1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

Blending classic performance styling with modern muscle, JP van der Horst’s Jettais a home-brew hot rod with the details to match the best in the business.

Words: Alex Grant

Photos: Mark Rodway


OEM+ Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets R32 transplant


As much a perk of its diminutive landmass as its long history of building, customising and racing almost anything with an engine, the UK is hard to beat if you’re looking for engineering expertise on your doorstep. It’s a talent pool deep enough that there’s no shame in cherry-picking world-class names to bring your project to life, but that also makes it doubly impressive when something homebrewed muscles in on the best in the business.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

Especially when, like JP van der Horst, that expertise isn’t rooted in an automotive background, let alone sheltered by a garage. “I’ve always liked retro cars, but the mechanical side came later,” he tells us. “Most of what I had was newer – I’d buy them, clean them up, get bored and swap them – then in 2016 this white Mk1 Clipper Cabriolet popped up. I had an MX-5 and a few hundred pounds of cash saved, and the guy was quite happy to do a deal on it, but I didn’t have a clue. I drove it around for 20 miles with no water in it, and my mate asked what I was doing. He had a Mk1 as well, he got me the tools, showed me what to do, and it all went from there.”

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

In some ways it was a natural progression. JP was a car-obsessed kid but channelled the underlying engineering interest into other forms of transport. The Mk1 came up during a stint in Portsmouth as part of a nine-year career as a Navy aircraft engineer, while later projects have been bankrolled by his current job maintaining Great Western Railway rolling stock at a depot in Swansea. Having started out with a basic toolkit, axle stands and a fearless appetite for mechanical work, he’s become increasingly ambitious in the meantime. The Cabrio eventually changed hands with a home-brew 20-valve turbo conversion, and his red lockdown resto-mod Mk2 16V made these pages last year.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

“The 20-valve turbo swap was a bit daunting but, as my mate told me, it’s just nuts and bolts and there’s enough information out there to do anything you want,” he smiles. “I have a garage where I keep all my tools, and a fancier one on the other side that I had built for the Mk2 – which I said I’d never sell – but that’s just to keep the car dry. I built the Jetta on the drive, on axle stands, out the front of the house. It’s just how I roll.”

Changing jobs had a hand in that process too. JP relocated to Aberdare in South Wales a couple of years ago, and the Jetta surfaced a couple of miles away from his house as an irresistible base for the next project. Originally a 1.3-litre C model, it had been treated to a recent DIY restoration including rolled arches, G60 steelies and a rebuilt 1.8-litre carb-fed engine. As logistics go, a two-mile convoy to drop it on his driveway and a return journey to take the previous owner home again is enviably straightforward – and JP already had the next steps in mind.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

“Everyone was doing 20-valve swaps and PDs were popping up too, but I couldn't find any Jettas with an R32 lump – there was a guy in Canada who had an R36 engine in his Coupe, but that was it,” he explains. “I’d helped my friend convert his Mk2 VR6 to an R32, and then bought it off him, and the principles would be the same. It’s a Mk1 chassis so it’s fairly straightforward – the difference is Jettas don’t come up very often.”

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

That R32-swapped Mk2 almost became part of the mix. Potentially a useful engine donor, it dawned on JP that there was a limited market for the rolling five-door GTI bodyshell that process would leave behind. Instead, he parted ways with it as a complete car, taking the time not only to find an alternative but to invest in headache-free motoring further down the line. The new engine was torn down for a fresh head gasket, timing chains and guides, given a coat of paint and assembled while it was on the stand to avoid access issues once it was in place. This had one major downside – the Mk1 isn’t a generous engine bay, and it took five hours to manoeuvre that bulky powertrain into its new home.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

“I’m very much into the OEM plus look – I like the idea of things looking like they’re supposed to be there, even though they’re not,” says JP, propping the bonnet open to talk us through the finished conversion. “When I was looking for an engine, it had to be from a Mk4 Golf. It sounds stupid, but it’s because you can fit an engine cover to them and you can’t on a Mk5. I wanted that look, I’d seen R32 swaps without the engine cover and it doesn’t look right.”

