Drive Anywhere With Confidence

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Read Time:11 Minute, 33 Second

Words By: Scott Rybarik

Note: The names in this story, with the exception of my own, may (or may not) have been changed, modified, altered, encoded, scrambled, or lied about, to protect the guilty.  

Additional note:  If you have any sense of mechanical empathy, this story might not be for you. 

I’m not sure how it started, it’s always been a bit of  a myth to me. Bits and pieces of a story about some friends who would fly to some random city with only the tools they could carry, buy a “project” car (for a small amount of money), and then try to get said vehicle home. Over the years, some of these vehicles have been kept, some sold, some scrapped. Some have been abandoned along the way, but for the most part, the quest has found success. As the years moved on, the challenge got bigger, as more people wanted to be involved.  Soon it was big enough that two vehicles were acquired on the trip. The fearless pioneer of this adventure, we’ll call him “Nitro Bob” because, in my dealings with him. Adding nitrous oxide to the cars comes up in almost every conversation, calls this game “Drive Anywhere With Confidence” (DAWC), and in 2024 he added a new component – a competition.

The group of interested parties had expanded to the point where three vehicles were necessary.  Like all forms of motorsport, once there are two there is a race, and three absolutely guarantees it. Inspired by the likes of Top Gear, a scorecard and list of challenges was created. Three team captains were appointed, and budgets determined. Each team was allocated approximately $3000 to cover the entire cost of the trip. This was to include the purchase of a vehicle, any modifications and repairs needed to prepare it for the journey, and the fuel along the way. Items necessary for the safety of the occupants were excluded from the budget. As an example, if a car purchased had worn out tires, then an amount equal to the cheapest available tire in the replacement size was excluded from the budget amount for scoring purposes. Points were awarded for things like age of the car, mileage on the odometer at the start of the journey, and how close in time the car was purchased to the start of the journey.  The route would take our adventurers from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Chicago, Illinois, with a substantial part of the trip taking place off-road, or on minimally improved roads.

Along the way there would be challenges, both by design, and by circumstance. Some of the designed challenges included a zero-60-zero run, an off-road challenge, and a test of fuel economy. There was also a stop at a local car gathering / show, where the cars would be judged by the attendees of the event, and a large number of points awarded to the winner.

Each team ended up having three people who would drive, plus one additional person who helped with the build and preparation of their vehicle, but could not attend the event. I was one of these “extra” people, and this is the story of one of the cars prepared for this challenge.

I’ll save you the suspense – we did not win. All of the participants agree that our car was the most fun to drive, and I”ll take that as a minor consolation prize, so let’s talk about the car.

Our selection for the base vehicle ended up being a 2003 Volkswagen Golf, TDI, with over 380K on the odometer. With this as a base vehicle, we liked our odds for mileage, and fuel economy.  We decided to beef-up our car for off-road duty by making a lift kit, adding chunky tires, and a skid plate. The car then would be modified to appeal to voters by adopting a “fighter jet” theme.  Each team member was given a call-sign, some decals added to the car, along with some heavy duty lighting, and some safety items. Namely a new windshield, since the original was badly broken, and some kind of exhaust system, which was very much missing from the car when we bought it.

Our car at time of purchase, complete with half-tinted windows, a rear hatch that sometimes latched, sometimes didn’t, and a fair amount of oxidized metal. 

We were lucky, the car came with some of the pieces we wanted to replace anyway. New front brakes were already installed, and the parts to update the rear brakes were in the back, fresh rotors and pads. A little bit of driving around revealed a bad rear wheel bearing, so that went onto the list of repairs, and for the whopping total of $26.99 a pair of rear hubs, with bearings, were acquired.

The first order of business was a bath. It was clear this car had not been washed in quite some time. Usually this would count against the total cost of the car, but lucky for us, this car came with enough loose change in the ashtray to easily cover the cost of the wash!

Listed among our assets, your brains, his strength, my steel (and enough loose change to cover a car wash)

I hoped that some suds and fresh water would reduce our chances of contracting tetanus from working on this car.  Also note, clever headlight aiming.

In the middle of this project I got to do some work at a Marine Corps air base, which factored well into our plans to decorate this like a jet fighter.  I was able to take some pictures of this AV8-B Harrier, and the relevant markings so that we could make some decals of our own.


Actual work begins, Jeff (a.k.a. “Tone”) removing the rear hub

We started work on the back of the car, replacing the hubs, wheel bearings, and brakes, as well as adding our suspension lift. This is a well-used, mid-western car, so you can imagine that there were plenty of stuck bolts and rust to contend with, leading to a new element befitting our theme and design. On combat aircraft symbols are added when they defeat an enemy.  On our design, we would add a symbol when the car defeated us. 

Each time the car defeated us some “language” would be used.  We added these each time such a bomb was dropped in the presence of others.

Halfway there!  The left side complete, new hub, rotor, pads, and a spacer installed above the spring to lift the car.

