Dirty Rabbit A naturally-aspirated diesel never looked so good! It’s hard to believe that the owner and creator of this diesel-powered Rabbit is also a self-confessed muscle car guy. So how did this custom classic come about? Well, we thought we’d better ask the man himself… Words: Tony Saggu. Photos: Melissa Curtis.
I was as surprised as anyone else,” mused stateside graphic designer and sometime dream car builder Tom Clark, “If you’d have told me a few years ago that I would be building a fully worked old school VW Rabbit I probably would have laughed.”
Whether it was fate, coincidence, happenstance or just some mad cosmic alignment of the stars, Tom and this tidy but oh so stock little Volkswagen Golf Mk1 crossed paths to create something more than a little bit special. While most diehard car freaks like our man from Leeds (no, not that Leeds, this one’s in New York), will admit that a tasty Mk1 is always lurking in their peripheral vision, the journey from day dreams to spanner spinning is usually on hold… indefinitely. Tom will tell you he’s more of a muscle car man, Mustangs generally and the late 70s to early 90s Fox Body cars in particular. “I’ve built a couple of pretty nice Fox Bodies over the years,” he told us, throwing the accomplishments into the conversation almost as an afterthought. Clark’s mild manner and unpretentious modesty belie vision and talent uncommon these days among the car fettling crowd, let’s just say he is to building the Fox cars what Big Ron is to bolting together some “pretty nice” Wolfsburg products.
“I’ve been wrenching on cars and trucks since before I was able to drive,” he told us. “My father was always into cars and trucks and I guess it just rubbed off. I’ve built several Mustangs including a '1995 Cobra Mustang, 1979 Pace Car Mustang and a 1989 Mustang Coupe and a few street trucks. Obviously helping friends with their projects as well, both VW/Audi and other makes,” he continued. “At the end of the day I’m just a big gearhead, I modify everything I own.” Built under the banner SINIS Designs, Tom’s creations have become automotive rockstars, his Pro Touring take on the ’1979 Pace Car pony remains a benchmark build.
So, when we heard the man more familiar with persuading huge Yankee V8s into custom crafted muscle machines, had turned out a humble little German hatch sporting a diminutive diesel lump, we were intrigued. “Like I said, the whole caper was unplanned and almost an accident,” he laughed. Tom admits that the driving force behind the Mk1 makeover was his better half, “My wife, Stacey. She has always loved air-cooled Beetles and buses, we have always talked about maybe one day building her an old air-cooled VW,” he confessed. “Well that hasn’t happened yet, instead the Rabbit happened first.” Our man is quick to point out that this was very much a joint effort,” I am the builder… but all work and modifications are discussed and approved with her,” he smiled.
Acquiring the base car, a '1979 vintage oil burner was surely an act of fate. The two had been ambling around a local VW/Audi event, just a leisurely day out to meet the local crew and share a few brews and burgers. “We must have walked by it a couple of times and not really noticed it,” recalled Tom. “As we were leaving it was pretty much the last car on the field parked in a corner but Stacey noticed it had a for sale sign in the window.” The Clarks were busy saying their goodbyes and fumbling for car keys for the trek home… but the little yellow Mk1 seemed to call to them; “I’ve always liked Mk1 Rabbits but never owned one or been around them too much really,” confessed Tom, “my wife, though, absolutely fell in love with it, especially being a diesel, so we bought it just a few days later.”
