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1981 VW Rabbit Pickup - Caddy Shock

VW's Original Workhorse Gets A Radical 16v Makeover From Owner Salid Salazar.

Alex Rogan
Nov 1, 2007
Photographer: Josh Brown

Renaissance Man (Ren·ais·sance man) n: A man who has a wide range of accomplishments and intellectual interests. See also: Salid Salazar, owner of this outstanding '81 Rabbit Pickup. Sal is truly a man for all seasons, and in addition to being a voice actor and vocalist, he's co-owner of Axltrampz, Inc - founded in '03 as a performance shop in Asbury Park, NJ.

"I do commercials; I've done poetry readings, children's poetry online and stuff like that. I also have a bachelor's degree in sociology," Sal tells us. "I have a band too."

You don't have to be so rounded to build a stellar Mk1, but it can't hurt...

Better known as the Caddy overseas, this little VW serves as the ideal business card for Sal and his brother/business partner, Jason Cox. But it didn't start that way. At first it was just another car in a string of projects, stretching back to the early days of the east coast VW scene.

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After a number of Mk2s, he traded a 1.8 for a Jetta 2.0 16v, and that was all it took. "There was such a difference between a regular Jetta and the GLI, and I've been loving 16vs ever since. It's my favorite motor," Sal enthused.

In '99 another 16v project was completed, a Scirocco, but it only lasted three weeks before it was in an accident, leaving Sal in the hospital and a freshly built motor without a home.

"The only thing salvageable from the car was the engine," Sal continued, "I was looking for a four-door Rabbit to put it in but came across this Pickup. I couldn't test drive it because I was banged up from the accident, but I picked it up for $1800."

Sal immediately set about converting everything over from the Scirocco. "The Pickup was originally a diesel, but I dropped in the 16v and it just grew from there. It was my first engine swap, so a learning process."

Sal ran the car as a daily driver for a few years, slowly upgrading as things needed attention. "As things broke I tried to upgrade. If I have to rebuild the motor, I want to rebuild it better. If the car needs paint, I want to paint it better," he said.

Eventually the motor let go, prompting a rebuild. The bottom end was bored slightly, while the internals were balanced and the crank knife-edged. A stage 3 ported and polished head was filled with Schrick 268 cams and Techtonics valve springs, while a European 50mm intake manifold and Motronic CIS management system was swapped from a late model GTI. Autotech and Techtonics exhaust parts completed the mods, which cranked out 135 horsepower to the wheels.

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Up front, Weitec coilovers were installed, bringing the Caddy down over polished 17" Boxster wheels. An array of Euro Sport strut braces and a front sway bar help strengthen the chassis and tighten handling.

The Porsche wheels measure 17x7" front and 17x8.5" rear, and the 5x130 wheels were fitted with 25mm H&R PCD adaptors, along with an additional 8mm spacer in the rear for extra clearance. The wheels were wrapped in Toyo Proxes T1-S rubber, sized 205/40 front and 215/40 rear.

"The 17s are actually too big for that car, but I like the big-wheel style and can't get into the small Euro-style wheels," he said.

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Sal flipped the rear axle to lower it, having the leaf springs re-cambered to keep them from sagging. It provided a sporty and purposeful rake for the little pickup. Koni adjustable shocks from a Maserati Bi-turbo were adapted to fit with custom brackets.

Ordinarily, lowering a VW is simply a case of ordering a set of lowering springs, but not so on the Caddy. "I had to order the Weitecs from Germany, because they'll send you a pair. Nobody in the States would do that," Sal said. "Everything was more difficult with this car."

The Caddy wore Scirocco 16v brakes all round, but later made the jump to 280mm Corrado G60 brakes up front. The rear disc set up from the Scirocco remained in place. Substituting drilled Zimmerman rotors and stainless brake lines ensured a prompt reduction in speed. "The G60 brakes are much better than the Scirocco's. They feel like you threw an anchor out," he added. "I wanted it possible to service the car anywhere. That's why I didn't do a Brembo package, or something like that. I could take this caliper anywhere and they could rebuild it."

After all the upgrades a paint job was planned, but rust began to rear its ugly head. "When they got under the car, there was so much rot in the strut towers we had to take drastic action," he mentioned. "I had a donor car I was gonna rip the dash out of, but I ended up cutting off the front of the car. So the whole front end up to the A-pillar and the floor is from an '84 Cabrio."

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The work was carried out by a number of people. "The design and parts supply was our job at Axltrampz," Sal said. "But when we needed specialists, we'd go to somebody who's mastered their craft."

The surgery included FK Cross-hair headlamps, with an HID upgrade. A color-coded Euro bumper sits below, along with a European CL chin spoiler.

