Feature Car: 1984 Rabbit GTI 1.8T

VW technology has come a long way over the years, and for many the pinnacle of VW’s engineering might is the 1.8T engine. Powerful, compact, and eminently tune-able, the only downside is that this wonderful engine is typically saddled with a heavy new-style VW to lug around (weight being one of the downsides to modern technology). But wouldn’t it be cool to combine VW’s latest, greatest engine with their oldest and lightest watercooled chassis? Of course it would and as most folks know this has been done many times over many years.

But Aaron Stehly, a bicycle mechanic from Minneapolis, doesn’t care that this combination isn’t the rarest of them all. He’s certain that there are twenty 16v Rabbit conversions for every 1.8T swap, and that’s rare enough for him.

Standing out from the crowd is one thing, but the idea of placing such a powerful engine between the front frame rails of a lightweight Rabbit was intoxicating. Aaron studied up on the necessary technique and made sure he had the tools he would need to do the work himself. A nice big garage was his to use, except for one small detail – it belonged to his parents and they liked using it for such silly things as parking their cars in it each and every night. Our man Aaron is a bright guy and after negotiating in the currency relevant to all parents – the promise of good grades – they agreed to let him use the garage for the few weekends the swap was supposed to take. The fact that the process actually took some two years instead is another topic for another day.

The engine swap pretty much defines this particular Rabbit and Aaron put a great deal of thought into just how he wanted to go about the process. He chose to go with an Audi A4 AEB-style 1.8T and added accessories from a non-A/C 2.0 ABA. For now, the turbo is the stock item from the 1997 1.8T, but it’s bolted to a Techtonics downpipe and from there he’s using a 2.5” stainless steel set-up all the way back. A front mount intercooler with custom piping is used to cool intake temps and add a little more power at the same time.

The toughest aspect to this swap was without a doubt the wiring. Aaron and his good friend Jack spent countless hours looking over wiring diagrams and seeking advice from various VW tuners. In the end Aaron decided to eliminate the factory ECU and employ an SDS EM4-F stand-alone system for engine management duties.

The Rabbit still has an 020 transmission, but it’s no stock unit. Aaron outfitted the tranny with a Quaife limited slip differential and upgraded to taller Mk3 1 – 4 gearing.

Slowing down is arguably more important than speeding up, so Aaron did not neglect his Rabbit’s rather sorry stock braking abilities. Though updates were called for, the Rabbit’s light weight meant that it wasn’t necessary to go crazy with huge rotors and multi-piston calipers in order to make the faster Rabbit stop, and Aaron ultimately decided that some 10.1′ front rotors and a rear disc conversion would do just fine. After all, Aaron races an ITB Rabbit on the weekends, so he knows well how to get the most out of a minimalist braking set-up.

For suspension, H&R Cupkit components were chosen, but the truth is that Aaron wishes he had gone with a good set of coil-overs from the beginning so that he could drop the Rabbit just a little bit more. The Golf 1 (Rabbit) never had the stiffest of chassis, so a custom front upper stress bar from S&L Imports is used.

Is it better to be able to go fast or to look good? Why not do both? With that in mind and before the engine swap took place, Aaron performed a bare-metal restoration on the Bunny and at the same time added a few custom touches as well. Look closely and you’ll notice this Rabbit has no rain tray. It’s been removed and with it the blower for heat and fresh air. Living in Minneapolis meant that Aaron never planned to drive this car in the winter, and as far as fresh air is concerned, driving fast with the windows down and vent wings open ought to suffice. After any traces of rust were gone, along with a couple decades worth of dents and dings, the entire shell was treated to several coats of glossy black paint.

Euro bumpers, also painted black, were added to smooth and simplify the exterior look, but at the same time, the raised metal “VOLKSWAGEN” script from the tailgate of a Rabbit pickup truck was welded and blended to the Rabbit’s hatch for the sake of adding a bit of flare. Stock taillights have been tinted a uniform red, and at the front a set of round headlights from a Cabriolet were grafted in. The ubiquitous Golf I GTi ‘Duckbill’ spoiler completes the Euro look.

When it came to wheels for his Rabbit, Aaron figured an old-school car deserved a proper set of old-school wheels and you don’t get more old-school (or more proper) than a set of 15×7 Ronal Turbos. Sourced from S&L Imports, these wheels just simply look “right.” Shod with 205/50-15 Falken Azensis tires, they do more than just look good, too.

Lord knows most of us spend more time looking out from our cars than we do looking at them, so why not take some time and make sure your project’s interior is just as special as its exterior? Aaron understands this concept and a quick look at his Rabbit’s Corbeau seats (he has since added Recaros with custom gray tweed inserts) and custom 6-point cage drives the point home. The rear bench and backrest have been removed and each door and interior panel has been replaced with an aluminum sheet metal version for good measure and a motorsport look. There is more aluminum to be found along the dash, but this is no mere decorative trim kit – Aaron used the material for mounting custom Autometer gauges. A grippy Sparco Flash 5 steering wheel completes the picture.

Certainly, there are more radical projects on the road these days (with many more always under construction), but very few are as complete and as true to an original vision as Aaron Stehly’s ’84 Rabbit. VWvortex actually shot this car a year ago and Aaron has made some changes since, but the original essence of car, owner and project still remain. If the right person with the right offer were to come along, Aaron tells us the car is for sale, but in the mean time he’s happy to drive and enjoy a car for which he justifiably proud. He’s also already planning for his next project.

Hopefully, Aaron’s parents haven’t gotten too used to having their garage back.

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