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2017, Jul - Aug

Back To The Future Car 

By Cliff Leppke

Back to the future car: With barely a whimper, 1983 Scirocco takes a 3,000-mile road trip over a half dozen states

By Cliff Leppke 

“Eww …”

“I’d never …”

 “Is that a DeLorean?”

These are the words you hear when people discover you’re driving a 1983 VW Scirocco more than 3,000 miles during the month of May while traveling through America’s midsection. The first two are oft said when someone discovers that my marathon “RO” odometer reads 333,500 miles. The latter is oft spoken by those who think this wedge-shaped sports coupe has escaped from the 1985 movie “Back to the Future.” Come to think of it, the film’s DeLorean has a Home Energy Reactor, a Krups coffee mill atop its midsection; I’ve got one. So I could decorate my car and pretend it’s got a flux capacitor too. 

Racking up more monthly miles is simple: take a getaway vacation. I drove for hours in May (in the comfort of factory AC) inside my mostly trusty steed that I acquired in 1988. I bought it in Mesa, Ariz., and then used my 1972 VW Squareback to tow it about 1,800 miles to Wisconsin. Then, the RO had a scant 50,000 miles on the “clock.” The odometer got its workout due to my graduate-school commuting either to Minneapolis or St. Louis from Milwaukee. 

You might say I’ve wedded this machine. I bonded, for example, during annual spring-break treks to New Mexico. This year I tried something different. First, I went to suburban Chicago to check out the new Jeep Compass. Jeep’s latest SUV—they don’t like calling their “trucklets” CUVs; tow hooks and other off-road ready gear and gears are available. Jeep compares this model with VW’s Tiguan. FCA’s new Jeep fits into a lineup that starts with the smaller Renegade. Compared with the outgoing model, this one is a big step forward. 

After Chicago, I headed for Nashville. There, I visited my brother Gary and his wife Lisa. They’ve jettisoned their fleet of Jettas — sort of — one is now my nephew’s ride and my niece’s boyfriend has taken over the other. My bro made incredible edibles — freshly caught deep-fried pan fish. The next night’s meal: a taste of Tennessee at the historic Mockingbird Restaurant. My departing gift: Lisa handcrafted a VW-themed coat hanger made from weathered barn boards. 

From Nashville, I headed to Chattanooga to visit Scott Wilson at VW’s assembly plant. There, the parking attendant directed me to the non-VW section. After eyeing the shiny VW emblem adorning my RO’s lizard-like front, he asked, “That’s a VW?” “Yes, I replied.” I was rerouted to the VW aisle. 

Up first, I watched Atlas promotional material; got an early viewing of its TV ad campaign. Then, I took a sneak peek at VW’s engineering feat that lets it produce either the Passat sedan or the Atlas CUV on the same short-type assembly lines. That’s unusual because these vehicles have different platforms. One trick is robotics. White ones handle Passat tasks, whereas new yellow ones finesse the Atlas. These bots are only inches from one another. Yet, their arms, pinchers and other attachments don’t get tangled. Magnificent. 

Another change: perpendicular feeder lines. These spokes permit two different VWs to share the same main assembly lines. For example, the Atlas’ large rear lid cannot fit into the Passat’s trunk lid jig. Thus, the Atlas big rear door arrives from the side at the point where it’s needed. 

Wilson is enthusiastic. He’s proud that the plant’s grown. He maneuvers with ease the “popemobile,” a sightseeing cart, through the plant’s various aisles. He knows this factory like I know my RO. He’s even got an answer for why Passats now leave what was the final assembly point without their bright VW grille badges. A badge-less VW is akin to a new ship not being christened. In fact, grille emblem attachment is an advertising trope. Don’t worry; VW’s familiar circle is added later after the forward collision sensors behind it are checked. 

Wilson whizzed me to a somber place—the spot where at least two VWs a day get tossed to the gladiators. Cars are cut into sections, as if they were in a slaughterhouse. Yes, VW dismantles what men and women so carefully put together. It’s part of the quality assurance program. Another quality check is done on the test track the surrounds the plant, which now has bigger bumps to evaluate the Atlas. VW also has bought-back TDIs parked in an undeveloped area intended for a future mirror factory.

I departed VW’s U.S. outpost and returned to Nashville. The next morning I followed my brother’s vehicle as if I were a duckling. Next destination: Minneapolis. Thirteen hours later, I arrived at the joint of my sister Barb and her husband Tom outside Minneapolis, just in time for chicken soup. Tom introduced me to their new ride: an Audi Q5 sans dipstick. You use an infotainment screen menu to check engine oil level.  

