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 |   |  2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed
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2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed

After A Lengthy Hiatus From Our Garage Projects Pages, John Nichol Finally Debuts His VW GTI.

Oct 13, 2010
Photographer: Kris Clewell

Seventeen months ago we first introduced this sexy 20th Anniversary VW GTI from Minnesota. Bagged 'n blue, the Mk4 was obviously destined for greatness with a big-turbo, rollcage, race seats and rare wheels.

Eurp_1011_01_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+driver_side_rear_view Photo 2/9   |   2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed

The madness continued with a shaved 'n airbrushed engine bay but we lost track of its development heading into the long winter months. After months of speculation, owner John Nichol resurfaced with one of the most exciting and well-executed daily-driven Mk4s in the country.

Like many VW fanatics, the 26 year-old has been around European cars all his life. In fact, he lived in Germany as a kid.

His first ride was an old Quantum Synchro; but his interests changed through high school and college. "I got into Ford Broncos and trucks," John began. "Then V-8 musclecars like my Camaro. It wasn't until I got together with Jeff Jacobson that I rediscovered VWs and started liking the Mk4 turbos. It was something I hadn't played with but I saw the horsepower numbers people were getting and knew I wanted some."

Jeff should be familiar to you; he built the "Low Life" R32 turbo on the cover of et 4/09 and was John's inspiration. "When I met Jeff, I had the Camaro and two Passats. I got rid of the Chevy and was after a new car. That's when I fell in love with the 20AE, especially in Jazz blue. Jeff persuaded me to testdrive one and loved it. I went on vacation for a week and when I came back the car was still for sale, so I made it happen," he smiled.

Eurp_1011_02_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+air_ride Photo 3/9   |   Fenders sit on 18'' Zauber wheels thanks to air-ride

The GTI already had a downpipe, intercooler and blow-off valve. Yet within a matter of days they were joined by a Forge turbo inlet pipe, Revo software, exhaust plus V-Maxx coilovers. "I never was worried about the looks, but I kept wanting more power," he told us. "I was introduced to Tristan Henderson from Further Performance, who helped me take the car to the next level. So I eventually bought a daily driver and decided to build the GTI."

John periodically helped out at Further Performance with basic installation work. The experience gave him the confidence to tackle the more difficult tasks on his own car; the stance, for example.

Ditching the budget coilovers, John sought more adjustability and comfort. So he pieced together an air-ride setup with Bagyard bags in the front with shortened Bilstein struts to achieve "more low". The rear used AAC bags and the system was managed by an Auto Pilot digital controller.

He mounted a five-gallon air tank and Viair 380c compressor in the spare tire well and notched the subframe to achieve a super-slammed stance.

Eurp_1011_03_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+steering_wheel Photo 4/9   |   2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed

John was reluctant to ditch the factory Aristo wheels, demanding something special for their replacements. After online searching, he eventually came across rebuilt 18x8'' front and 18x9'' rear Zauber wheels. "I loved the way they looked on the previous owner's Mk4 Jetta," he explained. "It had the perfect stance on air-ride and they were crazy-looking. I loved the step lip."

The three-piece rims were stripped and re-polished, switching the bolts to copper. And since they were Japanese wheels, custom adapters adjusted them to the Mk4's bolt pattern. "The rear wheels touch the fender but it has the perfect stance," he confirmed.

Sometimes unnoticed behind the polished faces are Brembo front brakes utilizing 12.9'' drilled rotors and four-piston calipers, which would eventually come in handy when the car received more power.

Bodywork was next but John confessed it was the worst part of the build. "I almost packed up the projected," he remembered.

Pleased with the OE 20AE front and rear valances, he bought supplies to mold them to the bumpers and shave the moldings. Unfortunately, the material he used was "crap" and created bubbles. After months of sanding and fixing, the bumpers were taken to Classics to Customs where they were color-matched.

Eurp_1011_04_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+sparco_fighter_seats Photo 5/9   |   Interior looks tough with Sparco seats and Auto Power rollcage

At this point, the GTI looked the business. Smoothed bumpers, air-ride and polished wheels distinguished it from other GTIs in the Midwest. But the limits were pushed further...

Over the next nine months, a plan was hatched to revamp the 1.8T. So the motor was pulled at Further and the block torn apart. It was strengthened with Integrated Engineering rods and secured with ARP studs. The head was also ported for good measure.

With the block re-assembled, John painted it. "The orange looked good with the blue and it almost resembled a Hemi," he noted.

He spent several weeks polishing the 034 Motorsport intake manifold and Euro valve cover. Both pieces were fastened using copper hardware to coordinate with the wheels.

The go-fast bits comprised an APR stage 3+ kit powered by a Garrett GT28RS turbo on a cast inconel manifold. A larger fuel pump and uprated injectors were also thrown in, along with an intake and 3'' downpipe.

