The term ‘labour of love’ gets bandied about a lot, but if you’re looking for a genuine example then Jonathan Leyh’s 22-year modified VW Corrado build isn’t a bad place to start!
Feature from Performance VW. Words: Bryan McCarty. Photos: Zane Lacko
Pop quiz. What were you doing 22 years ago? Were you a contributing member of the workforce and well on your way to retirement? Were you awkwardly walking the hallways of secondary school, hoping not to get noticed by the much older kids? Were you even born? For Jonathan Leyh, he was taking possession of the keys to a VW Corrado G60… the car you see here before you. Now, repeat that lapse of time again – 22 years!
Where most citizens of the Tuning Republic of Wolfsburg would have flipped titles 27 times over in the same span, our man Jonathan has been narrowing in on what could possibly be the cleanest Corrado to grace these hallowed pages. Dedication? Yeah, he’s familiar with the term, especially after all the ups and downs he’s endured.
“The Corrado was stock when I bought it from an individual in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1998,” says Jonathan, a 41-year-old sales professional from Cumberland, Maryland. “My direction was maintenance, handling and braking before any styling add-ons. Just having a solid reliable Corrado was the goal and that’s no easy task.” That last line is indicative of a teenager having his head screwed on properly. His directional choices weren’t just a chance occurrence of choosing the right path, mind you. No, Jonathan’s wise decisions stemmed from familial influences, most importantly his late father who had a cadre of air-cooled Beetles. “I have always been a VW fanatic. I started in the VW scene with an orange 1973 Standard Beetle when I was 16. That’s when I went to my first VW show, BugOut, at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Virginia.”
It’s important to convey just how deep into it Jonathan is. Besides the Corrado, he currently has various other VAG projects in differing stages, including a ’61 Beetle, a MK3 Golf 1.8T, a 1981 Scirocco, and a MK2 Jetta Coupe VR6. The Corrado though is the OG of his fleet. “I wanted a Corrado just after I purchased my 1985 GTI 8v, seeking more power, sportiness and luxury. I have always thought that the Corrado’s coach-built Karmann body lines were gorgeous.” We would tend to agree, especially those that have been slightly massaged by a skilled sculptor. It’s a given the car didn’t appear as it does on these pages when the title was originally transferred into Jonathan’s name. But, the journey of a thousand modifications begins with a single tweak…
After taking care of basic maintenance, a handful of ubiquitous bolt-ons found their way onto the Corrado, including Neuspeed springs and sway bars and a Eurosport exhaust. The G-Lader was enhanced with a Neuspeed chip and Eurosport intercooler tubes. While there isn’t any doubt those modifications uncorked some added performance, it wasn’t long before a fateful run down the 1,320 at Mason Dixon Dragway resulted in the supercharger filing for unemployment. But instead of fixing it, Jonathan decided a heart transplant for a breathing condition was the best way forward. “I had the modified VW Corrado towed to New German Performance in Aberdeen, Maryland where Dave Graf and his team performed one of the first 1.8T swaps in a Corrado that I can recall.” Readers of this mag will no doubt be aware of the magicians at NGP who have long left their mark on many a feature car. The AEB 1.8T was fitted with a T3 Super 60 turbo, but forget about that because you’ll notice it’s not listed in the Dub Details. “From there it evolved into a tuner-style vehicle with several changes of body parts and paint work. I was younger and trying to find my own idea of what I wanted without following other Corrado owners’ leads.”
Tinkerers swapping motors is nothing new. It’s been happening for ages. However it’s important to pause for appreciation at what NGP was doing at the turn of the century. Plucking a 1.8T from a ’98 Audi A4 (the MK4 hadn’t gone on sale in the US) and plopping it into a coupe that was already rare was a feat not yet contemplated, let alone attempted. “We were trying to be revolutionary,” Jonathan said, driving home the significance of the swap.
If you polled a group of individuals who couldn’t help themselves from modifying their cars, we’re willing to wager a hefty sum most of them started with a rough outline of what they wanted to accomplish, only to find the treasure map binned and the path to completion overwhelmed by mission creep. Even Jonathan wasn’t impervious to plan meddling.
But while there may have been mechanical setbacks along the way, the modified VW Corrado was always progressing, continuously evolving with the times and tastes of its owner. Porsche Boxster wheels made way for Turbo Twists that were eventually traded for the beautiful 3-piece Schmidt Modern Lines in 16×9.5 and 16×10.5 sizing you see on the car today. Those rollers couldn’t be a better fit for the bulldog arches, flared for proper fitment. The Strictly Foreign catalog was tapped for some of their body parts, including the horrid yet period-appropriate taillights. Again, as time went on, the SF pieces were sent packing, in their place molded M3-style side skirts and FK tails. A side-exit exhaust is another nod to a bygone era. Out back, a Dietrich bumper hovers centimeters from the ground when the suspension is aired out and matches the 90s-look and vibe of the custom Black Fly Industries front bumper. When queried on the favourite physical aspect of the car, Jonathan doesn’t hesitate to mention said custom one-off bumper that fits the intercooler like a glove.
