Unexceptional Classics

The VW Jetta MkII is so sensible I forgot I owned one

by Giles Chapman
8 February 2021 3 min read
The VW Jetta MkII is so sensible I forgot I owned one
Photos: Volkswagen

I was lying in bed this morning, mug of tea in hand, trying to summon up the VW Jetta MkII on-road experience like a medium attempting to contact the departed – eyes closed, brow furrowed; surely I’d driven at least one, maybe more? The peepers snapped open with a start. Blimey – I owned one! I’d completely forgotten about it. Not, I think, down to a premature senior moment but more because I’d purposely blocked out an unsettling shambles entirely of my own making.

Having owned two MkII Golfs, I knew these 1980s icons were pretty much the best all-round cars of their generation. They were built like tanks and proceeded a bit like them too unless you had power steering, but the grip and poise were excellent. They were comfortable and spacious and the dashboard, while a tad heavy on the severe, black, chunky plastics, was a paragon of usability. And they were reliable while still having the odd foible.

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For example, I knew of several, mine included, where the heater control broke and the binary options then became freezing to death or being roasted alive. The horrendous cost of fixing that meant I put up with it until something more serious – and costly – came along and I had to get rid.

On my eight-valve GTi – quite simply one of the best cars ever – for some reason the speedo was in km/h even though it was right-hand drive. It might have been one of those odd ‘Tax-free Export’ cars supplied to a British Army officer stationed in Germany. When pulled over once for a minor speeding transgression, I was able to point out that actually, officer, I’m not sure precisely how fast I was going, because, well… look.

Giles Chapman used to own a VW Jetta 8V GTI

Spooling forward a few years, the domestic situation was at a difficult crux. I was recuperating after an operation and, as this rendered us car-less, my wife was keen to continue her driving lessons. So she could practice between sessions with Brian from Sanderstead and his beige, dual-control Japmobile, I decided to get her a good cheap car, and with the help of a pal this duly became a presentable VW Jetta MkII 1.8GL petrol for what I thought was a fairly tidy £700. A mere stripling at 15 years old and still looking sharp in bright red.

This Jetta, of course, is the Golf MkII with its versatile hatchback usurped by a traditional boot of truly coal bunker proportions. With 470 litres of capacity, or for Brexiters 16.6cu ft, you could stuff even more in there than a boxy Volvo 240 saloon’s at 395l/13.9cu ft. The 1979 MkI Jetta had been designed as a Golf MkI spin-off for an American market that, just as for today, tended to prefer sedans to hatchbacks. It was a runaway success there and the 1984 MkII like mine was an even more enormous hit in the US.

Things began well. We pottered around the lanes of Surrey with the L-plates on. I felt quite proud of myself for my bargain missus-motoring. Then the car started not to start. I got the AA round and, on that one occasion, it fired up a treat first time and the man in fluorescent yellow just looked at me quizzically. The moment he’d gone it was dead again.

VW Jetta MkII facelift

This pattern of elusive electrical malfunction, and AA visits, continued for weeks like a recurrent anxiety dream until my wife was in tears and I, with my misguided cheap car scheme, felt about six inches tall. The Jetta clearly needed expensive electrical and ignition analysis to chase the gremlins away. But such expertise then cost £70 an hour. Not for the first time with one of my ‘bargain buys’ I simply gave the car away to the first person I found who’d take it.

This time it started. As it ticked over sweetly he professed, with surprise, that it all seemed pukka and what was I going on about, drove it down the road and disappeared round the corner. It was a very long trip home. It conked out on the M25. But, hey, like everyone who owned a Jetta, he got a sensible car there, with just the odd foible…

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