“Torque is addictive”
“We’re selling a legalized drug,” quips Marcel Horn, chief braniac among the mad scientists cooking up Volkswagen-powered madness here in the innocuous city of Langley, BC. “Torque,” he grins, “is addictive.”
Certainly Walter White never brewed up anything as temptingly bad-ass as the pair of sleek shapes parked out front of this ordinary-looking industrial complex. One, an all-black Audi TT, looks like a Blade Runner version of some chopped and channelled VW bug hot-rod, all compact, curvy menace. The other, sporting a matte-white vinyl-wrap that’s covered in thousands of signatures and scribblings (many of them slightly obscene), is one of only two twin-turbo current-generation Volkswagen Sciroccos in North America.
What on Earth is a 565-hp chunk of high-grade Germanic unobtanium doing sitting in the middle of Fraser Valley farmland? Why are there four more vehicles sitting inside, their license plates showing provenance ranging from Texas to Hong Kong? Why is there a Mustang-powered Ford Focus wagon sitting in the front foyer? Is that a Jeep with a TDI badge on it?
Just what the heck is going on here?
A history of weapons-grade Fahrvergnügen
The HPA story starts from fairly humble roots: Horn grew the business from 1990, running it out of his somewhat-bemused parents’ garage. “They’ve got a Lego mentality,” he says, describing the interchangeability of Volkswagen parts. Taking know-how picked up the hard way – through tuning, breaking and fixing his own first-generation GTI – Horn eventually expanded his reach across the pond.
Partnering with a German turbocharging firm literally handed HPA the boost they needed. The company had already gained tuner-magazine attention for cramming a VR6 into a New Beetle in 1998, but the next few years saw them gaining international fame. Twin-turbocharging a New Beetle with a swapped-in 2.8-litre V6 gave HPA a 442-hp, 484 lb/ft of torque machine that was perfectly capable of running on pump gas – adding race fuel bumped power by another 10 percent. Just to reiterate: we’re talking about a car that could outrun most Ferrari products with a daisy sitting in its on-board vase.
At the same time, HPA’s similarly modified GTI was dubbed “Golfzilla” by Road & Track. The silver-shaped machine looked pretty much the same as any other big-wheeled and lowered Vee-Dub, but it packed ludicrous power.
In 2003, HPA got their hands on the R32, a 2004 VR6-powered factory hot-rod from VW that was never sold in Canada. They created an absolute monster, capable of a top speed over 325 km/h. That’s slightly faster than a Ferrari F40.
Debuting their creation at the annual Special Equipment Marketers Association (SEMA) showcase, HPA took home the laurels for best in show. As a result, their car gained digital immortality as a playable model in Polyphony’s best-selling Gran Turismo franchise. In basements from New Jersey to Berlin, kids could beat up on high-performance exotics in a little hatchback nailed together in Canada.
Seeing what Marcel and his crew were able to do with the R32, Volkwagen’s corporate offices contracted HPA to build three custom machines: a Jetta, a Passat and a Touareg. All three VWs were as wild as you might imagine, their R-GT badges advertising 500-plus horsepower levels.
More recently, with the niche-market availability of the VR6 engine shrinking, HPA has turned to tuning VW’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre turbo. They’ve also taken up doing something unique with Volkswagen diesel-power – more on that in a bit.
Behind the Scenes
When I walk into the front of HPA’s new offices, Marcel’s on the phone with Germany, one of his staff is explaining the various difficulties with bolting Cayenne brakes onto a GTI, and there are boxes everywhere. This new, 12,000 square-foot facility is a new home for the Canadian VW specialist, which will be marking a quarter-century in business in the next couple of years.
There are 13 full-time staff on board, some of them veterans of over more than a decade, others VW and Audi specialists lured by the promise of working on essentially unobtainable cars. The team builds these monsters up with incredibly high quality parts, cracking the software for horsepower gains while still retaining VW-spec emissions standards.
Past the Mustang-swapped, rear-drive Focus wagon (painted an Audi-sourced shade of blue, of course), there’s a corridor leading down the back to the various R&D departments. In one room, HPA’s tech gurus spend hours poring over VW code, not just tuning turbocharged engines, but hacking into the shift-controller software for the dual-clutch gearboxes now used pretty much throughout the range. There’s a mockup of a generic VW dash with various ECUs stacked up beside it like DVD cases.
