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1979 Volkswagen Rabbit - World Rally Rabbit

Bryan Watson’s ’79 VW Rabbit 2.0 turbo rally car takes on a champion!

Neill Bachand
Jul 29, 2011
Eurp 1108 01+1979 volkswagen rabbit+cover Photo 1/8   |   1979 Volkswagen Rabbit - World Rally Rabbit

If you were going to challenge seven-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb on the rough roads of Mexico, would you choose a Mk1 Rabbit GTI?

Loeb has achieved 62 WRC wins in his ten years with Citroën, racking up seven word titles and becoming the most successful rally driver in history. However, new FIA rules for 2011 have seen him move from his Citroën C4 WRC 2.0 turbo into a new DS3 WRC with a 300hp 1.6-liter turbo engine. Perhaps, this might give 34 year-old Bryan Watson an advantage?

A submarine mechanic working on torpedo tubes, the Belfair, WA resident has been competing in Rally America for five years. In fact, he won his first Rally America Group 5 championship in ’07, followed by another title in ’09 and came second last year.

Having purchased the Rabbit for $400, Bryan’s company Recon Rally, stripped the interior while the body was seam-welded and a cage installed along with race seats and navigation gear.

Its 2.0L 8v ABA engine was purchased from a friend. It was upgraded to 300hp with the inclusion of forged pistons and crank, Turbonetics TO4E turbo and SDS management, a ported head, 630cc injectors plus a 288° race cam. The cam was used to work with his sequential five-speed dog box. The final addition was a strengthened oil pan and skid plate.

Eurp 1108 02+1979 volkswagen rabbit+team photo Photo 2/8   |   1979 Volkswagen Rabbit - World Rally Rabbit

As a hardcore rally fan, Bryan always wondered how he’d compare with the world’s best teams and drivers. So his team started talking about entering the Mexican round of the World Rally Championship to drive the same stages as their heroes.

However, the Recon Rally Rabbit doesn’t comply to FIA WRC regs, but was eligible for a national Mexican rally that runs parallel to the WRC event, running on the same roads behind the international teams.

With the crew van packed, Bryan and his lead mechanic “Red” Marson, headed south to Leon in central Mexico, where Rally Mexico would begin.

Arriving in Nuevo Laredo before sunset, they encountered their first issues – blowing a tire on the trailer, then struggling to find a repair shop; getting involved with the Policia; and dodging drug cartels on the road. “We went straight from the border in Laredo past Monterrey before stopping for anything!” said Bryan. “We didn’t want to risk stopping or getting held up.” This turned out to be a good decision because they discovered another US team had been robbed along the same stretch of highway.

At the ceremonial start of Rally Mexico, the city was shutdown and packed with fans. Bryan and co-driver/brother Rudy had to use the Rabbit’s bumper to muscle their way through the crowds and onto the rotating stage in the center of the local stadium. As you can imagine, fanatical local VW fans went wild when a Mk1 turned up!

Eurp 1108 03+1979 volkswagen rabbit+front view Photo 3/8   |   1979 Volkswagen Rabbit - World Rally Rabbit

Then they were off to the start of SS1: Guanajuato Street stage. However, midway through the cobblestoned stage, the downpipe flange broke. With the engine failing to start, the green Rabbit coasted to a halt.

After an hour-long wait for a tow truck, the car was back at the service park. The Recon Rally mechanics worked until 2am refitting the intake, turbocharger and exhaust. With everything in order, thankfully the crew was able to re-enter the race under Super Rally rules.

Eurp 1108 05+1979 volkswagen rabbit+hole in block Photo 4/8   |   A hole you could put your head into as a result of rushing to reach the start of stage two on day two

Day two: the ’79 Rabbit ran better than ever. On the first stage, Bryan had no idea how the car would tackle the large jumps. “I backed off the throttle a bit and braked to squat the front-end before mashing the throttle on the lip of the jump,” Bryan told us. “The car flew great and landed even better!”

Flying through the finish, the time card was stamped and the crew used local roads to reach the second stage. Then tragedy struck.

The streets were packed with traffic, making it difficult to stay on the tight schedule. So most of the cars were finding creative ways through the traffic. Bryan admitted he was having to four-wheel drift several corners and drive on the shoulder to pass cars before he picked up a random police escort. During the madness, somehow the Mk1’s engine blew!

With blue and white smoke billowing from the hood, the crew pulled to the side of the road. An 8" hole had appeared in the engine block.

They got the car towed back to the service park and started sourcing parts locally, which included the tons of Mexican VW specialists and even the VW factory. They were able to find everything they needed but, according to the FIA WRC rules, they couldn’t replace the engine block – their rally was over!

Eurp 1108 06+1979 volkswagen rabbit+side view Photo 5/8   |   Starting stage one, day two

As a token to their valiant effort, WRC officials hooked the entire crew up with all-access passes that gave them a first-class experience for the remainder of the event.

Returning home, they’d safely avoided the drug cartels, completed a 5400 mile round trip and discovered the astonishing speed of the WRC drivers.

Next for Bryan is to build a new engine – he learned a lot from his first WRC event and is planning on competing next year with taller gearing and a more reliable car.

et Tech Spec

1979 VW Rabbit
Owner: Bryan Watson
Location: Belfair, WA
Occupation: sub mechanic
Engine: 2.0L 8v four-cylinder with forged pistons and crank, ported head, 288° cam, adjustable cam gear, low-comp gasket, AEG Mk4 intake, SDS engine management, adjustable FPR, BBM fuel rail, 630cc injectors, Turbonetics TO4E turbo, TiAL wastegate, Blitz pop valve, Callaway exhaust manifold, custom 3" exhaust, Borla XR-1 muffler, high-flow cat, V-bands, Painless wiring harness and fusebox, solid mounts, front-mount oil cooler, oil windage tray and remote oil filter, water/meth injection
Drivetrain: sequential five-speed dog box, Kaaz LSD, Eurospec flywheel, ACT four-puck clutch, Driveshaft Shop axles and CV joints, launch controller, O2A raised cable-shifter
Brakes: Scirocco calipers and discs with Portfield pads, Tilton pedal box with master cylinder and brake reservoir, adjustable brake bias controller
Suspension: Hotbits DT1 coilovers, tubular control arms with heim-joints and reinforced upper strut mount plates
Wheels & Tires: 14x7" Ronal R8 wheels, 175/70 R14 Michelin M4 tires
Exterior: Euro bumpers and handles, quad headlight grille with single headlights, Hella 1000 offroad lights, Subaru 22B hood vents, roof vent, F1 rear wing, Lexan windows, seam-welded body, skid plate and mud flaps
Interior: Sparco seats and steering wheel, Quaife quick-ratio steering rack, Racetech harnesses, Aim Sports Strada digital display, FIA ten-point rollcage, custom door cards and aluminum dash
Audio/Visual: Peltor two-way intercom, Terratrip 303 rally computer, Garmin GPS, GoPro camera, map light

By Neill Bachand
72 Articles



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