Spending the equivalent of a new BMW M8 Competition Coupe on a 37-year-old hot hatch might sound eccentric, but who are we to judge a man’s passion for his beloved first-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI? Being a car built for North America, we’re technically looking at a Rabbit GTI as the original Golf and the fifth-gen model were sold in the United States and Canada with the “Rabbit” moniker.
Meet Derek Spratt, who bought an Mk1 GTI back in the day while he was a 21-year-old student living in Ontario, Canada. He was among the first in the country to get behind the wheel of the Grand Touring Injection, but this isn’t that car. He went on to sell his original GTI, only to purchase another with the same build date years later.
Gallery: Derek Spratt's 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
Following more than 12,000 hours of work and an investment he estimates at a whopping $140,000, this VW is truly one of a kind. Derek Spratt documented the project in more than 180 videos published on social media, detailing every change – small and big – he made to his classic hot hatchback. We’ve attached in the press release section below a lengthy list of the most important changes the car has been subjected to, but here are some of the highlights.
Gone is the puny 90-horsepower engine as Derek Spratt teamed up with an engine builder to install a much more powerful naturally aspirated 220-hp custom engine, which can actually be dialed to unlock an extra 20 hp. 240 ponies is just about as much as the Golf GTI Mk8 set to debut in the days to come at the 2020 Geneva Motor Show. The engine is linked to a custom-built five-speed close-ratio gearbox with a Quaife limited-slip differential.
From the carbon fiber hood, hatch, and bumpers to the Lexan rear window – just about everything has been modified. The car also has a digital instrument cluster, not to mention LED headlights and a 1,200-watt sound system. Derek Spratt made far more mechanical changes than tweaking the engine and gearbox as the Rabbit GTI has a different exhaust, upgraded suspension, and better cooling. Again, virtually every nut and bolt has received the very best TLC.
Weighing as low as 1,800 pounds (816 kilograms) in the track configuration, the Rabbit GTI “outperforms a Porsche 718 Cayman S on the track,” according to the man who built it. He doesn’t own it anymore, having sold it last month to a couple in Vancouver, British Columbia “at a fraction of the cost of the modifications.”
His next project? Electrifying a 1961 VW Beetle.
ONE RABBIT GTI FAN'S YEARS-LONG BUILD OF HIS "ULTIMATE" CUSTOM CAR
However much you’ve worked on a single vehicle, chances are you haven’t done as much as Derek Spratt did to his 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI.
Over the course of seven years, Spratt estimates he spent more than 12,000 hours modifying his GTI and documenting his labor of love in over 180 videos on social media. The videos range from Spratt’s descriptions of basic electrical wiring to installing a modern digital dashboard in a vintage vehicle. His own estimate of his costs: $140,000.
And today, he doesn’t even own the car.
This Mk1 GTI was the first car Spratt purchased as a 21-year-old college student in Ontario, Canada. He was among Canada’s first buyers of a true GTI, which arrived that year with a 90-hp engine and stiffened suspension of the true European GTI.
“All the automotive magazines had the GTI on their cover, saying that it was the car everyone had to have,” he said.
In the summer of 1984, Spratt and his now-wife, Cheryl, drove down Highway 1 from Vancouver, Canada, to San Francisco and back in the GTI. When Spratt, a former CEO and venture capitalist, turned 50 in 2011, his fond memories of the car prompted him to chase the dream of customizing a GTI in extreme detail.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to go back to the first car I had as a young man and revisit that time in my life?’” he said. “My goal was for the car to feel and drive like an original Mk1 but with modern capabilities. I wanted to show that you can take an old car to the point where it operates like a supercar—without taking away the fun factor.”
Although he sold his original GTI decades earlier, Derek found another that matched his original with the same build date from 1983. He bought it and got to work, spending long hours in the garage at night and on weekends, methodically taking apart and elevating every aspect of his beloved GTI by hand. Over time, Spratt boosted the acceleration, chassis rigidity, corning and braking performance on the GTI —acknowledging that his perfectionism complicated and lengthened the process.
“I wanted the car to be versatile and flawless with its mannerisms and behaviors,” he said.
Spratt also wanted a track-capable engine for his GTI. Working with an engine builder, he designed a custom engine, avoiding the easy route of turbocharging in favor of naturally aspirated power that helped save weight. When mated to a custom cooling system, the engine generated roughly 220 hp.
Spratt also updated the car to include modern creature comforts, such as electric windows, adjustable heated seats, push-button engine starting, an electronically adjustable brake system, two-axis accelerometers and a touch-screen digital dash.
