Same difference 1974 Audi 80 B1 Fox and 1984 Grumman Kubvan


Now that PVW magazine has passed the 20 year mark, we can start talking about the past, the good old days and how things used to be. Originally we’d get posted letters by readers, and people mean what they put in a letter, you’ve got to type it up (or scribble it down if you’re going seriously old-school), find an envelope, walk to the post office and lay out some cold, hard cash on a stamp.

Then along came emails. With zero financial outlay and very little physical effort involved in firing one of those over, so the mesh on the content filter gets coarser, and with it, the acid tongue of the author. But hey, at least they’re being sent directly to PVW HQ. Then came the internet forum review panel for all the see: every month, when the new issue showed up there’d be a thread with in-depth analysis of every single page of the publication. You knew the big names, the toughest arenas and the timing, and it was a simple enough job to keep on top of the best and the worst reaction to what is not just our day job, but our passion, too. Right now, however, it’s a free-for-all. Smart phones, multiple social media platforms and within those, ever deeper vortexes of impenetrability until you’re sent a screen grab of a private Facebook group, by someone you barely know, via Instagram DM. Where am I going with this? Well, in the history of PVW reader correspondence and feedback, there’s one significant topic that so often comes up, “Why do you only feature Golfs?” Really? Seriously?

“I had no idea these things existed!” Yeah, we’re right with you Matt Ford, owner of what you will soon be able to tell your friends, is a Grumman Kubvan. “I was in Ocean City, Maryland for the H2Oi event at one of the get-togethers on Coastal Highway, and there was one just parked up. It was so rad – like a mini mail truck!”

The company that constructed these strange little vehicles is named Grumman, an American firm founded in the late 1920s whose extraordinary engineering and fabrication ability quickly landed them some major contracts with the US armed forces. When asked to build aeroplane components for the US navy, no less, they said: “Actually, we’d rather build the whole aircraft,” and they did. During the 2nd World War they designed and built a number of further planes, firmly establishing themselves in the industry for years to come.

Not content with being a mainstay of the US aero industry, Grumman produced a range of other products too: boats, submarines, fire-trucks and while not typically relevant but importantly for this feature, delivery vans. In the late ’70s, the US postal service was using vastly out-of-date vehicles for its mail delivery, reeling from the effects of the ’1973 oil crisis, where the cost of fuel soared to an all-time high. It was quite apparent that a replacement was long overdue. Grumman wanted to be considered for the contract with a solution, and set their targets on a compact, electric-powered delivery van for mainstream use in the US.

So, why on Earth are we featuring an American-made van in a UK-based magazine pitched to German car enthusiasts? Well, I’ll let Matt Ford tell you why. “I walked up to it in the parking lot, and within seconds I was crawling all around, laying on the ground looking it over under, inside and out. I quickly realised it was running a Mk1 Golf drivetrain and a bunch of other parts! You can’t get cooler than that!”

Grumman had to present a trial run of these vehicles to the postal service, and to reduce costs, and reduce the build time, they chose to use a Mk1 Caddy (well, technically, as this was the US market, it was a Rabbit truck) as a donor for the suspension and chassis, both the physical parts and the reference points, allowing them to focus their expertise, and concentrate on building a few variations of lightweight (and therefore fuel efficient) aluminium van bodies, in perfect keeping with their aerospace history.

Of course, there was no battery-powered Caddy van available, and whilst the Kubvan would later be available with the electric motor, while the futuristic propulsion unit was being drawn up, these early examples were assembled with the very economical, and what at the time was thought to be less polluting 1.6-litre diesel Volkswagen engine, with a choice of manual and auto gearboxes available to broaden the appeal.

Another initially curious sounding feature of the Kubvan was that despite being built exclusively for the North American market, it was available in right hand drive. To Americans, lateral thinkers, and other well informed readers, it might seem obvious, but to humour you – the US postal workers, the main intended consumer, drop their mail in boxes on the kerb side, so being on the “wrong” side of the van pays dividends and, over the course of the route, saves potentially hours!

