Rides from the Readers: 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit

1980 VW Rabbit TDI swap garage beauty shot
Sam Loomis

Hagerty readers and Hagerty Drivers Club members share their cherished collector and enthusiast vehicles with us via our contact email, tips@hagerty.com. We’re showcasing some of our favorite stories among these submissions. To have your car featured, send complete photography and your story of ownership to the above email address.

When 22-year-old videographer Sam Loomis bought his first vintage VW Rabbit (a 1981 gas, automatic model), he quickly discovered that the car’s problems outstripped his mechanical prowess. The Rabbit ran, but terribly. After buying it from his neighbor for $600, Loomis and his roommate had pushed the car back to their apartment and stuffed it into a cramped garage. Loomis, whose father raised him on a steady diet of VW performance magazines, had always wanted a Mark I Rabbit; now that he finally had one, some research was in order.

Little did Loomis know that in October 2020 he would emerge from the worst months of a pandemic with greasy fingers, a headful of mechanical knowledge, and his dream Rabbit.

Thanks to Facebook and various VW forums, Loomis found a local shop, a little three-car garage adjoined to the back of a bike-shop-plus-yoga-studio and run by Russ Hopkins. “At the beginning of COVID I found him,” Loomis says, “and with all of my [free] time, I offered to help anywhere I could and in turn, I was learning how to work on these cars.” While other young adults were delving into the mysteries of sourdough, Loomis was elbow-deep in VW engine bays.

1980 VW Rabbit TDI swap engine out Aug 22, 6 29 13 PM
Sam Loomis

His VW mentor didn’t go easy on Loomis. “We were doing engine swaps in a day—really quick stuff,” he says. What’s even more impressive is that the pair yanked powertrains without a lift. Loomis, whose fledgling video production company faced an empty calendar, absorbed everything. “It’s such a simple thing to work on these cars,” he says. “I wouldn’t touch the Subaru that I own [a 2006 Outback], but these older cars—it’s such a good thing to learn on.”

1980 VW Rabbit TDI swap before May 05, 5 13 46 PM
Sam Loomis

Within a month or so, he’d flipped his ’81 gasoline model and bought a 1980 diesel, an early Westie easily distinguished as one of the more rare, desirable base models by its black rubber trim.

Meticulously, Loomis put together a plan to build his dream Rabbit. Out came the 1.5-liter diesel and in went a 1.9 turbodiesel from a 2005 Jetta, a 175K-mile unit Loomis bought for $800. To the uninitiated, that might seem like a lot of miles—for Loomis, it’s a steal. “If you can swap out some of the internals that tend to fail, they run half a million miles,” he says. Whenever he could pull Hopkins away from the bike shop, Loomis worked on the car, spending his free time trawling forums for advice and flipping other Rabbits—plus a classic Airstream camper—to fund his project.

The Jetta-sourced TDI got an uprated turbo and camshaft, plus a Malone tune and a custom exhaust. The 02J transmission received a short-shifter kit. Loomis swapped the front brakes with upgraded Mk 1 GTI original calipers and rotors and installed BC coilovers. Off came the unsightly U.S.-regulation bumpers, and on went their European equivalents. A set of Ronal Turbo alloys completed the understated look. Inside, Loomis swapped in a Nardi steering wheel and a set of reupholstered Recaros.

What’s next? “I’ve got to clean up some wiring in the engine bay, camber the rear wheels a bit … figure out if there are any boost leaks, vacuum leaks,” he says. After that, he’s envisioning a West Coast trip with his restomodded Rabbit.

Our hats are off to Loomis—and to Hopkins, too. It takes courage to attempt a project beyond your skill set and to reach out for help; on the other side, it takes generosity to welcome and foster a relationship with a young enthusiast. It’s relationships like these that invigorate vintage car culture and preserve it for the next generation.

For in-progress photos of Loomis’ build, take a gander at the slideshow below.

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