Depending how you look at it, I’m either really good or really bad at buying cars.
I’ve owned my share of truly exceptional automobiles, but the ones I invariably become attached to are monuments to automotive mediocrity—not bad cars, per se, but perfectly adequate cars that never got their moment in the sun. For every revered Porsche 911 and beloved Mazda Miata, there are countless cars that soldier on, rain or shine, providing thousands of miles of reliable, even entertaining, service, with nary an accolade. For whatever reason, it makes me feel a bit sympathetic. I feel compelled to rescue these cars, fix them up and shine a spotlight on their hidden charms.
Last fall, I began searching for a beater to handle an Ohio winter. The goal was to find a cheap, reliable car so devoid of character I couldn’t become attached. Instead, I bought this 1990 Volkswagen Jetta Wolfsburg for $695.
The little VW clearly had a checkered past. The sale ad included pictures of a baby seat in the back; when I picked the car up, the rear floorboards were filled with empty formula bottles, dog hair and crumpled-up cigarette packs. The interior smelled strongly of stale tobacco smoke; the blue carpet and seats were covered in stains.
Mechanically, too, it was a mess. The suspension and brakes were worn. The engine ran strong, but the valve cover gasket and radiator leaked. The transmission slipped. The rear doors didn’t open from the outside.
There was a nasty thump from the right front while braking. When I got the car up on a lift, I was simultaneously shocked and relieved to discover it wasn’t a braking issue: The large bolt holding the lower control arm to the subframe was missing.
Two bucks later, I was back in business. While under the car, I noticed something else: a totally rust-free undercarriage. This car was cleaner underneath than one driven year-round in the North had any right to be.
In defiance of a failed power steering pump, I swapped the steering wheel for a smaller Momo I had in a Miata I’d owned. For Halloween, I dressed up as Burt Reynolds from “Smokey and the Bandit,” complete with a cowboy hat and turquoise jewelry. The Jetta got in on the action with a vinyl “screaming chicken” hood decal as a stand-in for a black and gold ’77 Trans Am. It’s still there.
I’m not the type to neglect my cars, but it became almost a game to see just how much abuse the Jetta could take.
I stopped fixing things. As each problem was discovered, I’d see just how long the car and I could live with the issue without doing anything about it. The Jetta soldiered on. Nothing would kill this tough little car.
Growing affection blossomed into respect. I’ve never been what you’d call a “Volkswagen guy,” but I always had a thing for the Jetta Wolfsburg—sort of a working man’s GLI, and I appreciated that. There’s an honesty to it.
I promised myself that, like my Stanza Wagon before, I would give this car the life it deserved—one it had likely never experienced.
Thankfully, parts for old water-cooled VWs are mostly cheap. Millions were produced, used worldwide as everything from taxis to cop cars. From wheel bearings to window seals, you can still find almost all of it.
I began hoarding parts, a mix of original equipment and upgraded components from all over the world: Germany, Austria, Latvia, Mexico and China, to name a few. Within a couple of months, I had collected enough to replace everything underneath the car, from new suspension and brakes to a manual steering rack and fresh tires.
I added parts for a comprehensive tuneup, including a new timing belt and a cooling system overhaul. My basement was filling up with boxes; by early June, I had just about everything needed to completely overhaul the car.
An idea began percolating in my head. We’ve all seen automotive reality shows. Usually the plot revolves around building a custom show car on a ridiculously tight deadline. It’s obviously fabricated nonsense, but … just how plausible would it be to thrash a car together in a few days? It’d be a great excuse to hang out with my friends while fixing up the car.
I worked up a plan and decided that with just a few friends, it should be no problem overhauling the Jetta’s suspension and brakes in less than a week. We had all the parts we’d need and enough time left to clean and paint parts like the rear axle beam before reinstallation.
By the third week of June, it’s go time. Graham comes down from Detroit. Nasty weather—endless rain—prevents us from getting the early start we need. That’s OK. We’ll still have enough time to complete everything—even if, as it turns out, we only have one day to do it.
First, we needed to establish a performance baseline. After breakfast, while waiting for the rain to subside, I suggest we go for a drive. Since I hadn’t driven the Jetta much since winter, I let it warm up for a few minutes before we get going.