Unfortunately for Grumman, when eventually presented to the USPS they decided the Kubvans were just too small for their intended purpose. Grumman moved on and the mail vans we now know and love, and the alleged 500 or so Kubvans produced made their way into the private sector across the US and Canada, which explains the unit Matt saw in the wild.

“I got the guy’s contact number and then thought about it for the entire 12 hour ride home and for months afterwards. I stayed in contact with him for about six months but could not convince him to sell it to me.” Two years of dreaming about what he would do with a Kubvan if he could ever get his hands on one passed, and Matt, owner MF Auto, a VW repair shop in Knoxville Tennessee, was an entire year into the build of a no-expense-spared Mk1 Jetta to debut at the forthcoming SOWO event in Helen, Georgia. As the deadline crept closer, the car came back from paint, and it wasn’t up to his standard. With a booth space to fill literally and figuratively, Matt recalled that a friend of his, Chris Collier, the main man at C2 Motorsports from Louisville, Kentucky, had a Kubvan in his vast fleet of VAG machines. Matt called up Chris, cap in hand, and pleaded with him to part with the van, and whatever he said worked. Matt was soon on his way back to Knoxville, two weeks before SOWO, with the baby Grumman in tow.

Matt had landed himself a very straight, and very rare, right hand drive 1984 example in (for the Grumman nerds out there) “high-floor” specification, with the VW 1.6 diesel engine and three-speed automatic transmission performing exceptionally. Most importantly, though, he knew exactly what he needed to achieve with it before the show: he intended to polish the entire van. With a incredibly tight schedule for his labourintensive gameplan, he wasted no time at all, literally making arrangements on the four-hour journey home that Saturday. “I was able to get a mobile soda blasting company scheduled for that Monday morning to strip the white paint, and we would start the process on Monday evening.”

With the workshop schedule jam-packed, the undertaking became harder still. What was initially going to be a two week timeline, instantly became two weeks’ worth of evenings and weekends! “I had a whole army of ants on that thing every night. Everyone was sanding and grinding a different spot.” After hammering out their day-jobs, a hardcore group of Matt’s employees and close friends worked flat-out on the Kubvan. Matt recalls having anywhere from 5-8 volunteers at a time working on it every night that week, for 6-8 hours which, at the top end, works out to be almost 50 man hours per night!

A pair of front coilovers were then installed, and the Caddy rear beam was flipped to make the ride-height much more bearable. Given the suitable baseline that had been achieved with the sheet metal, Saturday’s task was to get the aluminium shining like a mirror. But that proved to be a taller order than anyone predicted. “It felt like we weren’t much further along than when we started. We just couldn’t figure out how to get the porousGrummanaluminium to shine. I sent everyone home at mid-day and worked the entire van over by myself for the rest of the weekend, but I did eventually figure out a process that worked!” With the weekend written off, and the crew departing for SOWO that Friday, the same group piled every ounce of energy into the four weeknight evenings that remained, emulating Matt’s proven process, producing the finished product he had dreamt of for two years.

The car was taken to the show on a set of standard Mk3 wheels, but that was about to change when the van came back from the show, and the MF Team’s sleep patterns had returned to normal. Matt had a set of Compomotive THs in his stash, and felt they’d fit the project perfectly. Having learned his lesson, and understandably sick of the process, these were sent away to be polished, while Matt set about tweaking another area of the project that wasn’t quite right. The vehicle just had to go lower, especially if it was about to be rolling on fancy new hoops.

As a number of Mk1 owners will recall, airride kits for Mk1s didn’t exist, let alone for the base-Caddy’s leaf-spring arrangement. So Matt and his crew set about building a custom front set of struts based around Air Lift Performance universal parts, before taking on the much larger task of converting the rear beam of the Grumman over to a custom four-link system in order to accommodate the rear bags. Once the pneumatics were operational, it was time to get serious. A custom fuel tank was fabricated, and tucked up inside the body of the Kubvan, and the same went for the exhausts system, allowing Matt to drop the entire floorpan on the ground at the flick of a switch, outstandingly setting off the staggered width 16” THs or the BBS RSs that occasionally made an appearance.

