Second Chance GTI Part VI: Paint

In the last installment of this project, we determined that a perfect appearance is what separates a simple rebuild from a true restoration. At that time we covered some of the little details that make for a quality outcome. This time around we will focus on the big picture, the paint and bodywork. The GTI was dropped of at Neat Street Auto Body in Aurora, IL, in early September for the royal treatment.

Prior to leaving the car with Neat Street, some additional prep work was done at home. With the engine out for rebuilding, the engine compartment was cleaned up. Some minor rust issues were addressed before the entire compartment received a fresh coat of paint. This would have been the ideal time to select a new color for the car, but the overwhelming consensus was that the car should stay Alpine White. And so it did.

Other pre-body-shop prep included removing the doors and applying a fresh coat of color to the doorjambs and the inner door panels. The new paint was sprayed out beyond the inner boundaries for later blending with the exterior paint. Despite the fact that we weren’t technically changing colors, the reality is that the 13-year-old paint was not exactly fresh, and in fact had yellowed quite a bit and was showing numerous surface blemishes.

Some may have chosen to skip both of these steps, but the quality of the finished project would have been significantly lower if we had. It added roughly $150 to the project (including buying a basic spraygun) to paint the jambs and engine bay at home, but it also saved roughly $500 over having the body shop perform the same job. Even if you use a discount paint shop for your project, it pays to match the jambs and bay on your own if you can.

This car started out with a relatively clean, solid shell. The biggest issue regarding the body was the rear panel, between the hatch and bumper, where the car had suffered a significant impact. Aside from the obvious collision damage, the panel had also begun to rust near the bottom where it joins with the rear quarter panel. Initially, the plan was to simply repair the rear panel, but once we discovered that a brand new factory panel was available for just $35, that plan was ditched in favor of the more solid and permanent repair.

The labor process was much more involved, since the panel makes contact with both of the rear quarter panels, the main floor pan, the inner trunk panel, and the main hatch opening. Numerous spot welds were drilled through, and in some places the old panel simply had to be ground off. This also necessitated repainting the inside of the cargo area, but the final result looks much better than if the original panel had simply been repaired.

This type of rust damage is common on older Golfs, especially those that spend their lives in severe climates. Also common is “hatch rot,” which was present on our car as well. As is often the case, what appeared to be surface rust turned out to be more substantial upon further examination, especially under the license plate trim. While it would have still been possible to repair the panel, we opted for a clean used hatch that was found at a local salvage yard for about $40. The cost of labor to repair the rusty hatch was not justified when compared to the cheap used panel.

Before simply recycling the old hatch, it received several important operations. First, all of the hardware was carefully removed and labeled, including all of the wiring and tubing. This made it easier to remove the donor hatch at the junkyard without concern for preservation. The window was also carefully removed, as the GTI’s spoiler is mounted through holes in the glass, and there was no guarantee that the donor hatch would have a spoiler. Another feature unique to the GTI hatch is the black vinyl trim surrounding the window. This part is no longer available, so a pattern was made of the original before the hatch was disposed of.

Other common rust points on most Golfs are the bottoms of the wheel wells. This is especially true on GTIs and other models with full fender flares; they may provide extra protection, but they also hold on to dirt and moisture. Given the option of a fabricated metal repair panel or a fiberglass repair, we opted for fiberglass. The flares are going back on the car, so rather than take the chance of rotting out two new steel panels, the choice of plastic filler seemed logical. The finished repair would pass the most scrutinous inspection, and should be reliable for many more years than steel would have been.

The rest of the body needed only minor attention to surface rust and dings, which are to be expected of a 13-year-old car with more than 160,000 miles. Hours of tireless work resulted in a practically perfect body shell with a glass-smooth surface and bodylines that match up from panel to panel.

The front end received a host of new sheetmetal. Aftermarket fenders and hood were acquired for less than $200 total, eliminating the need for time and expense in rust and surface repairs. The tradeoff for the price of the aftermarket panels is that you will likely spend a little more time setting them up properly, but if this is done before they are painted, as we did, the results should be more than satisfactory.

The original estimate of “a couple weeks or so” dragged out as new obstacles were overcome and additions were made to the project (such as replacing the rear panel). It’s been my personal experience that you should expect at least twice as long as what you are originally quoted for a project like this, especially if you tell the shop it’s your “project car,” a term that makes professional body shops quiver in their boots. Regardless, Neat Street was more than accommodating, as I visited the car a couple times a week to keep tabs on its progress. Roughly three months after dropping it off, I got the call that it was ready to go.

The morning of its departure dragged a little, as the last detail was being applied to the car when we showed up. Starting with the introduction of the 16V GTI, Volkswagen finished the front and rear valence panels in a matte black rubberized paint. Nearly overlooked, the body shop scrambled to complete this last task before releasing the car. Despite the lengthy ordeal, the car was finally looked as perfect as I had imaged it from the outset.

The road from here is downhill, but not necessarily an easy one. Some of the biggest challenges still lay ahead: will the new engine start, will all of the parts still be where I put them six months ago, will I remember where everything is supposed to go? These questions and more remain to be answered, but at least it looks like a new GTI.

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