Feature Car: Andrew McDermott’s 1989 GTI 16v

Editor’s note: Its been a while since Brad penned an article for us and we’re glad to have him back. This feature piece on Andrew’s 16v is the beginning of many features we hope to work into VWvortex over the upcoming year. We have a lot of changes we’re looking forward to showing you in the next couple months. Stay tuned. Meanwhile if you would like to see your car featured and know someone good with a camera, send a note to bryan@vwvortex.com and we’ll see what we can do. Oh, and I’d cut Andrew some slack on Greg Emmerson outdriving him in a Jaguar X-Type – Greg is British and therefore drives like a daft lunatic most of the time (I kid Greg). Anyway, on to the story…

It takes a certain kind of person to commit to tearing down a project car while on the way to a photoshoot for a major print magazine feature. Chino, California, resident Andrew McDermott is that kind of person.

Andrew purchased this 1989 GTI 16v back in 1993 and has spent the last 15 years “tweaking it.” In 2006, Eurotuner magazine considered the GTI tweaked enough to run as a feature car. It was the day of the shoot where, as Andrew puts it, “I should have been proud and happy to have my car shot for a major magazine, but the truth is I was really, really bummed.” He was bummed because on the way to the shoot location in the canyons of Malibu, Andrew was following behind ET editor Greg Emmerson and found it frustratingly difficult to keep his modified GTI within sight of the lead car’s taillights. No big deal, right? You might assume Emmerson was driving some tricked-out M3, R32, or even a 911. “Actually,” Andrew replies meekly, “he was driving a totally stock Jaguar X-Type.” No wonder he wasn’t happy, and when Greg exited his gussied-up Ford Mondeo and mentioned to Andrew that he was surprised he couldn’t keep up, that was just a little more than he could take.

Apparently, the ET shoot came only days after Andrew finished the car and he tells us he simply didn’t have time to drive the car hard beforehand. Andrew confesses, “In the spirit of making the car look good for the feature, I made some compromises I normally try to avoid. The wheels were too wide, the tires were too narrow, and the car was too damn low. Basically, I turned my former canyon carver into a crappy-handling magazine queen, and that’s just not what I’m about.” Well, not anymore, at least, since this go-round Andrew has paid careful attention to making sure the car now handles as good as it looks.

No more compromises – this was the theme for the re-do. Andrew was determined to rebuild the car into something of which he could be more proud, and that entailed returning the car to its former handling glory, while also adding certain touches within a new theme he’d always wanted to pursue. “At that point,” Andrew says, “I was in quest mode, trying to see what was out there, or more importantly what wasn’t. I hate having what the Joneses have and wanted to do something different, something I hadn’t seen before. Metallic green was becoming too popular a hue, so a color change was a must. But there had to be more,” he adds, “there had to be a theme, and in my opinion, any good project starts with the wheels.”

When it came to wheels, though, the GTI’s bulging arches and wider stance meant that off-the-rack options were severely limited. Since custom wheels help ensure an air of exclusivity, that’s the route Andrew took. “I was already in love with the pro-touring car scene, but it was when I was watching the movie, Gone in 60 Seconds, that it occurred to me – I could make ‘Eleanor’s’ Halibrand-style wheels work with my project.” In its first iteration, Andrew’s GTI wore a beautiful set of Compomotive mesh-style CXN wheels. The truth is, though, that he had always wanted to go with Compo’s Halibrand-themed HB model but got talked out of using them. This time would be different.

Andrew now needed a theme with which the wheels could be effectively integrated. His favorite look has always been motorsports-inspired, but with the GTI he’d need to step it up a bit. Those Compo HBs were most definitely “American style,” and could potentially clash with the German hatchback. Then again, Andrew realized, the HBs are well known for being paired with what could certainly be described as the quintessential Euro-American supercar of all time – the AC Shelby Cobra 427. He wasn’t building a big-block monster for sure, but Andrew figured if he captured the theme correctly, those HBs would be the icing on the cake he’d always hoped.

“Part of my inspiration for Version Two of this project,” Andrew concedes, “was a song from Rush called Red Barchetta, that I thought told a great story about a young man and a long lost car found in the barn owned by his favorite uncle. “Barn-find “became my theme. To put it simply, I wanted to achieve the look of a long forgotten old racecar that got discovered and lovingly restored back to road use once again.”

So why start all over again using the same almost 20-year-old Mk II chassis as the last build? “What choice did I have,” he jokes, “VW stopped making cars back in ’92, right?” All kidding aside, Andrew revamped his already impressive Mk II because he wanted to put together something a bit different than he was used to seeing in the forums, and though he admits there are quite a few people who preferred Version One of the car, he sees the value in taking a few chances and doing something different. He also takes comfort in knowing he can attend pretty much any show in the land and not see a car similar to his.