When it starts, white smoke pours from the exhaust pipe as the tachometer shoots skyward, searching for stability like the child of a messy divorce. The idle eventually settles in, but within a few minutes, the smoke billows out from the grille. Undeterred, we set off to explore nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
I drive the first leg, soon realizing the Jetta’s suspension and brakes are worn but not bad. When I let Graham slide behind the wheel, he seems to agree. My mind returns to the white smoke. I had spent months planning for this—every nut and bolt in a box in my basement, every procedure outlined. But are there more pressing issues?
I decide servicing the engine is, likely, the easiest path and the best use of our time. Later I’d understand this last-minute change is Mistake No. 1.
We start removing the headlights, grille and radiator support to get to the engine. The radiator and A/C condenser lines come next, then the compressor and power steering pump. The next few hours are a flurry of work, with four men—me, Graham, Greg and my neighbor John—huddling over the engine bay, removing useless, broken components.
That includes pulling the valve cover to address the leaking gasket. But with all of the bolts loosened, the valve cover refuses to budge. Closer inspection reveals several locations where RTV silicone seeps out between the valve cover and the head—not a good sign. After fighting it for several minutes, I decide to use my engine hoist in a desperate attempt to remove the stubborn cover.
Slowly, I pump the hoist while John uses a pry bar to carefully assist. The valve cover makes a pop as it frees from the engine block, and the car drops several inches. Without realizing it, we’d been lifting the car entirely by the valve cover. Permatex is impressive stuff.
Frustrated with the notoriously leaky cork gasket, the previous owner had used more than enough RTV silicone, vainly trying to prevent leaks before dramatically over-torquing the valve cover bolts. The end result was the gasket bowed inward between the studs, letting oil leak out.
As we would learn, there are more problems like this. We discover a fried alternator; the Jetta had been running almost exclusively off the battery for several months. I begin calling parts stores hoping to track down a part for a 30-year-old Volkswagen. Miraculously, I find one in stock. For the time being, it seems like a crisis averted. Not long after, set up at various makeshift workstations, John is working to fabricate a bracket for an oil catch can; Graham works on cleaning and painting. I’m reconditioning various subassemblies such as the airbox and radiator. Greg floats between us, photographing the carnage and rebirth.
Still, we’re working as a team, united toward the common goal of rewarding the Jetta’s noble service with shiny new parts. It’s an unusual sort of bonding, the same sort of feeling you get lying in bed, silently reading as your significant other does the same right beside you.
One benefit of living in Cuyahoga Falls is it’s close to Summit Racing Equipment. I knew we’d be making at least one trip there; it happens rather late in the day. On a whiteboard, we break down the game plan, making a list of essential parts and supplies. John was to run to the hardware store to buy, well, hardware—nuts and bolts to install components. Meanwhile, Graham, Greg and I would run to Summit, grabbing everything we’d need to make hoses and fittings for the catch can.
Right about this time, my girlfriend, Bethany, comes to see our progress and points out a fascinating coincidence. It’s June 21: the summer solstice. The longest day of the year.
Writing on the whiteboard, I shout over my shoulder that we have to make sure we remember everything we need—given the timing, “We only have one shot at this.” We all laugh. This project really is turning into a badly scripted TV show.
We use the last bit of daylight to gather all the parts from the yard and push the car into the garage. It’s time to replace the timing belt—I have no idea when it was last changed. As we attempt to turn the engine over by hand, the dry-rotted belt begins to slip and shear teeth off. We are shocked we’d driven this car without incident hours before.
Next, we set to work on mounting the new alternator, but its output shaft is too short. While trying to think of a solution, I decide to install the new spark plugs, distributor cap and distributor rotor. While removing the spark plug wires—a part I hadn’t hoarded—a boot and insulator snaps in half. Combined with the alternator issue, we call it a night around 2.
We failed at our intended task of catching up on decades of deferred maintenance, but we succeeded in giving my poor, mistreated Jetta more attention than it probably had received in its entire, miserable existence.
I learned a valuable lesson about planning ahead and staying the course. I also now have a bit more respect for those automotive reality shows.
In the end, I realize, it didn’t matter. We may have missed our deadline, but that doesn’t spell defeat—just a detour, and a worthwhile one at that.
Cam VanDerHorst, 30, is a freelance automotive journalist living in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He currently does not have a cable TV subscription.
Greg Castell, 29, is a photographer fueled by his lifelong passion for cars
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