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Project My R32 Blues

Part2: My R28 Dues

Doug Neilson
Jan 19, 2006
Photographer: HPA
0601_01z_part2+volkswagen_r32_hatchback+front_left Photo 1/7   |   The brand new, internet purchased, donor car for the R28 project

The only cure I could think of to help me through my case of the "R32 Blues" was to start working on the plans to build one. By late 2003 I had done all of the research and many iterations of the cost estimate to build my own Canada-legal R32, or "R28" as it ended up. The calculations were done using various engine scenarios for both hypothetical used GTI donor car values and brand new GTI donor car values, along with HPA Motorsports' estimate for a complete 4Motion conversion. But no matter the combination, the project was just too damn expensive for me to justify. However, subliminally, I must have still wanted a 4Motion GTI in some shape or form, as I would find myself systematically scanning the web and the local newspapers on a regular basis for the perfect Mk4 GTI donor car. On Saturday January 30th, 2004 my search was over. I had stumbled across an absolutely unbelievable deal!!! After inquiry and verification, I had found a brand new 2002.5 VW GTI 2.8L 24V with 293 km on the clock. The car had been on the dealer's lot for one and half years and the asking price was several thousand dollars under sticker. They obviously wanted to move this one out! Also, the vehicle was at a VW dealer in the Vancouver area, conveniently about a 45 minute drive from HPA Motorsports in Surrey, British Columbia. Better still, the 200 HP 2.8L VR6 24V was the best possible engine choice to begin with according to my calculations and personal requirements. My "R28 project" became instantly economic by inputting the drastically reduced new car price in to my cost estimate spreadsheet, and without hesitation (apart from the time to get clearance from my wife), I negotiated the purchase of the car over the phone from my home in Calgary within 3 hours of my initial "stumble".

This was to be the perfect all-round car, a certified "pentathlete": Daily driver, people mover, cargo hauler, track day car, and Canadian winter beater all in one. VWAG can certainly be credited with conceiving the concept, but I would be in control of this production line. My project goal was to at least achieve the performance level of the factory R32. In the beginning it was all really too good to be true. Everything was perfect, even the color. The lonely car nobody wanted was a beautiful Reflex Silver GTI with a sporty Black cloth interior,incorrect 16 inch GTI rims, and no sunroof. Originally, I assumed that the car did not sell because it had no leather interior and no sunroof. But there was something about this particular car that was unknown at the time of purchase, something mildly unpleasant or unlucky, almost as if myself, or anyone else for that matter, was not supposed to own it in the first place. Was this car cursed? This R28 project almost got the better of me. True, I did have a bad case of the "R32 Blues", but this was nothing compared to "My R28 Dues".

0601ec_r28_part2_02_z Photo 2/7   |   Wrapped and ready for a 4Motion conversion, the R28 Project car goes under the knife at HPA Motorsports.

My run of hassle and bad luck on this project began right out of the shoot. It started with the dim-witted salesman and his several iterations of the bill of sale with minor errors such as spelling of my name, address etc..., mixed in with errors of more important items such as the included costs, basic addition, and the original price negotiated. Next, in order to fit the highly complex 4Motion conversion into HPA's busy schedule they needed to get working on it immediately due to the immanent arrival(February 2004) of several US Spec R32's scheduled in for their infamous twin turbo conversions. So it was necessary to complete the purchase and get the vehicle to HPA without wasting a moment of time (i.e. within 24 hours). But for some fickle reason my bank could not instantly transfer funds to the VW Dealer's bank, nor could the Dealer's bank account accept instantly transferred funds from a bank of their own brand. "Hello! I think this is the year 2004". Anyway, I solved the problem by having my bank cut me a certified check for the amount due on the car plus the deposit required for HPA to begin the work and walked down to a branch of HPA's bank brand. HPA could then send their driver over to the VW dealer with a check in hand to pick up the vehicle at the pre-arranged time. Sound simple? Well, apparently my friend, the dim-witted salesman (who did eventually get "fired"), had forgotten all about the scheduled delivery time and attended the 3 hour Dealership meeting instead. This caused the HPA representative to wait over two and a half hours for the car, in what should have been a 15 minute process.

The two month 4Motion conversion process went pretty much according to plan and schedule. Meanwhile, I spent my time organizing the purchase and delivery of aftermarket parts for HPA to install during the finishing process, as well as selling some of the basically brand new take off parts. I purchased new wheels, tires and locks, Schrick performance cams, a high flow air filter panel, an R32 steering wheel and airbag, a 4Motion shift knob and boot, TT aluminum pedals, aluminum door lock pins, and an R32 front grill badge. I transformed the R32 badge into a custom "R28" unit by reversing the "3" and the "2", and filling the "3" to make an "8". The "28" was then painted caliper red and reattached to the backing with the chrome "R". I must say it looks pretty close to OEM. I was able to sell the original steering wheel and airbag, rear axle assembly, and O2M 6 speed from my donor GTI. The additional parts, GTI struts, shocks, and springs, front sway bar, brakes, e-brake cables, and complete exhaust, are now in my basement until there is a better market for such spares.

