When a water-cooled VW goes down a storm at the hot rod school of excellence that is the SEMA show, you know it’s going to be a winner. Aaron Stehly has hit the jackpot with this modified VW Rabbit Mk1.
Feature from Performance VW magazine. Words: Graham Leigh. Photos: Sam Dobbins.
As our scene matures we are seeing more and more serious builds. Performance VW always strives to get the scoops on the latest and greatest but this modified VW Rabbit Mk1 takes things to another level. For many, Aaron Stehly won’t need an introduction. The 38-year-old Minnesota-based serial dubber has worked his way up through the cycle industry and is now Director of Education for Quality Bicycle Products.
In Volkswagen circles he has made a name for himself both in the modified scene and in professional racing. Since getting his road license in 2000, shortly after, with the encouragement of his uncle, he achieved race licenses through Skip Barber Race School. Eagle-eyed readers will remember Aaron’s TFSI Rallye from June 2015 issue which was a cutting edge conversion back then.
With deep optional Recaros and staggered 16” BBS RS wheels, it looked the part too. Back then the Mk1 Rabbit was already in build and the impressive Rallye was merely a side project to enjoy driving in the meantime. We’re pleased to hear he still owns it. Aaron explained back then: “I have set my heart on accomplishing the level of build that the MIVW crew in Holland produce so it might be a few years before it’s done”.
A History of Modified VW builds
At the tender age of 16, Aaron’s first car was of a domestic flavor and whilst the 1975 four-door Chevrolet Impala was capable of muscle-bound burnouts, he favored something more agile and modern. He duly seized the opportunity to buy a 1989 Mk2 Golf GTI 16V just before his 17th birthday. This is where the VW bug hit hard. The car featured a roll cage, Ronal R10s, and as per the fashion at the time, big bumpers; shaved hatch; Bonrath single headlight badgeless grille; and a huge dash-mounted tacho and change light.
Once Aaron obtained his race licenses, he bought an ’83 Mk1 Rabbit GTI that was his first race car. It was an assault on all the senses with its welded differential, open headers and straight-through exhaust. Scene veterans may remember Aaron’s black ’83 GTI road car that got the Euro treatment with round lights and non-Federal bumpers, Corbeau buckets, half cage and (for the time) a brave 1.8T conversion installed with the help of his friend, Jack. This car featured on the VW Vortex forum home page back in 2003 and represents the “first serious build”.
A sea of other road cars have been and gone including an Audi 5000 and various Mk1 Rabbits. These included a couple of convertibles, Mk2 Golfs and Sciroccos. Aaron managed to combine modified VWs and his day job with an impressive run in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) tin-top racing. His trophy cabinet bulges from time on the grid in such cars as his aforementioned Mk1, a Mk3 Golf Sport and a Mk5 Golf GTI (which he still owns). Aaron was an alternate driver in the VW TDI Cup series and raced for tuning giant, APR. Impressive stuff.
Buying the Mk1 Rabbit
Moving onto the star car, this modified VW Rabbit Mk1 was originally purchased back in 2008. “This car started off as a clean shell from Oregon. I paid $600 for it and it cost more to ship it across the US as a roller than I purchased it for. That’s just how things go when you live in the middle of the snow-ridden rust belt”. Aaron wanted the 1978 GTI as he’d never owned an early Mk1 at this stage. A solid starting place but in a fetching shade of beige with brown wings and bonnet, the wheels were now in motion.
As with most truly successful builds, Aaron had a theme and stuck to it: “What would Singer do? became my North Star. I also wanted the Mk1 Rabbit to feature a level of bespoke metalwork more associated with American hot rods but executed in a factory-esque style so that most people wouldn’t pick up on it”. In a similar way to how Singer backdate 964 Porches to ape their seventies brethren for a retro aesthetic, Aaron is a fan of the iconic 1975 swallowtail models and thus utilized the bonnet, hatch, rear panels, swallowtail specific grille and light surround and glass to obtain the desired look.
Despite the clear overall design brief and inspiration, there was a fair amount of deliberation and mind changing concerning power plants. A 1.8T was the original choice and then a ‘20/20’ package was seriously considered (2.0 litre 20V on throttle bodies). A friend offered an Oettinger 16V and the exclusivity and quality of the rare tuning house item sealed the deal. The level of attention to detail is amazing and the underside of the car looks just as good as the top.
This modified VW Rabbit Mk1 is no trailer queen
Despite the show car level of finish with everything either being chromed, powder coated or expertly covered in that gorgeous red leather or hounds tooth, this isn’t just a trailer queen. Aaron’s motorsport background is evident in such racecar orientated touches as spherical bearings in all of the pivot areas, tubular control arms, Wilwood brakes, drop spindles, dry sump, boot-mounted six-core oil tank and that gorgeous CAE shifter mated to the 02S six-speed transmission with 02A bell housing.
“It’s a racecar for the road and a show car. This is my dream build so I had no qualms with some of the spec that could be considered overkill”. It’s the overkill that makes this creation so breathtaking. We’ve not seen many cars where a new old stock fuel tank has been bodyworked, painted and then secured with leather straps to match the interior.
The Image split rims work brilliantly with their centers matched to the Flame red interior. Aaron explained that he got the perfect look for the wheels and then built the car around them. Weighing at a purposeful 15×9” at the rear with a zero ET and 15×8” up front with an ET of two, some serious re-engineering had the car sitting right. The rear beam is narrowed 25mm on each side whilst the tubular front control arms are 13mm shorter than standard. An airlift 3P kit allows the rolling stock to tuck under the custom arches that have been pulled 13mm but retain the factory style bend. The Flame red works a treat in contrast to the purity of the flawless Porsche Biarritz White paint.
