The 1979 VW Rabbit May Be One Of My Least Favorite Mid-Cycle Styling Updates Of Any Car

Illustration for article titled The 1979 VW Rabbit May Be One Of My Least Favorite Mid-Cycle Styling Updates Of Any Car
Image: Volkswagen

I don’t have a good explanation why, but for some reason I seem to have very defined opinions when it comes to Volkswagen Rabbit headlight design choices. I’m specifying Rabbit instead of Golf because Rabbit was what the car was known as in America, and the styling choices I’ll be referencing here relate specifically to the U.S.-market Rabbits built at VW’s Westmoreland, Pennsylvania factory. This is a minor change, limited almost entirely to lighting, and it’s bothered me since I was a kid.

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I realized I’ve written about VW Golf lighting design before, noting how a minor design change in headlamp placement from a prototype Golf (then called the Blizzard) made a dramatic difference in the overall look of the car:

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Photo: Volkswagen

I think the production one, with its wide-set round headlamps, looks vastly better than the earlier one with its closer-set lights. I’m not sure what it is about Giugiaro’s Golf/Rabbit design, but for whatever reason, changes in lighting really affect the overall tone and look of the car.

The design change that happened in 1979 with the U.S.-built Rabbits is really minor, and you can see it here:

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Photo: Volkswagen

Volkswagen felt it was enough of a big deal to get its own callout on that chart: “Handsome rectangular headlamps.” Of course, they also call out “good-looking black grille” and “black door handles with gleaming metallic inlay” so the bar isn’t really all that high when it comes to what VW’s brochure team would draw a line to and talk about.

VW also updated the side marker lamps from the original frameless horizontal ones (that were also used on the Mercedes-Benz G-wagen) to the smaller vertically-oriented ones seen here. The call-out copywriter I guess didn’t think that was a deal as a “good-looking black grille.”

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I get that rectangular headlamps were still relatively new and exciting in America at the time. I can see that, objectively, you would think the crisp, highly rectilinear design of the Rabbit should have worked better with rectangular headlamps.

Hell, original prototype designs of the Golf included some rectangular headlight options, and they worked pretty well:

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Photo: Volkswagen/Car Design Archives
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There’s a lot of detail differences on that front end from the final production version, but I think this should rectangular lamps could have worked, in some design context.

Intellectually, I understand the design rationale for the rectangular lamps. But I hate them, at least on the basic production Rabbit design.

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Photo: Volkswagen

What is it about the original, round-light design that works so much better, at least for me? Those lights are the only round thing on the car well, except for the wheels I guess and they should maybe feel out of place, but they don’t.

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I like how they playfully break the lines of the grille, which continues at the sides of the headlights, as though the lights were just somehow plopped atop the unbroken rectangular grille. It’s a subtle detail, but one I always liked.

The face of this Rabbit feels eager and confident. The rectangular-light Rabbit’s face feels stern and disapproving. It feels like it’s squinting, narrowing its eyes as it scans you for something to be pissed about.

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Photo: Volkswagen

I guess the good news for me is the rectangular-light/bumper indicators Rabbit didn’t last long; In 1981, VW updated the look to incorporate the Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face, with its wrap-around corner turn indicators, which I think improved the car’s look significantly.

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Photo: Volkswagen

Perhaps some of VW agreed with me, too, because the 79 to 80 rectangular lamp design was a U.S.-only thing, and when the whole car was finally re-designed for the Mark 2 Golf, the slightly-rounded take on the classic ItalDesign shape included big, round lights on the face.

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Sometimes even I am amazed by the triviality of the shit I somehow care about, but I’ve been nursing this grudge since 1980, when my parents were shopping around for a car to replace our old 68 Beetle. 

I remember going to the VW dealership, expecting the wide-round eyes of Rabbits to be looking back at me, only to be confronted with row after row of somber-looking Rabbit faces.

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That shit sticks with you, man.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

DISCUSSION

One gripe. You talked about how in 1979 rectangular lights were new. No they were every damn where. I looked it up and there were 6 American cars in 1979 with round lights. Pacer, Skylark, Camaro, Monza, Aspen, Omega, Volare.

Pacer and Monza were canceled in 1980, Skylark/Omega and the Aspen/Volare were completely completely redesigned in 1980, only the Camaro still had round headlights in 1980 as a result. So the Rabbit getting square lights was, if anything, a bit late to the party.