The little three door turned out to be the property of Ricky Heinlein, something of a local Dub doyen on the east coast scene by all accounts. “Ricky had saved the car from out on the west coast, Oregon I think, and brought it back east,” revealed Tom. “He had put a lot of work into the mechanicals and did several mods to the car including small bumpers, HID headlights, coilovers, and a few other small things. I think he just had too much going on at the time so decided to let it go.” The car was far from being finished and was decidedly more than a little rough around the edges, but as a reasonable starting point it was perfect. Despite the less than perfect condition, a quick service and little TLC turned the car into a decent driver, Stacey was content to cruise it just as it was, happy to finally be behind the wheel of a vintage VeeDub. “As I said, I just can’t leave anything alone,” admitted Tom with a smile. “There were a few things on it that just got to me; the dash was cracked, it had mismatched seats… the whole interior really. The bodywork needed some help and it looked like it had had a couple of amateur repaints in the past.” While Stacey’s tolerance for rustic charm and perfectly aged patina was fairly high, Tom was eventually able to talk her round to a 'little tidying'. Having bought the car just before winter, the couple figured a fortnight off the road wouldn't hurt.
“Well… let me tell you how it happened,” laughed Tom. “I started by taking the dash out… and in a couple of weeks we pretty much had a stripped shell sitting on the garage floor. You know how it goes, one thing leads to another and it never ends.” The dodgy dash was binned in favour of a minty fresh example, the rest of the interior pretty well followed suit. The Clark’s computer put in some serious overtime as the pair scoured the web searching out long obsolete NOS bits and pieces and acceptable reproductions. "Everything in the interior was redone,” explained Tom, “from headliner to carpet it’s all new, refurbished or rebuilt. The seats and door cards have new upholstery from TMI Products; it’s all the correct vinyl, embossed stitching and grain as the original VW trim.”
The interior had to have the period correct feel and character of a 70’s VW, perhaps not in that 'numbers matching' manner favoured by text book toting anoraks and hipster collectors, but that all important simple elegance was a must.
“We added the kneebar and console with the gauges but really that’s about all, it really doesn’t need much to look perfect and feel just right.” A deep wood rimmed steering wheel was also thrown in but is an indulgence in keeping with the classic charm of the vintage cabin.
The exterior follows the same simple classic old school German lines the car was born with, a little selective shaving of the side markers and badges enhanced the package but on the whole it’s all retro Wolfsburg fare. “When I stripped the interior out I noticed the carpets were soaking wet so I feared the worst,” recalled Tom. “I was pleasantly surprised and a little shocked to find the floors underneath totally solid though.” The panels were presentable enough and only needed a minor massaging, with the tailgate being the only piece of original metalwork that needed to be replaced, more to do away with the wiper than any tin worm damage. “The rubbers and seals were all rotted and needed to be replaced, some of that stuff took a little finding, along with the side moldings… nice sets of those are not that easy to locate used,” insisted Tom. Glazing the Golf apparently was and continues to be a source of some discussion between the Clarks, while the lightly tinted green glass which came with the car, presumably from the factory, looks the part Tom isn’t so sure it can’t be improved. “If I had to do something different it would be clear glass instead of green,” he told us, “I have two complete sets of clear glass in storage at the moment, the only reason it doesn’t have clear glass is because Stacey likes the green,” he chuckled. The aftermarket lights blend in quite well with the concept though they too called for a family meeting. The M3 style rears flow nicely with the overall look while the headlamps are decidedly not of the 70s fashion. ”I’m not normally a fan of HIDs in older cars and they did take a bit of getting used to.” The bright yellow repaint though got the thumbs up all round. “The factory colour was a pale yellow,” confided Clark, “I forget what it is called, but when we got it the car had a pretty poor respray in a funky yellow colour. It’s now Bright yellow, not a factory colour but we both like it much better that way.”
