We are “new car” people... What we’re doing with this old Mk1 is still as much of a surprise and shock to us as it would be to those that know us.

Dion Spina posted in M K 1
4y ago

I started my love for Volkswagen with the Mk2, eventually got myself into a Mk4 (ended up with 2 of those), before picking up my favorite VW to date - the CC. The thought of owning a Mk1 never crossed my mind.

With too many projects in the (body) shop and no time to complete all of them our good friend Hans needed to purge and lighten his load. There was a 1983 Rabbit "Caddy" Pickup that had been collecting dust (and who knows what else!) for five years under a car port that he and his Dad, may he rest in peace, intended to restore one day. It wasn’t a project Hans planned to get started on any time soon. In fact it would just be easier for him to “let it go and move on”, he said. When Hans mentioned the last person expressing interest in the Caddy flaked on him, curiosity got the best of me and I had to know what it would take for Hans to part with it. “Haul it away and it’s yours!”, he said. Then the wheels started turning.

“It’s going to take a LOT of work and money to get this thing up and running”, I thought. I was in way over my head. As it turns out I happen to know a few people that are familiar enough with these Volkswagen models and I my working at Achtuning (a local Audi/VW performance shop) meant I can source parts at deals. So, after much consideration the wife and I decided to go for it and commit! Two days later it was ours.

We (my wife and I) are “new car” people. That new car smell, creature comforts… There is a lot to appreciate when you're driving a newer car. (You're also paying for those featueres.) What we’re doing with this old Mk1 is still as much of a surprise and shock to us as it would be to those that know us. There is an incredible amount of work ahead and we would need the help of someone who knew what we were getting into. Fortunately we knew such a person and as luck would have it he even had the used engine and transmission we were going to need for the project. And while some parts may be rare or difficult to locate based on the vehicle’s age, available parts are inexpensive. What more justification did we need to move forward?

To kick off the project, a fresh set of “before” pictures featuring the Rabbit Pickup in its acquired state.

Brendon, the friend we hired to help us with the project, came through right away to begin the tear-down. The original 1.7L gas motor and 4-speed transmission whose condition were unknown were being ditched in favor of a 2.0L (ABA) engine mated to a 5-speed (020) transmission. In fact, anything that wasn’t going to be used for the revival of this Rabbit Pickup was being ditched, including that bit of dock line that seemed to be holding up the exhaust. (lolwut)

While Brendon began the tear down, yours truly got to work scrubbing, pressure-washing, and cleaning up the Caddy, its reusable parts, and that new (used) motor and transmission. Then there was a laundry list of parts to order…

The used transmission was going to need a new reverse gear so new parts for that were ordered. A machine shop across the way re-surfaced the flywheel that we picked up with the transmission. Our friend Justin tore into the 020 transmission and swapped in the new gear for us.

While all that was happening, Brendon was in another corner refreshing the ABA motor with all new gaskets, plugs, wires, cap & rotor, etc.

3-days worth of work and we already had so much accomplished! Meanwhile more parts were sourced such as H&R “ultra-low” coilovers, a Techtonics Tuning exhaust system, Techtonics Tuning’s shift linkage, and a “plug n’ play” engine wiring harness from Nothing Leaves Stock.

After about a week-long break to help recover from the spending, progress continued with the installation of the new suspension, front brakes, and mating of the engine to the transmission.

Up next was dropping the new, used motor and transmission into the Caddy. A busy schedule in the shop meant scheduling lift time would be delayed and a week of rain meant no progress while the Caddy sat outside. It was another welcomed break, allowing us the opportunity to step back and assess where we were and where to go next.

The stars aligned a few weeks later and we were finally able to roll the Caddy into the shop and throw it up on the lift. It was ready for its heart transplant.

Once everything was bolted in, we rolled it back outside and heard a noise we shouldn’t have. Something in the transmission wasn’t right so it was going to have to come back out. Not a huge deal, but a set-back nonetheless. We weren't quite sure where that left us with this transmission but we knew we could get other things done with the motor still in the Caddy while we figure out the plan so part of the exhaust was also installed.

Our VW Caddy project was left with an unknown transmission issue that ultimately set us back a bit, both with respect to our time table and budget. We could have taken our chances and sourced another used transmission but we could easily be right back where we started again. As long as we were completely refreshing the engine and suspension we reluctantly convinced ourselves to pay for peace of mind and take the opportunity to have the 020 professionally rebuilt with new syncros, bearings, seals, and reinforced with a bolt kit.

