In 1977 I began the year as a journeyman Customs inspector at the port of Progreso, Texas at the international border with Mexico, just as I had done for the past six years since beginning my employment with the U.S. Customs Service in December of 1971, just six months after my retirement from the U.S. Air Force in July of that year.
In the summer of 1977 I applied for a supervisory position at the port of Roma, some 75 miles farther upstream on the Rio Grande River, and I was selected in the competition for the position of a first-level supervisor at that location. I went to Roma in October of 1977 and remained there two and one-half years until 1980. Early in 1980 I was promoted to a second-level supervisory position at the port of Brownsville, Texas and I relocated there in April of that year.
My home was in Donna, Texas, a small town in the lower Rio Grande Valley some 60 miles distant from my duties at the port of Roma. At the time I was driving a 1972 Ford LTD that used a considerable amount of gas per mile, so I searched for a more economical vehicle. I sold the Ford and bought a 1978 Chevrolet that turned out to be a gas hog, so I traveled to San Antonio is search of a vehicle a bit easier on fuel.
I returned to the Valley with a Panama Brown 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit equipped with the original Rabbit gasoline engine that had been modified to run on diesel fuel. Diesel in Mexico was selling for a whopping 12 cents a gallon at that time, and the station was a mere one-eighth of a mile from the Customhouse, across the river in Miguel Aleman, Mexico. I gave the Chevrolet to one of my daughters in Donna, Texas.
The Rabbit had four doors and seated four passengers in relative comfort considering its diminutive size, with front bucket seats and a floor-mounted manual gear shift. It had the basic required dashboard instruments, but the only extras were a radio and air conditioning. Its color was called Panama Brown, but it could only be considered a rather bright shade of orange.
I started making the 120 mile round trip between home and work and soon realized that I was getting excellent mileage, but I wanted to know exactly how far the little car would run on a full tank of diesel. The tank held 10 gallons—I told the station attendant in Mexico to pack it in, and filled a one gallon can with diesel to carry in the car. I intended to run until the tank was empty—I couldn’t think of a better way to get an accurate picture of the performance of a gasoline engine configured to run on diesel.
I decided to run without air conditioning for the test because I knew that the compressor took a toll on the engine’s power. I zeroed out the mile indicator and maintained a steady maximum speed of 60-65 miles per hours for the duration of the test. I drove until the engine stopped running and then let the car coast to a stop. The coasting didn’t gain much, because the terrain between home and work was flat, with no hills and no curves.
Including the one hundred feet or so covered in the coasting when the tank ran dry, I recorded exactly 600 miles. With a ten-gallon tank that means the little orange Rabbit averaged 60 miles for each gallon of diesel—I sure wish I had it now!
I drove the Rabbit for the two and one-half years I worked at Roma, then for another three and one-half years that I worked at the port of Brownsville, a round-trip distance of 100 miles between my home in Donna and my work site in Brownsville. In October of 1983 I passed the Rabbit to my daughter that at the time was living in Donna and making the same 100-mile round trip in the gas-guzzling 1978 Chevrolet. She parked the Chevrolet and I donated it to the Salvation Army in McAllen, Texas and took a decent tax write-off for the donation.
Now for the kicker: My daughter drove the Rabbit for another two years, then she parked it and came to live with us in Washington, D.C. I donated the little car to the same charity and took another decent write-off for the donation.
Its speedometer showed an honest 186, 000 miles, and here is the clincher—I never changed the glow plugs nor ever replaced a tire—never even had a flat. The only maintenance performed on that magnificent automobile during that 186,000 miles was the replacement of the fan belt—it broke at exactly 100,000 miles while I was on the way to work, still with about 30 miles to go. I lost all electrical power, but a diesel doesn’t need electricity—the heat of the glow plugs keeps it running. I drove directly to the Volkswagen dealer in Brownsville and had the belt replaced.
That’s my story of my 1978 Panama Brown diesel Rabbit, and I’m sticking to it!