I never had a build thread and I don’t even have many photos from the first few years, but here is a timeline to get you up to speed on my never ending build or driver/mechanic saga…
2005: My wife purchased a 1982 VW Rabbit Pickup diesel to be a material hauler for our rural property in Northern CA. We had a 2003 Tacoma, but we were disappointed with the fuel economy, handling, and hauling capacity. We sold the Tacoma and used the money to buy the Rabbit truck and a 1995 F250 diesel for heavy hauling. 12 years later, I still have both trucks and have no regrets.
The Rabbit was a basket case that came from the East Bay area. The fellow that sold her to us had sourced lots of good used parts. Almost enough for a complete truck, but the engine, transmission and related parts came in the bed. He was abandoning the project to become a driver/mechanic for Green Tortoise tours in Central America. We had our local (Semi-pro) mechanic put in a turnkey used 1.6L NA that we had shipped from Z&S imports. This mechanic and I were friendly and we both ran air-cooled VW’s. I had a Thing and a Bus at the time. They were my vanity projects, and I have way more pics of them from those days.
2006-2007: I don’t have many photos from the first few years. Wife and I were working near Hollister in those years and we spent almost every weekend scouring the Pick-and-pulls from San Jose to Moss Landing. Got Lots of parts at good prices; the junkyards were full of MK1s in those days. Picked up a set of GTI snowflakes for $80 on half price day that I still run in the summers. Never refinished. Got the fender flares and mirrors off that car too. Other early work/upgrades that I did myself included… All metal sport shifter kit with adjustable throw, Viton fuel hoses for bio-diesel, Tan dash-mat to cover up the roached dash, my first attempt at a headliner replacement, re-upholstered seats, KYB shocks front and rear, usual stuff like alternator, brakes, wheel bearings, coolant hoses, front end rebuild and fixing all kinds of electrical switches, lights and gauges that weren’t working. Just keeping up with systems that were failing. Blew my first head-gasket after about 20,000 miles. It was probably warped after driving it home. I didn’t check. Just got a new gasket, a Bentley manual and some timing tools and drove another 10,000 miles before it blew again. I had the Injection Pump rebuilt while I was replacing the gasket.
2008: Had my same (Semi-pro) rural mechanic friend, who was a fellow (air-cooled) VW enthusiast install a brand new 1.9L NA motor at his recommendation. His brother (also a VW mechanic) had one lying around and gave us what seemed like a great price compared to getting another rebuilt 1.6L. Once again, he installed and it ran. I did the fine tuning and detail work like installing a timing belt cover. I should say that we were now living at our rural Northern CA property full time, working on building a living situation including electricity. One of the only photos I have of the truck from those days is this novelty shot of us using the truck as a generator to do construction work.
Around this time, my wife started using the truck as her commuter for her new job that was 60 miles away, over a mountain pass. We ran lots of bio-diesel in those days. We could by 5 gallon cubies of clean soybean oil at Costco for a buck a gallon less than buying diesel at the pump. I would pour it right into the tank in the parking-lot and return the containers.
2010-2011: A nice older gentleman backed his Gi-normous Dodge Dually 4X4 into our little rabbit in the Costco parking lot. The tailgate and rear quarter panel were mashed by his stinger. He was waiting for my wife in the parking lot and admitted fault and had his insurance pay us for the damage. We took the cash. I did the body work myself and we had the whole truck repainted the original ‘Burnished Gold’ (LE1Z). Finally it was worth taking some photos.
I miss that egg-crate grill. Never reinstalled the fender flares because I didn’t want to mess up the paint. When I took them off for paint they weighed ten pounds each because they were full of mud. If you haven’t noticed yet; we live a few miles off-pavement. My workspace is my driveway or a tent in the winter. I added the mud-flaps and plastic Euro-bumpers to accent the new paint. We also got an aftermarket cabriolet style hood with a rectangular cut-out for a single washer-nozzle although it would be many years before I filled it.
Of course, not long after painting the truck, my wife hit a deer going 60 mph. The deer was also moving pretty fast. It tented the hood, broke the grill and one headlight and bounced on across the road. Once again insurance paid for the damage under comprehensive coverage (way cheaper than collision and covers hitting deer or other objects as long as you don’t leave your lane). We had a shop replace the grill and straighten the hood. They attached a badge, but it fell off within 100 miles. They say it must have been stolen, but I think they just didn’t secure it, we’ll never know, but they did eventually replace it.
However before that could happen…
My wife reported that the truck was stuttering, quitting, and acting fuel starved. I replaced the filter. No change. She was pregnant and working. I was working lots of overtime because it was my busy season. I took the truck to my mechanic friend and told him that I believed that there was a clog, probably in the fuel tank or lines before the filter. I told him that I wanted him to drop the fuel tank and have a look at the in-tank filter. After a couple of days he got back to me and said, without really justifying his hypothesis, that he believed that we needed another injection pump rebuild. I was busy and told him “fine, just fix it.” He removed the pump and I took it back to my same rebuilder and paid another $300 for another rebuild. Brought it back to my mechanic friend and put my timing tools and Bentley manual in his hands.
A week went by and I went by his shop to check up on his progress. He was working on my truck. The first thing that I noticed was that he was taking the head off. He admitted that something had gone wrong when he installed the IP. He said that he thought that he had screwed up the timing and smashed some valves. The next time that I checked in, he said that the valves seemed OK, but that he was getting the head resurfaced at his friend’s machine shop. I agreed to buy a new head gasket and bolts, he said “of course” he would not charge me for the machining or head installation.
