The story behind this car is one of thrift, imagination, ingenuity and perseverance. It's one of those stories that is often requested by readers but rarely exists in the real world. It's where somebody takes a car (their first car in this instance) and builds it on a budget; first making it reliable for daily use, then shifting up a gear to convert it into a show-stopper. A determined kid built it with a great deal of help from his dad, brothers and friends. It's a Sunday afternoon movie on TBS. It has plenty of feel-good factor.
The first scene opens with a curly-haired 15 year-old James Cathers in his sophomore year in high school in Jackson, NJ. He's looking for his first car to get to school and finds one just around the corner. A neighbor is selling a tatty '84 Rabbit GTI for $300. Who could resist?
His dad, Chris, runs Team Autobody and an employee encourages the youngster to get the car and fix it up. But when they get it home, they discover the car won't start. Just when it appears to be turning into a disaster movie, Dad suggests they take the motor out of a '94 Jetta 2.0 he'd taken in return for some work.
With help from his dad, brothers and Sean Bellus at the bodyshop, the team spent evenings and weekends to get the kid on the road.
The task took about three months in total, but it didn't matter since he was too young to drive. They swapped the engine and tranny mounts so the ABA motor and transmission simply dropped in. Getting it to run was more complicated, requiring the Jetta wiring harness and ECU to be spliced into the Rabbit.
The Jetta tranny required the Rabbit knuckles and driveshafts to be swapped over, but after that it was straightforward. The exhaust was a combination of a Rabbit diesel manifold, plus a Techtonics two-into-one downpipe and exhaust system. The inlet retained the stock Jetta tubing, but required a K&N air filter because there was no room for an air box.
Once new fuel lines were run to the relocated fuel distributor, the motor ran reliably. "I just wanted the car to drive and I'd leave the mods until later," James said, "and it's still at that stage!" Apart from a Techtonics chip that was recommended along with the exhaust system, the motor remains untouched.
With access to his father's bodyshop and an army of willing helpers, the exterior didn't remain stock for long. Lowering springs were fitted to improve the stance, and they decided it was easy to paint the car since it needed rust and dent repairs.
Before the new black paint was loaded in the paint gun, they swapped in a round headlight grille and rad support. It also got Cabrio front fenders and tail lights. The latter are shorter than stock, so the resulting holes needed to be filled and smoothed. The badges were also removed and Euro bumpers fitted.
"Dad had a vision for the hatch at this point," James explained. "He wanted to create lips above and below the rear glass and just went for it. He did it in plastic and it's all molded by hand." This unique feature is one of many that sets the car apart but in a subtle way, and that was part of James' plan: "I didn't have my license at this point but I wanted to get into the VW scene by modifying the Rabbit tastefully. I needed to renovate the car, and worked out how I could improve it in the process," he explained.
Over the next year, James began using the black Rabbit GTI 2.0 as his daily driver, slowly overhauling the interior and adding some audio parts. After a year the transmission developed a small fluid leak and eventually melted the fifth and reverse gears.
The solution turned out to be simple: refit the original gearbox. So the car was taken to Hodi's Performance in Old Bridge, NJ. It was coming up to Christmas and as a surprise, his father asked them to also convert the Rabbit to five-lug Corrado discs all round and fit the Corrado's BBS wheels.
Over the course of the next year, James finished the audio system with a sub and speakers, adding '91 GTI seats in the process. He was also toying with the idea of a widebody when his father had another vision. "While repairing a car in the bodyshop, he realized the fenders he was working on would be perfect for the Rabbit. So he ordered four new fenders, cut out the arch extensions and we got to work," James told us.
He wants to keep the source of the fenders a secret, and you'd be shocked to hear what they were from. However, family and friends again descended on the car, cutting, welding and hammering until they got it right.
The new fender flares were built around the 16x10" Schmidt wheels you see here. They were offered by a customer in exchange for work on his car, although it meant swapping to four-lug Corrado hubs to make them fit.
The wheels have 3" front dish and 3.25" on the rear, and with the fenders widened to suit, the Rabbit now sits about 2" wider each side. They lend the car a stance and menace few others possess, especially once it was drenched in a three-stage BASF candy apple red.
"The car was completed in the summer of '06 and was the last job to be undertaken in dad's bodyshop before he sold it. He really wanted to make it special for that reason, but it almost didn't happen. We only had seven days to create the fenders, prep and paint the car," James said. "However, dad's a great craftsman and was really committed to the car, so we'd stay until 3am most days and got it done."
While the fenders were being built, the car was stripped for paint. This meant the exposed door frames and rear quarters could be sprayed at the same time. Even the housing of the Cadence amp was color-matched.
With the car back at home, James refitted the interior. As a college student by now, he needed to save money wherever he could, so he constructed his own door cards and speaker panels, covering them in black vinyl. He also sprayed the dash black and wrapped his sub box in vinyl - the rear seat had been removed years before, and the false floor built to house the audio equipment.
While the Rabbit is no longer a daily driver, James still has big plans. "I'd really like to do a Corrado VR6 motor, trans and dash swap," he confessed. "The easiest way is to remove my existing interior, motor, trans and all the wiring, then run the Corrado wiring harness from front to back, removing sections I don't need. We did the same with the Jetta harness and it's half the size it was because the Rabbit has so few extras," he confidently reported. And with the help of his family and friends, we have no doubt this isn't the last we'll see of James' widebody Rabbit GTI.
1984 VW Rabbit GTI
Owner: James Cathers
Location: Jackson, NJ
Occupation: student, musician, Bose store
Engine: two liter four cylinder 8v ABA Crossflow motor with Rabbit Diesel exhaust manifold, Techtonics Tuning 2.5" downpipe, exhaust system and ECU chip, no cat, K&N filter, polished intake manifold and exhaust tip, polyurethane motor mounts
Drivetrain: original Rabbit close-ratio five-speed gearbox, Techtonics short shifter
Brakes: Corrado four-lug G60 disc conversion using 11.5" front and 8" rear rotors
Suspension: Bilstein dampers with H&R springs, cross-braced and welded lower control arm mounts
Wheels & Tires: 16x10" Schmidt Modern Line three-piece wheels, 215/40-16 Toyo T1-S tires
Exterior: custom all-metal fender flares and extended upper and lower hatch lips, shaved side markers and antenna, debadged hatch, smoothed rear valance,Cabrio small tail lights, fenders and round headlight radiator support, Euro bumpers, '78 Rabbit flag mirrors
Interior: '91 GTI cloth seats, new factory black carpet, rear seat removed, false floor covered in black cloth, custom speaker panels wrapped with black vinyl, custom door and kick panels, center console removed, gauges relocated to black-painted dashboard, color-matched accents
Audio: JVC KD-S890 head unit, 12" Cadence Solo-Bass Striker sub, Cadence 6x9", 8" and 5.25" speakers plus in-dash tweeters, color-matched Cadence Z6000 amp
Thanks: Dad Chris, brothers Tyler and Tristan, mom Jennifer, Sean Bellus, Lou Hodi at Hodis Performance, Steve and Jake at Cadence Speakers and everybody who helped