0601ec_r28_part2_06_z Photo 3/7   |   The completed 4motion install, buttoned up and ready to go.

I arranged the delivery date with Marcel Horn, president of HPA, a week ahead so I could book a reasonable cost flight from Calgary to Vancouver. One small hitch turned up during that week that could potentially delay the project. KW Suspensions had some minor production delays on HPA's R32 SHS (Sport Handling System) coil over suspension kit, but this problem was simply solved by upgrading slightly to a KW Suspension V1 coil over kit. The upgrade was cheaper than changing the flight/delivery date. It's amazing what a little bit of cash can do to solve a problem (Ooops, I didn't mean to say that out loud)!

I flew out to Vancouver the afternoon before my delivery date and eagerly phoned Marcel the next morning to see when they would be ready for me to come by a pick up my new car. Marcel delayed me until later in the afternoon because an engine check light had popped up and they needed a bit of extra time to finish remedying the problem. When I arrived they were just finishing up and I was pleased to finally meet Marcel and his team after two months of phone calls and e-mails. The car looked amazing.... a stock looking brand new GTI on top, with all the 4Motion and upgrades hidden underneath.... totally stealth, and sweet! While the guys finished up, Marcel gave me a tour of the facility and we completed the paperwork.

0601ec_r28_part2_04_z Photo 4/7   |   Part way through the installation of the new independent suspension and rear drivetrain.

I loaded up the car with most of my spare take-off parts and after a few photos I was on the 950 km road back to Calgary. It was 5:00 pm on April 8th , the Thursday before the Easter Weekend, so traffic was rather busy heading out of the greater Vancouver area. After about an hour on the Trans Canada Highway in a slow moving traffic jam, I decided that I had better get some gas as I was getting low quite low (The thought of physically pushing my new car on the first day was very unappealing). I filled up the tank and paid the cashier, when I returned my heart dropped as I could see a steady trickle of gas leaking beneath from the slightly downhill driver's side rear quarter. After a quick look underneath, I determined that the leak was definitely at the top of the tank and since I had no tools on hand I decided that my only course of action was to lower the gas level by continuing home. I did try to call to HPA, but they had long since gone home for the long weekend. Then, after about 5 minutes on the highway I noticed that the engine check light had come on. I calmly pulled over to think about the situation and have a look under the hood. My thoughts were as follows:

" I'm leaking gas and my engine check light is on. The fluids and temperature are at the correct level and everything looks OK. The engine is running fine. HPA will not be open for 3 days due to the long weekend. Also, I absolutely need to be at work in Calgary on Tuesday so I can quit my job (the date had been planned for over 6 months). It's likely the check light is on due the leak in the gas tank (as when one forgets to properly tighten the gas cap). OK, I'll just press-on home. There are no other realistic options."

0601_09z_part2+volkswagen_r32_hatchback+front_left Photo 5/7   |   Project My R32 Blues

With that 12 second line of thought complete, I closed the hood, hopped back in, and gently drove the remaining 850 km home without further incident.

On the Monday following the long weekend I called HPA and described in detail where I determined the leak was coming from. They pointed me in the direction of the fuel level sending unit which is accessible under the back seat on the left-hand side. Within a few minutes I was putting the rear seats back together as I had reseated the sending unit seal that was not properly set when originally installed. With the leak easily repaired, I needed to visit a VW dealer to read and confirm the engine code that tripped the engine malfunction light.

I must admit I was definitely not looking forward to taking my insanely modded project car to the Dealer.It was best I thought to tell the Dealer (let's call them Dealer X)what had been done the car and what I believed the problem to be. They were quite apprehensive, but after some begging, they agreed to download the ECU for me. I was quite surprised when two faults popped out:

* Fuel tank breather system fault - vacuum too low (Error Code: 17884 P1476 035).

* Variable camshaft timing fault - timing incorrect (Error Code: 16395 P0011 035).

0601ec_r28_part2_07_z Photo 6/7   |   Lunch stop in Field, BC on the way home to Calgary, AB.

