It took me months to decide if I should rebuild the 2010 Volkswagen GTI that I lovingly call “Six Iron.” In fact, there were more moments than usual (before I crashed it) where I started considering unloading the car and changing vehicular direction. Yet, I still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that my business with Six Iron wasn’t quite done, even as it sat in its sorry, ruined state in my driveway. After months of deliberating with myself, I finally decided: I’m rebuilding Six Iron.
What bothered me most about the entire situation was the glorious driving experience that the car provided me before it ended up stuffed into the back of an asymmetric Korean hatchback. I had the car just right. It was on the perfect tire setup of Michelin Pilot Super Sports on the front and Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 4s on the back, the engine was running at its peak, gearbox snicking away. Everything felt just right and I marveled at the cohesion of the thing I created.
My goal with this GTI project was to create my ideal daily driver; a car that can fulfill nearly every role I wanted: a canyon-destroying hot hatch and a comfortable highway cruiser all while being invisible or even socially acceptable to non-car folk.
I searched far and wide for a car that could do the things I couldn’t engineer into the car like quietness, ergonomics, refinement, fashion, and smoothness. I landed on this very stock GTI on New Year’s Day of 2020 and I did not expect to take this journey when the Orange Country dudebro tossed me the keys and walked off into the sunset searching for danger, backpack over his shoulder.
The Mk6 GTI has everything I ever wanted, including the stupid minutiae that I once considered optional but now find essential. The EA888 Gen 1 TSI engine is durable, reliable, powerful (with an APR Stage 1+ tune), and has a distinctly Volkswagen mechanical timbre that feels less four-cylinder and more flat-plane V8. The seating position is low, the full-moon gauges are legible and pleasurable to see every day. At night, the cabin is washed with red glow from LEDs in the ceiling and footwell, along with the extra red LEDs I added to the ashtray for more nighttime ambiance.
There was also the business of the short-ratio gearbox that hit 60 miles per hour in the middle of third gear and bristled away at 3,200 RPM in sixth gear at highway speeds. No gear felt unusable and shifts clacked away with satisfying small RPM drops. My Dieselgeek Sigma 6 short shift kit adding notchy shift feel to an otherwise chopsticks-in-butter gearbox.
Most wonderful of all was the combination of dynamic competence, on-road refinement, and true every day usability that the car presented to me, even in stock form. Sure, the steering was decent and it was dumb quick on a twisty road, but it had the combination of a finely built and designed interior space without being embarrassing to be seen in that I really enjoyed. There is a class-defying grace to a GTI that something like a Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Veloster, or Mazda 3 utterly lacks.
It gave me something to work with, and I sharpened the GTI into the car I christened Six Iron. Named because it is a reference to a golf club and because I enjoy the underdog grit of the word “iron.” I endlessly tinkered with and modified the car until I honed it into a tool that does it all. Six Iron carried my shitbox Subaru Outback flat-six engine back from the shop. It also regularly shows 911s its tail lights on Angeles Crest.
I developed a powerful bond with this machine over my 40,000 miles and two years of owning it. It is the first car I truly loved and formed a relationship with, a car that I forgave for its flaws and adored for its strengths. It was and still is irreplaceable. I had no choice but to fix it. If I didn’t, the spiritual person within me would have felt like I committed a grave transgression against the good fortune the universe gave me. I had to pay this thing back for everything it has allowed me to do.
Plans were drawn and budgets were created for the rebuild. I originally estimated $4,000 and used the “double it” rule and braced to spend $8,000 to fix a car worth $5,500 in the name of romance. But it wasn’t all stupid because I disassembled and inspected the wreckage of the car and noticed that nothing truly important had been hurt. The frame rails and bumper bar were untouched, and engine-damaging intrusion did not occur. All the car needed was a new front clip.
I was uniquely lucky in this instance because Volkswagens and Audis are constructed with a “service position” and ease of manufacturing in mind. The entire front core support was a single-piece composite frame that housed the intercooler and radiator and supported substructures like the headlights and front bumper. The core support was easy to replace and purchase, where a lot of other cars use semi-permanent stamped steel that would have required more intense work.