Instead of trusting the coupe’s metalwork to an outside shop, Jonathan set about tackling some bodywork in the most unlikely of spaces: his mother’s garage. Here’s a quick assignment – take a magnifying glass to the pictures and try your best to pick apart his craftsmanship. We’ll wait. From the shaved bay (complete with smoothed towers and a wire tuck) to the flared fenders and custom fender vent (more on this in a moment), the custom one-off front bumper and the shaved hatch, his home garage hero handiwork has withstood the test of time. Oh, and he seam-welded the entire chassis. If you’re not familiar with what that is, look it up. “Topping it all off was Brian Long, a longtime friend and painter, who gave it the high-gloss black paint that shines so well for being 16 years old. After that,” Jonathan said almost nonchalantly, “I just started envisioning a race car/show car and how it would be purpose-built for racing yet styled to my liking.” Sparco Evos replaced Sparco Torinos and a 6-point cage was purchased, although it’s still pending an install, perhaps for 2021.
When speaking with Jonathan, one of my questions was about the fender vent. I knew it wasn’t a Sprinter vent, or a 300TD piece, but I couldn’t place its origins. Turns out it’s a Swedish ex-pat from a buddy of his who had a Saab 900S that didn’t run and was headed for the breaker’s yard. A friendly bet was made that he wouldn’t provide refuge for the hood vent on his car. A few cuts, a bit of welding, and I presume a few brews and boom, yet another custom touch that furthered his colouring outside the lines approach.
Subsequently, the heart of the matter was upgraded in every way possible. “I found a forged ABA 2.0 crank from a ’93 Golf and had an idea to stroke and bore the 1.8 out to a 2.1,” Jonathan informs us. “That’s when the engine received some Cat Cams, forged JE pistons, Total Seal piston rings, and Integrated Engineering rods with ARP fasteners holding everything together. The Simple Digital Systems EFI was installed and tuned by NGP racing, along with a larger front-mount Spearco Intercooler, custom intercooler piping and intake, GReddy Profec B boost controller and blow-off valve.”
With the car quasi-complete, Jonathan enjoyed various victories at numerous outings for a few years, including at BugOut and Carlisle Import and Performance shows. But it seemed finding enjoyment and bringing home the cups were diametrically opposed for him. “I stopped going to car shows for about 10 years due to the fact that I got burned out on them,” lamented Jonathan. In fact, his opposition to the mounting pressure of scoring well every time he took the field was just what he needed to start his own shows, albeit years later. “In 2012, while hanging in my garage with my buddy Zac Malcolm sitting in front of the Corrado, I came up with the idea for Dubs at the Gap. The very next day I bought the website and started planning.”
Dubs at the Gap, held in Rocky Gap State Park, is the spiritual retreat of the Volkswagen show world. Idyllic scenery, community-oriented and pushing the “no pressure, no problem” ethos have been key factors since inception. It possesses exactly the sort of atmosphere that should permeate other events. There is also a sister event he started in 2018 called Dubs at the Lake. We’re happy to report that all he needed was the massive undertaking of launching a show or two to reignite the flame. “Since I have started my own shows, I have found a new love of shows and an abundance of people that have made me enjoy the culture in a new way.” For the first few years, all his effort was focused on the success of DATG, which supported the local Allegheny Animal Shelter to a cumulative tune of $13,000. Then about four years ago, he finally returned to actively participating in shows, displaying his widened 2002 Audi TT at VAG Fair in Pennsylvania. The Corrado finally made its debut, 22 years in the making, at this year’s DATG. It was obviously well received.
When speaking with Jonathan, it’s apparent he’s very passionate about the car, every memory it’s helped him create during his longterm ownership and the scene it’s involved him in. It’s even more impressive that during the double decade tenure, he’s never wanted to flush the keys down the toilet and roll it into a river. “Over the years, there have been plenty of setbacks (i.e. engine rebuilds, blown turbos, paint work, body changes.) But nothing has ever made me get to the point where I disliked it. In fact, it has taught me perseverance and patience. I don’t think I would change anything about the way I have made it to this point. The Corrado is my essence.”
After leaving the show scene, there was a period of about 11 years in which Jonathan did little more than drive the car, occasionally throwing it around at an odd autocross, as he focused on his career. “After a photoshoot in 2015, I did a burnout and the car ended up blowing a lot of oil.” It was then parked up in his garage for a further five years.
