I drove a 1979 Rabbit (not a GTi) for over 300,000 miles - far and away one of the most fun cars I ever owned. I eventually blew the engine and replaced it with a Vanagon engine mated to the same five speed transmission... way too much power for the soft suspension but a total kick in the ass to drive. My total purchase & repair investment for the car (bought used) was under $4000.00.
From what I remember the first generation Rabbits where pretty much trouble free.
I really want to get it on the road legally. I took the car for a test drive and the previous owner kept his plates. I have to get used to the pedals being so close together. When I wear boots I just clear the gas and clutch when braking and tap the brake when pressing the clutch. I definitely have to get used to the lack of power steering. Today I am taking out the whole interior to being reupholstering. Come spring (warmer weather or shop time) I will start the metal work on the body. I am having a friend of mine do the painting as a favour.