"I started MF Automotive in the summer of '01 after being shut down by zoning officials for working out of my garage," Matt Ford started. "So with only $350 in my hand, I found a shop big enough to fit one and a half cars. It didn't even have running water or a bathroom but I coughed up the cash and I was in."
With dreams of building a VW/Audi performance shop in his hometown of Knoxville, TN, Matt's immediate future looked bleak. He started out with little money, a barely functional shop and a couple of months before the September 11 incident, causing distress to the nation and economy.
Despite adversity, Matt found ways to create a business. He used his mechanical skills to repair anything, from a Chevy Suburban to a Mitsubishi Eclipse. He did what he had to do to keep the lights on and food on his plate. And because his VAG passion was strong, he would even wrench on friends' Jettas and GTIs for free because he didn't have the resources to build his own. "I would build them for zero labor just to have the opportunity," he told us. "I wanted to build a car but was too busy with the shop."
Matt's generosity and enthusiasm led to this motorsport-inspired '87 GTI. Originally a 1.8 liter 8v with 102hp, it was collecting dust with 200k miles on a blown motor. So good friend Al Almonroad took the car off his hands and funded the new project. Matt helped track down a 2.8 liter VR6 with 80k miles from a '98 Jetta GLX for the transplant and the rest is history. "I built the shit out of the GTI," he laughed.
"The idea was reliability and a factory installation, so it could be driven hard at the autocross or track," Matt explained.
The project launched in '04 and took a year to get the wheels rolling again. It remained a daily driver and weekend track car for years; however, it was stripped down to its bare shell earlier this year for another overhaul. "Every nut and bolt was stripped, sandblasted and cleaned," Matt told us. "Even the tranny was split open and cleaned."
Everything in the engine bay, interior, body and undercarriage was either replaced or cleaned. In the flesh, the car looks newer than a Mk5 off the dealer's lot. This Mk2 is timeless.
Starting under the hood, Matt sprayed the motor and tranny flat black, even going as far as painting the intake and brake lines. "I completely rewired the car from the headlights to the tail lights with central electric two, which is used on late Mk2 and Mk3s. So it was a matter of a few Corrado parts to fit the motor, plug it in and turn the key. It's the right way to do a VR6 swap and a lot cleaner."
To improve the performance of the stout six, Matt installed a Techtonics 2.5" cat-back exhaust and software. The five-speed manual received lightweight flywheel and Sachs clutch for more clamping force, plus a Peloquin limited-slip to provide traction when the car gets abused.
Matt followed with chassis upgrades to improve drivability. Koni coilovers were adjusted to give the GTI its low stance and solid behavior. Poly bushings and an Autotech rear sway bar was also added.
For stopping power, the tiny front brakes were upgraded to 11" Corrado VR6 spec, while the rear drums were swapped for 8.9" VR6 discs as well.
The wheels followed the weekend-racer theme. According to Matt, these 15x7" ATS Classics were pretty rare: "In that particular wheel, you can get 13s anywhere," he explained. "But this is the only set of 15s I've ever seen." Possibly one reasons for their rarity is the Porsche bolt pattern, which required H&R adapters to fit the GTI's hubs. And before the wheels were wrapped in a set of Toyo T1R tires, Matt painted them satin black.
For the most part, every inch of the car remained subtle and purpose-built for the track. But when Matt and Al moved inside, that's when the project got out of control. Yet it doesn't have an insane interior swap or fancy upholstery. It's the Porsche GT3 race seat that make the interior. Sculpted and leather-wrapped, the best word to describe them is 'badass'. They represent the holy grail of European car seats and bring an intense motorsport feel when combined with the half-cage and genuine GT3 harnesses.
The dash, carpet and door panels were all swapped from Al's previous Mk2, refreshing the cockpit. There was also a 16v steering wheel from Italvolanti sourced through TMTuning's German warehouse.
The exterior didn't undergo excessive work but was modeled on the classic GTI 16v. It consisted of European small bumpers, a 16v front valance, crystal-clear headlights and foglamps, plus Votex fender flares. Matt deleted the front banana lights and rear wiper to clean up the body.
To maintain the black and white theme, the lower half of the car (including the valances and fenders) was painted flat black, while the body (including engine bay and door sills) received a fresh coat of Alpine white.
Six years later, the GTI is a work of art. Near the end, Matt and Al were in a mad rush to prepare the car for the Southern Wörthersee show in Georgia. "The final product of 20-hour days for two weeks straight was worth it," Matt revealed.
MF Automotive has grown from its meager beginnings. Matt moved into a 15000sqft building and has nine employees. And for the last five years, nothing that doesn't wear a VW or Audi badge gets through the doors. "If it's not a Volkswagen or Audi, I don't touch it," he laughed.
1987 VW GTI
Owner: MF Automotive
Location: Knoxville, TN
Occupation: VW and Audi Specialist
Engine: 2.8 liter VR6 12v OBD2 from '98 Jetta with Techtonics software, 2.5" cat-back exhaust and Borla muffler, MF Automotive front and rear motor mounts, Samco Sport coolant hoses
Drivetrain: 02A five-speed manual with Autotech lightweight flywheel, Sachs clutch, Peloquin limited-slip differential, VF-Engineering tranny mount
Brakes: 11" Corrado front brakes, 8.9" rear disc conversion, stainless lines
Suspension: Koni coilovers, Autotech 28mm rear sway bar, polyurethane bushings
Wheels & Tires: 15x7" ATS Classic wheels on H&R wheel adapters with 195/45 R15 Toyo T1R tires
Exterior: OE European small bumpers, 16v front valance and red-stripe grille, Hella Euro smoked tail lights, crystal crosshair head- and foglights, Alpine white respray, drip rails, shaved front banana lights and rear wiper, rockers, front valance and rear panel painted flat black, Votex big arches
Interior: Porsche Recaro GT3 seats and harnesses, Auto Power roll-bar, 16v Italvolanti four-spoke steering wheel, Mk2 leather shift knob, headliner upholstered in black tweed
Contact: www.mfauto.com, 865/523-7676
When Matt started MF Automotive, he drove to work in a '90 Jetta GLI. It was also his weekend track car but was forced to sell it to keep the business going. "I swore I'd never find another car as nice as that one," he explained.
As fate would have it, Matt's luck changed. "I got word that a car like my old one was sitting under a tree in the country," he told us. "It had been parked since '95 with 27k miles on it. It took me months to get it from the owner. I bugged the old guy for six months and finally got it."
The Jetta was bone stock with its original paint, Recaro interior and exhaust. Not wanting to overdo the unmolested GLI, he kept the modifications simple. He started by dialing in the stance with H&R coilovers, then fitting a set of 15x8" BBS RS 001 wheels with Schmidt lips and 195/45 Toyo T1R tires. A few other subtle additions included a Kamei front spoiler, smoked tail lights and turn signals, European rear plate tub and a 16v Italvolanti steering wheel.
"Back in the day, kids got these cars in high school," he said to us. "Most of them beat the shit out of them so very few of these cars made it."
With 35k miles on the Jetta, Matt is a proud owner of a flawless Mk2, just like the one he used to own. Except now he doesn't have the hard knock life. Instead, he has these awesome project cars to show and a successful shop that started from his tiny Knoxville garage.