They say that obsession is the only thing that truly creates success. This proved true last weekend at the 22nd running of the Lake Superior Performance Rally. My driver, Adam VanDamme and I pulled off a feat that should not have worked – and yet it somehow did. I attribute it to sheer willpower and passion, with a very healthy dose of luck. But first, a little backstory.
My driver’s family has been involved with rally for a very long time. In the 1980’s, they built and raced roughly half a dozen Volkswagen Rabbits. This car was one of those, a 1981 Rabbit to be exact. It was raced hard for a few years, then parked in the back of a barn after a rollover crash in 1991. This year, Adam finally pulled together funds to fix and update the car to current cage standards and install new safety equipment, and began running events. The original 80’s era Bilstein gravel shocks are still on the car, functioning perfectly after years of abuse. To date, he has entered 6 regional events with the car this year.
Everything looked awesome. We had a solid running high compression 1.8l out of a GTI in the car, and had finished 3 events on that motor. While it isn’t a top competitor, it has plenty of grunt to pull the tiny Rabbit out of corners, and will wind up to 90mph on some of the longer straightaways given the right gear ratios. This was going to be our first event with a full recce and pacenotes, so to say we were excited was an understatement. I arrived at his family farm north of Escanaba on Wednesday afternoon to do some testing and shakedown of the car after a fresh clutch had been installed. We planned on leaving at 4am to reach Houghton in time to do recce, so this was going to be an early to bed night – or so we thought.
We pulled out of the garage and cinched up our 5 point harnesses and started to do a lap of the gravel road running around the barns and along the fields. Upon reaching the end of a long straightaway and turning around, we faced a large cloud of smoke. It didn’t quite smell like oil or clutch, so we initially attributed it to burnoff from handling the engine and exhaust during maintenance. Another lap, and the smoke got worse and the engine started misfiring a bit. Confused, we pulled back into the garage. A bit of oil was seen dripping on the ground, but we couldn’t find where it was coming from. We tried another run but had to return almost immediately because the engine was misfiring constantly now. We found cylinder 4 was dead, and the spark plug end covered in oil – and that’s when we saw a steady stream of oil running out of the airbox. Baffled, we pulled it apart to see the air filter soaked, the fuel plate completely coated, and the intake manifold dripping with the stuff. Somehow, oil blowby from the breather on the valve cover had gotten so bad it started pumping straight back through the intake. A compression test showed approximately 140psi across cylinders one and two, 100psi on three but only 5 psi on cylinder four. Also, an entire quart of oil was missing from the pan, with only 5 minutes of run time. We clearly couldn’t race on this engine, and the event was only a day and a half away.
We pushed the car into the insulated garage and immediately began pulling the engine out. Within an hour and a half, the broken powerplant was sitting on the workbench. Our expectation was that either a valve burned up, the rings had failed, a hole was cracked in the head or piston, or all of the above. The 5psi compression test had been done twice by different people, and pulled the same number every time so we knew there had to be some sort of catastrophic failure. After pulling the cylinder head off of the block, we were met with what looked like a perfectly running engine, aside from a lot of oil coating every surface. Once cleaned, we couldn’t fine any evidence of a failure that would cause such a drop in compression – no cracks in the block, pistons or heads, good valves and seats, no traces in the head gasket, nothing. We had no faith in that engine so reassembly wasn’t an option, especially given we couldn’t find what failed to begin with. With that engine out of commission, we had to turn to other options if we were going to make the race.
Fortunately for us, the VanDamme family are Volkswagen fanatics and have a dozen various engines from the 1970’s-1990’s sitting on pallets in the barn. Our options were limited to 1.8l and 1.6l motors used in the Scirocco, Golf and Rabbit in order for the trans and wiring to work. We began pulling out and inspecting each one, trying to discern why it had been removed in the first place and if it could be made to run. Each one seemed to hold some chance of working, only to reveal a significant flaw. One we found looked perfect on the outside, only to spit out glittering bearing material when the oil was drained. Eventually, there was only one remaining that we had deliberately shoved to the bottom of the list of choices, a 1976-77 Scirocco 1.6l 8 valve. This engine was pulled out somewhere around 30-35 years ago and had sat since. While it was known that this long block only had 20,000 miles on the clock, it would produce about 30% less horsepower than we had been running, quite a significant amount when we were already so low on power. But as it quickly became our only option, we started looking it over. Its only obvious flaws were a couple broken exhaust studs and a broken spark plug stuck in its hole, things we were confident we could fix. We put it on the workbench and got to work. We pulled the head off the block to be able to work the spark plug out of its threads, but it wasn’t coming out. We tried everything we could think of that wouldn’t destroy the head, but when we turned to drilling out the center to use an easy-out, the bit walked enough to ruin the threads. It looked like our only chance had just been lost.