The following day: headed toward the Cohen brothers' mythical Fargo and then beyond to Carrington, N.D. That’s where my folks live. It’s smack dab in the middle of that state. The RO didn’t like the final few miles of this trip; it must traverse rocky unpaved roads. This upends its otherwise calm demeanor. 

My folks, Elton and Delores Leppke, who celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, have a veritable museum of farm machinery. So there’s always something interesting to see or do. Mom tried her Annette Bening best to prepare savory yet nutritious meals. Our American beauty, the mistress of the plains, is a home economics tsar. Her knack for making broccoli zing with lemon produced a surprise, as it had a more zing than expected. Loved it! This is not chef Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen. 

In the barn, dad’s aligning a 1932 Ford coupe’s frame. This antique lived a hard life. The front “horns” (where the bumper attaches) were creamed; the left front A pillar area had crash damage too. Dad mended this latter problem by welding it, but the frame warped. Now he’s got a propane tank setup and a showerhead-like torch. He’s heating the frame and then bending it to Ford’s precise measurements. 

I tested my father’s eyes by presenting him with a challenge: how does one weld a broken VW pedal frame? Often, the VW Mk1 and Mk2 pedal cluster’s clutch-cable housing guide tube and breaks from its bracket. You cannot buy new ones. So, dad devised a method for welding the flimsy contraption. (Look for more in the Sept/Oct Autoist.)

Now you might think that checking out Dad’s Twin City tractor engine rebuild—the mill has two in-the-block camshafts, two cylinder heads, four valves per cylinder and a flat crankshaft — hot stuff for 1920s — is gear-head fascinating. It is. Dad, however, had another idea. He sheepishly asked me whether I was interested in Peggy Lee. Huh? You mean the purring woman who sang the maudlin cabaret-like “Is That All There Is?” camp? But wait. She was a big-band singer for Benny Goodman? She got her start singing on North Dakota radio stations? Now this is worth a second look or listen; the artist’s swinging jazzier side is intriguing — I played in my high school’s stage band. So, heck, I’m game.

Within minutes my dad’s calling a woman who runs the Peggy Lee Museum (aka The Midland Continental Railroad Depot) in Wimbledon, N.D., almost an hour from Carrington. She works in the hamlet’s grocery and when summoned opens the museum and turns from clerk into expert guide. The Lee museum is on the second floor of the historic depot — complete with rail car and track. It’s worth the trek north of I-94 at Jamestown — seriously. Besides a knowledgeable docent, the restored depot’s dioramas, artifacts and interpret-it-yourself opportunities help one understand what the railroad meant to the Dakotas. This “branch” began as an ambitious scheme to make a viable connection between Canada and New Orleans. 

Anyhow, it turns out that Ms. Lee lived in the depot; her parents worked there. So you’ll see and hear — they’ll crank up the Victrola for you — how Ms. Lee got her start in school, church and radio. And you’ll get the inside track on some of her lyrics, which pay homage to her Dakota roots. 

After a few days with the folks, it was time to head to Minneapolis, and then the next day to Milwaukee. From there, it was a short drive to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where I joined the Midwest Automotive Media Association’s Spring Rally at the fabled racetrack. I did a lap dance, if you will, with performance driving instructor Amy Wittkamper. 

She taught me how to tame turns with a $95,000 Mercedes AMG C63 S Coupe. She warned me about the vehicle’s explosive 4.0-liter 503-hp biturbo V-8 power and then directed me how to operate the car’s column-mounted shift control. She’s right; the 4,102-pound Merc lights up its tires in a flick like a Bic. It must be swiftly slowed before making a turn. Power is reapplied after you unthread the steering wheel following the apex. Wittkamper employed kind words, saying I drew a proper line, but that I needed driver education — I must stab the brakes harder and quicker, plus I’ve got to back off the steering angle before applying the fun pedal. 

VW’s William Gock arrived with the Atlas, Golf R and an Alltrack. I drove the scenic route with an Atlas SEL powered by a direct-injection 3.6-liter VR6 and 4Motion all-wheel drive. It listed for $44,000. 

First, the engine is not the same narrow VR6 mill that VW introduced in the 1992 1/2 Corrado. It still has a single cylinder head, but the V is even narrower, the camshafts have been redone and it now has direct fuel injection. Horsepower: 276, up about 100 since the Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” was hip. Second, VW’s big ride behaves like, well, a VW. It’s quiet with little road or wind noise. The engine also sounds fine too. Power is adequate. The eight-speed automatic upshifts earlier than I’d like, but a sport mode solves this. And the engine’s start-stop system doesn’t have an obvious defeat. 

