Project Tortured Affair GTI: Introduction

Almost every time I interview someone for a VWvortex feature story, it surfaces again: the oft-repeated assertion that a true project car is never really completed. VW ownership has always been about more than the cars, but as I’ve worked harder on finding fresh content for Vortex, the importance of my own car has diminished. I spend my nights and weekends not in the shop, but seeking out other VWs and owners. It’s a labor of love, and although I find a thrill in selecting the perfect words to describe the relationship between man and machine, the completion of each story leaves me with a sense of melancholy. As I told of others’ successes, my own entry ticket to this world had been reduced to little more than a parking lot decoration. I give my car a fond pat and a greeting whenever I see it (yes, out loud) but motivation to get my hands dirty is at an all-time low; I prefer a keyboard and office chair to a ratchet set and a creeper.

My 1991 GTI wasn’t supposed to be a project car at all; it was a cute daily driver for a college girl of modest means. Shortly after its purchase in November of 2002, I tacked on a set of Kamei grille spoilers, upgraded the lights from the dull, sandblasted factory units, and traded the teardrop alloys for a set of refinished Ronal R8s. Knowing little about modifying and even less about cars in general, I was happy to splash about in the shallow end of the pool. In time, though, my little VW saw me through my first attempts to drive a manual, my final two years of college, and first years of the 9-to-5. It carried me and my belongings from Vermont to Massachusetts to Atlanta, then back north to Milwaukee, finally settling in Chicago to begin married life. In quite an indirect way, this car even found me my husband. (It’s a shame that never quite took off.)

Statistics: 1991 Volkswagen GTI 2.0 8V



2.0 ABA bottom end conversion

ABD intake

Schrick aluminum oil pan

Techtonics exhaust

Mild port and polish job on head

MKIII weighted shifter

108 whp

Suspension, Wheels and Tires:

Bilstein struts

Eurosport springs

Wilwood slotted front brake rotors

15×6.5″ Imola alloy wheels

Sumitomo tires

H&R TRAK+ wheel spacers


Canadian Corrado heated Recaro front seats

Canadian Corrado steering wheel

Digifiz European digital dash conversion

Lupo GTI shift knob and boot

Kamei flower vase

Original VW tape deck in factory location

MKIII carpeted floor mats

MKIII center console under construction

Custom headliner under construction


Montana Green Metallic, LB6Z

Kamei upper and lower grille spoilers crystal clear crosshair headlights

Green city lights

Hella smoked front turn signals

Shaved front “banana” sidemarkers

Smoked Euro sidemarkers

MKIII-style door handles

Shaved rear wiper

German Votex double-deep hatch spoiler with LED third brake light

1985 GTI hatch glass without brake light mount

OEM Hella North American-spec half-smoked taillights

Along the way, many more modifications were performed, and I was fortunate to have received a lot of help. Although most changes were born of necessity (replacing worn-out suspension, body alterations performed during repair for a hit-and-run) others were driven by folly, inspired by the wonderful cohesion possible by following the OEM+ method. It may be a losing battle to strictly define OEM+, as demonstrated by many such threads on our discussion forums. In the context of my GTI, however, it’s a focused way to solve a car’s problems by borrowing and reinterpreting solutions found on other cars in the VW family.

I’m the first to admit: I like to have stuff that no one else has. Until I fell head over heels in the modifying addiction, this was a relatively tame pursuit, most often manifesting itself through finding, say, a limited edition LEGO mini-figure or a particularly rare style of Doc Martens worn by Gwen Stefani in a No Doubt promotional poster circa 1997. This personality quirk has essentially defined my car so far, resulting in a few of my favorite modifications.

The wheels are one such example, a set of 15” Canadian-spec Imola alloys. I spotted them on a red MKIII Golf in a photo gallery and was instantly obsessed. It took a few years (seriously) but the VWvortex classifieds finally yielded a lead. Over time, they’ve acquired plenty of damage and the stance could certainly use some work. However, they are a testament to the GTI’s cohesion, especially the way the factory powdercoated centers complement the car’s textured trim and other dark cosmetic elements. One of only 500 sets, they deserve to be restored to their former glory.

Another Canadian import, the Corrado Recaro seats, have vastly improved quality of life behind the wheel. I was tickled pink when I first spotted these, made of the same fabric as the Montana Green 8V GTI’s original interior and adorned with the esteemed Recaro name. This discovery kicked off another two-year quest to locate a set. These fine specimens, exchanged for a thick stack of then-valuable greenbacks on a breezy afternoon in Montreal, are the focus of my interior and as a result, the rest of the cabin is held to a high standard.

Unfortunately, the GTI has reached a point where many of the problems cannot be solved with simple bolt-ons, and in part due to my new daily driver, a 2007 Rabbit, my tastes have grown more sophisticated. Since it’s been a while since I’ve worked on the car at all, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate past failures and possible new solutions. Here’s a peek at some of the installments we have planned over the course of this series.

Headliner — In retrospect, removing my original headliner board is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made with this car, and as a result, I’ve been headliner-less for several years. I’ve made a few half-assed attempts to rectify the problem, but VW’s flimsy OEM foam board has made a fool of me too many times, and I need a different approach. I’m taking a cue from the hot rod industry and constructing something a little different, inspired by—believe it or not—one of my favorite handbags.

Headlights — This is an area in which my 2007 Rabbit has completely spoiled me; compared to the MKV’s bright headlamps, the GTI may as well be equipped with two mini MagLites. My old aftermarket lights are pockmarked and worn past the point of plausible deniability. Rather than live with a curfew enforced by my car, this problem’s got to be fixed. All I’ve decided is that I’m sticking with the quad round setup. Everything else is up in the air.

Powdercoating — Eastwood was kind enough to set me up with a HotCoat powdercoating system, and my mind’s been swimming with the possibilities for cleaning up my engine bay. This installment will show the ins and outs of DIY coating, including detailed photos of all my inevitable screw-ups.

Digifiz how-to/clean up — The European digital cluster conversion is one of my favorite modifications, but between its frequent flickering and km/h speed readout, it’s more of a pain in the ass than I ever anticipated. Since my husband wants to remove the cluster and clean up the wiring, we’ll take the opportunity to show how the install is done, and we may even rectify the pesky miles/kilometer conversion issue. No German language skills necessary.

Thanks to my role at VWvortex, my colleagues have helped me realize that my tortured affair with my GTI is an opportunity, not a burden. MWerks managing editor Bryan Joslin has an eye for detail like none other; I’ve been fortunate to see a few of his projects up close and personal, such as MWerks Project E30. My fellow Project Car Week authors, David Herlihy, Paul Grimes, and Stephen Miller, have shamed my butt into high gear, since their long-term projects Rabbit GTI, Scirocco, and Jetta GLI, respectively, are picking back up after a long hiatus. Stay tuned for updates on Project Tortured Affair GTI and the other cars in the VWvortex stable.

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