Berg Cup-kitted five-pot 2.5-litre 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI Mk1
A few things come to mind when you think of race car. We bet a ratty, Berg Cup-kitted five-pot Rabbit wasn't one. Shame on you!
Words: Ted Dorset
Photos: Tony Watson
There are a few things that come to mind when you think of race car. One of them might not be a MK1 Rabbit, but then again you are reading this in PVW….
«You race on the track, complete your stints, and then drive on the highways to get to the next event»
So, in the City of Philadelphia, there is a man who, by day, walks catwalks building high rise buildings and by night… well, he builds his racecar! The man, Esher Lutzo, is a union carpenter who lives life on the edge, high in the air every day with no fear, building the skyscrapers you love to stare out of towards the horizon. While he is a carpenter by trade and by no means a mechanic or engineer, the machine he’s built here is an adrenaline pumper that more than gets the job done. Esher has had VAG gear oil in his veins since a child. His father and uncle were fans of Stuttgart and Wolfsburg's finest, so it sort of rubbed off. His dad was a Porsche guy and racing fan, while his uncle purchased an ’1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI Mk1 new, that Esher would eventually come to own, buying it from said uncle 20 years later!
Esher has more than a bit of a Mk1 obsession! He’s owned no fewer than 25 of the damn things, with most of them running the swap we all know and love — the trusty 1.8-litre 16v! He’s also owned a Caddy that ran a turbo diesel swap from a Mk2, and only one of his Mk1s has retained its OEM engine, that being a 1975 Rabbit swallowtail in Lofton Green. As well as Mk1s, Esher has owned a smattering of VAG models including Mk2s, Mk3s (in all motor iterations — from 8-valvers up to VR6s) all the way up to an Audi 90 Coupe Quattro! He's even owned a Tranporter. Even when his wife, Kate, was pregnant with their first child, Esher kept a slammed Rabbit on the driveway which wasn’t exactly child friendly. He was eventually forced to sell that to a good friend and bought a “family friendly” Mk4 GTI instead. Soon after the sale, the same friend gave Kate a ride home in the Rabbit and when she arrived home she proclaimed, “I miss that car!”. Sometime later, he happened across the Rabbit you see here for sale in Maryland, told her about it, and she said, “Buy it!”
The car itself is a 1984 Rabbit GTI. It was basically a clean shell, round headlight front end conversion, Cabriolet taillights, as Esher explains it; “It had a somewhat okay respray in original Cashmere White, and a non-running 1.8-litre 8v motor." He scooped up the car for $900 in 2005 and initially it was only going to be a runner with a few nice bits to make it his. Inspiration for how the car was to initially be completed was, Danny Allen’s legendary orange Mk1 from the cover of PVW 7/02.
There has actually been three versions of this car. When he first got it the Cabby taillight install wasn’t done particularly well and he had a full rear Euro clip with tail lights sitting around (admittedly he has a deep love for that rear end). He knew that the undertaking would involve some serious body work to make it look good, so he went at it with a saw and cut the car straight down the middle, saying “I gotta do it right with the Euro panel now!” The first build was simple. He got the 8v running, threw some obligatory chrome and polished bits on it and dropped the car into the weeds. The second version went a bit deeper. A semi shaved bay, chrome/polished 16v motor with twin Weber carbs, chrome bumpers, trim, handles and a set of 14" BBS RS spltties with custom lips made to reach 8” wide from their original 7" guise.
Then, unfortunately, in late 2008 Esher fellill and wound up in the hospital. This made things rough, and with the need for money, he decided to sell almost everything off of the car, just retaining the shell. Thankfully, once he’d got past the health hurdle (#blessings), the modifications began again and never really stopped. The first new modification being the roll cage; “The roll cage was the first thing I had done as I wanted it to be done right, to be safe and to be the correct spec.” See the direction this is going now? After watching other Berg Cup-inspired Mk1s and seeing Edigio Pisano’s genuine Berg Mk1, the full track build bug sunk its teeth in and the want to race set in. “I had always wanted a track car, so I sent my Mk1 off in 2015 to get a full spec cage grafted in!” After the cage was built it sat in the shop until 2021, as just a shell. July of 2021, that was when the real build started from a bare caged shell to what you see here. Esher worked on it after work and on weekends alone for 9 months, continually until March 2022 — that was the maiden voyage, only to discover that though it all the car didn’t have a working 1st gear. After sourcing a replacement transmission, on April 3rd Esher drove it around 10 blocks in local Philly to check it out, with a full shakedown at a “Hooked On Driving” event at New Jersey Motorsports Park on April 9th. The car then made an appearace at Volkscrack’s BBQ later on in April then was loaded onto a trailer to take it the start of the 1 Lap of America event! Esher states that he built this car specifically to enter this classic event.
