Supercharged 300bhp 2.8-litre VR6 AAA-engined 1997 Volkswagen Jetta Mk3 Typ 1H
Despite putting in seven years and 150,000 miles of inter-state touring, retirement from daily driver duty hasn’t slowed the pace for Mike Myers’s Jetta.
Words: Alex Grant
Photos: Sean Harrison
The life of a first car is rarely easy. These are machines tasked with delivering newfound freedom before the practicalities of adulthood get in the way, but also reined in by the constraints of full-time education and minimum wage employment. And, for those that aren’t replaced as soon as insurance allows, the transition from daily driver to weekend project can be challenging too. Especially, as Mike Myers found out the hard way, if that stage begins without the protection of off-road parking.
“I’ve had this thing since high school, but my long-term plans were only just coming to fruition when someone crashed into it outside my apartment, one hour into my 25th birthday,” he tells us. “She destroyed the fender, popped the airbag, broke a transmission mount and cracked a wheel. Then, because she had no insurance, she drove off.
“It was brutal, and I might have lost interest if I hadn’t been able to repair it. But I think that reignited a fire in me to pursue it and take it to the next level as soon as I was financially able to. I couldn’t replace all the memories I had with it.”
Mike’s patience for slow-burning projects seems hard-wired from birth. With a limited European car scene in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, the Jetta’s 19-year evolution (and its post-crash survival) owes a lot to his Dad. The BMW 2002 he’s owned since 1974 gave Mike his first hands-on garage experiences and took him to his first car shows, while also instilling a sense of mechanical sympathy that this particular Volkswagen has obviously benefitted from.
That’s no exaggeration. A better job and a beater Volvo enabled the Jetta to retire from daily driver duty in 2010, by which point it had racked up 150,000 miles all-weather commuting and road trips. With deeper pockets and no need to worry about downtime, that shift of usage allowed Mike to tick off a few long-awaited boxes. Evening and weekend work with his Dad restored the bodywork ready for fresh paint, while home-fitted air suspension – another learn-by-doing experience – laid the saloon a little lower over its Schmidt Modernlines than coilovers had allowed. Then that uninsured driver stepped in.
“I actually cried when it got damaged, it was a long night,” he says. “Luckily, it turned out she lived in the same apartment complex and someone saw it happen, got in his car and followed her, and told her she had to come back and make it right. And she did. I found parts to make it as cheap as possible and collected $100 a week, for probably four months, to get it all back together again. That was the darkest time, and the biggest setback of all.”
Instinctively a fan of subtle updates, the Jetta didn’t require a complete overhaul to bring it up to date. Mike had spent years sourcing parts from both sides of the Atlantic, and carefully blending elements of Vento and Jetta. Although it’s kept the deeper Federal bumpers, they’re mixing it with smoked Eurospec head and taillights, while the squareedged grille is lifted from an early car. The trouble is, with fresh paint and new wheels, anything still showing almost a decade of long-haul driving was beginning to stick out.
Alabama put some useful contacts on his doorstep. Based just over the border in Georgia, Kip Love’s talent for upholstery brings in customers from all over North America, and it was a straightforward road trip for Mike to drop in and discuss options for the tired interior. Or at least it would have been, if the Jetta hadn’t snapped an axle on Atlanta’s eight-lane interstate and rolled to halt on the hard shoulder. Swapping transmission parts in Kip’s workshop was never part of the plan, but at least there’d be no worries about the quality of the work.
The brief was to keep things timeless, and the result could almost be factory-fitted. Its Jetta GLX seats, now fitted with the hollow headrests from a New Beetle, are wrapped in brown hide and stitched in horizontal rows across the centre section inspired by the first-generation Passat CC. The centre of the wood-rimmed Nardi Gara three-spoke wheel is stitched like a baseball seam and matched to the gear gaiter and wooden shifter, while modern additions are sympathetically woven in. Gauges for the powertrain and air ride are set into a leather-wrapped dashboard, while factory Jazz edition head unit is paired with Polk Audio speakers hidden beneath perforated suede.
“Kip is second to none,” says Mike. “There isn’t a loose thread or fold anywhere, even on the bolsters, and the material is the perfect size. It’s phenomenal. He did my car out of a little shop in his back yard with an industrial sewing machine from the 60s, and you can tell it’s his craft. It’s what he was born to do.”
Of course, Mike’s own abilities had come a long way himself by this point, and being part of a small but close-knit local community was fuelling further ideas for the project. The Jetta’s early progress owes a lot to Jeff Bynum who, until he passed away, had been a regular source of parts and advice when progress began to slow – including giving the still sluggish saloon the performance that bolt-ons couldn’t easily deliver. More than a decade into the build, insurance and fuel bills were no longer a barrier to VR6 ownership, and there was help on hand if the conversion came unstuck.
Jeff ended up offering more than just advice. Months of searching uncovered a rusted-out 200,000-mile Golf VR6 donor car in Nashville, but its $900 price tag was a nagging warning of future headaches. By the time Mike had brought the parts he needed back home, he’d talked himself out of using anything but the gearbox, wiring loom and a handful of ancillaries specific to the Mk3 body. The 2.8- litre 12-valve it has today was lifted from a Passat in Jeff’s workshop, and shoehorned into its new home with nothing more than Bentley manuals, wiring schematics and whatever advice he could get his hands on.
