When Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez moved from New Jersey to Florida, he selfishly wanted to burden one of his readers with one of the most unreliable cars ever made by giving it away before he left. As luck would have it, I am that reader.
For those a little fuzzy on details, the car in question was a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta VR6 with 223,000 miles, an exhaust leak, and worst of all, an automatic transmission. Now, most car flippers would throw this gem on Craigslist or sell it to their favorite landlord, but not Tavarish. No, he gave the car away with the caveat that the readers alone, would decide its likely rusty fate, and decide you did: almost 4,000 votes went in favor of my proposal for the #FreeR6 project.
The fate of this used Volkswagen has been locked in and can’t change even if I wanted it to. I mean, rules are rules after all. Its fate will be to become a testbed for the cheapest and most cringe-worthy eBay mods.
Over the next six to nine months, I’ll transform this Jetta from dying to living and almost certainly back to dying and document the process for your sick and twisted enjoyment.
It all began in July when I got an email from Tavarish saying I had won the FreeR6. I was genuinely surprised. And a little sick. A similar feeling would be when you severely low-ball a seller and they respond immediately with “Deal!” I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I now graciously accept the challenge and hope my kids forgive me for spending their college funds. The Jetta is in my driveway and the title is in hand.
The car was shipped to my house in California by the cheapest carrier I could find. I wanted to make sure I paid less than its book value to get it here and I just managed to do that. I was home when it arrived and watched the driver attempt to start the car.
She couldn’t get it to fire up so she just rolled it down the ramp and blocked my driveway and a good section of the street, most likely an omen of things to come. I immediately noticed two issues. The front bumper was falling off but I couldn’t complain because I could see it had been attached by non-OEM drywall screws.
The second issue was more serious. The windshield looked like a map of the NYC subway system. The driver said it was already cracked when they picked it up but I presented pictures, videos, reenactments and witness testimony to the contrary and wore them down until they agreed to pay to replace it.
Tavarish confirmed it was whole when it left and said, “I mean, it’s not like I’d have a reason to keep it from you on a free car.”
After tightening the battery terminals and a jump start, the VR6 greeted me with a smooth idle and exhaust leak. I knew about the leak and now my neighbors do too. One tire is flat but I don’t expect to keep these wheels for long. The check engine light was on as promised and I haven’t scanned it to find out what it is. The low fuel light was on—thanks, Tavarish. I guess I can’t complain even though it came from a state where you don’t even need to get out of your car to fill up. The final problem is that it came with two pedals but that’s fixable.
The car has a lot going for it. The body is in great shape and only needs another few drywall screws to secure the bumper. The GTI seats Tavarish installed are in fabulous condition. The car smells nice and everything seems to work at first glance. I wouldn’t have guessed it had 223,000 miles. I may withdraw that comment after I look into the mechanicals, but for now ignorance is bliss.
Am I right, David Tracy?
The FreeR6 has been parked in my driveway for just over a month now. That’s just enough time to lower the value of my house, vex my neighbors and cause my wife to ask, “so, can you explain this project again?” It’s also given me plenty of time to plan. I have a vision for this MK4 and let me tell you, it’s glorious.
Step 1: Make it roadworthy.
Before I start to modify the Jetta with low priced colorful anodized aluminum and sporty polyurethane, It needs to be safe. And since I live in California, it also needs to pass a smog test. I’ll replace the leaky exhaust system straight away and sort out the check engine light. While I’m at it I’ll give it a complete service, new brakes and a black ice air freshener.
The car also came with a hilariously dead battery, so I’ll replace that.
I’m also going to give the suspension a shake down and replace anything with a good amount of wear. The windshield needs to be replaced from its damage during shipment at no cost to me. I expect this step to be easy, cheap and fast. What could go wrong? When done I’ll have a cherry 223,000 mile MK4 Jetta! Oh, joy.
Step 2: Test
I’m no fancy big city scientist, but I took Earth Science in ninth grade, where I learned I should have a good baseline or control in my experiments. Before I push the boundaries, set by Wolfsburg, I need to know where the boundaries are.
This testing will include dyno runs, windy roads, autocross, forging streams and high speed maneuvers. Once the car has been modified I’ll repeat the scientific experiments and compare. There’s a good chance the car’s engine will succumb during the final testing so I’ll be sure to wear proper safety attire and take plenty of video.
Step 3: Modify
Saving this car from the scrap yard was asinine but becomes a noble act if we can double or triple the horsepower for one last hurrah. Here’s what I plan to do. The exhaust system will already be changed in step one with a low cost cat-back system. I’ll remove the shocks and springs and install a coilover set. I’ll decide what to buy by presenting several Far East coilover options to my three year old and let her pick based on the color.
I’ll swap the transmission to manual because this is Jalopnik, duh. If it was feasible to make it a brown diesel wagon, Miata then I’d do that too. There are some additional modifications I plan on making that are too ridiculous to mention at this time. The last and most important modification is a budget turbocharger kit. If ever a VR6 grenaded on a heavy dyno pull, this will be it.
The glue that will be present through each step is my old friend, false justification. It’s a tool all of us gearheads have but rarely want to use. I can’t truly rationalize spending any money to fix the car, let alone spend money to modify, let alone spend money on shipping, let alone spend money on a tank of gas but here we are.
I’m doing it and I’m going to have a blast in the process. I know people who will spend more this year sailing, flying or drinking booze and I’m going to direct my funds at a 15 year old Volkswagen. My acumen and limited resources cause me to come up with some form of budget. So what should my limit be? I’m capping the fun at $2,500 plus shipping.
If you have suggestions or are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the fun (read: misery), please email me at ThanksTavarish@gmail.com.