Most of the parts I needed weren’t particularly expensive either, the issue was the volume of parts I needed when most were $150 to $300. My largest expense would be the adaptive xenon headlights (that I love, especially how they stage when I start the car) at $600 per side, not including the xenon ballasts, adaptive modules, or bulbs. Either way, the full parts list totaled about $6,000 before the miscellaneous stuff I needed to finish the car. As it happened:
- VW Parts Warehouse – $623.23 grill, radiator air guides, intercooler air seals, coolant hard lines
- VW Parts Warehouse – $1265.74 headlights
- VW Parts Warehouse – $420.71 airbag module
- Repaint – $1581.95, hood, fenders, front bumper
- VW Antelope Valley – $2256.42 bumper cover, fenders, core support, support brackets, hood, etc.
- VW Antelope Valley – $211.68 Misc. aero, coolant, bolts
- Known good airbag – $150
- Seatbelt restoration – $294.96
- Battery – $185.48
- Headlight ballast – $305.38
- iABED radiator coupler and camber plates – $481.68
- Radiator and intercooler FCP – $243.37
- TOTAL: $8,020.60
Beyond my impressive genuine parts list, the next big expense would be painting my new panels, which ended up being about $1,581.95. Then there was the ancillary stuff like getting my seatbelts re-charged, finding out that I needed a new $420.71 airbag module, a driver’s airbag, oil lines, and battery, along with some longtime mods like camber plates I wanted to install. I spent about a week’s worth of nights putting the car back together and honestly found the drama to be minimal, beyond the sheer total spend of my efforts.
There were roadblocks, namely the availability of the airbag module. It took a week to get my hands on one and some help from a Volkswagen dealership in Massachusetts, but they managed to find one in North America for $160 less than its $580 list price. Then there was the dead ballast in one of my headlights that cost me $305 new.
The brass tacks are this: I spent $8,020.60 repairing the car, every last thing said and done, with my own labor.
Somehow, I don’t mind the stupid money I spent on bringing this car back, because it was never about resale or even cost. Before I even had this car, I resented the car culture of worrying about residuals and hiding cars away from being driven. No, Six Iron was going to take its scars proudly. Where other cars were cowards, Six Iron rose from the grave.
In a lot of ways, so did I. I love my profession of car writing very much but I often worry about oversaturation or overconnectedness to the internet. Not having my car for three months along with the mental shockwaves of crashing it in the first place and having to deal with my bad BMW, began to pile on. I fixed Six Iron with vengeance. With purpose. I almost felt my mind being gently cleansed by my service to the car, doing simple but effective work with my hands. An immediate action-then-reward equation.
The first thing I did with the car was taking it to a track day with some of my friends. I felt true triumph over the odds as I was soaring with the car once again, running free along the apexes and crests of Willow Springs’ Streets of Willow road course. Six Iron and I were one again. No amount of money can replicate that.
But the best moment of all came when I could feel the feeling I thought was gone forever, as I felt the commanding turn-in of my carefully tuned GTI on Angeles Forest Highway, Kay Nakayama’s Summer Crystal blearily echoing from my stereo, and once again felt the product of my efforts.
A bond is so much more important than anything else when it comes to motoring, or just enjoying a car. There are thousands of cars to choose from, some are universally praised, others hated, and among those is the car that belongs to you. The car world can take so many things away – resale value, status, respect. Ignoring that entirely means you’ll find the thing that works for you, not the guy at cars and coffee telling you to get the latest and greatest garbage.
This car works for me. Not for anyone else. And I think we need a bit more of that mindset in today’s car culture. Erring away from building an identity around a car, but finding kinship with a machine and respecting it, rather than using it as a conduit for clout, is what we should all be here for.
All of that to say: the journey with Six Iron continues. It isn’t a quest for the ultimate GTI, or the first this, or the only that on the west coast. It’s a quest with my GTI, to drive it as much as I can and use it to live my life, not have it be my life.
Either way, I do not recommend stuffing your car into the back of another car. Take my word for it: it sucks.
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