The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the phrase "money pit" would probably be dubious contractors or the 1986 movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. It almost certainly wouldn't conjure up images of a pristine Mk2 Jetta with a turbocharged VR6, smooth bodywork and a Recaro interior. And yet that's precisely the nom de guerre of the car pictured here. How it got that nickname is another chapter in the classic story of The Unintentional Project Car. It's a story we know all too well.
Derek Baker, a mechanic and salesperson at Stoney Ledge Auto Sales (Jeep Wrangler specialty shop) in Denver, PA, only paid $100 for the '91 Jetta GL.
"It had a bad motor and barely ran. It was beat up and hit in the back, and my boss at the time said he was just gonna get rid of it. So I offered him $100 for it," Derek told us. "I had originally used the Jetta to rob parts off it to fix up my Golf, but then decided to use the Jetta as the project instead."
An ABA block from a Mk3 was matched to a 270 cam to replace the Jetta's ailing 1.8, and all was well for a short time; at least until an encounter with a VR6-engined car.
"We were messing around on a road near here and he pulled away from me pretty good," Derek recounted. "So the next day I started tearing my motor out, and ordered a VR swap from a guy."
A '95 Passat gave up its vital organs, including the engine, transmission and ancillaries, in order to rejuvinate the Tornado red Jetta. Since Derek has spent time as a VW/Audi technician, and was a lifetime VW enthusiast with no less than ten Mk2s as previous projects, he decided to tackle the swap himself.
"I didn't really have any friends who knew what was going on," he says. "So I figured it out and I did research online. The only thing that really gave me trouble was some wiring."
The VR6 swap remained for less than a year before the itch for more power got the best of Derek, and a Kinetic Motorsport stage 2 turbo kit was procured. During this time, Derek noticed a cylinder in the narrow-angle V6 had excessive blow-by, so a full rebuild was decided upon, with OEM rings, bearings and valves finding their way inside. A set of 263 Cat Cams and high-rev valve springs were also installed to ensure top end power. C2 Motorsports software ensured the proper fuel mixture was available in each cylinder, while a Techtonics Tuning 2.5" cat-back exhaust and 42DD test pipe expelled spent fuel.
The Kinetic kit featured a Spearco FMIC, but with piping and mounts designed for the Mk3, it wasn't an easy install. "Many of my parts are from a Passat, so the radiator and fan are huge, meaning the lower intercooler pipe didn't fit. I had to cut and re-weld it," Derek explained. "And my rad support is almost non-existent on one side. When I first fitted it, the support looked haggard and crooked. People liked it because it looked ghetto, but it bugged the crap out of me."
Once everything had been cut, modified and re-engineered to his satisfaction, Derek continued on to other areas that were in need of improvement.
"When I first got it running, it dynoed at 260-something [wheel horsepower]," Derek continued. "I had AP Tuning fit a Mk3 VR6 fuel tank and pump, then we dynoed it again and got it 293whp at 9psi."
All that power is transmitted through the stock 02A transmission with a Sachs VR6 clutch and standard flywheel.
Visually, Derek aimed to clean up and improve upon how the Jetta looked from the showroom, rather than transform it radically. It's decidedly OEM-plus.
"I tried to keep it looking stock, with some clean, subtle mods that you'd only see if you know what you're looking for," he said. "The rear seams, rear tow hook, antenna, fender lights and emblems in the back were shaved. And that's pretty much it."
A badgeless grille, red/smoked tail lamps and G60 front arches round out the visual modifications; all very simple, yet very effective.
Derek loved the original single-stage Tornado red paint but wanted a deeper color. So he enlisted the help of co-worker Kevin Martin for a multi-stage respray. "Painting, priming, blocking; you name it, he did it. He made sure every line was straight. The car probably looks better now than it did from the factory," he concluded. "[Kevin] loaded it up with clearcoat and we then wet sanded and buffed every piece of dirt and orange peel off it."
The end result speaks for itself, and as Derek says, "It's like looking into a mirror."
A number of upgrades remain from the time the car was still a four-banger, including the Intrax springs, Boge struts and Prothane polyurethane bushings. The brakes were upgraded to Mk3 10.1" spec with Racing Brakes slotted discs, and Mintex Red Box pads. With more than three times the power VW intended, it's admittedly a little under-braked. "I've run out of brakes," Derek confided. "I've heated them up really good, and had smoke rolling off them. I have the bigger master cylinder, but again, a lot of that stuff hasn't changed since it was a 2.0."