Interior modifications on the VW Rabbit
The interior is dominated by those stunning GTS Classics Vallelunga seats by classiccarseats.com. Aaron is thrilled by the quality and they are very similar to the seventies style winged bucket with headrest as favored by Singer. No less than 6 hides of Moore and Giles Flame red leather were used on the car. Top Stitch Auto lived up to its name covering the dash, bolsters, door cards and rear deck in quality cow. The houndstooth is brilliantly seventies and the custom white Speed Hut gauges complement that amazing body-colored exhaust tunnel.
Whilst the mix of custom touches and performance parts is impressive, it’s how they work alongside a dedicated haul of rare OEM parts that make this such a well thought out package. New Old Stock (NOS) chrome trim has been used throughout and NOS clear Happich pop-out rear quarters were installed as well as super-rare polished swallowtail aluminum door sills. Dapper Lighting LED headlamps in chrome swallowtail housings and rings and postal Golf rear light lenses with LED bulbs mix old school looks with modern efficiency.
2021 saw this modified VW Rabbit Mk1 break the internet when it took pride of place on the Wavetrac booth at SEMA and 2022 sees it get this scoop in Aaron’s favorite magazine. “To say this PVW feature has been a goal of mine is a bit of an understatement. All those years of dedication and it’s now coming true”. We’re pleased to be of assistance and look forward to you getting out and about and enjoying the fruits of your labor. This modified VW Rabbit Mk1 is the hot ticket.
Tech Spec: Modified VW Rabbit Mk1
Oettinger 2000cc 16v engine rebuilt by Collin Geynes at Techtonics Tuning; 10.5:1 compression; 268 Oettinger specific cams; Borla Individual throttle bodies installed on rare Oettinger DCOE inlet manifold; dry sump oil system custom-built by Issam Abed (Iabed industries); MegaSquirt MS3 Standalone engine management; RyWire PDM14 Power Distribution Module and chassis harness with full Autosport Deutsch connectors; cylinder head; inlet; ITBs; valve cover and all accessories polished or chrome-plated; Techtonics 4-into-1 stainless header into hand-built V-Band 2.25 stainless exhaust (built by Aeron himself); Fresh Reflections custom radiator with hand-built coolant lines and fittings; Moroso 6 quart oil tank in rear of car with -12 AN oil lines.
Bosch 044 fuel pump with Aeromotive mechanical FPR; Vibrant -6 AN braided fuel lines to engine bulkhead; custom hard fuel lines in engine bay; fuel tank bodyworked; colour matched and tank straps upholstered in Flame Red leather to match interior; transmission: VW 02S 6 Speed transmission swap; Wavetrac limited slip differential; Black Forest Industries clutch and lightweight flywheel; chrome plated CAE shifter; Custom shortened Dumpy Bunny Designs billet CV shafts; fully chrome-plated shafts; CV joints; and hardware; all hardware; drive cups; clutch slave and brackets chrome plated.
Tubular front control arms with Heim joint pivots narrowed 13mm each side; Noath Precision roll centre extensions and bump steer adjustments; factory rear suspension beam narrowed 25mm each side; chrome-plated Autotech anti-roll bars front and rear; chrome-plated hand build chassis braces (built by Aaron); all suspension that is not chrome is powder-coated Speedway Grey; Air Lift performance MK1 air suspension; Air Lift Performance 3P management; all lines are either -6AN or hardline; Flo Airtank custom upholstered in Flame Red leather and houndstooth to match interior; narrowed rack and pinion with Quaife quick steer gearing; Image Wheels Billet 60 15X8” ET2 Front 15X9” ET0 Rear on 195/45R15 Toyo tyres; custom painted to match Flame Red interior; Wilwood reverse mount pedals and master cylinders with brake lines hidden; Wilwood 4 pot callipers front and rear with 10.1 front; scirocco 16v rear rotors; all lines are stainless and -3 AN fittings.
Fully restored using 1975 swallowtail spec parts (bonnet; hatch; rear panels; swallowtail specific Grille and light surround); arches pulled 13mm all-round; door corners rounded on top and bottom; Smoothed and painted exhaust tunnel; smoothed and shaved underside of swallowtail bonnet; bead rolled and smoothed firewall; all ancillaries and brake servos removed; boxed; bead rolled and smoothed frame legs; subtle bead rolls or depressions in metal added to emulate OEM body lines; shaved exhaust cutout on back panel with turndown exhaust; painted in Porsche Biarritz White; OEM Euro Bumpers re-chromed; NOS chrome trim throughout the entire car; NOS clear Happich pop-out rear quarter windows with custom chrome trim to match window seal trim; full early 1975 spec glass including clear from pop-out quarter windows with chrome-plated frames; Dapper Lighting OE7- 7-inch LED headlamps; chrome swallowtail housing and rings; OEM postal Golf tail lamps and LED bulbs.
Custom Flame Red upholstered interior with 6 hides of Moore and Giles leather by Top Stitch Auto Upholstery in Minnesota; perforated leather headliner; upholstered dashboard; GTS Classics Vallelunga seats in Flame Red and houndstooth; hand-built stainless door and dash trim; custom red double loop carpet; body worked exhaust tunnel to emulate Singer Porsche interior; hand upholstered Momo Prototipo steering wheel by Joe at Black Forest Industries; 1 of 2 CAE compatible BFI shift knobs custom upholstered to match; polished swallowtail aluminium door sills; Speed Hut gauges with GPS speedo and Oettinger Scripting to replicate vintage VDO Oettinger gauges.