When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory said simply, "Because it's there."
When asked why he wanted to build a Jetta Coupe, Brad Beardow at Fifteen52 simply said, "Because it wasn't."
Over the last year, Beardow and crew undertook a grand adventure and built a car Volkswagen has talked about but never produced. Fifteen52 bled, wept, chopped up perfectly good cars, and when the Sawzall smoke cleared, it achieved what VW never realized, a two-door Jetta.
Turn back the clock some 6 years ago, and you could have seen Volkswagen's Coupe Study CJ at the Detroit auto show. Clive Warrilow, VWNA's former president, said this of the Jetta concept: "The United States has had a longstanding love affair with coupes. At Volkswagen, we believe the two-door design can be better appreciated when it combines the elegant and flowing lines with utility."
Though crafted largely from clay and lacking interior components, the CJ attracted a good deal of attention, most of it from the VW enthusiast crowd. The CJ sported a raked-back roofline that left it some 2-in. shorter than a standard Jetta, 17-in. wheels with 225/45 rubber, red brake calipers and a gorgeous Techno Blue paint job.
"This coupe underlines the versatility of Volkswagen design--individual solutions for every market and body style," added Warrilow.
The car never made it into production.
Now jump forward 6 years to the 2002 SEMA Show in Las Vegas and you would have seen the CJ's doppelganger, a manifestation of what might have been.
Clad in a subdued Nimbus Gray paint, the Fifteen52 Coupe sat stoically in the O.Z. Wheel booth, virtually invisible among a visually arresting crowd. I counted no less than six Lamborghini Murcielagos, a smattering of biturbo 911s, several Aston Martin Vanquishes and a Ferrari Enzo. Tough bunch, that lot. Although the majority of folks were dazzled by all the exotica on hand and simply walked by this gray ghost, the plugged-in VW set stared at the two-door in hushed reverence.
Overheard every few minutes were such surprised outbursts as, "I didn't know Volkswagen made the Jetta Coupe."
They didn't; Fifteen52 did.
In terms of eye-catching presence or marketing appeal, the car is a dud. It's devoid of graphics, stickers, carbon-Kevlar trim bits--and the paint makes it look like it's in the shadow of something much bigger.
"Yeah, I caught hell for the paint, but so what," said Beardow. "The car's not about paint, it's about doing it right, keeping it the way it might have come from Germany."
If you were to characterize Fifteen52's primary goal, it would be building cars the way the factory might have done it...well, if the factory had access to the best from the aftermarket parts bins.
The project has been something of a Pyrrhic victory for Fifteen52. Its construction pushed the small company to the brink of mental insolvency. Originally slated to run as an 8-week series on www.vwvortex, its production went on for almost a year--and it's not even finished yet. Original specs were to include a supercharged 24-valve engine, six-speed transmission and VW's vaunted Haldex 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system.
"We went crazy just trying to finish the car for the upcoming show circuit," recalled Beardow.
From an engineering standpoint, the conversion was as straightforward as a standard collision repair job, though with some parts swapping. The basic program takes a GTI 1.8t Golf's doors, rearward sections and accompanying substructures and grafts them onto the four-door Jetta configuration. VW's platform-sharing technology meant that most of the hard points were already in place, making fastening chores all the easier. Just as any body shop would do in a heavy side impact, the process of changing the car over to a coupe was done in similar fashion. It involved drilling out the factory spot welds on the car and securing structural pieces such as the new B-pillar. Also used were spot welds to refit the new sheetmetal, though they reinforced some key areas. Stronger seam welds were added to critical points along the car's frame such as the rocker panels, B-pillar and part of the A-pillar by the car's firewall.
The top portion of the C-pillar required sectioning to meet the Jetta's and meld smoothly into the roofline. Beardow opted to give the car a wider C-pillar for a beefier look. At the rearward-most point, the window terminates with a truncated end, much like the rear side window design of the Passat. The fuel filler was culled from the Audi TT, and while its circular design was a good fit with the GTI, its placement on the Jetta required additional bracketry and some feathering filler.
After many hours of welding, grinding, sanding and more welding, the GTI's midsections were sewn into place. "Believe it or not, the toughest part of this thing was the rear windows," said Beardow. "They had to be perfect or the whole thing would basically fail."