Drivers will feel at home due to familiar controls and gauges. Interior plastics are different from the vehicles we saw in Detroit. Instead of coated plastics, the Atlas has the usual pebble-grain solid-color content. And some dashboard decorative bits cannot hide the fact that they’re faux metal. But the vehicle is roomy with an easy-to-access and use third-row seat. Both aft rows get climate-control outlets.

Although MAMA president Jill Ciminillo contends that the one-hand operation mid-row seat is exhaustingly difficult to move, I could do it. Nonetheless, Ciminillo has a point. Those who aren’t tall enough will find reaching the seat release difficult and the rear seatback too heavy. In sum, the Atlas isn’t as sexy as Mazda’s CX9. Yet, VW’s big rig delivers interior room, a supportive driver’s seat and good forward view. 

Other treats: The Golf R’s six-speed manual kicks. This hatchback eats racetracks. It took top honors at the autocross event too. The Audi A5 helps you put on your seatbelt. This lovely coupe is nicely proportioned inside and out. More steering feel would make it even better. And the new Q5 seems offers subtle refinements.

I also drove the big BMW M760i. Plus the Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti might have the right DNA. You’ll find DNA on its drive mode selector. Someone set it to A, which is for advanced efficiency. What a slug. I found D, or dynamic, much better. 

VW’s TDI enthusiasts might be interested in the $27,395 Chevy Cruze diesel. I found the engine much quieter than the noisy one that powered the previous Cruze. It vibrates though — as do most diesels — and those bad vibes wormed their way into the interior, tingling pedals and other items. Low-end torque didn’t seem as impressive as the now besmirched TDI, yet Chevy boasts a high 47-mpg highway, even with the nine-speed automatic. 

Also from GM: the new Chevy Equinox. It feels lighter and responds more promptly to driver inputs than the old one. It’s more European in that sense. The major buzz killer is the turbocharged engine’s noise. The thing just doesn’t feel powerful enough and punctuates the problem with an unrefined soundtrack. A larger displacement turbo is in the works. That should put it on par with the VW’s Tiguan. 

BACK TO THE SCIROCCO: And how’s the RO? It’s doing well. It required less than a quart off oil — I’d say that’s good for an engine that’s never been overhauled. Fuel economy: about 32 mpg. The Scirocco is a comfortable driving companion. One highway bonus: In 1990, I installed a taller fifth gear to bring down highway rpm by about 500. Several journalists at the MAMA event thought my RO looked better than ever, despite picking up yet another windshield starburst. Problems: two — the headlight’s plastic aiming hardware broke, and the steering column’s bearings need attention. While this car’s lower bearing hasn’t fallen from its perch — a common woe — it’s worn. Best part: I’m still gaga about this Mars Red machine.  

It’s unlikely that my marathon Scirocco will set a record for high-mileage motoring — it’s no longer used for daily commuting. Nevertheless, it’s evidence that some VWs will go the distance. This one, which I’ve maintained myself, has delivered more than expected. Its initial foibles such as engine seals and the like that died young, have given way to a happy means of going back to the future.

Just don’t call it a DeLorean. VWCA

Cliff Leppke | leppke.cliff@gmail.com 

 

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:

  • AUDI S3:  The sleek coupe has rally-car muscle, stealthy looks and elegant threads..
  • MIINIVAN WITH MOXIE: Chrysler Pacifica evokes memories of the late VW Routan.

PLUS OUR REGULAR COLUMNS AND FEATURES:

  • Driver's Seat - VW news & views by Cliff Leppke
  • Frontdriver – Richard G. Van Treuren
  • Small Talk - VW and Audi news - quickly
  • Retro Autoist - From the archives
  • Parting Shot - Photo feature
  • Local Volks Scene - A snapshot of local chapter activities
  • VW Toon-ups - Cartoon feature by Tom Janiszewski

LOGGED-IN MEMBERS CAN SEE THE ENTIRE AUTOIST ISSUE BY CLICKING ON THE COVER PHOTO ABOVE.

 

 

Autoist Archive

Jul-Aug | 2017
Back To The Future Car

Cliff Leppke's 1983 Scirocco has notched its share of more than 333,000 miles in trips to Road America in Wisconsin. The latest covered about 3,000 miles during a whirlwind vacation excursion.

 

May-Jun | 2017
Swingin' time is in store for members, guests at 62nd annual Club gathering

Augustino's will get members rocking while the NIVA Club will roll out another lineup of VWs at its annual BugFest, part of the VWCA Convention in St. Charles, Ill.

 

Mar-May | 2017
Will VW See The Light?