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

That’s not a criticism you can level at this one. The 3.2-litre VR6 puts power to the front wheels through a cable-operated Corrado VR6 02A gearbox, but with the linkage from a Mk4-spec 02J for tighter, more modern-feeling shifts. It’s treading a fine line between factory and custom, retaining the Mk1 washer bottle and a visible coolant tank but with hand-coiled brake lines and a custom air intake running down to the Mk2 battery box behind the headlight. Any de-cluttering subtle, the slimline radiator and dual-fan setup is tucked away under the slam panel, and the top coolant hose is hidden underneath a Corrado radiator cover tray. It’s a tight fit, but you could almost believe it left Wolfsburg this way.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

The Jetta took to that extra cubic capacity surprisingly well, firing up with some fresh dino-juice to the hum of newly-upgraded fuel pumps and a steady rumble from the custom Trackslag exhaust system. Minor hesitation on early drives was traced back to a bad earth on the alternator bracket, and JP has the kit to diagnose other problems without even opening the bonnet.

The ECU is mounted in the glovebox with the OBD port for downloading fault codes – something that’s helped track down an issue with the air temperature sensor – but it also means he can monitor real-time engine revs, temperatures and other information using a Bluetooth dongle and smartphone app. It’s a useful feature for a car which still only has base-spec instruments.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

Despite putting in the test miles without any visual upgrades, base-spec bodywork was never on the cards and the GTI-inspired visual upgrades are a subtle giveaway that this one is worth a second glance. The BBS bootlid spoiler was yet another lucky find – desirable enough to risk, because it would easy to re-sell if it didn’t work – but it’s the perfect finishing touches for a car that otherwise looks like the sports saloon Wolfsburg never offered. A blend of GTI waistline trim and side stripes, complete with the Golf’s plastic arch extensions.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

This was no easy job, he says: “The arches had already been rolled, so the kit fitted the front wings but the rears were trickier – it doesn’t help that the car has had a bit of welding. I kept offering them up and making small cuts everywhere until I was happy with how they looked. They’re riveted on so they’re not going anywhere, and I think they really look the part. Importantly, everything looks like it’s meant to be there.”

There are subtle updates throughout the build, including deleting all traces of amber lighting and commissioning the insanely talented Renewart to make a set of period-style R32 badges. With over twice the power of the most powerful variants on the Mk1 chassis, JP retrofitted a brake bar to add the Mk2 Golf 9-inch servo and T4 master cylinder, then stepped up to G60-spec discs at the front – there’s no weight at the back to require further upgrades. That hardware is all tucked away behind diamond cut B-STAR RA-1680 wheels, stretching a classic GTI design to 16x8mm and filling the rear arches with a 10mm staggered offset. It’s purposeful, but doesn’t shout about the near-250bhp performance underneath.

1980 Volkswagen Jetta Mk1 gets 250bhp R32 transplant

Some of the interior upgrades predate the car. The Mk3 Golf Recaros were lifted from another project and had already been welded onto the narrower rails which would allow them to slot into the Mk1 floorpan.

Then, to match the ‘spittoon’ steering wheel and custom winders and gearknob, the front and rear seats were then bare and retrimmed in matching Series 2 GTI fabric at Fine Line Upholstery in Ystrad Mynach. It’s one of a handful of jobs that couldn’t be tackled on a driveway, but that wrinkle-free, factory-quality trimming job was worth every penny. It’s the bit you the see the most, right?

“The interior is my favourite part of the car,” JP tells us. “It was a toss-up between the red and silver stripe GTI material, and originally I thought maybe the red would be too much. So I went with the silver then changed my mind at the last minute, because something was telling me they’d look good. I’m really glad I did.”