The consensus from the very beginning was that the tiny four banger diesel was going to stay, it had after all been a big reason the pair had bought the car in the first place. Its barely adequate power, quirky mechanics and clattering smoke spewing character apparently gave it an enduring charm. “It had a 1.5 in it originally but that blew up soon after we got it,” explained Tom, “so I sourced a cheap 1.6 to replace it. The funny thing was that the friend I got the engine from had originally bought it from Ricky Heinlein… it’s a small tightly knit VW community out here.” It was obvious from the get go that the powerplant wasn’t going to be a horsepower monster, that wasn’t the intention, Tom admits what the engine lacked in power it was going to make up for in looks. “The engine has been stripped of anything non essential to keep it clean and tidy. It's dressed up with an exhaust and a custom trumpet style intake that me and my buddy George Austin designed and built. I also used an original old Rapid valve cover which had the centre machined out to put an air-cooled Volkswagen emblem in it.” A splash of matte black on the block and gearbox and some skillful smoothing of the bay and the output is academic, it looks sharp and is more than able to pull the little sherbet bomb down the road at a respectable rate. “It actually drives really well,” insisted Tom. “We drive the car all over. I don’t have a trailer, so if the show is six hours away we drive it there and back. It has never left us stranded,” he continued. “It now has a five-speed 'box so for the most part when we are out on the highway we can keep up with traffic doing 75mph all day long unless we are faced with a huge hill. Being an NA diesel hills are the enemy, but momentum is your friend. The car drives great and because of the air ride, it rides pretty smooth, even low.”
Tom told us getting the bags under the car wasn’t quite as smooth though. Apparently Stacey’s a little more old school when it comes to VeeDub low riding, preferring a more static solution to dropping the suspension. “Although she was on board with most things, she was pretty adamant about leaving the coilovers on the car and just winding them right down. It took some convincing… and hitting a particularly crazy bump on the highway doing 75mph and catching some air to finally get her to change her mind,” he laughed. “It has Air Lift Builder Series struts and shocks that I fabricated to work on the Rabbit. I narrowed the rear a total of about 3” and then reconstructed the rear shock mounts to push them back out about .75”. There’s a factory rear sway bar installed back there too,” he explained. “Up front there’s a Unix flip kit and extended ball joints and welded arms. The wheels are Southern Ways Epsilon mesh that I built using ARP hardware. I also had the lips chromed and added new caps.” Tom told us that he actually reproduces the rare Epsilon centre caps on the side, although for this set of rollers he knocked up custom chrome caps with logos.
Tom admits the build has been a learning experience and is actually quite surprised how rewarding bolting the little Dub together has been. “We both love the car,” he beamed, “I think we both like the style of the build. It’s not a race car, it’s not swapped, it’s not over the top. It’s just a clean, relatively stock early Euro style Rabbit. Simple and clean, the thing has a purity to it, you know what I mean?” Yes, indeed we do, welcome to old school Volkswagens.
ENGINE: 1.6 naturally aspirated diesel with custom SINIS Built intake, custom manifold and exhaust, custom SINIS Built valve cover (started as a Rapid valve cover), Autotech strut bar
CHASSIS: 7x15 (front) and 8x15 (rear) Southern Ways Epsilon three-piece wheels rebuilt using ARP hardware with chrome lips and custom carbon caps. Custom built Air Lift air suspension, Unix extend ball joints and tie rod flip kit, Autotech rear beam bushings, 3” narrowed rear beam
EXTERIOR: Full respray in Bright yellow, small bumpers, HID retrofit headlights, smoked front indicators, M3-style rear cluster, side markers removed, chrome mirrors and fuel filler cap
INTERIOR: Fully restored with TMI Products seat upholstery and door cards, added kneebar and three gauge console
SHOUT: My wife, Stacey Clark, for her support, insight and collaboration. Thanks for knowing exactly what to build and picking all the right ingredients to make it work so well. My Friends, Steve Fritschler, Ant Marchionne (owns the Audi 50 that was in PVW), and Ryan Bowman, for their actual help, support and knowledge (where I didn't have the VW know how). My Friend, George Austin, for making the seamless transition from the Mustang world to the VW scene and helping with fabrication, but especially with the aluminium welding on the custom intake. Huge thanks to these and all the other great friends we’ve made through owning and working on this car... you all know who you are.
As we were leaving it was pretty much the last car on the field parked but Stacey noticed it had a for sale sign in the window
I narrowed the rear a tot al of about 3” and then reconstructed the rear shock mounts to push them back out about .75”