We asked Chris at Fine Tuning Performance in Seattle for that assistance as we knew this was one of his many areas of expertise. He is a wealth of information and has supplied us with answers as well as random, hard to find parts throughout the build. We are grateful to him for taking such great care of us!

Using up a free day in his schedule, Brendon came by to bolt in the transmission. Finally, the shift linkage and weighted shift rod from Techtonics Tuning was ready to be installed. The polished finish of that shift linkage against the patina will be the motivation to eventually clean up that engine bay!

New brake lines were fitted to new calipers.

With the Caddy back on all 4s we were on track to get this “coupe utility” running. There was still an enormous amount of work ahead and at times it felt overwhelming but we did see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Brendon was able to spare another two days in his schedule and came through to tidy up the engine bay, starting with some of the engine wiring and wrapping up the cooling and fuel systems.

The new fuel pump and filter needed a home since the stock bracket wasn’t there so Brendon quickly fabbed one up with some sheet metal and hardware we picked up from Home Depot and made something that will get us going.

The “plug and play” engine wiring harness from Nothing Leaves Stock found its place in that engine bay in no time, leaving the rest of the factory wiring to reorganize. Like us, Brendon likes a clean engine bay and he spent time tucking and rerouting wires wherever possible. We appreciate his attention to detail. The new radiator and fan also found their way in and with that battery in place the engine bay was starting to look “complete”.

Then the rest of the Techtonics Tuning exhaust was bolted up. (We forgot to order a catalytic converter and decided welding on an extension to the down-pipe would be the cheapest and quickest solution. And it sounds great!)

Before Brendon’s next couple of visits where we expected we might get to try and fire up that engine, we needed to clean out the fuel tank, install an air filter, and source a few other odds and ends. We were getting closer to being finished with the first stage of this build and couldn't wait to hear it fire up for the first time!!

Brendon came through and spent another two days installing the remaining parts that were needed to fire up the ABA. Meanwhile I grabbed some gas to pour through the fuel tank and was very pleased to see clean fuel come out the other end, saving us any expense of repairing or replacing that tank! Or so we thought. More on that later. After verifying we had power to all the right components Brendon had me hop in the driver's seat and turn the key... It fired right up!!

Rear brakes and suspension were next. We were also going to have to sort through the rest of the wiring to see what else, if anything, needed replacing or repairing and get all the lights working.

Hearing that ABA fire up and idling without a hiccup was exciting to say the least. We were so anxious to drive it! But there was more to be done. We still needed the lights working, figure out what to do about the rear suspension, throw the new rear drum brakes on, get the windows back in, then register it before it was ready (and legal) for street use.

Remember that missing headlight? While visiting with Hans about our VW Mk4 Golf project we scored a set of unused crystal clears he had collecting dust. The new lights were installed at the first available opportunity!

Brendon brought with him a set of 13″ Enkei 92 wheels he once rocked on his Mk1 GTI that no longer fit due to a brake upgrade. Bolting them up to our Caddy was all he needed to do to convince us to buy them. A GTI front spoiler that a good friend gifted to us was also bolted up and the Caddy took on a whole new look!

The Euro Sport 4-point lower front stress bar we ordered also arrived and was bolted in place.

Before moving to the back to work on brakes and suspension, Brendon wanted to get all the lights working. That meant shopping for new bulbs, wire, connectors, heat shrink, and anything else we thought we might need to ultimately refresh what hasn’t already been repaired. Then Brendon spent the next two days testing and repairing just about every electrical connection. The wiring for the tail lights, front and rear turn signals, and license plate lights were repaired and new bulbs were installed. He built and installed a relayed headlight wiring harness while throwing in a set of 80/100W H4 bulbs we sourced, then he removed the stock fuse-able links and replaced them with a fuse box behind the battery.

The turn signal and fuel pump relays, hazard switch, turn signal stalk, and wiper stalks are also new as the original pieces were falling apart.

At this point we had just about everything power related repaired and working, except the wipers. To fix those we would be replacing the wiper frame, one of many miscellaneous items we picked up from Chris at Fine Tuning. He has been a tremendous resource throughout this build!

It was finally time for new rear brakes.

