Editor’s note: The following report was prepared by Volkswagen of America, which added a footnote disclaimer that, “Modifying vehicles can adversely affect warranty coverage & compliance with required safety & other standards.”
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.
“If you get into restoration and modification for the money, you should find a new hobby. 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.”
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.”