Question about 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup

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I turn on headlights and running diesel stops I have a '81 Caddy With no known issues. It suddenly developed a perplexing problem: Truck started on first crank, as it usually does. When I turned on the headlights (it was night time), the truck instantly died. Not a sputtering stop, it shut off as if the key were turned off. Instantly, and cleanly. And all the lights went out, including the dash. It would not restart. The dash remained dead. The flashers worked, the brake lights worked. No other lights, no dash, no heater fan, no turn signals. no windshield wipers. The high beam switch does light the headlights. I had to have it towed. I have been playing with it for days since. Sometimes, seemingly randomly, when the key is in the on position, it will come back, the dash will light, the glow plugs heat. Then it starts & will run with all features (and will restart dependably, every time, if I turn the key off) except if I turn on the headlights. Then it crashes again. No problem with just the running lights, only the headlights crash it. But NOT the high beam switch (dip switch). That does not crash it. I suspected and investigated: Headlight Switch: swapped out with a spare. No change. Spare does the same thing. Spare was acquired as used. It could be bad, but if the problem is a bad headlight switch, wouldn?t the problem go away if the headlight switch were just removed from the wiring socket? No dice. Problem is the same without the headlight switch in its socket. Headlight wiring: inspected at headlight switch socket, and as I could trace, all the way to the headlights. No breaks, disconnects, or observed shorts. Even peeled back electrical tape to check. I think headlight wiring is OK, since dip switch does not crash it. I understand that the dip switch gets its power from different wires. Ignition Switch: no wiring issues. Electrical switch at ignition is fairly new. Pulled ignition wiring socket from switch, tried to start it with a jump wire. No start in this error state, but I could get the heater fan, windshield wipers & turn signals to work by jumping it at this connector. But could not get the dash indicator lights to light. Load Reduction Relay: A good suspect, but I have 2 spares. Neither made any difference. Same symptoms. I cannot warrant that the spares are good; I bought them used. 3 bad? I doubt it. Random comeback: I've got it back 5 or 6 times now, over several days. There seems to be no pattern. Not after leaving it cold for hours, and not always when playing with switches/wires. Once dash indicator lights came back itself while I was sitting in it, reading my Bentley manual, when I had left the key in the on position. But when it comes back, it is always the same: everything works 100% dependably until I turn on the Headlights. Then it always crashes instantly. Fusible Links look OK, and it would never start if any of them were bad anyway. What should I examine next? I am perplexed. Anyone have troubles like this, or ideas?

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  • Richard Brown Jan 18, 2013

    It shuts off like that because the stop relay is shorted out. It will not restart and no power to anything because there is no current to the shutoff relay. This short can be for several reasons, and in several places:1. Main Ground between batter and ground, between engine and ground. Check continuity of cables.2. Headlight Switch has gone bad. 3. Ignition Switch has a short.4. Fuse Panel contacts are oxidized to dysfunction - A U.S. Product, and a weak link in this era Rabbit. Remove, clean, repair. There are no old stock parts for this. If you find one in a junk yard of the same age, it will have or develop the same problem.5. Abraided Wires in the Wiring Harness. Cut binding/bundling of wires near firewall, inside engine compartment. Spread wires, and look for abraided insulators in wire bundle. No need to rebundle, the wires will not flop around after all the aging they have had.
    Electrical issues usually are why people give up on their old Rabbits.These issues are also problems to solve.

  • mark maynard Jan 22, 2013

    Check the fusible links on positive cable of battery. Fusible wires will loop out of wire bundle beside battery. More then likely they are allmost corroded into.My 1981 VW diesel had this problem. but my would not restart at all but now it's fixed. Well good luck

  • Richard Brown Jan 22, 2013

    This old generation of Rabbit Diesels was mechanical injection. Yes, I can make the engine run, but cannot legally drive without the electrical system. Have to have lights, turn signals, horn, windshield wipers. So I either fix, or give up on the truck.

  • Richard Brown Feb 23, 2015

    Problem resolved in my 1981 Rabbit Diesel Pickup. There were two simultaneous electrical problems:

    1. the horn was permanently shorted to ground, causing a low voltage drain on the system.

    2. the turn signals were miswired.

    These problems caused unpredictable current paths. once BOTH problems were fixed, the truck runs like a champ.

    Cascading electrical failures have been a problem for ageing VWs for over three decades.

