Thumbing through the classifieds one Sunday, you can’t believe your eyes as you spot an ad for your childhood dream car. You know, the one you sketched pictures of in study hall; the one whose posters adorned your bedroom wall; the car you swore, if you ever had the money, you would buy, no matter what. The asking price seems reasonable, considering it “needs a little TLC”. True to your promise, you decide to buy it.

Once in your possession, you realize the previous owner has neglected to maintain your dream ride, and you begin to fear that “TLC” stands for “Truck Loads of Cash.” Nonetheless, you begin to fix all of the little mechanical problems your budget will allow, until you finally have a complete car that runs well and functions as it once did. Proud of your work, you enthusiastically show off your “restored classic” to all your friends. Unfortunately, all they see is a shabby old car, a little rough around the edges, even if it does run well.

For all your effort, your “restoration” may have amounted to nothing more than a string of repairs. You have just discovered the major difference between rebuilding a car and restoring a car: its appearance. A rebuilt car is nothing if it still looks like an old car. Restoring the finish extends well beyond shiny paint and clean upholstery. A “correct” car will even look like new underneath and throughout, right down to the under-hood stickers!

The plan for this car was to make it look like a new Mk. II GTI, albeit slightly modified. What that really means is that when finished, it should look like a brand-new 1990 GTI that was modified while still new, with modifications that were common and available at or around that time. While a future article will highlight the modifications, for now we will focus on restoring several of the finishes on the original parts.

There are several ways to make an old part look new, and the easiest is to simply replace the old part with a brand new one. While this is necessary with some pieces, it is certainly impractical to replace the entire car with new parts. Items like belts and hoses make perfect sense to replace. Other components like the starter and alternator are a judgment call, since they often fail anyway on an older car, and the rebuilt versions are almost always cosmetically refurbished as well.

In most cases, the majority of time spent in restoration involves stripping corrosion and old finishes from metal parts, then repairing and attempting to recreate the original finish. The new finish will often consist of a new coat of paint, but may include replating, as in the case of chrome or other unique finishes. Even though painting sounds like a simple task, choosing the correct color, texture, and gloss of paint can make the difference between simple rust prevention and a good restoration.

Those who have been around the restoration hobby have no doubt heard of the Eastwood Company. Eastwood has made a name itself among restorers for its extensive line of refinishing products, from rust removing solutions to custom paint finishes, and everything in between. We used several Eastwood products to reproduce the original finishes on our Project GTI, most notably under the hood.

As with most projects, the quality of refinishing is only as good as the preparation. Most metal parts will need to be stripped with some sort of abrasive, such as a wire brush, sand paper, or a stripping head. Abrasive media blasting, with sand or some other medium, is a quicker and more effective alternative if you have access to it. After removing the big chunks, the parts can be further cleaned with a rust dissolver. Eastwood makes a unique product called Oxisolv Rust Remover, which not only dissolves surface rust; it also leaves behind a black zinc oxide coating to prevent further oxidation. Most of the steel parts, such as mounting brackets, were treated with Oxisolv before being repainted.

Not all metal parts are painted for protection; some are plated with any number of corrosion-resistant coatings. One of the most common plating finishes under the hood of a water-cooled Volkswagen is gold cadmium, the kind of brassy, greenish-gold finish found on pulleys, brackets, bolts, and other hardware. Gold-cad, as it is commonly called, generally holds up well for a few years, but eventually succumbs to the elements, allowing the steel part beneath the plating to corrode. Replating these parts is simply impractical for the typical restoration, but Eastwood has a solution.

Eastwood’s answer to home refinishing of gold-cad plating is a three-stage paint kit, which fairly accurately duplicates the finish. Once prepped for painting, a part is first sprayed with the gold metallic base. Once the gold base has dried, the part is accented with random, sporadic applications of clear green and clear red tint, completing the shimmery effect that is characteristic of real gold cadmium plating.

The resulting finish is very close to the original, and most people would not notice the difference unless it was pointed out. Even side-by-side with a genuine cad-plated part, the differences are minimal. The kit was most helpful in refinishing unusual parts, such as the ignition coil bracket, which is not available by itself, and the links of the throttle body.

Another unique finish provided by Eastwood is their High-Temp Manifold Coating. This brush-on coating keeps cast-iron parts like the exhaust manifold looking fresh and rust free. The coating goes on like paint and cures to its final finish with the heat from the engine, providing a long-lasting metallic finish.

Elsewhere throughout the engine compartment, a host of other parts were repainted to match their original finishes - typically some variation of either black or silver. For example, the cylinder head and intake manifold were both blasted to reveal their bare aluminum, but the resulting finish was too shiny, so they were painted with a high-temperature paint in a cast aluminum finish.

The end result of all this work is a like-new look for a fraction of the cost of replacement parts. There’s no doubt that such achievements do not come easily. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication, attention to detail, and some good old-fashioned hard work to see a project like this through to the end. Certainly, there will be many who will question the reasoning behind tasks such as stripping and refinishing a bunch of brackets that, in all likeliness, no one will ever see, and these are quite possibly the same folks who’ll wonder, “As long as it runs right, what’s the difference?”

Perspective is the key – there’s a certain amount of pride and peace of mind that goes hand in hand with performing laborious tasks that no one but yourself might ever see or appreciate, and for people who share such a perspective, owning a vehicle that merely “runs right” just isn’t enough.

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