Having accomplished getting the rear end of the car done, we were excited for the prospect of lifting the front, which by the looks of the parts was going to be much more simple. Instead of having to deal with compressing the spring, and the big forces involved, we should be able to simply drop the strut out of the strut tower in the front, add a spacer, and bolt everything back together. I’m writing about it, so you know that isn’t what happened. Instead, the kit that we got, which was supposed to fit our Mark 4 Golf, did not. In review it looks like this kit is actually produced for the Mark 5 Golf. The rear parts mount the same between the two generations of car, but the front is very different. After determining there was no easy way to adapt the two together we retreated to interior cleaning, and reformulating our plan.

How anyone survived before YouTube is a mystery to us, but we were lucky to find a “Tuber” who had performed the modification we were seeking to do, and he had a list of parts for us.  Some iron pipe couplings, and beefy springs later, we were back to lifting the front of our car.

Once again, we were lulled into a false sense of hope when we did the left side of the car first.  EASY!  Everything came apart just as expected, and before long we had it back together. With this experience under our belts, we moved to the right side of the car, and for all of the hammering, and jiggling, and cajoling we could do, we could not get the strut out of the car.  Returning to our YouTube video, which we did not watch all the way through to begin with, we discovered our frustration was not unparalleled. Removing the lower control arm rear pivot, and the steering knuckle, proved adequate for making the clearance needed to get the strut out, and modified.


Perhaps the scariest part of the whole project involved squeezing these springs to get them on and off.

Mission accomplished, the car looked pretty good lifted up a bit!

The car was now, mostly, ready, and the rest of the team wanted a chance to work on it, too, so the night before the start of the event they convened at Jeff’s house to start putting the finishing touches in place.

First order of business was to install the wheels and tires that Matt (a.k.a. “Maybe”) brought with him. Using the tools that they brought with, “Nitro Bob” quickly realized that the electric impact wrench he brought with, did not have a corresponding socket that fit the lugs of the Volkswagen, so good old-fashioned foot pounds were used to loosen the lugs.

“Nitro Bob” putting some foot pounds into it

From there it was “Maybe’s”  turn to get to work re-installing the new wheels and tires, which properly filled the wheel wells!

Matt (a.k.a. “Maybe”) didn’t have much wrench turning experience, so it was fun to introduce him to things like impact and torque wrenches. Soon enough the wheels were back on the car, and it was time for a test drive, which the team was gracious enough (or scared enough) to let me do. With “Nitro Bob” in the right hand seat we ripped off into our quiet residential neighborhood, all 1.9 liters of diesel power echoing, unabated by a muffler of any kind, through the night. Some tight turns, to make sure the big tires didn’t rub the fenders, later and I was demonstrating the acceleration power (or lack thereof) to Bob, as well as the braking capabilities (or lack thereof). In some earlier testing, with one of my sons in the right seat, we determined that this particular car would be faster strapped to a trailer behind my pickup truck, than it was under its own power. Then, for fun, and to demonstrate my confidence in the work that I had done on the vehicle, we jumped it over a curb before ripping back into the driveway to the applause of our compatriots. Jeff (a.k.a. “Tone”) had a special license plate made for the car “DAWC” which will remain in the possession of the team, possibly for future events. “Tone” also announced, with the successful completion of our test, that visiting hours were over. We were all expected to leave quietly so he, his family, and the rest of the neighborhood, could sleep in peace.

This is where my part of the story ends.  From here on it was up to the driving crew, “Nitro Bob”, ‘Maybe”, and “Tone” to bring the competition home.

As they were journeying they provided updates to everyone involved via a group text shared amongst all involved in the competition. The morning after our test drive adventure, they hopped in the car and headed for the starting line in Minneapolis. There the team added some additional markings to the car, including decals printed as rivets to mimic an airplane look. Also, some massive Hella driving lights, and, most importantly, an exhaust system fabricated out of flexible tubing, and a “cherry bomb” glass pack muffler, that probably did the opposite of muffling, but did route the noxious fumes away from the passenger cabin.

The Golf tried to consume a couple of our team members, but decided they tasted bad and spit them back out.  In the background you can see our competitors painting their entry like the “A Team” van.

Modifications complete, it was time to hit the road, and the teams did just that. First stop was a “Cars and Coffee” event in Stewartville, MN, where attendees would vote on which of the three cars was the best. I’m (un)happy to report that the Golf was awarded 3rd place in this competition behind the Tahoe, painted like the A-Team van, and an unmodified Ford Pinto, which was acquired just days before the event.

At least some people know a good thing when they see it!

After Cars and Coffee it was off to Winona, MN and a place to sleep for the night.  The next morning the team was off to see some of the local sights, including “Culvert Man” in Nodine (they did not eat in this municipality), as a part of their tour, then on to Iowa where the speed, fuel economy, and off-road capabilities of the cars would be tested.

The golf lined up for zero-60-zero testing.  Note fun decals, and fancy exhaust system.

As the DAWC 2024 rally came to a close, The Pinto proved unbeatable, despite breaking down a couple of times. All three vehicles completed the challenge without self-destructing, or killing their occupants, so it appears that there will be a 2025 DAWC, and I hope that I’m invited to be a part of it.

In the wake of the event, the Golf is for sale near Chicago, IL, sale pending.

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