Jes and Kris Clewell’s 1980 Volkswagen MK1 Rabbit
Jes and Kris Clewell’s 1980 Volkswagen MK1 Rabbit
A lot can stem from a great marriage: accomplished dreams, true love, beautiful children, and on rare occasions, truly spectacular cars. Jes and Kris Clewell have, come October, been married for 10 years, and one of the many fruits of their labor takes form in a gorgeous '80 MK1 Rabbit. As photographers, business owners, a writer and an artist, they have perfected their craft, and it comes as no surprise that the same goes for the result of their MK1 build.
With a decade under their belt, it's important to turn the clock back substantially - all the way back to 2006. Although Jes began her automotive career driving a Nitro Green ACR Neon, it wasn't long before Kris managed to get his Volkswagen enthusiasm to rub off on her. After Jes's love affair with the marque began to flourish, and with Kris's guidance, she started to look for a round-headlamp rabbit. While a well-sorted car was ideal, the most important factor of any potential purchase was clean paint. After finding a potential subject on VWVortex, Jes and Kris purchased plane tickets from Minnesota to New York, with plans to purchase the car and drive it back.
Although it seems plans rarely go as expected, the two were met with a serious hurdle. Instead of arriving at the airport on the day of their flight, both Jes and Kris arrived at the emergency room, having had contracted Norovirus. While their health was diminished, their excitement was not. Kris and Jes booked a new flight out the following morning, eager to see the dark green MK1.
Upon arriving, the details were sorted. It was clear that the car's paint was unoriginal, and although that was a key point to any MK1 purchase for Jes, the car proved too hard to pass up. Despite being a 1980 model, the round-light front end was not a conversion. Instead, the car was a French-Canadian model with just 65,000 miles on it. Labels scattered under the hood for details such as oil and fuel were scribed in French, adding touches of uniqueness and character to the car they were quickly falling in love with. Having travelled 1,000 miles, and with the car's unique quirks, simple flaws were overlooked. Kris and Jes set off on their long drive home, excited for the journey, quite literally, that lie before them.
Anxious to put their new purchase to work, Kris made plans to pick up a 16v 2.1 ABA motor on the way, with expectations of hauling it back in the back of the MK1. However, a mere 35 miles into the 1,300-mile road trip home, the transmission gave out; the type of event that turns memorable adventures into anecdotal stories that are told and retold again. A call to the owner of the ABA motor lead Kris and Jes to "Oldskool Industries," a shop roughly 100 miles away. After meeting the two fellow Volkswagen enthusiasts in need of help, Dave, the owner of the shop, lent his talent and time to helping them get back on the road. An all-nighter was spent by Dave and Kris, swapping the blown automatic transmission for a 5-speed unit.
Ownership of the MK1 was off to a rough start, but things eventually settled down. It was after more than a year of driving that Kris finally posed the question to Jes, "So tell me now, do we change the paint or leave it?" While he may not fess up, it's abundantly clear that Kris was eager to sink his own teeth into the build, and the question served as a gentle push. Jes was initially happy with the existing color, but after the dark metallic green paint, once scratched away, revealed Manila green in parts of the engine bay, she felt that there was no other option.
The two began stripping the car, which revealed further bad body work, and far more rust than expected. What was intended to be a short-term expedition unfolded into a full-on restoration, spanning a lengthy four years before the Rabbit was roadworthy once again. In the first year, the bodywork, rust repair, and paint were sorted out. From there, significant time was dedicated to deciding on an engine, wheels, interior and more.
The final engine choice was a 2.1-liter AGE motor with a PL head, built by INA Engineering. Weber 45s and a modified Redline carb manifold suck air in through the ported and polished head. 11.5:1 JE pistons and DH forged H-beam rods do the legwork, and the waste is pumped out via 288 Tectonics cams, through a stainless 4-1 header and a Jetex stainless exhaust. The build wasn't without its hurdles, but offered a mountain's worth of experience. Before arriving at its final stage, Kris recalls just some of the hardships: "I stripped out a crank bolt; it didn't torque, and it spun a bearing. Then I dropped a washer in the timing belt and ruined the head. Then the fuel fitting was loose and there was a small fire that required repainting the hood."
When outfitting the car's suspension, Kris and Jes originally turned to air ride. With disappointment, Jes refers to the decision as one of the biggest mistakes of the build. "The company we worked with to buy it was terrible, the product came extremely late, it wasn't "one off," and overall it was just not a good fit for the car." Unhappy with nearly every aspect, the two turned to H&R suspension. Opting for the "Ultra Ultra Low" line of coilovers, the change solved all of their problems. The bolt-on affair brought the car to the exact height they had hoped for. BBS RS 070s were the final wheel choice for the build, rounding out an indisputably tried-and-true package of parts.
The interior of the car was reupholstered with era-appropriate brown vinyl. Wanting to keep things factory-spec, Jes and Kris opted to re-use the factory seats, front and rear. A new headliner was installed to match, and tidbits such as a custom false floor in the rear, and the wood-lined Momo wheel tie things together.
With nearly every facet of the car given the same attention to detail that shows in the other aspects of both Kris and Jes's professional work, the MK1's finished product is nothing short of perfect, and with lasting effect. "I learned a ton, so even the biggest hurdles just made the finish line more rewarding. The biggest lesson I learned, and am still learning, is patience," says Kris. However, after four years of hard work, Jes and Kris are both a bit reluctant to admit the amount of time the Rabbit spent in the garage versus on the street. The show-winning magazine-featured car always required caution and care, not wanting to scar nor mar the hard work they had put in.
However, since selling it, he also admits he has no regrets in doing so. "I don't miss it one bit. Thing was too nice to enjoy. I drive stuff too hard for it to be that shiny." And, since selling the car, Kris has been a bit preoccupied, having welcomed two children into the world; at 15-month old named Irene, and one that goes by the name of '72 Porsche 911 T which brings a lot of explanation as to why people insist that children are so expensive. With another baby on the way, due in late Februrary, Jes has found herself preoccupied as well, without a project of her own; however, she enjoys the Porsche for the same reasons as Kris. "The fact that it hasn't been restored makes it so much less stressful to drive."
The Clewells have shown what they're capable of; and while they may have found that perfect-car ownership isn't quite right for them, it still leaves us anxious with expectation for the future. With Kris's Porsche build well underway, and Jes suggesting she'd like to see herself in a classic 7-series BMW in the coming years, it's safe to say that their fun is far from over.