Fifteen52 pulled a fiberglass template mold from the rear glass of the donor GTI and trimmed it into the proper shape. The challenge was finding a supplier willing to cast a curved piece of automotive glass in such small numbers. A few considered heating the glass and grinding it into shape, but ultimately it might prove detrimental to quality. The coupe wore flat plexiglass windows for a spell. Volkswagen's "Drivers Wanted" sticker was augmented with a more pressing "Windows Wanted" logo.
"After several false starts, we were put in touch with AGP, an O.E. supplier of glass to VWAG. While not a cheap alternative by any means, we were able to ensure the glass could be produced to DOT and O.E. standards. After creating templates, submitting drawings, reviewing engineering drafts and core templates, a proper mold was created and our first actual finished glass samples arrived," said Beardow.
Beardow shivers when recalling the cost of the glass, but the end result looks very right, including the dot-matrix pattern found on most VW cars. Perfection doesn't come cheap.
Body man Jason Reid did an exemplary job on the coupe's construction. Regarding quality, it appears to be as perfect as any car that ever rolled off a VW assembly line, perhaps even more so. Following primer, Reid applied the first coat of Nimbus Gray (found on the Audi TT) and later wet-sanded its flanks into a luxurious finish. The final polish revealed the understated elegance Beardow was looking for. The coupe appears to have been carved from a huge piece of semi-precious stone. Unlike stone, however, the coupe is some 100 lb lighter and has undoubtedly become a stronger car.
The interior makes extensive use of Audi's Alcantara material, a high-quality synthetic suede-like fabric. Starlite Kustoms were the cabin boys. "We used Alcantara on the dash, door panel tops, seat centers, pillars, handbrake boot and shift boot. We covered the bottom of the dash and center console in black leather," said Beardow. "The stuff is very anti-glare, plus it looks and feels cool."
The rear seat from the GTI is flanked by the rear armrest/section of the Jetta, enlarged to fit the longer space. The leather interior bits and three-spoke steering wheel were provided by Eastside Motorsports.
Like any big project, bits and pieces (especially interior bits) got lost or went missing. The helpful folks at Suncoast Porsche/Audi/VW were invaluable in providing all the nuts, bolts, clips, cables and screws needed to put everything back together. Suncoast believes in Fifteen52, so much, in fact, the dealership carries Fifteen52 cars in the showroom, just like German dealers might carry ABT or Oettinger cars. "This project would have been very difficult without the people at Suncoast," said Beardow.
The instrumentation was upgraded to GTI 337 specs, augmented with auxiliary gauges from Omori, fitted into a DIN-sized panel from New South Engineering. Audi TT pedals and dead pedal complete this fabulous cabin.
John Hazel, Fifteen52's head mechanic, then took over and began work on the suspension, replacing the factory gear with H&R coilovers. Neuspeed swaybars, 22mm/28mm in the front/rear, provide extraordinarily precise cornering and additional stability at speed. Running gear was more problematic; the coupe needed something special and unplayed. It also needed to be light and strong. The plan was to use a set of O.Z. Turismo wheels, a great wheel that gets the job done. As fate would have it, Robert Herrera of O.Z. stopped by unannounced with a sample of O.Z.'s latest wheel, the three-piece Superleggera.
"They were perfect," recalled Beardow. "The 19-in. three-piece Superleggaras are incredible, and O.Z. built them exactly to our specific (if not bizarre) specs. And when a verbal deal we had with a tire manufacturer fell through, just a call to Eric and Matt at The Tire Rack had a set of 19-in. Pirelli P-Zero Neros on the way to us. I'm not telling most of you anything you don't already know, but these are some truly class acts in this industry."
The Neros measure 235/35ZR19 and required extensive fender mods to clear. The result, however, lends a signature look to the car--you know this is a Fifteen52 VW.
The VR6 engine was fitted with VF Engineering's (formerly Z-Engineering) supercharger kit based on the Vortech blower (the same unit Dinan's BMWs use). Running at 6 psi, the car dynoed at 250 hp, just about perfect for a fwd car. A Carbino cold air induction intake is at the front of the engine, and a GHL cat-back exhaust is out back. A Neuspeed upper strut bar crowns the bay.
The headlamps are Euro-spec HID units from RPI, essentially bolt-in units that greatly increase nighttime visibility with highly focused beams. With the exception of the lights and "Coupe" badge, this Volkswagen is largely a factory-looking machine, just like Beardow wanted it.
Beardow and crew have more plans for the Jetta Coupe, including an aerodynamic treatment and possibly a modified driveline. As it stands now, however, I think it's near perfect.