After a proper brake fluid flush and the rear end reassembled we were ready to see the Caddy move under it’s own power! Brendon took the wheel and we went for a quick spin down the road and back… It drives!! Our maiden voyage was a successful one with the exception of a fuel pump whine, a sure sign of what we had feared all along – a clog in the fuel tank at the fuel pick-up point meant we would have to replace or restore that tank after all. Meanwhile, there was no denying we were very pleased with how things were looking and the progress made thus far!

At this point we were in search of a new, used fuel tank. That quick test drive revealed a starving fuel pump which we were able to diagnose by the sound of a low-pitched whine coming from underneath the truck. Rust knocked loose inside the tank from the fresh fuel was accumulating at the fuel pick-up point, starving the fuel pump. When the tank was dropped we found another problem - the fuel level sending unit had all but disintegrated and wasn't reusable, and of course it is a discontinued part.

After a month of searching for used tanks out of running trucks and coming up empty it was ultimately decided that the original tank would be restored. The fuel tank restoration DIYs sounded nasty, and considering AAA Radiator just down the street from us specializes in such things the tank was left with them to deal with. A few days later it was "restored".

There was still the issue of sourcing a new fuel level sending unit though, not only to monitor fuel levels in the tank but to also cap off and seal the tank before it went back in the Caddy. Every "Mk1" parts source we contacted in the country came up empty with one or two offering used parts if and when they were able to locate any. Things weren't looking good, at least not for our timeline. Then we learned the fuel level sending unit was actually still available as a new part, but only from VW Classics in Germany. Since they don't ship to the US we used our Facebook and Instagram pages to reach out to the VW community in the hopes that someone knew someone who might be able to help get the part to us from Germany. Within a few hours our friends at RPI Equipped reached out and offered their services. Fast-forward a month later and the part arrived!

Next was scheduling more time with Brendon so we could get the tank back in and the Caddy running again. We were a few days away from getting to work when we rolled by 425 Motorsports as they had a Mk1 steering wheel hub adapter from Sparco that had just arrived for us. Leaving the shop without a new steering wheel was impossible with the assortment they keep in stock so an OMP leather wheel will give us a better hands-on experience when we begin driving the Caddy.

Once we had the opportunity we rolled the Caddy into the shop and Brendon got to work installing the restored fuel tank. New brake lines were also put in out back, the stainless-steel braided variety courtesy of StopTech parts in stock at Achtuning.

Then, a wheel alignment.

After bleeding the brakes again and pouring fresh brake fluid into those lines the Caddy was fueled up and ready for another shake-down! We had a few successful runs up and down the street again and this time without any issues. The 2.0L ABA started to purr once the oil was flowing through the engine again and there was no whine from the fuel pump. We even had a fairly accurate reading of the fuel level... We think. We still needed to button up a few more things but the end of the first phase of this project was nearing completion and the time to bring the Caddy home was getting close.

It was also finally time to install some parts we had been saving for last. The last of “phase 1”, that is. A while back, a co-worker spotted a 4-dr rabbit at a local wrecking yard with some vent windows and picked them up for us.

We returned a week later to grab the front grille to replace our broken one, a fresher set of window/door scrapers and seals, and some miscellaneous interior pieces to include a much needed rear view mirror and e-brake boot.

The stock license plate light assemblies and bulbs needed replacing, and rather quickly as we were anxious to get this thing on the road. While shopping on Amazon.com we spotted LED thread-in lights that were low profile and less of a “distraction” like the factory pieces, a cleaner look. And at only $7 shipped we couldn’t go wrong.

Hella Supertones were also picked up on Amazon.com and solves our lack of a horn, and then some.

It was tough resisting the urge to install the OMP Racing steering wheel the second we picked it up but we endured. We were excited to see it finally in place.

The guys at Euro Glass put in the original rear glass that we cleaned up and had stored away since we took possession of the truck. On Thanksgiving Day, with our Mk4 Golf 1.8T following in support we drove the Caddy home!

It felt good to finally see it parked in the driveway.

To satisfy a lingering craving to tinker that long Thanksgiving weekend, I grabbed the rare set of NOS Formuling fender spoilers I picked up at the start of this project and found they follow the angle of our raised hood. In my opinion it compliments the look so I replaced the decades-old adhesive and attached them to the Caddy’s fenders.

On the weekends since, we had been anxious to see if any projects might require the use of our new "work truck" but had little opportunity to put it to good use for a while. We did return to Euro Glass to replace the front windshield that had a crack spanning the full length of it, and right in the line of sight.