Though the GTI’s former classic Oak Green-like paint was almost a universal favorite, this time Andrew chose something a bit more subtle and detail-oriented. Starting with a classic light grey paint taken from the VW air-cooled color palette, and in keeping with his “barn-find” theme, he added medium-grey sponsor graphics designed with a vintage hot-rod effect, and then covered them and the light grey paint in a coat of PPG flat clear. It’s no surprise that Andrew kept the aforementioned sexy wide arches from the first makeover and they cover those one-off Compo HB wheels perfectly. To the point, this barn-found vintage racer theme would never have worked without an aggressive stance that comes from wide rubber over wide wheels, and it’s those big extended flares that keep such details in synch.

Small bumpers were also necessary for the chosen theme, so no changes were made in that department. To play up the motorsports look even further, Andrew even went so far as to replace the GTI’s rear hatch and side windows with a set of custom-made Percy’s HP Speedglass polycarbonate replacements.

Like he said, this time around Andrew was determined to build his car without the limiting compromises that disappointed him at the end of the first build. He kept the H&R ultra-low coilovers with custom spring rates, but this time he’s chosen a stance that, while perhaps a bit less attractive than before, is much more conducive to reducing bump-steer and other unwanted chassis-upsetting tendencies when attacking canyon roads. Finally, he also chose to forego the ever-trendy stretched-tires-on-excessively-wide-wheels look and fit plenty of rubber (225/45 vs. 215/40) over a slightly narrower rim (8.5″ vs. 9.0″) compared to last time. Some might consider these changes pretty minor stuff, but the transformation is amazing, according to Andrew. “No more tires rubbing arches, no more crazy alignment changes under cornering loads; once again I can drive the way I want without worrying about the car working against me.”

There’s plenty of engine to guarantee the revitalized suspension gets a consistent workout. The 1.8-liter 16V may have 160,000 miles showing on the odometer, but as most VWvortex readers know that’s really not a lot for a well-maintained VW 16-valver. Andrew’s engine has been treated to a pair of Autotech asymmetric cams, a Euro-spec 50mm intake manifold, Autotech header, and a Techtonics exhaust system. Nothing really out of the ordinary, for sure, but these mods have proven their worth under the hoods of thousands of North American 16V ‘dubs.

A VL-Enterprises rebuilt 020 gearbox combined with a Neuspeed weighted short shift kit adds life to the trusted old-school rod-linkage transmission, and the 3.94 final drive helps Andrew get the most from his somewhat peaky 16V powerplant.

Though we already mentioned the GTI’s exhaust, special mention has to be made regarding the custom side-exit configuration. We’ve seen side-exit set-ups before, but never one quite like this or with this sort of attention to detail. It’s a special touch that was likely way more trouble than anyone would suspect, but when combined with the other special touches found throughout the car, it’s an integral part of a complete package.

As you’d expect, the motorsports theme is alive and well within the GTI’s cockpit, and the stripped interior is highlighted by a pair of Corbeau sport seats and an Autopower bolt-in half-cage.

Though satisfied with the results of Version 2, Andrew admits that the second build was even more stressful than the first. He was blessed with the help of several dedicated sponsors, but a lack of communication between each party meant that delays were rampant and in some cases Andrew found himself redoing work that had already been done. “People need to know,” he says, “that sponsored doesn’t always equal free. So even heavily discounted parts and labor, when piled on in previously unforeseen amounts, can cause all kinds of delays and budget adjustments.” Andrew also found it awkward at times to ask or demand things from people already contributing time and money to the project, so it became inevitable that even more delays and expenses added up. “My wife certainly regrets giving me the green light to take on another huge project, but she’s been awesome throughout, and you have no idea how that has helped over the duration of the build.”

So is there going to be a Version 3 any time soon? “Yeah, I’m thinking not,” Andrew jokes, “and even if I wanted to take things further, I think my project budget has been terminally affected this time. As for the car itself, well, it was recently up for sale in the Mk2 classifieds.” He summarizes his feelings by adding, “I’m really burned out right now and kind of tired of the scene. I think there are a lot of angry keyboards in the Mk II Forum, but it’s still a great place. The Internet has both helped and hurt the scene. On the one hand you have more resources and outlets. On the other hand, though, everyone seems to need the Vortex’s approval. I mean, God forbid an Internet forum hates your car, right? It’s really stifled creativity and that’s a really bad thing in my opinion. E-feelings get hurt and then someone needs to lash out. Others pile on and then everything goes to hell. Obviously, though, things aren’t going to change any time soon, so like with anything else it’s up to each person to look for the good amongst the bad.”

That’s some good advice, right there, and we’d add that we truly believe that maybe after a little time off, Andrew will be back – if not to the Mk II Forum once again, then perhaps as another victim of the black hole we like to call The Car Lounge. (God help him.)

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