Avoidable Contact #82: That one time my VW Quantum Coupe was used to rob a bank

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Jack Baruth

“I think that we may safely trust,” Thoreau wrote, “a good deal more than we do.” Let me tell you, Hank Dave would rewrite that sentence if he knew me. I trust everyone, strangers and friends alike. I have no fewer than seven guitars on loan to various people, and in two cases I’ve forgotten who actually possesses them. I never bother to lock the door when I leave the house, a habit that has alternately flummoxed and enraged the last three people to share that domicile with me. Over the past fifteen years I’ve served as an unofficial payday loan provider to my writers, my friends, my family. Either I’m a born sucker or a truly majestic soul. It’s probably the former.

There might be a genetic reason for this behavior; I’m almost entirely German, and Germany has traditionally been what they call a “high-trust society”. It might be the way I was raised, among mostly intact families in friendly neighborhoods. Maybe it’s because I read Thoreau early and often in the formative years. Whatever the reason, my excessive tendency to trust has rarely backfired on me — until, that is, the day a country sheriff told me that my 1982 VW Quantum Coupe, and by extension the owner of said coupe, namely moi, might be on the hook for a spot of the ol’ robbery-homicide.

*vinyl record scratch* You’re probably wondering how I found myself in this situation. Well, it started when…

Your humble author was on the Internet relatively early in life, about seven years before the World Wide Web and its HTTP protocol entered general usage. Starting in 1989, I frequently read a USENET “newsgroup” called rec.autos.vw.watercooled via my school’s VAX computer and, later on, through a crummy IBM PC AT bought for $250 from a chain-smoking Goth in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati. One day somewhere around the Year Of Our Lord 2001 I fired it up and saw a five-speed ’82 Volkswagen Quantum for sale about thirty miles from my house, priced at $500.

At the time I was very much mourning the loss of various Volkswagens — my 1990 Fox, a 1998 Passat, and a 2000 Golf GLS 1.8T that a friend of mine wanted so badly he paid me dealer invoice for the car when it was a year old — so this beater Quantum seemed like a reasonable way to scratch the itch. Except it wasn’t a beater. It looked perhaps five years old, rather than twenty. Started with the turn of that old beveled-plastic-over-pot-metal key, holding a steady idle and gently perfuming the cabin with the sweet, syrupy smell of some untraceable but nominal coolant leak.

Jack Baruth

Let us take a moment to consider what an improbable device the Quantum Coupe actually was. The 1973 Passat, Dasher on these shores, was an Audi 80 by any other name and did not accurately predict VW’s future. (That would come with the Golf/Rabbit two years later, transverse engined in the modern fashion rather than employing the Audi nose-to-tail layout.) Dashers were mostly sold here in hatchback form, your choice of three or five doors, but by 1982 the market had overwhelmingly indicated a preference for lockable trunks. Some of my readers are old enough to remember that the Nissan Stanza arrived here in 1982 as a five-door hatchback, only to have its manufacturer panic and add a conventional sedan for 1983. That was how you knew the game had truly changed. (Oddly enough, General Motors had a better sense of market direction than the imports, making a trunked Citation available from the jump and hastily deep-sixing the “aeroback” A-body sedans in 1981.)

Therefore the second-generation Passat, yclept Quantum on these shores to bypass some lingering and thoroughly accurate perception of horrifying Dasher reliability, arrived in 1982 looking suspiciously like the 1979 Audi 4000 in sedan form, with the wagon as an option. There was a five-door hatch in most markets, too, but we only got a “Coupe” three-door. It was supposed to be the sporty choice, but the sad little lip spoiler and massive rear windows only served to remind buyers just how awkward the whole package was.

The Quantum was also painfully slow. It had 74 horsepower in an era where the Japanese offered 90-95 as standard equipment and General Motors would cheerfully sell you an X-11 Citation that might as well have been a Corvette ZR1 by contrast. Thankfully, the one I bought had the five-speed manual. One suspects the automatics must have been almost unsafe to drive, particularly nineteen years after the fact. In years to come, VW would stuff the 100-horsepower Audi inline-five into the Quantum sedan and wagon, increasing the price to match the pace, but the coupe didn’t live long enough in this market to see the improvement.

(Alert readers will realize that this car was kind of the crummiest version possible of the iconic Audi “Ur-Quattro”, losing one cylinder, one turbocharger, one rear driveshaft, and several subtle suspension components along the way but sharing all the fundamental hard points.)