They cleared the codes and reflashed the ECU with the updated software, but still both codes would pop back up. These two codes were to haunt me for the next 4 months. Dealer X in the meantime, beautifully demonstrated poor communication, poor organization skills, and just plain inattentive service during my six week experience with them. I had had it, so I politely and professionally let the Service Manager know it by telephone after deciding I was not going to use Dealer X's services again. I was "rewarded" the following day with a "Black List" bulletin from VW of Canada when I arrived at Dealer Y, courtesy of the Service Manager at Dealer X, signed the day before. "Hey thanks", I thought in disgust, although I was not surprised by his action. Dealer Y did do their best to solve the problems, but the engine codes/malfunction light continued to persist. However, the fact that all work and parts were now completely on my tab, due to my car being "Black Listed" by Dealer X, well, I was definitely not enjoying spending my hard earned money without any results. My slow fuse had begun to burn.

This project car experience was not at all what I expected, a bright engine light glaring in my face each time I went for a drive, even though my R28's superb handling prowess, grip, and power were quite apparent. Anyway, it was HPA Motorsports to the rescue when they stepped up and offered to solve the problems I was having. All I had to do was drive the 950 km back to Vancouver! This was a four day commitment: one there, two days planned at HPA, and one day back, a small price to pay if my problems were to be solved. Optimistically, I drove out to the Vancouver area the next week so HPA could have a look. I was just beginning to sweat late in the morning of the second day at the shop when the HPA technicians solved the problem with the cam fault code (faulty seals on the cams inside the variable valve timing unit). Back home to Calgary I went with a big smile, a touch more power, and noticeably better drivability to boot, and , no engine light glaring in my face!

However, a week after my return from HPA, it happened...... The engine light popped on and was glaring in my face again. Dealer confirmed that it was the dreaded fuel tank breather system fault error code. Now I was really annoyed. I'd wished that never taken on this project and that all of my hard earned cash was safely back in my bank account. Unfortunately, I couldn't seem to find "Harry Potter's" magic wand to change everything back to the way it was before.I was beginning to think that either myself or my car was "cursed", or I had really pissed someone off in another life. Then things got even worse.

0601_08z_part2+volkswagen_r32_hatchback+rear_left Photo 7/7   |   Extra lunch stop photo.

The parts dealer whom I sold the take off GTI rear axle assembly accused me of selling him a bent axle. Remember, this axle assembly was from a car I had never driven and purchased from a reputable VW dealer with 293 km on it. Trying to have an honest open mind, I did conduct my own investigation to follow up on this and found that the axle was now installed on a previously crunched TDI (the correct rear axle assembly has a different part number) and the parts dealer was far too belligerent to deal with. So that was more than enough for me, case closed! Then while backing out of the garage with my precious R28 at 6 am one fine summer morning (obviously still half asleep), I bumped it into my mother-in-law's car that was perfectly parked in my blind spot in my own driveway. My fault totally, but certainly adding to the boil of my extremely foul state. My rear bumper skin required a complete re-spray due to my glancing blow, while I was able to repair her car surprisingly well with some rubbing compound and a fresh coat of wax. Next up was the power steering line that blew while I was parking at a local bodyshop for an estimate to repair the paint damage to my bumper. Needless to say, this lucky bodyshop got the job since they also had a mechanical bay to repair my immobilized car. I also had some unlucky experience with poor quality "performance" brake pads. A bad set up front that had what seemed like zero coefficient of friction, even once properly seated, and a very squeaky set in the rear. I solved this problem myself by replacing all pads with some OEM sets I just happened to have kicking around the garage.

Meanwhile, I was beginning to think HPA was getting very tried of my continuous whining, as they were now more difficult to get a hold of due to their summer "road show" schedule, but Marcel assured me that they would solve the problem of troublesome the fuel tank breather system code. Just when I had given up all hope and had exhausted my own ideas to properly solve the problem (a square piece of black electrical tape on the instrument cluster wasn't going to work for me), Marcel phoned with the solution. The fault code was caused by my North American Spec ECU reading the fuel tank breather system sensor on the European Spec tank that was used in the 4Motion conversion. The solution was simple, all I had to do was remove my ECU and ship it to HPA. They could then re-flash it with a custom European Spec program for a 2.8 VR6 24V with variable valve timing. Well, this solved the problem and then some, as the additional positive side effects of this solution were: better throttle response, virtually no drive by wire delay, silky smooth drivability, and a definite increase in HP. Wow, what a nice surprise!

My ordeal was finally over. It had taken almost six months to work through all of the problems. Only then could I really begin to enjoy my new "R". In an ideal world, I would have taken delivery of a completely trouble-free vehicle, allowing more free time, causing no dirty hands, creating no conflict, or removal of additional cash from my wallet. Unfortunately, this time I drew the short straw. Sure there were a lot hassles and bad luck, but with this came plenty of learning and even more character building. It wasn't the bittersweet ending to "My R32 Blues" I had imagined, but I did feel a great sense of accomplishment. I am now truly proud to be the only legal "R" owner in Canada. However, I really did pay "My R28 Dues".


HPA Motorsports Inc.
B.C., Ca V3W 7B3
By Doug Neilson
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