A badgeless grille, however, wasn't on the menu. "I want people to know what's in their rearview mirror. So I left the 'Volkswagen' lettering on the tailgate too. I want them to know what just passed them," Sal laughed.

The low ride height and big wheels took a toll on the chassis, despite the new front end, so a rollcage was added to hold things together. "The cage came after the second paint job. It was fitted everywhere the car started cracking. The Pickup's a unibody, so it really twists over bumps, and I previously had the car lower than it is now," Sal said.

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As the car was torn apart yet again, some additional tweaks were devised. "I had an aluminum tonneau cover and people used to joke it looked like a shed," he continued, "so when I put the car in the shop I decided to get rid of it and do a bed like a spoiler - put the spoiler inside the bed, where the air can push down on the back and then roll out."

While the fabrication was started on the bed, the six-point cage was cut up and redesigned to further strengthen the chassis. "The front part of the cage was reconstructed through the dash and firewall into the strut towers," he said.

Taking advantage of the down time, Sal decided to refresh the cabin as well. He had a set of Sparco Evo seats recovered in tweed and mounted on custom brackets to maximize legroom. The '84 Cabriolet dash and door panels remained, and a selection of Momo accessories were added. A JVC DVD/CD head unit, Alpine amp, Polk and Clarion speakers plus an 8" Bazooka tuba were stuffed into whatever space remained.

The redesigned cage not only made more room inside but significantly improved the chassis. "It stiffened the car so much it gave a smoother, quieter ride," he said. "It eliminated all the squeaks and rattles."

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The finishing touch before applying a fresh coat of paint was the rare "4X" flares he sourced from Germany. "I'm not gonna divulge my source," he joked, "but the company calls them '4X flares' because they're four times bigger than the factory parts."

Sal has taken his experience with the Caddy and stored the knowledge away for future projects, both for himself and customers. "That's my thing, I like to learn. I've had Saabs, Audis, 300Zs, Mercedes diesels. I have a '73 Shovelhead I've been building for the last 18 months... it doesn't happen overnight, and it'll always be changing."

Which brings us to the definition of "axle tramp" (wheel hop) Sal taught us. In his words: "It describes how we go from car to car like a tramp, or auto slut. We'll do any car, anytime, anywhere!"

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Tech Spec
1981 Rabbit Pickup
Owner: Salid Salazar
Location: Asbury Park, NJ
Occupation: Co-owner of Axltrampz, voice actor, vocalist

Engine: 2.0 16v bottom end with knifed-edged and balanced crank, balanced and lightened rods, stock pistons with overbore. 1.8 16v head with stage 3 port and polish, 268 Schrick cams, Techtonics valve springs and retainers, port matched European 50mm intake manifold, ABD intake elbow, NGP wires, K&N panel filter, Autotech header, Techtonics cat and cat-back system with Magnaflow muffler, Motronic engine management with Techtonics chip, poly motor mounts

Driveline: Kraftswerks five-speed transmission with lower final drive, Quaife limited-slip diff, lightened and balanced flywheel, Sachs 2.0 16v clutch kit, Techtonics short shift kit, Scirocco 16v axles

Suspension: Weitec front coilovers, Eurosport strut bar, lower tie bar and sway bar. Flipped rear axle, re-cambered leaf springs and poly bushes, modified Koni shocks

Wheels & Tires: 17x7" f and 17x8.5" r polished Porsche Boxster wheels on 25mm H&R PCD adapters, 8mm spacers on rear, 205/40-17 f and 215/40-17 r Toyo Proxes T1-S tires

Brakes: 11" G60 front brakes, rear converted to Scirocco discs, Zimmerman cross-drilled rotors and stainless steel lines all round

Exterior: '84 Cabriolet front end, shaved fenders and hood, FK crystal-clear Cross-hair headlights with HID kit, color-matched Euro front bumper with smoked turns, Euro Golf CL chin spoiler, single wiper, mini antenna, Audi A4 door handles, fiberglass fender flares, custom pickup bed, smoothed tailgate, shaved rear bumper, one-piece tinted rear glass

Interior: six-point rollcage, Sparco Evo seats with tweed trim, Schroth harnesses, '84 Cabriolet dashboard, armrests and door pockets, perforated vinyl door panels with silver stitching, digital ancillary gauges, Momo steering wheel, pedals, shift knob and boot, Mercedes carpet

Audio/Visual: JVC KDA-VX1 DVD/CD head unit with 4" screen, Alpine amp, capacitor, Polk and Clarion mid-range and tweeters, 8" Bazooka tube

Thanks: Jason Cox at Axltrampz (732/685-9034), Tony LaRosa, Tony Rinaldi, the guys at NGP Racing and RPI Equipped

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By Alex Rogan
48 Articles

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