By this time, it was 4am, and we had so much determination and work invested that we refused to give up. We took a walk through the other barn in hopes that something might be found that would work. We knew all we needed was a 1.6l head with the correct injection ports, but everything we found had significant rust pitting on the cams. One we had walked by twice had been sitting with the valve cover off for an unknown amount of time, and I aimlessly kneeled down and rubbed my finger on the rust colored cam lobes. To my surprise, a bit of grime came off on my finger, so I tried scraping with my fingernail. Voilà, shiny clean steel revealed itself beneath my hand. We quickly rushed to grab a breaker bar with the correct socket and pulled the head bolts off. The combustion chambers were crusty and filthy, and a dirty oily paste covered everything else but it looked like it could be saved. And, with four open spark plug holes and only two broken exhaust studs, it wouldn’t require much work. Somehow, sitting open to the elements and dust and dirt had formed a thick waterproof layer that encased and preserved the metal before the oil had a chance to completely run off and dry. We took it to the bench and started covering everything in a diesel fuel, the only solvent we had at our disposal. We successfully removed the broken studs, and decided a bit of sleep was in order while the diesel softened the grime.
After three and a half hours of sleep, we quickly ate some breakfast and chugged some coffee then headed back to the barn. I set to work scrubbing the cylinder head with a set of brushes and diesel for an hour straight while Adam prepped the block and started moving sensors and the distributor over. Amazingly, after cleaning the cams had zero rust on any of the lobes and the lifters were all free. Finding a new head gasket on this short of notice in the middle of the Upper Peninsula would be impossible, as even the most mundane of parts for this engine were order-only. Thus, we carefully smoothed the best of the two we had from the disassembled motors and liberally applied Locktite Hi-Tack to help it seal. Also impossible to do on short notice was having the head and block checked and machined for flatness. We crossed our fingers and used the old head bolts as well – torquing with a breaker bar because there wasn’t an actual torque wrench anywhere to be found. The coolant routing on the 1.6 was a bit different from the 1.8, so we had to hack up some old hoses laying around to connect everything. We picked the least worn timing belt we had and threw it on, hoping it wouldn’t break. The only spark plugs we had were the dirty ones from the dead 1.8, so after cleaning them up as best as we could they were threaded in. We filled the engine with oil by pouring it over the cams to help add some break in lubrication. We left the fuel pump and distributor unplugged and cranked it over for a few seconds to circulate some oil, then put the compression tester on it. Cylinder one, 80psi; cylinder 2, 70psi; cylinder 3, 100psi; cylinder 4, 50psi. Fearing it wouldn’t run but stubborn to the end, we connected the fuel and spark. To our complete amazement, it fired and ran on the second try, albeit roughly. After a few minutes of playing with the idle and setting the timing to a conservative 20 degrees idle, we ran the compression tester on it again and pulled 120psi across all four cylinders, plus or minus 5psi, which was within expected parameters given this was a lower compression engine to begin with. We rushed to connect axles and put wheels on, then hopped in to put a few miles on it. We took things easy for about 15 miles, hoping everything would break in nicely after sitting for 30 years. A few wide open pulls at the end proved the engine had usable power. We violated nearly every rule and protocol in the book for building engines and yet somehow this darn thing ran, and well at that.
We packed everything up at around 10pm Thursday evening, then quickly showered off the layers of grime and dirt before getting some sleep. We woke up at 4am and headed off for the race. Everything else the rest of the day went incredibly smoothly, and the car made it through all the stages without issue. We inexplicably averaged about 8mpg, which is about half the fuel economy of the 1.8l that was in there before. This caused some fuel starvation on a couple R4 and R3’s near the end of a longer loop, but we never fully ran out. The extreme rich mixture fouled the plugs pretty badly, so it would misfire a bit if not ran with a fully open throttle but it didn’t effect anything while racing. Adam noted that it forced him to do anything and everything to conserve speed in the corners, so it did teach him how to drive the car better. Near the end of the second day, the abuse of heavily rutted stages finally tore a hole in the exhaust, so by the time we reached the street stage in Houghton it was screaming loud. We took a bit of sound deadening cotton material from a cavity in the car and stuffed it in our ears to lower the volume. Throughout the entire race, I continually doubted that the engine would carry us all the way through, and yet it did. Starved of power, the car still pulled off 9th in class Friday, and 7th in class Saturday. Ultimately, even with as stressful and crazy as that series of events was, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The 1600cc’s of fury will forever be burned in my memory of the time that we pressed on regardless.