Although Jonathan and his wife Heather have known each other since he was 18, congratulations are still in order as they’ve only recently tied the knot. During the courtship period, the Corrado sat while he cultivated a new love of his life. Once he proposed, they began the process of looking for a marital home until it was decided he would sell his current place and move in with her. That ultimately lead to Jonathan designing a detached garage where the mechanical magic happened.
“In early 2020, Heather and I pulled the engine. I purchased an AEB head that had been ceramic coated and I had the Cat Cams switched to this head and added a Supertech valvetrain. The bottom end was separated and re-honed and ringed. After the block was reassembled, Heather and I worked long evenings to get it back together to be at its first car show in over a decade, Dubs at the Gap 2020. I also took the time to remove the H&R coilovers and install an Air Lift Performance 3P management and Slam Series bags. Everything is mounted to the black anodised seamless air tank via an AccuAir Exo mount system where the rear seat would be. I had taken some extra time to hide as much air line and wiring as possible.”
The rebuild also including adding a Garrett GTX3076R turbo, and some external details like black power coating from VPC Motorsports and a catch can from Integrated Engineering. “It’s probably around 450 [horsepower], conservatively,” Jonathan estimates. “It runs 32 PSI on low boost. There is only 100 miles on the motor since the pictures were taken, so it’s still in the break-in period.” He hasn’t yet made it back to the track that set him on this course long ago, but it’s not out of the question.
It wouldn’t be a proper modern feature without mentioning the ongoing global pandemic that continues to ravage the world. Besides the cancellation of most major events during the second quarter of 2020, a lot of non-essential workers were told to stay home. “I was laid off from March through June 2020 and put most of the time into building the block during that period. If I didn’t have that time off, I wouldn’t have had time to finish it.” That right there is the quintessence of turning a negative into a positive, which has been the modus operandi for our main man all along.
One of the triumphs with the car that really made him smile was when he and Heather went for their first ride together after getting it back on the road. “That’s a feeling that really hits you hard as an adult. She is super supportive of my car passion,” said Jonathan. “She’s the backbone of my car shows as well.” Along with a life partner sitting besides him, Jonathan also has another presence with him when wheeling one of his whips. “I like to think that my Dad is there with me anytime I drive one of my projects.”
So while the car itself is an absolute stunner, it is far more than just a mass of metal, rubber and upholstery. “Owning a car for 22 years has inevitably made it a major part of my life,” says Jonathan. “This car is the epitome of my passion and devotion to the VW scene.” Longterm ownership of anything is a funny phenomenon. At some undetermined point, owner and item become one and the same and are hardly mentioned separate from one another. We think it’s safe to say after 22 years, that theory can be applied here. To test it, we asked Jonathan one final question, whether he would save it for later, sell it on or start over with a new canvas. His succinct response was almost expected. “I don’t believe I will ever sell the modified VW Corrado.”
Tech Spec: Modified VW Corrado
2.1-litre 20v AEB engine, Cat cams, Integrated Engineering rods, JE pistons, Supertech valve train, ARP fasteners, Garrett GTX3076R .82 AR turbo, Tial38mm wastegate, Full-Race tubular manifold, 3.5” stainless straight-through exhaust, GReddy blowoff valve, Spearco intercooler, Vibra-Technics engine and gearbox mounts, EXEDY 6-puck clutch, wires tucked, shaved and seam-welded engine bay, Swoops smoothed aluminium brake reservoir
9.5×16” and 10.5×16” Schmidt Modern Line wheels, spiked centre caps, VW lug bolt covers. Air Lift 3P management, smoothed seamless air tank, Exo mount system, Air Lift Slam Series bags, Neuspeed front and rear sway bars, Eurosport lower stress brace, Wilwood 3-piece calipers, Brembo front drilled and slotted brakes, Hawk Street/Race brake pads, drilled rear discs, H&R wheel spacers 10mm front 25 mm rear, all subframes, cross-members, control arms powder coated black
carbon fibre VR6 hood, Black Fly Industries custom grille with eyebrow and front bumper, M3-style side skirts, Dietrich rear bumper, flared fenders, shaved roof antenna, shaved rear emblems and badging, rear seams smoothed, carbon fibre rear spoiler, FK Crystal clear/red taillights, smoothed and painted door handles, fender intake vent, E-code headlights
Sparco Evo seats, Sparco steering wheel, GReddy Profec B boost controller, Neuspeed short shifter, custom VW shift knob, carbon fibre shift surround, custom dual gauge pod, leather door cards, Passat glass moonroof