Carefully documenting each step of the process online, he quickly grew a following. Passionate Volkswagen enthusiasts and classic car hobbyists from Sweden to South Africa began following his journey and sent him encouragement, questions and advice. Some followers even offered to send Derek rare parts to the GTI, knowing they can be difficult to come by.
At some of the more difficult moments in the modification process, it was the enthusiast community that kept him motivated to persevere.
“There were times that I felt like this project was eating me alive,” Spratt said. “This was one of the most extreme commitments to a project I have worked on.”
When he finally finished the “Ultimate GTI” in 2018, he knew how he wanted to celebrate.
“The first thing I did was take my 85-year-old dad out for a drive,” he said. “We are a family of engineers, particularly in the automotive space. I owe my love for German cars to my dad.”
He also raced the car on the track and took the car to several auto shows where he connected with several followers. One fan he met in person at an auto show in Vancouver said he had watched every one of his videos. “I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t even watched them all!’” he said.
And to complete the circle from 34 years earlier, Derek re-created his trip down Highway 1 with his eldest son.
“You can tear apart every nut and bolt of a car and then go and drive it for 10,000 kilometers and have nothing bad happen to it,” Spratt said. “The car made it all the way there and back without any issues.”
When he felt he had spent enough time with his GTI masterpiece, he turned back to his community of classic car lovers to sell it. He connected with a young couple living in Vancouver who are also Volkswagen enthusiasts and sold them his vehicle at a fraction of the cost of the modifications.
Spratt does not count this as a loss.
“If you get into restoration and modification for the money, you should find a new hobby,” he said. “The purpose of the project was fulfilled for me. I made the car faster and better than before and pursued my passion for seven years.”
He was thrilled to see his project in the hands of fellow Volkswagen enthusiasts who would fully appreciate his labor of love. “It was important to me to sell it to someone who would allow me to stay connected to the car,” Spratt said. “I can take it for a drive or a tune-up. I’m happy they have it and love it. And I’m glad I can see it now and again.”
After seven years of detailed building, most people might take a break. Spratt already has ideas for his next project.
“My long-term goal is to electrify a 1961 Beetle,” he says. “The technology behind converting a vintage vehicle to an electric car really interests me.”
Disclaimer: Modifying vehicles can adversely affect warranty coverage & compliance with required safety & other standards
US$140,000 invested plus thousands of hours of time • 1800lbs in track trim, 1950lbs in street trim (with some options removed) • 240hp from 7,250-8,000rpm w/o catalyst or air box, 220hp from 7,000-7,400rpm with catalyst, air box and filter • Up to +100hp with progressive ECU controlled nitrous system • Hidden chassis frame and stiffening throughout • Carbon fiber hood, hatch and bumpers, Lexan rear window • Epoxy primer ... wet sanded glossy clearcoat • New OEM interior throughout – gorgeous NOS seat fabric, new firm foam • Mk3 ABA block, Mk2 16V heads, 288 solid lifter cams, oversized 34/29.5mm valves • 95.5mm stroker crank, 11.5:1 83.5mm pistons (2092cc) • Custom curved ITB intake, Lexan air box, with dual fuel rails • Stainless steel braided hoses with race spec AN fittings used throughout • 1.75” primaries stainless steel race header, 2.25” stainless steel exhaust, 2.50” tip • Custom built VW 020 5 speed close ratio transmission with Quaife LSD, 100mm flanges • Stage 3 and stage 5 clutch systems (stage 5 currently installed) • 500hp rated race axles • Custom radiator, electric water pump/controller • Custom oiling system with external filter and oil intercooler • 25Amp-Hour 13.5V Lithium battery system, computer controlled alternator charging • Holley Dominator ECU with 150 inputs/outputs • Holley touch screen digital dash, Holley individual coil race ignition • Wilwood/Tech-53 big 4 piston calipers, 10” rotors, Hawk pads, adjustable proportioning valve, rear disks, ECU controlled servo vacuum – console adjustable • KW V3 stainless steel struts/shocks compression/rebound adjustable in 16 steps, multiple spring sets for street and track use • Hollow rear 28mm sway bar • Urethane and Delrin bushings used throughout suspension and steering system • Special shift linkage – ultra precise shifting • Leather wrapped OEM steering wheel, custom steering column & u-joints • Quaife close-ratio rack & pinion - blissful steering precision & feel • Brand new sunroof mechanism • Electric windows, seat heaters, Air conditioning system • 1200W Bluetooth audio system • Philips LED headlights, LED bulbs used throughout • Looks dead stock inside and out but outperforms a Porsche 718 Cayman S on the track