I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this cute little VW Cabriolet is one of the most exciting cars I’ve ever driven. Under the hood is the revered Volkswagen VR6 motor, and though it makes only around 170 horsepower, it absolutely screams, rocketing this little convertible down the street in a way that truly has me shook.
I’m in Ellensburg, Washington, hanging out with reader Jay Pfeiffer. (To be clear, by “hanging out” I mean he and I were basically swimming in pools of brake fluid and gear oil last night wrenching on my 1958 Willys FC-170. It was rough.) Jay had emailed me a few weeks ago offering a place to wrench should I need help on my journey to pick up my mouse-infested FC with the 2002 Lexus LX470 that I bought sight-unseen.
Recently, I’ve run into a few issues (more on those in an upcoming story), and decided to hit up Jay. Upon arrival, the career counselor and business lecturer at Central Washington University showed me his little white VW Cabriolet.
Known in Germany as the Erdbeerkörbchen (or “strawberry basket”) because its roll hoop looks like a basket handle, the VW Cabriolet (also known as the Golf Cabriolet in other markets and Rabbit Cabriolet in North America prior to 1985) was based on the MK1 Golf platform, but was assembled by Osnabrück, Germany-based coachbuilder Karmann from 1979 until 1993. That’s right, VW sold a convertible version of the first-gen Golf throughout the entire second-generation Golf’s production run and even into early MK3 Golf production. I bet that old Golf body style looked dated by 1993, but today I think it looks fantastic.
The Cabrio was a fun convertible offered early on with a fuel-injected 76-horsepower 1.6-liter inline-four and later with a 94-horsepower 1.8-liter engine. Both engines came with a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic, which routed power to the front wheels. With so little power, the vehicle was clearly a top-down cruiser more than anything.
As John Davis, beloved car reviewer from MotorWeek describes, the Cabriolet was not quick. The added weight needed to stiffen the hacked-up VW Golf body did no favors for the 90-ish horsepower Rabbit GTI 1.8-liter motor, as the vehicle needed 12.5 seconds to reach 60 mph, per MotorWeek’s testing.
But enough about stock Cabriolets. Let’s talk about Death Cab. That’s the nickname Jay gave to his 1985 model fitted with a 1998 VW Jetta GLX’s 2.8-liter VR6 engine. That’s 50 percent more cylinders and roughly 50 percent more displacement than what came under the hood from the factory. More important, the front wheels now receive 82 more horsepower than the stock 90.
And I know, you’re probably thinking that 172 horsepower isn’t much, but trust me: It feels astronomical in a car that Jay tells me weighs less than a ton. Watch as I express rapturous joy, not just because of the car’s power, but because of the incredible Wookiee-like sound from that narrow-angle, single-cylinder-head-equipped V6 engine:
The Death Cab’s VR6 engine is bolted to a five-speed manual transmission from a Corrado, which is also a Karmann-built car, though unlike the Cabrio, it could be had with the 2.8-liter VR6. The shifter linkage, Jay tells me, is actually from an Audi TT, the rear disc brakes come out of a 16-valve VW Scirocco and the front stoppers have been upgraded to Corrado G60 brakes.
Right now, the car sits on rather stiff coilovers, but Jay plans to install springs out of a diesel, automatic Cabriolet. This was the heaviest version of the Cabriolet, so Jay hopes it’ll be able to handle the rather hefty VR6 now stuffed into the Strawberry Basket’s nose.
I wasn’t expecting to like Death Cab as much as I did. Though I love all cars, I’d say the VW Vortex scene is probably the one that feels the most distant to me. And yet this little 1985 Cabriolet, with its fantastic manual steering, beautiful five-speed shifter, absurdly chuckable curb weight and symphonic VR6 rocket strapped into the engine bay still has the blood pulsing rapidly through my veins.
Driving through the beautiful Washington countryside, listening to this motor blare great sounds against the Cascades, shifting that floor-mounted stick and twisting that unassisted steering wheel to make the car slice through tight turns — god, it was good. So damn good.
The death cab may just look like a little white 1980s VW sorority-mobile, but it is far more than that. It’s a true thrill.
A couple of corrections: The MKI VW Cabriolet was never called the VW Cabrio. Also, I wrote “GTX” instead of “GLX” for some reason. My Vee-Dub skills clearly need a bit of work.