In the shop, things are still very much in the unpacking phase: a full Beetle’s-worth of widebody aerodynamics kit lies spread out on the floor, along with a brace of heavily-bolstered seats and various suspension components. Beyond the heaps of parts, technicians are hard at work creating various customized solutions.
On one bench, a laser-cut assembly of metal is being welded together to make a custom cradle for a 4Motion rear differential. This will be fitted to a Rallye Golf, a rare beast from the late 1980s never offered for sale in North America, as part of a high-horsepower swap. Looking like a miniature version of the original Audi Quattro, the deep red, box-flared Rallye Golf is destined for an enthusiast owner in his 70s.
More commonly-used parts like four-canister performance mufflers, intercoolers, intake manifolds, and grapefruit-sized turbochargers line the shelves. Uniquely, almost everything here is assembled and made locally.
“Canadian-built downpipes, Canadian-welded manifolds, Canadian-made castings,” Marcel says, ticking them off, “Our focus has always been using Canadian manpower.” Some parts are from further away, like the German turbochargers and Arizona-sourced brake kits, but HPA has shied away from using inexpensive parts made in Asia. It’s not just Canadian know-how and assembly, it’s Canadian manufacturing.
After a tour of a room in which a crate motor rests, ready for installation, Marcel takes me to the back of the shop, where another 565-hp Scirocco rests below his latest creation, due to debut at this year’s SEMA show in a few months. It’s not a VW. It’s not even a car.
The TDI Jeep
“A few years ago, I bought my son a little electric Fisher-Price Jeep,” Marcel relates, “I didn’t really know anything about them at first.” He describes how the kernel of an idea has grown into this latest creation: a brand-new four-door Rubicon with a 2.0-litre VW turbodiesel swap making 240 hp and 420 lb/ft of torque.
Seeing a decrepit-looking Jeep nose peeking out of a barn, Horn snapped his first transplant patient up for about $2,000. Popping the hood, he was pleasantly surprised to see how much space there was to work with. After two decades shoe-horning V6s into tiny VW engine bays, the simplistic Jeep was a relative cinch to work on. But there were a few kinks to work out.
Marcel’s first effort was, as he says, “Volkswagen from the flywheel forward.” With a mild tune and the purchase of a pair of electronic locking differentials, he had a machine that could climb like a goat. Unfortunately, all the little extra parts were VW, and when they broke both cost and availability were issues.
The second Jeep, and those that followed, all have a VW diesel powertrain sandwiched between the Jeep running gear and Jeep accessories. As Marcel found, after blowing a power-steering pump while testing out rock-crawling abilities in Moab, Utah, Jeep parts are cheap, and can be picked up pretty much anywhere off-roaders go. “It cost me something like $40,” he says with a twinkle, “Maybe that’s why it broke, who knows?”
Unlike the big-ticket twin-turbo builds – tucking one of those Sciroccos in your garage will set you back North of $100,000 – HPA’s Jeep kits are all about do-it-yourself-ism and economic viability.
Why bother? Two words: diesel-level torque and fuel economy. Even with giant, off-road tires, low gearing, and the general non-aerodynamics of a Jeep, this example regularly sees fuel consumption as low as 7.0 L/100kms.
It’s also fairly smooth, for a Jeep. While there’s a heavy-hitter Cummins diesel swap already in existence, it’s a much rougher-running application, extremely nose-heavy, and also doesn’t conform to emissions standards. HPA’s kit turns your weekend-warrior off-roader into a half-practical daily-driver.
Tuning in the Future
HPA is set to launch their TDI Jeep under the new COTY branding, kicking off with their factory-looking SEMA show car. With the move into diesel, Marcel’s already looking at taking on tuning duties for diesel-powered Golf Wagons and the like.
While there are currently all sorts of options for owners of 2.0-litre turbocharged VWs, the team is already hard at work unlocking power from next-generation cars. They hope to get their hands on a Mk 7 GTI by February – the rest of us will have to wait until at least the fall of next year.
The way HPA tunes its cars is a little different as well. Sure, there’s always the track, but in street driving, their focus on torque development gives a thrill to the onramp blast of the normal, law-abiding customer.
Off the beaten path, Marcel’s entire family gets to ride along in one of his diesel Jeep creations. “Racecars don’t really apply to boys,” he says, speaking of car-seat requirements for his three young sons. However, out in Moab and in the dunes of Oregon, he gets to share his passion for VWs with the next generation – even if it’s behind the wheel of a Jeep.