When he showed me the head after machining, I really started to get worried. They had not removed the pre-chamber inserts and there were drag marks going across the cylinders from the inserts to the water channels. I did not get a photo of the refinished head before he reinstalled it, but this was one of the first times that I started posting in the Vortex diesel forum, to find out just how screwed I was.
My wife and I had been planning on buying an MK4 diesel with all of the modern safety stuff and more than two seats for the impending expansion of our family. With the truck out of service for an extended period, she went ahead and bought a 2004 TDI Golf with low miles on Ebay and had it shipped from Florida. We sold the bus for a good price on Thesamba and shipped it to New York.
I got the truck back. The mechanic and I took a test drive of about 25 miles and everything was fine. My wife drove it to work the next day. The new MK4 came with a leaky tandem pump and we were waiting for parts. The truck started having the fuel starvation issues again after about 40 miles. She limped it in to work and had it towed home. On my next day off, I dropped the tank myself. I had done this once before, when we first bought the truck, and it had looked shiny and clean inside. This time it looked foul. Probably from biodiesel residue, and water in the veggie oil. The in-tank filter was clogged. I treated the tank with POR-15 and removed the in-tank filter.
A couple of days later, I was at work, when my crying, very pregnant wife called to say that the head-gasket had blown on the truck. I told her to have the truck towed. She said that she only had one free tow left for the year and insisted that I leave work and come and help her limp the truck home 15 miles. I refused, and told her to have it towed so that we didn’t do more damage. Instead, she called our neighbor and he helped her limp it home.
On my next day off, I checked it out and started disassembly.
Ordered a new head, and gasket, and bolts. Did the head-gasket fail because of the score marks to the water channel? Or was it that my mechanic friend simply ignored the Bentley manual, and under torqued the head? I went by his shop and told him about the gasket. He said “you know, some cars just aren’t meant to run.” I asked him if he used a torque wrench for the final tightening of the head bolts. He said that “yes, of course” he did. I told him that he hadn’t followed the manual then, because he should have finished with a breaker bar. I told him that the replacement head alone cost me $1200 and I would need him to pay for it or he wasn’t going to be able to keep pretending to be a professional mechanic in our little mountain town. He opted to leave town and change the name of his business. That suits me. He did lots of mediocre work for me for excellent prices over the years, but when he made a bad mistake that was the end of our relationship. I ended up having to pay back some or all of the money that had I saved over the years by using his services when I had to fix the mess he made on this job. I still like the guy enough to avoid using his name or the name of his businesses here. Anyway, the point of the story isn’t to defame this guy. Just to share my experience with the MK1 Vortex community, so we can all learn from it.
2012-2013: Having gone through all of this, I was determined to prove that this truck was ‘meant to run’. It was still rough around the edges, but it was actually a much more luxurious ride than the Thing that I was commuting in. So I started driving the truck to work and really started giving it some love. I sold the Thing (My first car) on Thesamba for a good price and shipped it to Florida.
I added an optional lift pump with a bypass in case I ever had gelling or clogging issues again (I haven’t). It’s also good for priming the IP, even if I have a fuel line leak.
Replaced the injectors and adjusted the tuning for no-smoke and maximum fuel efficiency. Running at 0.90 timing. I could get more power, but not without brown smoke with the pedal to the floor. Mileage was and is around 39mpg in the mountains on my daily 10 mile (20 round trip) commute with three of those (six) off-pavement. I am satisfied with the acceleration and I love the torque.
2014: The paint chips on the rear fender were getting noticeable so I got some large size partial fender flares from MK1Autohaus. I mocked them up and they didn’t cover the chips, so I flipped them. I have always had mixed feelings about the result. I did another front end rebuild: Tie rods, ball joints, rack adjustment, wheel bearings. Did another brake job. I installed 6x9 speakers in the B-pillars (don’t judge me). I got custom plates and the ‘NONSMKR’ was born.
2015: My first attempt at a headliner was sagging and the roached dash was eating the fresh air vents that I kept replacing so I embarked on an ambitious (for me) interior rebuild. Very satisfying.
2016: Started on a lighting and chroming binge.
Straightened my front lip.
Upgraded to a MK3 wiper motor.
Fixed my vent-wings.
Upgraded my door handles, which have always been problematic, but less so recently.
Did I mention that it gets cold and snows here?
2017: Now I am assembling parts for a front and rear suspension upgrade with an eye towards off-pavement driving.
Hillbilly Spring pre-compressor:
I will also be doing a timing belt, which is now 9 years and 50,000 miles old. I am planning to upgrade the valve cover gasket and oil pan gasket to rubber from cork. I have new axles to install as well. With the suspension upgrade I am also returning to full GTI fender flares with mini hard-plastic mud guard extensions. I will just have to diligently rinse behind them, anyway the paint is seven years old.
My wife doesn’t really like to allocate time for frivolous upgrades, so I have to sneak them in when I am doing something that’s arguably necessary. With building a house, and rebuilding my F250 that someone smashed last winter, and working more than full time in the summer, I will get a little less than a week, sometime this fall or winter to install the new parts along with yearly maintenance.
At least I can sneak time here and there in the summer to buy parts, or write posts. Thanks for looking and for all the help and good ideas over the years.