But we weren't done! Next we needed to pull the fuel filler neck as we were sure it had a leak judging from a strong smell of gas inside the cabin when driving. But as long as the tank wasn't filled all the way it was a non-issue and gave us an opportunity to enjoy the Caddy before it went back under the knife again.

After pulling some wet carpet and to help address a water leak inside the cabin of our Caddy, I picked up a new rain tray from Mk1Engineering after a friend spotted their product release on Instagram. Prompt shipment and a quality product!

I also picked up a set of 175/50R13 Nankang AS-1s, on Amazon Prime of all places, to replace the chunky 215/50s that are no longer available.

The new, more appropriate tire size takes a little getting used to and I need to crank the front suspension down a bit to better match the new tire size. In preparation to finally lower the rear I found and ordered Monroe (MA785 Max-Air) air shocks, also from Amazon...

... And picked up a "King Pin axle flip kit" from CaddyPan.com.

Before moving forward with the installation of the new rear suspension and e-brake parts I really wanted to get that fuel filler neck pulled and inspected. After a double-check I found that a vent line was disconnected from the fuel filler neck, venting fumes inside the Caddy. Once the vent line was secured back in place the problem was solved.

Plans were made with our good friend Mark to get the axle flip and air shocks installed. Shortly after arriving at Mark's home Saturday morning we positioned the truck in the garage, jacked up the rear end, and removed the old shocks and u-bolts.

The rear beam was re-positioned above the leaf springs and fastened into place with the "King Pin Axle Flip Kit" from CaddyPan.com.

Aside from swapping one of the bushings and inserts from the old shocks to the new air shocks, a chore Mark had no problem tackling, the install was pretty straight forward.

Air lines were fitted to each shock then connected to a Schrader valve Mark placed behind the fuel filler door. After a couple of hours the rear of the Caddy was sitting just right!

All that was left at this point was to install e-brake cables I had "on hold" until a decision was made between an axle flip or drop plates, then work more on cleaning up the interior.

I found a set of Mk2 GLI Recaro seats on Craigslist. A few days later I had them loaded up in the back of the Caddy and revisited Mark for some help getting them wired up and installed.

With the stock seats out I was able to see how much more of the floor pan still needs some clean-up and while that will be addressed in the near future, for now my main priority is getting two clean, comfortable seats in the Caddy with two functioning seat belts. The original driver's side seat belt receiver was toast, leaving me to use the passenger seat belt receiver and no (safe/legal) way of having a passenger ride with me.

Mark got to work putting in a wiring harness for the power seats...

... and after a little persuasion the Recaros slid into place and are working perfectly!

The Mk2 GLI Recaros are a HUGE improvement in both seating position and comfort in the Caddy.

The air shocks we installed are great, but having to visit the nearby gas station to use their air compressor to raise up the rear end for heavy hardware store hauls quickly became inconvenient. Within a couple of weeks of that install the AirLift Air Shock Controller Kit sitting in my Amazon wish list was added to the shopping cart and delivered in two days. The following weekend I went back to my friend Mark for help with the install.

It was determined that the mounting location of the air pressure gauge panel would require inverting the gauge.

Mark mounted the gauge panel within reach of the driver's seat, just below the heater box. This is a temporary location until a plan is in place for the dash and/or carpet.

The compressor was mounted beneath the bed and just behind the fuel tank to help keep water from splashing directly on it. Once the compressor was wired up I was in business with rear ride height adjustment at a press of a button. Many thanks to Mark for his attention to detail and a clean install.

An “SR Track Truck Bed Tie-Down System” was also sourced from Amazon and was a necessary addition for securing loads. The installation required nothing more than a few measurements and some drilling and was accomplished in 10-minutes. Unfortunately I'm not too happy with how unevenly the “corrosion-free” anodized finish is fading between the 4 pieces after only a week of being installed. We’ll let that go until we start to think more about the Caddy’s exterior.

Next up was addressing a sticky mess of glue left over from when the carpet was pulled, and it was caked up and down the door sills.

Elbow grease and Goo Gone were a big help here. The new seats will have to come back out for the remainder of nastiness left under them but the majority of it is cleaned up. I suspect the rest of the year will be spent locating and addressing leaks as we head deeper into our wet Winter weather. We'll see what else happens between now and our next update, which you can catch on our personal website - spinasquared.com.

Thanks for reading!

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