The Quantum was not popular with my first wife, who had just acquired a brand-new BMW 330i Sport and who plainly disliked having to share the driveway with a five hundred dollar car. She pointed out that the air conditioning barely worked, that the overworked 1.7-liter eight-valve four burned oil at the rate of two quarts per thousand miles, and that the car smelled like a bottle of maple syrup.

All of this was true, but the old Volkswagen had plenty of virtues remaining. To begin with, this was an honest-to-God forty-mile-per-gallon car. Assuming one had enough runway to get up to seventy miles per hour, the Quantum was rock-solid at that speed. Then as now, I frankly adored the Seventies VW aesthetic of thin doors, low sills, big glass, and narrow consoles. There was more usable room in this 2700-pound compact than you get nowadays in an E-Class Benz. A bicycle of any size could disappear into the back seat. I took it BMX racing around Ohio and Kentucky, never having any problem with the car.

Overwhelmed by affection to a perhaps risible extent, I bought the coupe some tires and paid a local kid to sort out the CIS fuel injection a bit so it would start in winter. Day after day, my brand-new Land Rover Freelander and recently-acquired Porsche 911 sat idle as I gleefully steered the ugly bland box around town. Yet the Quantum had long since worn out its welcome with my spouse. “Please, please, please get rid of it,” she implored. Her imprecations reached a frequency more commonly associated with radio signals.

I asked eight hundred dollars for the Quantum. It sold to the first person who heard about it being for sale, my old pal Woody. I trusted Woody implicitly, so I notarized the title with the rest of the details blank and left the tags on the car for him to use until he got it registered properly.

About four months later, I got a call from a rural sheriff. “Is this Mr. Baruth?”

“Why yes it is.”

“We need to talk to you about your VW Quantum.”

“Oh no, that’s not my car any more.”

“It had your tags on this morning, when it was used in a bank robbery. A policeman was shot during the robbery. We’d like to talk to you about this.”

Dear reader, I was raised to never snitch, and I maintained that philosophy through many a savage beating in school, at camp, and in the occasional state facility both educational and otherwise. You can trust me with your deepest secrets and/or contraband. I’m a trusting fellow myself, too. In this case, however, I took a moment to consider the idea of spending forty years in prison based on something my $500 Volkwagen had done…

“Officer, allow me to give you the name and phone number of the fellow to whom I sold that car, along with his precise whereabouts as of this very moment.” And it was thus that I eventually learned of the Quantum’s fate: After I’d sold it to him, Woody immediately turned it for a tidy profit to his friend Tony. He trusted Tony, so he handed over my title as he’d received it. Tony then turned around and sold it to a buddy of his for even more money. Since Tony trusted this fellow implicitly, he handed over the title just the way he’d received it.

Four months later, that eminently trustworthy fellow used it to rob a bank, shooting his way both in and out. Keep in mind that all of this happened in rural Ohio. At any given time in rural Ohio, there are only about three kinds of cars on the street: whatever the cheapest GM sedan was fifteen years previous, whatever the cheapest Chrysler was fifteen years previous, and the Honda Accord, since it’s made here. Driving a gold VW Quantum coupe in the commission of a capital crime was the height of idiocy; not only did it look like precisely nothing else in the surrounding counties, it was also perhaps the slowest available getaway vehicle one could buy.

They caught him, of course. I called the sheriff to inquire about the Quantum, thinking perhaps I could surprise my wife with its return. I was informed that the authorities had deemed it best to crush the car. In the eighteen years since, I’ve never seen another one on the road. Some fellow in New Jersey sold a similar but worse one perhaps three years ago, in the same sickly gold color.

A few years after avoiding the electric chair via “peaching”, as the British say, I once again sated my VW lust by acquiring a pair of Phaetons. They were great cars, but they lacked all the characteristics that made the first few generations of water-cooled VWs so lovable. The firm’s current offerings are very sophisticated and very suave but they, too, are missing the open, airy cockpit and stark simplicity of the old cars. I miss the Quantum. I’d like to have another one. If you ever see one for sale, let me know. I’ll send you a deposit promptly, very few questions asked. After all these years, I still believe that we may safely trust a great deal more than we do… yet when it comes time to sell, I’ll remember the words of another great American iconoclast:

“Trust, but verify.”

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