“1 Lap is an eight-day race, where drivers compete on track, but when your session is complete, you pack your car and drive to the next location. Drivers sleep, wake up, and race again for eight days straight. Everything needed, such as tools, parts, clothes etc., needs to be in the car. No support vehicles or towing is allowed, so as a driver you race on the track, complete your stints, and then drive on the highways to get to the next event. Drivers also have to do this all on one set of tyres with only one spare allowed. In the 2022 event, Esher and co-driver 'Old Man' Steve Lannoch took part in this car, 8 events and 3000+ highway miles with a full track car, no heat/AC, no wipers and Lexan door windows. The most frequent reaction they’d get was “Holy crap, you built this in 9 months, drove it once before the event and you actually finished!?” We also ended up getting second place in Vintage class and a lot of “You two are insane!”, comments.
But back to the GTI… The night before leaving at Nothing Leaves Stock, Josh Paashaus and his team had the car on the lift to double check things and noticed the passenger side inner steering rack bushing had gone bad. A friend and enthusiast, Nick Becker said he had one, but was an hour away. Like all of us would have, Esher drove the hour to grab it and the hour back, only to find out that it was an early Mk1 unit, that unfortunately wouldn’t work. With that, Jorma Hospodar was able to deliver a full steering rack, enjoyed a few beers and installed it. Calamity is ever present when dealing with VWs and it struck once again on on the way to the race. One of the cars on the way there suffered a fuel tank issue, but in true “VW Head” fashion, they unloaded Esher’s car and put the disabled car into the trailer. Josh drove the GTI in 40°F weather without windows or heat at night on the highway for 140 miles.
At the end of the journey he claimed that, «it was a little cold along the way!” but asked Esher to sell him the car. Esher didn’t have to think twice, his reply being a definite, but friendly, “No!”. Esher will loudly state, “I love this thing!”, but at the same time admits that he’s washed it once since the 1 Lap event. The only parts he will clean are the windows. Through all this journey, the one part Esher would change from the entire build is to install windshield wipers! Future plans are to stiffen the chassis more with gussets from cage to body, possibly redo the steering column, fine tune the brakes a bit more, get the car corner balanced, and 'race the hell out of it!” When asked if he would do it all again, he responded with a resounding, “1000%, but I'd give myself more time to build it!”
Esher is plenty proud of his creation, and he damn well should be! Humbly he states, “My favourite part is that I built it and it performed so well. Oh, and I love the paint job!” Through it all he’s wound up with an awesome ride as well as a working tribute to the Berg Cup racers that we all know and love. For that we applaud to you Esher.
Future plans are to stiffen the chassis more with gussets from cage to body
- ENGINE: 2008 VW 2.5L 07k with C2 Motorsports SRI intake, Billet valve cover/billet spin on oil filter/AC delete pulley from S&P automotive, United Motorsports tune, engine wiring done by Eurokraft performance, 2.5L beetle exhaust manifold, custom 2.5” downpipe, AS1 catch can
- CHASSIS: Full spec roll cage through firewall, Lexan door windows, Tech-53 tubular control arms/drop spindles/tie rod flip/Mk4 rear wheel bearing kit, 16 valve Scirocco rear discs (soon to be added dual rear Wilwood calipers with electric parking brake) S&P/Tech-53 11” front Wilwood brakes, Innovative Motorsports Solutions rear beam toe kit/rear beam bearing kit, Shine Racing rear sway bar, KW V2 coilovers, Silver front camber plates, all custom brake lines done by me with rear proportioning valve, S&P Automotive motor mounts/ axels/radiator/TR shifter, full stainless braided fuel lines and AN fittings, AS1 oil catch can, DEI heat shields, Techtonics 2.5” stainless Borla exhaust, 15x8 ET0 Rota Grid wheels with 12mm spacers up from and 15mm spacers out back. Tyres are Falken RT660 225/45R15 (There’s a lot of talk about rep wheels and blah blah blah but I beat the crap out of these on track and highway with zero issues. I know a great deal of people who track these wheels with no issues as well. That and if I go off track and wreck one it’s a $200 replacement not $650)
- EXTERIOR: Full Berg Cup body kit. Painted in Burgundy, light blue, white
- INTERIOR: Full spec roll cage, collapsible steering column, MOMO Steering wheel, Cobra Evolution halo seat, SCHROTH 6 point harness, Corrado passenger seat for 1 Lap race, ARC8000 switch panel, Racepak IQ3s display mounted to L.A.G. MSC carbon dash bezel, custom turn signal and hazard switches, OPB floor mount pedal box, modified to fit drive by wire throttle, with 2 brake master cylinders and clutch master cylinder, Wilwood rear brake bias adjuster
- SHOUT: First and foremost my wife Kate and my kids Keirin, Madison and Esher for putting up with my constant talk about the car and time at my shop while I was building it as well as being away from home for 12 days racing. Tech-53, S&P Automotive, Innovative Motorsports Solutions, Kohl’s German Auto, Eurokraft, John from Volkscrack, LAG MSC, Dumpy Bunny, Fast Bunny Metalworks, Downey’s Vintage Racing, RobCo Cortez, Josh from Nothing Leaves Stock, Emmet Fox, Adam Strunk, Nick Becker, Jorma Hospodar,NGP Racing, Old Man Steve (the co driver track monster on 1 Lap) Solomon Rosenthal, Chris Smith from Gas Monkey Garage, Brock Yates Jr. Scuba Steve, Tommy Zonker, Jake Khan, Sėlçuk Altumdag