“That was my first ever engine swap – I gave myself three weeks, working evenings and weekends, and it took me four in the end. Then, to my surprise, it started first time and I couldn’t believe I’d done it all on my own. That was heavy lifting for me, at that point. I had only done suspension and timing belts, little things like that,” he says.
“There was no other option for me at that time. I didn’t want a TDI, I didn’t want a 1.8T, I was hooked on the VR6 and that exhaust note. Every time I start it up, I just smile ear to ear.”
Without the worry of high miles on cratered road surfaces, Mike realised he also didn’t have to settle for off-the-shelf wheels. The Modernlines had come close to a perfect fitment, but not without the help of 10mm spacers on the back that, he says, he was never entirely comfortable with. They were a perfect trial run for the custom CCWs he has now; their polished faces reverse-mounted for a deeper dish, and with 25mm and 15mm offsets front and rear. Wrapped in a set of heavily stretched Federal rubber, it’s got the visual impact to go with the howling six-pot soundtrack.
Although the Jetta’s high mileage days are over, that rubber don’t get an easy life.
Having adjusted to the extra performance, Mike wound up facing the temptation of a Vortech V2 supercharger kit from Kip Love’s car and decided it was too good an offer to pass up. With a set of cams, a freer-flowing exhaust system and lightened flywheel, the once laid-back saloon now puts out a reliable, tractable 280hp at the wheels on a 12PSI pulley, while a bespoke map and uprated fuel system satisfy the resulting thirst for hydrocarbons.
“I had to pull the trigger on it,” he laughs. “My goal wasn’t insane power — I just wanted that sound — and 300hp was plenty. But it’s still a sensory overload. It smells like gas, and even at idle it whines pretty loud, then the supercharger winds up and sounds like a jet engine on full throttle. The power just builds and builds, it doesn’t come on like a freight train, then once you hit 3000-4000rpm just throws you back in the seat, it’s one of the best things I’ve done to the car.”
In the meantime, booted Volkswagens have turned into a bit of a habit. Mike now has four VR6-powered Jettas to share the road trips; a Mk3 GLX he bought from its original owner, a Mk4 wagon and 24-valve Mk4 GLI saloon, but it’s not hard to work out which one’s in it for the long haul. Safely retired from shared parking lots and Interstate snarl-ups, the former workhorse has become a weekend hooligan, preserved the selected drives that make memories rather than causing sleepless nights…
“People offer to buy it from me all the time, and I don’t even entertain it,” he laughs. “It’s just a car at the end of the day, but it’s very sentimental to me and I couldn’t replace the memories I’ve made, or the experiences with my Dad working on it. But it’s also a continual work in progress – a 3.6-litre swap would probably be my next step, and from on I don’t know. I’ll see when the inspiration hits me.” It’s a projected lifespan that should start to mask out the hurdles that got it here. Still civilised enough to put in the miles when it wants to, but with an addictive wild side to tuck into when the mood takes him, the Jetta has become an all-rounder that few first car budgets stretch to…
A long-lasting reminder of the enjoyment of new-found freedom, but without the constraints that usually come with it.
«I didn’t want a TDI or a 1.8T, I was hooked on the trusty VR6 and that exhaust note»
DUB DETAILS 1997 Volkswagen Jetta Mk3 Typ 1H
- ENGINE: 2792cc, 12-valve, VR6 (AAA) from ’95 Passat, rebuilt and ported cylinder head, AutoTech 262 camshafts, AFP Mk4 head gasket, Vortech V2 supercharger with 12PSI pulley, 4in MAF housing, custom charge pipe with 1.8T IAT sensor bung, Ported OEM exhaust manifolds, Techtonics downpipe, MBS 3in cat delete test pipe, MBS 3in exhaust with Jones Full Boar muffler, Bosch ‘Green Giant’ 440cc injectors, Walbro GSS240 (255l/ph) in-tank fuel pump, United Motorsports map, Delrin engine mounts, stock Golf VR6 gearbox, 10lbs AutoTech flywheel
- CHASSIS: 9x16” ET25 (front) and ET15 (rear) raw polished CCW classics with reverse-mounted faces, 195/40 Federal 595 Evo tyres, Air Lift struts, Accuair Switchspeed management
- EXTERIOR: Full respray in LG6S Sequoia Green Metallic, smoked Vento E-code headlights, 4k HID conversion, Phase 1 Vento grille, amber indicators, smoked dummy markers, Hella smoked side repeaters, OEM Hella GLX tail lights, Vento rear licence plate tub
- INTERIOR: Full retrim by Love’s Trim Shop, Beetle headrests, Nardi Gara three-spoke wooden steering wheel, Nardi Evolution shift knob, VDO Vision series oil temperature and boost gauges
- ICE: OEM Deluxe Audio head unit with aux input, Polk Audio speakers
- SHOUT: My parents, Earl and Val Myers for supporting me and understanding my passion as a hobby. My girlfriend, Trista Lawrence for being extremely understanding when I’m out in the garage. Jeff Bynum for the inspiration and motivation when I was younger, Greg Marvin, Sean Harrison and Scott Taylor — gone but never forgotten
“I actually cried when it got damaged, it was a long night”