Second Chance GTI: Part VIII

Months have passed since the start of this project. From the outset, the goal was to more or less return this 1990 GTI back to its original, like-new condition with an emphasis on staying as stock as possible. So far, that’s pretty much what’s happened. Modifications thus far have been limited to those that are practically invisible: shift linkage upgrades, increased engine displacement, improved suspension components, and rear disc brakes, to name a few.

The original plan did, however, leave a little room for personalization, so long as the modifications were “period correct” for the car. In other words, I would limit the changes to those accessories and modifications that were available and common at the time the car was relatively new. In doing this, I would not only pay respect to the virtues that make a Mk II GTI so great, but I would also acknowledge the significance of this car as an aftermarket icon as well.

The paint has cured and the mechanical reassembly is nearly complete. At this point in the rebuilding process the cosmetic and functional accessories deserve some attention. In “the good old days” the most common way to personalize a GTI was to make it look like its European counterpart. This was the original definition of “Euro-ing” a car, long before it meant smoothing all the trim and rolling on ridiculously wide chrome wheels. Then, as now, Europe got the purest form of the cars, while North America got the overweight, low-octane versions.

Probably the most significant difference between the European and American GTIs was the front end, specifically the lighting. European GTIs were blessed with simple round headlights, augmented by a second set of lights mounted alongside for either fog or long-range duty. We were cursed with “aero” one-piece lamps that seemed to provide the bare minimum in terms of light output. It wasn’t until the last two years of Mk II production that we got the appropriate dual-round setup, the classic GTI look that had been in use on the other continent for nearly a decade prior.

This look is so classical that it is still very popular today. Several companies produce reproductions of the original, some with slight variations, such as a deleted center badge. For this car I chose a typical OEM aftermarket piece with Hella driving lights. The headlights are genuine Hella European H4 lamps, complete with integrated city lamps as well. Even with standard-wattage bulbs, this setup puts a lot of light down the road, especially with the high beams and driving lights relayed to operate together.

Complementing the Euro lights and grille are a set of European bumpers. This modification is a subtle one, but significant to most enthusiasts for its weight savings. In the Eighties and early Nineties, there was a more substantial difference in the safety requirements between the two markets, and the North American cars were subsequently equipped with heavily reinforced bumpers. The visual differences between the two types are subtle, but the European pieces sit closer to the body for a cleaner appearance. More importantly, they shed roughly 15 pounds at each end of the car.

The addition of side marker lights used to be common. VW didn’t start putting side markers on American cars until the late Nineties, even though they emerged in the mid-Eighties on home-market models. It seems the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, as ironically, many enthusiasts today choose to remove their factory-equipped side markers for a cleaner look. Funny how times change.

The best place to experience a Mk II GTI is from the driver’s seat. While the seats and most of the rest of the interior were left fairly stock, there were a couple places that deserved a little extra attention. The most satisfying accessory in the cockpit has to be the steering wheel, because when this car was new, airbags were still optional in many cars. There is absolutely no guilt in changing out the plastic four-spoke factory steering wheel for a sexy Italian job. A vintage Momo Club 3 wheel, trimmed in leather and suede, faces the lucky driver (me). The Club 3 was discontinued in the mid-Nineties, so it is appropriate for this project. Adorning the center of the wheel is another vintage Momo piece, the center horn button bearing the GTI logo.

Staying with the vintage Italian leather theme, the plastic shift knob, in all its molded-stitching glory, was replaced with a classic Momo Short Anatomico shift knob. This stubby, anatomically shaped shifter has been in the catalog for nearly as long as there has been a Momo catalog. Anyone who has replaced a shift knob in the last two decades has probably owned one.

Changing shift knobs is often a matter of preference, but if you have ever owned an older Mk II, you have probably needed to change your shift boot. Unfortunately, VW cut corners on both the shift boot and park brake boot, making them from a cheap vinyl that easily fatigues with use, revealing the cloth mat beneath the surface. Redline Goods provided us with a pair of their factory-replacement boots made of, what else, fine Italian leather. The boots are buttery soft, and feature classy detailing like double top-stitched seams. While they are much nicer than the stock pieces they replace, they look right at home in the GTI’s simple interior.

The last bit of improvement inside is a pair of VDO gauges, one for oil temperature and one for oil pressure. Once the 16-valve GTI was introduced in 1987, the 8-valve GTIs (and Golf GTs) were no longer equipped with the handy MFA trip computer. Enthusiasts were on their own to monitor their engine vitals, and gauge panels holding two or three gauges were common accessories. Every VW tuner’s catalog at the time had a page filled with VDO gauges and mounting accessories.

Many of the companies that used to offer these have long since abandoned the Mk IIs, so I was left to my own devices to create a mounting solution. I trimmed out the ashtray and lighter section of the center console and fabricated a two-hole panel to hold the gauges. A new harness was made just for the gauges, which light up green and are connected to the instrument panel dimmer for full integration. A pair of cigarette lighter sockets is mounted facing downward beneath the gauges, invisible from sight and providing twice the charging power for all of today’s electronic accessories.

The project is finally drawing to a close, and the once-abandoned GTI is looking sharp in its new clothes. It’s now a simple (hopefully) matter of DMV red tape that is keeping this willing pocket rocket from hitting the street. I think the car is as eager as I am to get this show on the road.

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