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1979 VW Rabbit - Tom & Cherry

Chromed And Carb'd, This VW Rabbit Is Proof The MK1 Never Gets Old.

May 26, 2010
Photographer: Kris Clewell

Think of something from the '80s you still cherish. Maybe it's a song you play on repeat, a movie you watch every month or a book you can't put down; whatever it is, it's something that never gets old.

In the Euro scene, no car shares this quality like the VW Rabbit. It's the classic hot hatch that never seems to age. Which brings us to this '79 Rabbit. Thirty-one years ago it was sold off the dealer lot with a faultless exterior, fuel-efficient diesel motor and pristine interior. After three decades of wear and tear, time took its toll but new owner Thomas Fries (pronounced 'Frees') brought sexy back.

Now in his late-30s, Tom has owned a stable of Volkswagens since he learned to drive. "I had VWs since high school," he started. "My first car was a Kharman Ghia and from there I went to a '82 Rabbit I used to show." While his list of project cars is long and distinguished, he's always returned to the Mk1 chassis to express his creativity and passion for tuning. In fact, he's owned a total of 13 Mk1s ranging from diesels to cabrios and Caddies.

The moment arrived when Tom developed the urge to initiate another project, but this time he had gnarly ideas in mind. "I put an ad in the paper and the internet looking for a pre-1980 shell. I found this '79 Rabbit Diesel in Harrisburg but the block had a crack," he told us.

Despite its problems, the Rabbit was the perfect specimen and one of the last Mk1s with round headlights and small bumpers. The busted motor wasn't a problem either, since a new powerplant was in the works.

"I had it all planned out. The goal was to make it Euro-spec - almost like a factory GTI from '76. I collected factory parts and was just going to run steel wheels and a big motor," he explained.

Tom began addressing the engine and drivetrain first. A potent 2.0 16v was sourced from a friend, while a five-speed transmission was borrowed from a '89 Jetta GLI Helios edition Tom had in the garage.

Eurp_1005_02_o+1979_vw_rabbit+side_view Photo 2/10   |   Humble beginnings

"I wanted it all fresh," the owner noted. "Everything was new and balanced; new rods and pistons were installed, while the intermediate shaft was turned and balanced."

From the rings, ball bearings, seals and lifters to the valve springs, everything was replaced. Tom even sourced a new head that was ported and polished.

Not needing overwhelming power for the lightweight Rabbit, he kept the 2.0 close to factory spec with just a few pony adders. The combination of Techtonics 288° race cams, dual 45mm Weber carburetors plus Eurosport header and exhaust allowed the motor to breathe nicely, improving throttle response, torque and noise. "It rips it up pretty good," he admitted.

The five-speed manual Helios 2Y tranny was rejuvenated with a new bolt kit along with bearings and synchros replaced.

Before Tom could seal the deal under the hood, he cleaned everything like he had OCD. "I wanted to keep everything looking somewhat original with the rain tray, so I didn't go overboard shaving everything," he explained.

The battery was relocated to the trunk, then Tom removed several brackets and filled holes to tidy the tub. The madness continued to unfold...

Anything that could be unbolted from the engine was chromed. Whether it was brackets, bolts or the valve cover, the engine became a blingin' beauty. "It's different. I went with chrome because I hated the maintenance of polished parts. With chrome I can wipe it with Windex and I'm done. I was also bored with the car at this time and didn't want to do much more, so I upgraded what I had in it," he revealed. Tom accredited Ariel from Perfect Metal Finishing for the flawless chrome.

The chassis followed the same factory and ultra-clean approach. Weitec coilovers lowered the Mk1, and then Tom rebuilt the front brakes before upgrading to Scirocco discs in the rear.

Eurp_1005_03_o+1979_vw_rabbit+front_shot Photo 3/10   |   1979 VW Rabbit

While old-school steel wheels would have fit the time period of the project, a set of BBS mesh wouldn't hurt it either. These 15'' RMs came with 1'' lips but Tom rebuilt them with 1.5'' lips that were chromed along with the bolts. The centers were repainted silver and low-profile caps were imported from Germany to finish them.

Eurp_1005_06_o+1979_vw_rabbit+interior_shot Photo 7/10   |   Recaro Speed seats and matching rears

A timeless body didn't warrant much modification. So instead, Tom made minor improvements to maintain the stock appearance. However, the tasks he had in mind weren't a walk in the park...

The replacement roof was perhaps the hardest aspect, but Tom didn't care. The Rabbit had a sunroof and plenty of bondo plaguing it, so he picked up a new roof from a local VW owner and started cutting out the original skin with a Sawzall. With the non-sunroof skin in place, Tom continued his crafty work by deleting the side markers.

More insanity followed when Tom built a jig for the Mk1. "The jig allowed the whole car to turn on its side," he explained. "I scraped the undercoating off and then color-matched and clear-coated the bottom of the car."

While originally white, the car was sprayed PPG red, similar to a fire truck.

The interior didn't come up short either. Everything was sourced from the original European-spec GTI. The dash was found online in Texas, while the center console was flown in from Europe. "Normally the GTI didn't have a center console with this dashboard but it's the same one found in the Sciroccos," Tom remarked.

The seats were Recaro Speeds found on Craigslist. After cleaning them up, he matched the rear bench in the same Avus black material.

As a final exclamation point, a rare special-edition Pirelli cluster was used, which never came to the US.

"I tried to keep everything time-specific with older seats, carbs and wheels," Tom explained. "Everything is '80s-ish."

For a car that was built in just 18 months, we tip our hats to Tom. He's built a cherry Rabbit from the '80s that's still beautiful by today's standards.

Eurp_1005_08_o+1979_vw_rabbit+motor_shot Photo 8/10   |   1979 VW Rabbit

Tech Spec

1979 VW Rabbit
Owner: Thomas Fries
Location: Carlyle, PA
Occupation: network administrator

Engine: 2.0 liter four-cylinder 16v with balanced internals, machined intermediate shaft, ported/polished head, Techtonics 288° race cams, lifters, bearings and rings, dual Weber 45 DCOE carburetors, Eurosport header and exhaust, MSD ignition with timing computer, stripped and painted engine bay

Drivetrain: five-speed manual rebuilt with '89 GLI 2Y close-ratio gears, new bearings and synchros

Brakes: stock front, Scirocco rear disc conversion

Suspension: Weitec coilovers

Wheels & Tires: 15x7.5'' BBS RM wheels, 165/50 R15 Federal Formosa tires

Exterior: new roof skin without sunroof, undercarriage stripped and painted, shaved rear markers, PPG Deltron 2000 DBC red paint

Interior: Recaro Speed seats with matching rears, OE Euro GTI center console and bezel, Pirelli Edition instrument cluster, Westmoreland headliner, VW Motorsport shift knob

Thanks: Len, Bro, Bob, Allen, Smeg0r, Jamie, Tom, Dick Yuengling, Foster's Automotive, Perfect Metal Finishing, my wife and kids

Eurp_1005_07_o+1979_vw_rabbit+interior_view Photo 9/10   |   1979 VW Rabbit
Eurp_1005_09_o+1979_vw_rabbit+wheels Photo 10/10   |   1979 VW Rabbit
Sam Du
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