum leak. Or the cam timing. We checked everything, made some adjustments, but it still wasn't quite right. The ignition timing is adjusted with a 10mm wrench, and can be done in just a few seconds. For the next 3 years, I would keep a 10mm wrench in the center console. I adjusted the timing hundreds of times. On the side of the road, at stop signs, and countless times while delivering pizza. I could get it close, but never all the way there.
At this point, a couple of interesting characters enter our story:
I knew of Angelo indirectly; his daughter Stacy and her husband Rick are lifelong friends. Angelo had what was likely the largest collection of VW Rabbits in a hundred-mile radius. His were mostly diesels, but he had a few gas cars around, and he proved to be an invaluable resource for advice, parts, and endless encouragement. Ange lives by a Depression-era morality that says you fix what you’ve got, you don’t just throw it away. He took a great deal of pride in his immense parts collection and he was always happy to announce that he didn’t just have what I needed - he had three or four of them.
Angelo is a grizzly bear of a guy, every bit of 6’ 5”. Every day he squeezed into a 2-door Rabbit, and for a while a Rabbit pickup, and puttered to work at the local coal mine. The other guys at the mine were proud of their oversized pickups with rumbling exhausts, Angelo smugly noted every gallon of diesel he bought, just to make sure he never slipped below 50 mpg.
Angelo thought the idle problem was probably a sensor somewhere that wasn’t right. He gave me more than one cold start valve, none of which fixed the problem.
Rick owns the go-to service garage in Smithfield, just down the street from Justin’s dad’s house. We bugged him a lot, and he was (usually) willing to help. Rick is the prototypical VW guy...smart, frugal, and just a little off the mainstream. He was much more impressed with an odometer that broke the 200,000 mile mark than he was with a V8 that could do the ¼ mile in 12 seconds.
Rick believed the car wasn’t idling right because we had screwed something up.
Greg from The Bug Shop
Well, his place is called “The Bug Shop.” Ask anyone who knows cars to name a VW guy in the Ohio Valley, and they’ll tell you to call The Bug Shop.
Greg’s time with VWs goes back to the 70s, and he prefers to work on them mainly because they’re not “that junk that GM sells.” He has been a source of advice for years, even on some of my recent cars.
Greg had no idea why the idle was screwed up, but if I wanted to drop the car off, he’d take a look when he got a chance.
The VW Whisperer
His name has faded from memory, but his influence remains. A shade tree mechanic from Newtown (don’t bother looking it up, Google doesn’t know about it), he was a magician with these cars. In typical VW-guy fashion, he had more cars around than he needed, and he was always willing to share his experience if it would help.
Eric and I visited him, on Angelo’s recommendation, sometime in the summer of 1995.
He thought the idle problem was related to a vacuum leak, and while it wasn’t entirely the issue, he was the first guy I met who really understood how the fuel injection system worked. We did have a couple of vacuum leaks, and fixing them did help get the car running a little better.
With the car back on the road and running reasonably well, it was time to do what every red-blooded 19 year-old wanted to do in 1994. It was time for a new stereo. After memorizing Crutchfield’s entire catalog, components were ordered and a custom install was meticulously planned.
The work would primarily be done late at night, after closing at Pizza Express, in the carport behind Eric’s parents’ house. We had an interesting ritual around this time -- whoever’s car was being wrenched, the other guy would typically do the wrenching. Which is why Eric spent so much time under my dashboard with Dremel in hand.
First up, a head unit/CD changer combo from Sanyo. This unit was chosen because it was the smallest 6 CD changer on the market, and we were pretty certain it would fit in the glove compartment. It did, barely, and only with Eric’s careful removal of significant amounts of plastic.
Next was a custom-built subwoofer box, designed to fit perfectly in the small trunk. It was built to be fully self-contained, with everything easily disconnected in case more trunk space was needed.
Lastly, a component speaker set from Blaupunkt, with a 4” midrange that fit perfectly in the door panels, and small tweeters that were flush mounted one either side of the dash. Sure we had to to drill 1½” diameter holes in the dash, but Eric had the right hole saw, and it sure looked clean when it was done. The hi-hats in the opening strains of Jet City Woman were often used to demo those tweeters.
December 31, 1994
New Year’s Eve found me at the Firehouse in Wheeling, as Joe Zelek and the boys of JFK led us into 1995.
While on the dance floor, I ran into a beautiful redhead. We had met once or twice before, but it seemed different this time. She asked how things were going at Pitt. I reminded her that I went to Duquesne. We hung out for a while, and I offered to give her a ride home.
I led her to the Rabbit, explained that the heat didn’t work all that great, and that sometimes it had a little trouble idling. Queensryche and I showed off the tweeters. She didn’t seem too impressed with any of it.
We parked down the street from her mom’s house. Even though she was cold, and worried that the erratic idle might wake the neighbors, we sat and talked for hours. It was nearly daybreak when we parted, and while the evening didn’t end up the way 19-year old me had hoped (she was far too classy for THAT), things were definitely about to get interesting.