A set of wheels is usually the make-or-break point for any car. Choose wrong and the project can go over like wet spaghetti. Derek had originally lusted after Keskin KT1s, but a change of heart resulted in this set of 16x9" Borbet Type A. The classic deep-dish design suits the Mk2 perfectly.
A set of 195/45 Toyo tires were stretched to the limit to fit the wide wheels. "It took a few guys to get them on there," Derek said. "They used a cheater air tank to get them on. One guy holding the tank, one guy holding the tire and a guy on the other side holding the tire and pressing the pedal valve to blow air into it."
The extreme look does come with a price for traction and handling. "With the stretched tires, if you hit the gas in a turn, it'll kinda push its way through the turn. It doesn't like to corner well if you're really on it," he continues. "They're 195s on a 9" wheel, so they're stretched pretty good."
With the clean, OEM-inspired exterior, Derek decided to keep it similar inside. The stock seats and door cards were exchanged for parts from a late-model Mk2 GLI 16v; these Recaros are possibly the best delivered in a VW from the showroom floor.
In-car entertainment is limited to a touchscreen Panasonic CQ-HX2083U head unit and Pioneer speakers. As Derek says, "It gets the job done."
Although the car's a looker and has been displayed in AP Tuning's booth several times this year, showing isn't necessarily the main goal. "I love the atmosphere and meeting new people," he said. "It's great to stand back and hear what people say about your car, whether good or bad." However, the real calling for the red VR6T is the road, where Derek can roll down the windows and take in the symphonic sounds from under the hood.
"I didn't build it with the intention of going this far. I built it to drive it, and I still have that mentality," he enthused. "I didn't spend all the money and expend so much effort to have it sit in the garage. I want to go out and enjoy it."
With plans for further suspension, transmission and brake upgrades, color-matching the wheels and a goal of 350whp already in the works, it seems the $100 Jetta GL will retain its affectionate nickname for the foreseeable future. Based on the results so far, we'd say it's been money well spent.
Tech Spec1991 VW Jetta GL WolfsburgOwner: Derek BakerLocation: Denver, PAOccupation: Mechanic and salesman
Engine: 2.8 VR6 12v, fully rebuilt with OE valves and lifters, 263 Cat cams and valve springs, AFE intake and 4" MAF housing, Techtonics 2.5" exhaust, 42 Draft Designs test pipe, stainless 2.5" downpipe, custom polished intake manifold, Black Forest Industries Yellow motor mounts, Mk3 VR6 tank and fuel system, Tial wastegate, Kinetic stage 2 turbo kit, Kinetic/Spearco FMIC with stainless steel intercooler pipes, C2 Motorsports software
Transmission: OE Passat 02A five-speed gearbox, Sachs clutch
Suspension: Intrax springs, Boge shocks, VR6 upper strut mounts, Prothane control arm and sway bar bushings
Brakes: Mk3 10.1" front upgrade with Racing Brakes slotted rotors, Mintex Red Box pads, standard rear drums
Wheels/Tires: 16x9" Borbet Type A ET15 wheels, 195/45-16 Toyo Proxes T1-S tires
Exterior: badgeless grille, G60 front flares, front and rear arches clearanced, textured paint on moldings, flares and bumpers, custom Euro plate, red/smoked tail lights, shaved side markers, emblems, rear seams, rear bumper and antenna, multi-stage Glasurit respray (three base coats, three clear coats)
Interior: Jetta GLI Recaro seats and door panels, black molded carpet, Mk3 no-airbag steering wheel (not pictured), black shaved headliner (no visors, handles or plastic mounting plugs), Mk3 Jetta GLX instrument cluster, Stewart Warner boost and oil pressure gauges
Audio/Visual: Panasonic CQ-HX2083U CD/MP3 head unit, Pioneer 5.25" speakers
Thanks: Dad, Mom, sister Lauren, girlfriend Alanna, Tom Dickinson, Ryan and Mike at APTuning (www.aptuning.com), Kevin Martin, Steve Simons, Dale and Jeff at Dale Lees Auto Body, Jason Diem, Leon at Witmers Garage, Todd and Brian at Haws Auto Sales/Akron Auto Service, Greg, Josh and Alex