This Volkswagen GTI Has Been a Project Since Day One

William DiPoala

Hagerty is celebrating its first-ever HDC Days from June 21 to June 23, with great discounts from our partners, choose-your-own adventure experiences, contests, and more. We’re also celebrating all this week online with some terrific cars and trucks owned by Hagerty Drivers Club members. Like this one . . .

William DiPoala
Fairport, New York

My 41-year project car started in 1983. 

A week after buying this Volkswagen GTI I took a drill and a saber saw to the roof to install a sunroof. I have always enjoyed working on the car as much as driving it, and paying someone to do the work was never even a thought. I’m an electrical engineer by trade, so tinkering with the GTI as a mechanical project is a welcome mental break from my day job. 

Soon after the sunroof was in, I started working on the suspension—lowering springs, Koni adjustable shocks, performance sway bars . . . When the GTI was 10 years old, I thought it didn’t have much life left in it, so I went out and bought a 1994 BMW 325is. I continued to drive the GTI as a winter car to spare the BMW from the dreaded northeast road salt. 

1983 VW GTI William DiPoala Watkins Glen
DiPoala and the GTI at Watkins Glen in the ’80s.William DiPoala

By 2012, however, I was spending about a month every spring fixing rust issues on the GTI. The rust was so bad that I decided strip it down, rework some of the body patchwork that I had done in previous years, and respray the entire car. 

Often when I had done work on the GTI, I was doing it for the first time. But I know spraying paint is a learned skill, so I’d gotten good practice by spraying my wife’s car the year before. It didn’t turn out too badly, and I learned a lot. Even better, she liked it. 

1983 VW GTI paint booth
William DiPoala

The GTI bodywork and paint took me 12 weeks of prep work, with three coats of epoxy primer, three coats of color, and three coats of clear. I followed this up with wet sanding using three different grits and polishing with three different compounds. The result, I must say, was well worth the effort; more than a decade on and the paint still looks great. After all that work, I couldn’t put the GTI through another winter salt bath, so from that day on I only drove it in the summer and soaked the BMW in the winter salt instead.

By 2014, my day job was hectic, and I needed some heavy-duty stress relief. For therapy, I decided to swap the GTI’s 90-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 2.8-liter VR6. After a 30-minute search on Craigslist, I found a good donor car in the form of a $500 1995 Jetta GLX with 129,000 miles on it. The only down side of this purchase was my wife’s reaction when she saw it sitting in the driveway. 

I had to move quickly to strip out everything I thought I would need and get rid of the carcass. I found a local scrapper with a flatbed who paid me $300 for the privilege picking it up at my house and dragging it away. 

I soon discovered I would be getting far more therapy than I actually needed, because the engine swap took a lot more fabrication than I’d realized. Every system in the GTI had to be modified to work with the bigger engine. The cooling system needed a larger radiator, expansion chamber, and hose layout. The shift linkage needed to be changed to a cable system that I modified from the Jetta.  The exhaust system was fabricated using polished stainless steel, which was custom-made from the headers to the tailpipe. The instrument cluster was updated using the guts from the Jetta, and several printed circuit boards needed to be designed and built to pull all of this off. I know this was supposed to be therapy for my day job, but at times it felt just like work.

I couldn’t stop, though, and the list of upgrades only got longer: heated leather seats from a ’96 GTI plus a red-to-black interior color change of the door cards, carpets, dash, headliner, visors, and seatbelts; and power windows and door locks. In 2015, I added a Vortec supercharger, and the car dyno’d at 280 horsepower. So, Wilwood four-piston calipers and larger rotors up front, with a rear disc conversion to stop it. A custom roll cage with stress bars and framing under the car to handle the higher power. An Air Lift suspension to help control it all in the corners. Electric power steering out of a Saturn Vue. The list goes on. 

Now, however, I’m not sure what else I can do on the GTI for my continued therapy. Maybe the BMW needs some upgrades . . .

1983 VW GTI front 3/4 rainbow
William DiPoala


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