The results have been hugely rewarding for Matt, and he takes the van out and about whenever he gets the opportunity. “Everyone absolutely loves it! No matter how many times people see it they are always looking to see it again. If we leave it home and don’t bring it to a show everyone wants to know where it is to look at it again. At other events like Cars and Coffee, people will walk right past 10 supercars in a trance and come straight up to it and all kids love it.” But despite the high praise, Matt’s not done yet; he has every intention to swap the engine to something a little more interesting, and make the utilitarian interior a somewhat more comfortable place to be.

Our story takes an interesting, and tenuously still animal-related twist, featuring some familiar names, as we transfer our attention to the Audi Fox, owned by the other Matt – Matt Crooke. “I first found this car on Craigslist,” Matt Crooke tells us. A strange turn of phrase, I think you’ll agree? But all will be revealed. “I almost pulled the trigger, but it disappeared. I guess it sold beforeI could buy it,” he goes on to say. Just like Matt Ford’s Kubvan, the Audi Fox, or Audi 80 as it was badged in Europe, carries with it an interesting tale. Although, unlike the Grumman, the Audi’s story was not a case of what might have been, but arguably the low-key saviour of an entire auto group!

Following in the Beetle’s footsteps was a very tough ask indeed, and try as they might to market it as such, the Volkswagen Type 4 was absolutely not the successor to one of the most cult cars ever made. The Volkswagen group, with the Audi brand under its umbrella, was struggling in the post Type-1 era and in dire need of a pick-me-up. Following the acquisition of NSU, VW borrowed their K70 model, and began to sell it as their own as the first front wheel drive Volkswagen available to the public. But Audi themselves already had a front-drive vehicle in their showrooms. Internally named the F103, known to customers originally as just “the Audi”, was the first new car to wear that badge for almost 30 years and was essentially a four-stroke evolution of the old DKW F102. These “Audis” were given a unique moniker based on their horsepower, one of the peppier variants being the Audi 80. The more luxurious Audi 100 was launched by the brand in 1968, however, since it still shared some DNA with the DKW, it was the all new B1 Audi 80, in 1972, with its robust uni-body construction and water-cooled engine driving the front wheels that is widely considered the first significant launch by, not just Audi, but of the entire modern VAG era. This car paved the way for the Passat, Scirocco, Polo, and Golf in their multiple iterations which we all know and love to this day.

The B1 Audi 80 also started another strange tradition – VAG’s infatuation with confusingly renaming their European models for the US market. It found itself called the Audi Fox when it hit dealerships across the US in 1973, where it held its own in its day and changed the perceptions of many US automakers.

“I wanted an Audi 100LS or an Audi Fox and‑searched‑for one forever.” Three years, in fact, Matt informs us. “I enjoy the vintage Audis and always thought they were special. Most Americans remember the 100LS for its‑unreliability, but the Fox was a cool hybrid and shared many of the VW engine parts, so it was easier to work on.” Matt has been actively involved in the West Coast European car community for nearly two decades and, as a result, has a FiloFax bursting at the seams with friends, colleagues, customers and acquaintances’ contact information. After such a long and fruitless search for “the one”, he brought out the big guns, mentioning that he was looking for such a car to anybody who might know someone, who knew someone, who might have one for him to buy.

 

You’ll recognise the name of the man who came through. None other than Chris Collier, the very same person who sold Matt Ford his Grumman Kubvan. But the story gets funnier still. As Matt Crooke learned more about the 1.5-litre ’1974 model, the penny dropped for Matt at the time, for this was the same car that he’d found cruising Craigslist years ago, and after getting their heads together and reaching in to their deepest memories, they corroborated stories and arrived at an identical conclusion. Chris himself was the guy that swept in and scooped up “Matt’s” Fox while he was getting his ducks in a row. “It turned out to be the exact car I was going to buy, but he got to it before I could. Pretty cool that in the end the car found its home with me anyway. I­ guess ­it was fate!”

Matt was now faced with a geographical misalignment. The car was in Kentucky, and he was not only in Los Angeles, California, but had quite the fleet of cars including his ’1979 Porsche 911 SC, Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth W201 and a Mk3 Golf Harlequin. It’s fair to say that even if the Audi made its pilgrimage west, there would be no room for it at the inn when it arrived. But there was no chance the Fox was getting away from him for a second time.