Eurp_1011_05_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+front_view Photo 6/9   |   2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed

The kit was advertised by APR to produce 340hp and 320 lb-ft of torque; but John's setup should dyno significantly higher with its additional parts.

The stock six-speed manual received a Southbend stage 3 clutch and lightened flywheel, while a Wavetrac limited-slip improved traction. The transmission was re-sealed with ARP bolts and painted in a textured dark grey.

With a 1.8T ready for war and an engine-less car sitting in his garage, it was time to shave the bay before refitting the motor. "It really wasn't fun," he remembered. "The worst part was removing the glue from the seams. Once it was out, it was easier to see where I wanted to go. I went crazy and removed all the brackets."

From the coolant and power steering reservoirs to the battery, nearly every component was relocated. Every bracket was tossed except two on the strut towers, which John improved by making them bulkier and removing the bottom half.

Eurp_1011_06_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+apr_big_turbo_engine Photo 7/9   |   Built like a jet, engine bay features flat grey paint, airbrushed rivets. 1.8T has APR big-turbo capable of 340+hp

He also paid attention to the rain tray where the loom passes through. "There's a big gap, so I cut templates out of cardboard and transferred it to metal. Then I welded it to the firewall," he explained.

Another daunting task was trimming the wiring harness and removing unnecessary ancillaries such as the EVAP system.

After weeks of grinding, sanding and filling, the bay was smooth as a baby's butt. The GTI returned to Classics to Customs where they sprayed the bay a single-stage flat gray.

"When I saw the empty bay, the spotwelds reminded me of an aircraft since my dad was an aviator for 20 years." Using this surge of inspiration, John airbrushed every spotweld to resemble aircraft rivets. He also painted 'jet intake' beside the cone filter, like an airforce warning sign.

The various themes were transferred to the interior, where a six-point Auto Power rollcage was installed. "I wanted to see orange somewhere, so we coated the cage. It's now the first thing you see," he said. Powdercoating Technologies in Bloomington, MN created a custom color for this purpose.

Next, he installed Sparco parts, including Fighter seats and the F1-style steering wheel with quick-release hub. For finishing touches, the headliner was upholstered in plaid cloth and a Ferrari shift knob added.

Eurp_1011_07_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+air_intake_and_compressor Photo 8/9   |   Air tank, compressor and Optima battery hidden in trunk

When Spring '10 came around, the hot hatch was ready for the road. Not built as a show queen, the countless hours and sleepless nights paid off, creating an exceptional daily driver with speed, stance and style.

John concluded, "I had a lot of help from Further Performance, especially Peter Anderson their lead tech, who became a mentor to me. I also looked to my dad through the build, but I'm happy I did the majority of the work. And every time I get in and drive the car, that happiness returns."

2003 VW GTI 20th Anniversary
Owner: John Nichol
Location: Hopkins, MN
Occupation: curator/facility mgr

Engine: 1.8 liter 20v four-cylinder with 19mm Integrated Engineering rods, ARP head and main studs, port-matched head, polished 034 Motorsport large-port intake manifold, APR stage 3+ turbo kit with GT28RS turbo, cast inconel exhaust manifold, Bosch fuel pump, larger injectors, intake and 3'' downpipe, 2.5'' Magnaflow exhaust, evoms front-mount intercooler, APR R1 diverter valve, ECS Tuning pulleys, silicone intake hoses, polished fuel rail, Moroso polished catch can, smooth and polished Integrated Engineering Euro valve cover, braided lines with black AN-fittings, VF-Engineering motor mounts, OE Ferrari oil cap, shaved bay, engine block painted orange

Drivetrain: six-speed manual transmission with Southbend stage 3 clutch and lightened flywheel, Wavetrac 02M locker, trans painted grey

Eurp_1011_08_o+2003_volkswagen_gti_20th_anniversary+jet_intake Photo 9/9   |   2003 Volkswagen GTI 20th Anniversary - Nichol & Dimed

Brakes: 12.9'' Brembo Gran Turismo brake kit with four-piston callipers

Suspension: Bagyard front air bags with shortened Bilstein struts, AAC rear bags, Auto Pilot digital air management, five-gallon tank, 380c Viair compressor, notched subframe, Yarrow rear stress bar

Wheels & Tires: 18x8'' front, 18x9'' rear Zauber wheels with 215/35 R18 front, 215/40 R18 rear Falken FK-452 tires

Exterior: molded front and rear valances, shaved rub strips, rear wiper delete with red power switch and removable key?

Interior: Sparco Fighter seats, four-point harnesses and 383 suede steering wheel on quick-release hub, powdercoated Auto Power six-point rollcage, plaid headliner, New South Performance boost gauge, Auto Meter oil pressure gauge, Optima Yellow-Top battery, OE Ferrari shift knob, 42 Draft Design interior lighting

Thanks: mom and dad, Jeff Jacobson, Peter Anderson at Further Performance, Ryan at Autotech, Kevin at AAC, Kris Clewell, Greg Tivadar and Bar Society, family and friends

Sam Du
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