The Dream Of The Nineties Is Alive!

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Yes, I know. This is the second red, off-roady type vehicle we’ve done in as many weeks. But trust me when I say this is a very special piece of Forgotten Metal. So forgotten, in fact, that this car- this very car– is the only one of it’s kind on the entire East Coast. This car gives me the same feeling I assume I’d get if I were given permission to set fire to the Wheel of Fortune. I hate that show. But I love this car. This is a 1991 Volkswagen Golf Country. 

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There are a couple of reasons the Golf Country is so rare in these parts, but let’s start with the big one: VW never sold it here. That’s right: for all of its two model years, the Country was an exclusively European treat, like Jaffa Cakes or Alan Davies. Which begs the question: what’s a Jaffa Cake? No wait, that’s wrong. How did this particular car end up in the Belmont section of the Bronx? Well, it all comes down to US import laws and one determined car enthusiast. The enticing world of not-America is a sparkling land of cars and brands you’ve never heard of, like the SsangYong Rexton, the Tata Magic Iris, and of course, the Geely Beauty Leopard. And as much as America deserves to have the Daihatsu Naked running around our streets, our government, rather rudely, has a number of safety and emissions regulations that all cars must pass. Regulations, mind you, that other countries don’t necessarily have in common with us. Which makes it very difficult to register foreign cars here. But there is a loophole: if the car you want to import is more than 25 years old, it’s considered a classic car, and therefore doesn’t have to comply with any of those pesky rules. So as long as your car was made before the year 1992, you can import away! That’s right, you can finally have the Suzuki Every Joypop Turbo of your dreams!

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It must be said, not a lot of people do this. I know it’s hard to believe, but very few Americans are chomping at the bit to have their very own Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard. Which is why I think I’m so enamored with this humble Golf. The Golf began life as a successor to the iconic Beetle (even if some markets just couldn’t quit the Bug). It was supposed to be the people’s car without all the Nazi baggage, from a company that was, at the time, killin’ it. But in modernizing the Beetle concept, the Golf became just a little bit, well, boring. It’s not bad- don’t think I’m saying that. The Golf is a very good car, especially today. It’s Godfather II, no doubt. But in trying to appeal to everyone, it lost some of that quirky nuttiness that made the Beetle so memorable. It was front-engined, for one, and front-wheel-drive. The Golf is to Volkswagen what the Gotham Gazette is to New York City journalism. Great stuff, but not necessarily the most engaging. VW, I think, knew this. So they decided to inundate the Golf lineup with a whole host of weird and wonderful spinoffs. One was the legendary GTI. Another, lesser-known entry was the Golf Country.

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The Country was a European-market only version of the Golf that was originally seen at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show. Only second-generation Golfs got the Country treatment, and VW only managed to sell about 7,700 examples from 1991 to 1992. What makes a Country a Country is the “Syncro” all-wheel-drive system. That’s this Golf’s real American connection: we never got the Country in our country, but we did get Syncros, in the form of the rugged and valuable Vanagon Syncro. Applying the Syncro treatment to the Golf also meant raising the ride height to 8.3 inches, mounting a spare tire to the rear bumper, and adding bull bars to the front and back (bull bars are those metal cages you sometimes see on off road vehicles, not a social spot for bulls looking to mingle). Additionally, VW added some underbody cladding to protect the car’s gas tank and suspension system from sharp rocks and other obstacles.

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The engine was a 1.6 liter diesel four cylinder developing 98 horsepower that was hooked up to a five speed manual transmission, which is really just an elaborate way of saying this car was staggeringly slow. Not a ton of power, plus a four-wheel-drive system set up for off roading, plus a weight of around 3,600 pounds added up to a car that could barely outrun a spin class. But none of that actually mattered. The Country’s real party trick was its ability to trek through mud, snow, and sand like a regular Bear Grylles, as this perfectly-scored video handily demonstrates. Though it didn’t sell particularly well on the whole, the Country did have a niche following in Europe’s snowier parts for this reason.

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We’ve talked before about the crossover’s steady march toward global domination, and so long as we’re aware of the inherent hypocrisy of a truck-like vehicle that can’t do any truck-like things, I actually have no real issue with it. But the Golf Country gives us an interesting peek into what could have been. The nineties were an interesting decade for cars. They’re modern enough to still function like any other car today, yet nineties cars are so recognizable as products of the nineties. What’s more, experimentation was somehow more earnest than it is today. There was less certainty that a risk a carmaker took was going to pay off, and that led to some truly bizarre and brilliant cars. The Golf Country was one of them. And if you look at today’s off-roady compacts, like VW’s own Golf Alltrack and even the Subaru Crosstrek, this was one idea that didn’t get left in the nineties.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • VW also applied the all-wheel-drive treatment to the lesser-known Passat Syncro.
  • I actually met the owner of this particular car. He imported it from Austria, and has most of the original records for it. Though some years went by undocumented, in his estimation its done around 200,000 miles.
  • The owner has also taken exceptionally good care of his car. It’s actually kind of surreal to see a nineties interior in as immaculate condition as this one. And he let me sit in it, which was a real treat, and a testament to just how close-knit a community car nerds can be. Big thanks go out to him.
  • VW apparently made fifty GTI versions of the Golf Country, with a bigger, 1.8 liter engine developing 115 horsepower.
  • Importing cars to the US is a tedious business, but if you’d like to know more about it, here’s a quick explainer video and article.
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