And this is where we re-introduce Matt Ford to proceedings. Crooke knew that MF Auto was “just down the road” from where the Fox was coming from, so had it delivered to Ford’s workshop, for a light work over, and a few choice alterations. The deal was simple, get the parts there, and they’d fit them.

The first of those parts arrived along with the car, as Chris included a set of slender, chrome Euro Audi 80 bumpers into the deal. These are much more in keeping with the original retro looks than the clumsy US market efforts it was equipped with from the factory.

The car had not seen a lot of use prior to the Matt’s collection, so it was treated to an extensive mechanical overhaul, and that woefully underpowered, standard 1.5-litre 8v engine was bored out to create a fire-breathing, powerhouse of a 1.6-litre capacity unit.

“It’s an automatic 1.6-litre Fox, basically as­cruiser­as it gets. Air was the only choice for a car like this to get the look we wanted.” So with that, a basic Air Lift Performance “crafter” kit was drafted in by Matt Crooke, in order to help make the custom air suspension fabrication somewhat simpler.

 When it came to the wheels, Matt had a tough choice to make, being the co-owner of the internationally renowned company, Fifteen52, who offer all manner of wheel options as mainstay of their product line. It would have been easy to get carried away, but he kept the car on-message with a set of deadstock 15” Fifteen52 Snowflakes, the very first wheel style they ever sold, and now extremely sought after since being discontinued. These were then fully polished, for that extra twist of exclusivity, exactly what is required, now that the Fox is finally out in California, after its long stint in Tennessee. “I’d actually never seen the car in person until it landed here, only photos of it. But, every step of the way was fun with Matt Ford, he kept me informed with all the details and it was super exciting when it finally got to SoCal for the first time and I could see it in the metal.”

So what we have here, is a pair of folk with the same name, who bought cars from the same guy, built by the same shop, both with modest modifications. That’s where the similarities end. With a combined 3.1-litre output, no they’re not going to set a Nurburgring lap record or run a sub 10 second quarter-mile time. But in a world moving as fast as this one is right now, it’s a pleasure to drop the pace, and appreciate what’s different every once in a while, and these two scarce items from the VAG history books certainly are that.

 


IN A WORLD MOVING AS FAST AS THIS ONE IT’S A PLEASURE

TO DROP THE P ACE AND APPRECIATE WHAT’S DIFFERENT EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE. THIS PAIR IS JUST THAT!

THE RESULTS HAVE BEEN HUGELY REWARDING FOR MATT, AND HE TAKES THE V AN OUT WHENEVER HE GETS THE OPPORTUNITY


Dub Details MATT CROOKE – ‘1974 Audi Fox

ENGINE: 1.5-litre bored out to a 1.6-litre 8v

CHASSIS: Fully polished 8×15” Fifteen52 Snowflakes, Air Lift Performance Crafter kit with manual valves

EXTERIOR: European market Audi 80 bumpers

INTERIOR: Custom air ride switch and gauges

SHOUT: ‑Matt at MF Auto hands down for the hard work, great communication and awesome collaborative effort in‑putting‑this project together. Air Lift for helping with the suspension tweaks. DV Mechanics for some love, Carbon Collective for‑keeping‑it clean. All the guys at fifteen52 for the support and finally Blair Peterman for dropping the Audi Fox knowledge on me,‑he’s‑a master!


Dub Details MATT FORD – ‘1984 Grumman Kubvan

ENGINE: 1.6-litre diesel with three-speed auto transmission

CHASSIS: 6.5×16” and 7×16” Compomotive TH magnesium wheels. Air Lift universal front components and rear bellows with custom four-link rear beam. Fully hidden twin 2.5 gallon air tanks, twin 380 compressors, ¼ lines and manual switches. Custom 5 gallon fuel tank tucked and mounted inside the frame, exhaust run through the frame

EXTERIOR: Stripped paint and fully polished from top to bottom!

INTERIOR: Covered factory seats and custom carpet

SHOUT: Everyone involved that ever helped and gave their time to make my dream a reality! The Old School MF crew


 

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