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Well, it's not a fix, but it will get you where you are going in your truck...  since it's a diesel the only electrical things you should have are a fuel pump and a fuel distributor.  IF your truck has mechanical injection you should be able to run your fuel pump off of a new circuit to a switch on your dash.  I know that's pretty ghetto, but there ya go.  Now if it is electronic fuel distribution with camshaft sensors and the like then you will need to check that whole wiring harness.  sorry, no easy fix there.  I hope for your sake that it's mechanical injection...

Posted on Jul 04, 2009

  • Richard Brown Feb 23, 2015

    Yes, mechanical on this era VW Diesel.

  • Richard Brown Feb 23, 2015

    Problem resolved in my 1981 Rabbit Diesel Pickup. There were two simultaneous electrical problems: 1. the horn was permanently shorted to ground, causing a low voltage drain on the system. 2. the turn signals were miswired. These problems caused unpredictable current paths. once BOTH problems were fixed, the truck runs like a champ. Cascading electrical failures have been a problem for ageing VWs for over three decades.

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Found this comment by (David van Rooyen) on a similar question:
"Engine dies right after starting - The wire from your solenoid valve goes directly to your ignition switch there is no fuse in line. The ignition switch contacts or the plug just behind the switch probably has a bad contact. The switch is easily replaceable, just one ***** that holds it in place. They did have a tendency to wear out. Don't forget to check the plug behind the switch, and make sure that there is no immobilizer fitted that can give you the problem."

Posted on Mar 27, 2016

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My 81 VW Diesel pickup has been doing this as well. Runs fine until the headlights are on, sometimes it does instantly, other times its random, quite the feature when the head lights go out with the engine.. and you only had them on so you could see the road in front of you. This evening it started to happen with the headlights off. The only way i could keep the car running was to hold the key slightly forward from its rest position. I am pretty desperate for a fix on this one. I am thinking a relay. idk...

Posted on Mar 27, 2016

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I had the same problem today with my 1.7L vw rabbit! will run with Headlight hi beam pulled back, if I let off of it car dies and blower motor goes out.

Posted on Feb 23, 2015

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  • Shawn Kuehni
    Shawn Kuehni Feb 23, 2015

    Im going to try looking and cleaning the hi/low beam switch but hoping the used one i ordered will fix the problem.

  • Richard Brown Feb 23, 2015

    Problem resolved in my 1981 Rabbit Diesel Pickup. There were two simultaneous electrical problems: 1. the horn was permanently shorted to ground, causing a low voltage drain on the system. 2. the turn signals were miswired. These problems caused unpredictable current paths. once BOTH problems were fixed, the truck runs like a champ. Cascading electrical failures have been a problem for ageing VWs for over three decades.

  • Shawn Kuehni
    Shawn Kuehni Feb 24, 2015

    my blinkers work thou. i took my blinker lever and wiper lever off. only thing i notice is high beam switch will not click no more. im hoping thats the problem

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I would try unplugging the wire socket at head lights just to see what happens then with lights on low beam. Not sure if this may help you fix it. I have a 1981 diesel rabbit pickup and it died today when I was getting ready to go home from work. I started it ran for about five minutes idling and parked. Then it was as if I just shut it off. With key turn on I have no lights on dash no horn, park lights head lights on dome light. I check fuses and changed glow plug relay cause I had one with me no luck. To dark to check anything else. If you have any ideals for me to try would appreciate it. Thank you ... Mark

Posted on Jan 18, 2013

  • Richard Brown Jan 22, 2013

    It shuts off like that because the stop relay is shorted out. It will not restart and no power to anything because there is no current to the shutoff relay. This short can be for several reasons, and in several places: 1. Main Ground between batter and ground, between engine and ground. Check continuity of cables. 2. Headlight Switch has gone bad.  3. Ignition Switch has a short. 4. Fuse Panel contacts are oxidized to dysfunction - A U.S. Product, and a weak link in this era Rabbit. Remove, clean, repair. There are no old stock parts for this. If you find one in a junk yard of the same age, it will have or develop the same problem. 5. Abraided Wires in the Wiring Harness. Cut binding/bundling of wires near firewall, inside engine compartment. Spread wires, and look for abraided insulators in wire bundle. No need to rebundle, the wires will not flop around after all the aging they have had. Electrical issues usually are why people give up on their old Rabbits.

  • Richard Brown Feb 23, 2015

    Problem resolved in my 1981 Rabbit Diesel Pickup. There were two simultaneous electrical problems: 1. the horn was permanently shorted to ground, causing a low voltage drain on the system. 2. the turn signals were miswired. These problems caused unpredictable current paths. once BOTH problems were fixed, the truck runs like a champ. Cascading electrical failures have been a problem for ageing VWs for over three decades.

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