VW once again evokes the memory of the beloved Microbus with its new concept called I.D. Buzz, which created quite a stir at the annual auto show in Detroit. (Photos by Tom Janiszewski)

 

Jan-Feb | 2017
Costly Mistake?

Joe Mayer says he's not out to punish VW over its diesel scandal - he just wanted to make some extra money on a car he thought would be junked. (Photos by Joe Mayer via jalopnik.com.)

 

Nov-Dec | 2016
WATTS OF FUN . . . . . . Meet the new e-Golf

Here's the car that, when you give it a charge, you'll get one back. In VW's first important pivot from its diesel scandal, the e-Golf provides an opening salvo in the carmaker's goal to electrify its fleet.

 

Sep-Oct | 2016
61st Annual Convention

What's an anniversary without a cake? This one didn't go far or last long as Club members enjoyed a variety of activities, including a Sunday car show and picnic, part of the 61st Annual Convention.

 

Jul-Aug | 2016
It's Time To Show Off

A couple of Karmann Ghias are resplendent at the Michigan Vintage VW Club's Festival in Ypsilanti, Mich.  The club held its 29th event in May, while Mid America Motorworks in Effingham, Ill., saluted the air-cooled crowd with a big show in June.

 

May-Jun | 2016
Windfall for TDI owners?

The scam was on as early as 2008, when this Candy White Jetta TDI Clean Diesel model, embellished with green plant matter, was rolled out.  In case anyone had a doubt, VW added the wording "Not a concept car."

 

Mar-Apr | 2016
Lost In Translation

VW CEO Mattias Mueller was in the hot glare of media lights at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, providing the company's latest response to the diesel emissions scandal.

 

Jan-Feb | 2016
VW's Game Plan

VW remains embroiled in a high-stakes game involving government agencies  and hundreds of thousands of owners of diesel models. The company's car on the road of Life has taken a big detour.

 

Nov-Dec | 2015
Engine with a split personality puts VW on the hot seat

The news in September was beyond belief for many VW and TDI enthusiasts: Volkswagen executives admitted that the company intentionally produced cars that violated clean-air laws.

 

Sep-Oct | 2015
Big bites of fun at the 60th VWCA Convention

Doug Narczewshi from Spring Valley, IL, looks over an assortment of water-cooled VWs on display at NIVA's Bug Fest event, part of the 60th VWCA Convention in suburban Chicago.

 

Jul-Aug | 2015
1969 Beetle gets a second chance to adorn the silver screen

Crew members working on the film "The Good Blonde" prepare for a shot on the California coast involving a 1969 Beetle owned by VWCA member and correspondent Lois Grace.

 

May-Jun | 2015
My Mom, the Daredevil

Around 1960, Cliff Leppke had no idea what was in store for him while being ferried about by his mother. Needless to say, his head was up and his eyes were open.

 

Mar-Apr | 2015
It's Show Time!

The Northeast Illinois Volkswagen Association has an activity-packed weekend planned for the 60th VWCA Convention in suburban Chicago.

 

Jan-Feb | 2015
Diesel Memories

Jack Pavie of suburban Philadelphia had to wait several months to get his 1975 Rabbit diesel, one of three models he enjoyed in the '70s and '80s.

 

Nov-Dec | 2014
Golf Lessons: Three new models charge up hatchback lineup

The scene at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Va., where Cliff Leppke and other media members ran the 2015 Volkswagens through their paces.

 

Sep-Oct | 2014
Having fun with miles per gallon

A morning commute for a 2012 Golf TDI has become a test on how high the fuel mileage will end up. It hit a high mark in July.

 

Jul-Aug | 2014
2014 VWCA Convention: Wagons, wagens and more - where the buffalo roam

In the VWCA's 59 years of Conventions, the setting in Hudson, Mich. was unique. Just ask VWCA's Tom Janiszewski, the guy driving the orange 1974 Camper.

 

May-Jun | 2014
New Beetle milestone: Though this 1999 model has shown it's flaws over 15 years and 90,000 miles, it's been a blast to drive

May 25 marks the 15th anniversary of my family's New Beetle ownership experience. It was on that day in 1999 that we took delivery of a brand new red GLS model from Kempthorn Volkswagen in Canton, Ohio.

 

Mar-Apr | 2014
Dune buggy with a twist at the Detroit Auto Show

There's a saying that everything old is new again, and since the New Beetle's production debut in 1998, that has been the car's underlying theme.

 

Jan-Feb | 2014
Back At The Ranch

At northern California getaway, Vernon and his family found plenty of ways to enjoy life