Every detail here is sympathetically executed. The 1980s audio gear was inspired by a car he’d seen at a show, and it’s on the radar for some additional upgrades in typical JP style. Having found the speakers as new old stock for a bargain £45, the matching head unit appeared on Facebook Marketplace for another hardly budget-stretching £25.

Plans for next year include modern speaker internals and a hidden Bluetooth receiver up front but, with some raw Wookie howls to enjoy in the meantime, there’s no great rush. “It’s been a really simple build and I’m kind of surprised with how reliable it’s been. The only dodgy moment I’ve had was on the way back from Edition38, where it bucketed it down on the Penderyn to Brecon road, the fuse box got soaked and I lost my wipers and indicators. Otherwise, it’s just problems with the Mk4 sump being such a beast – and that’s not really mechanical. I have a 3mm thick steel sump from Eurowise which has taken a battering, but it does the job.”

And it does that job regularly, too. Weather permitting, the Jetta gets pulled out of the garage for at least one 100-mile commuting round trip, and it’s racked up thousands of miles picking up awards at shows across the UK since the bulk of the work was finished. With Brecon putting rolling hills and winding roads on the doorstep, it’s hardly surprising he’s making good use of it – who wouldn’t?

“It would be fun to supercharge the Jetta because I know I could tuck it all away neatly, but that’s a lot of money,” smiles JP. “I’ve enjoyed the build and I love how it drives — it’s nose heavy and not really a car for haring around country bends, like a 205 GTI or a Golf 16V, but it’s amazing on the straight and you can’t beat that sound.

“However, I think I enjoy the build process more than ownership, and there’s always going to be something out there that I want to try. So who knows. It’s not for sale, but my mates would probably say I’d sell it if the money was right…”

In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep him occupied. With hardly any mechanical headaches in the way of other projects, the Jetta has left space in the diary for a Mk4 R32 and a Mk1 tin-top that’s now part way through an increasingly intensive PD diesel swap. And yes, they’re all being executed in typical JP style; up on axle stands and exposed to whatever the Welsh climate throws at him. After all, if you’re looking for engineering expertise right on your doorstep, then is there anywhere better than, well, right on your actual doorstep?

“It’s been a really simple build and I’m kind of surprised with how reliable it’s been"


  • ENGINE: 3189cc VR6 from Mk4 Golf R32 (BFH), Eurowise short sump kit, Eurowise engine mount kit, hidden MAF intake, ECS Tuning filter, TT Tuning downpipe, Trackslag exhaust system, Facet fuel lift pump, 1.5-litre swirl pot, Bosch 044 in-line fuel pump, radiator hidden under slam panel, twin fans with manual override switch, Corrado radiator hose cover, Mk3 Golf VR6 02A gearbox with 02J shifter bracket and tower, custom driveshafts, hydraulic clutch kit
  • CHASSIS: AP coilovers with machined collars, G60 calipers with 280mm Mtec discs and EBC pads (front), Mk1 brake bar with Mk2 9-inch servo and T4 master cylinder, 16x8 ET35 (front) and ET25 (rear) B-STAR RA-1680 diamond-cut wheels, 195/40 (front) and 195/45 (rear) Falken Azenis FK510 tyres
  • EXTERIOR: Repainted Mars Red with rolled arches, modified GTI arch kit, black GTI waistline trim, clear indicators, Hella all-red rear lights, BBS boot spoiler, period-correct dealer number plates, Renewart custom badges
  • INTERIOR: Mk3 Golf Recaro seats with modified bases to fit Mk1 runners, full retrim in Mk2 GTI Series 2 red and black cloth, Mk1 GTI ‘spittoon’ steering wheel, custom VW Motorsport winders and gearknob, VDO rev counter
  • SHOUT: My ever-understanding wife, and the local VW boys for welcoming me into the community since I moved to Wales

JP arrived on our radar last when we featured his Mk2 GTI resto in PVW 5/21

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