Meet The Volkswagen Jetta GLI Helios Edition: My Holy Grail Of German Econoboxes

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Europe always gets the best of its domestic brand production. The Porsche 959, the VW S2 Scirocco, the Audi RS2 — hell any RS Audi Avant. The Germans just refuse to let us have anything nice, and honestly maybe we deserve it with how many awful soulless lifted hatchback appliances we are buying right now. Today it is my pleasure to share a small piece of my obsession and introduce you to one of the ones that got away: The Volkswagen Jetta GLI 16v Helios Edition. To begin we first have to look at the base model, the second generation Golf and Jetta.

The first-generation Golf was a beautiful design often copied by other manufacturers, and originally done by designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The second-generation was re-done in house by chief designer Herbert Schäfer and was a marked departure, going bigger in most every direction, slightly slipperier, and ending up — in my opinion — the best looking ever. 

[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Special Editions,” a new series where The Autopian highlights special edition cars that you probably have never heard of. The first one comes from Tommy Wachhaus, who has been messaging me about his beloved Helios for many months, so it’s time to finally publish it. Thank you Tommy! If anyone wants to submit “Their holy grail,” feel free to email! -DT]

The MK2 Golf And Jetta

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Original U.S. engine offerings for the second-gen Golf included a 1.6L diesel making barely more horsepower than Torch’s Yugo but with legendary reliability which could also be obtained with a turbo, which dropped 0-60 times under an hour. Most North American cars were equipped with a counter-flow 1.8L gas 8v four-cylinder that was respectable and good enough, though it was let down by the infamously difficult to tune Bosch CIS engine management, which involved performing ritual sacrifice, turning idle screws and making a pact with a demon of the nine hells and maybe your car would idle correctly.

Two years in VW realized it needed to re-create its original hot hatch GTI, and threw awesome interiors, golf ball shifters and an optional power bump to a 1.8L (later 2.0L) 16v DOHC engine producing 137 HP and 124 lb-ft of torque. While those numbers are not very impressive now and can be had from diesel city cars in Europe, for a 2500 pound car in the ’80s, this was pretty damn good. Coupled with shorter gear ratios the car felt rather quick off the line and handled well thanks to front independent MacPherson struts with lower springs and larger sway bars front and rear.

The Jetta was essentially just a Golf with a trunk grafted on in place of the hatch. Offered as a four door and my personal favorite configuration a two-door sedan, the Jetta regularly outpaced sales of the Golf platform in North America, and the natural progression was to offer luxury and sporty trim levels of the Jetta. This led to the GLI, a GTI in Jetta form, which was introduced in 1986 alongside its sporty hatchback sibling. There are other notable trim levels in the Jetta and Golf lineup like the 1988 Jetta Slalom which was introduced to celebrate the Calgary Winter Olympics, but those are topics for another article entirely.

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The real “screw you you America” came shortly after the GTI’s introduction with amazing machines like the Golf Country (shown above), a syncro AWD lifted hatchback 20 years too early with awesome ’80s flair and real off-road prowess.

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Then came the “gotcha” Golf Rallye (see above), which is rumored to have almost made it to North America but for the death of VWOA executive James Fuller in a plane crash. It was built on the same syncro platform but with a factory wide body kit (in the same vein as the E30 M3) and a supercharged engine known as the G60, which would later be offered in the VW Corrado in North America. It was seriously quick and, while actual rally success was limited, it remains one of the most sought-after homologation unit cars for VW enthusiasts worldwide.

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For sale listing via carandclassic

There was also the sleeper version, the Golf Limited shown above, of which only 71 units were produced which combined all the best parts, syncro all-wheel drive drivetrain, 16v engine with a G-Lader supercharger, ABS, a sweet interior and base model golf looks to make an ultimate sleeper which was only sold to VW executives and management. The limited was the most power per pound of any car VW made until the introduction of the Golf R32 in 2004. Europe wins again.

The Legendary Helios

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The lone glimmer of hope for the North American market emerged in 1989, the Jetta GLI 16v Helios. The GLI featured all of the standard GLI features: the 1.8L 16v engine, BBS RA wheels, and some of the most comfortable Recaro seats to ever hold my fat ass, but there was a tweak on many of these features. Where the GLI had silver BBS wheels the Helios had the basketweave centers beautifully color-matched. T

Inside 3
The Helios is the one in the top left and the other models are a close but not quite shade of blue. They’re just Wolfsburg Editions. The Helios adds to that.

The Recaro seats, rather than being grey cloth or a mix of cloth and black leather (trophy Recaros), were resplendent in tones of blue, grey and finished in leather. And speaking of color, the namesake of this model — a beautiful metallic blue paint that depending on lighting conditions can appear navy, purple or even black — is among the best car paint colors out there.

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There were really only two options that could be checked on a Helios GLI: cruise control and ABS. ABS in 1989! While VW had begun placing ABS as an option on its flagship B3 Passat back in 1988, this was an unheard-of technology in the economy car market at the time. 

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The rustiest 1 of 250 cars on earth.
The rustiest 1 of 250 cars on earth.

So why does anyone care about a special paint color, some fancy trim and slightly ahead of the curve technology? Because there were only 1,500 ever produced. Of those it is unofficially known that only 250 had both options and I owned probably the worst example a back in 2010. These beautiful cars sadly died off rapidly in the early to mid-aughts and there are very few remaining, mostly in the garages of enthusiasts. Collectively we became obsessed enough to create a registry back in 2007 and actively watch the ones that change hands. While values have been increasing, none has quite reached the Hagerty’s estimated retail value. 

The rustiest 1 of 250 cars on earth.

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The VW Jetta GLI 16v Helios is more than just a trim level, it represents a truly unique departure from all the good cars go to Europe and offered something truly unique to the North American market. It is also further reason for me to kick myself in the ass as I used to own two of them and sold them shortly before everyone gave a shit.

Images from: Tommy Helios and VW (scans from a2resource/Jason Bertrand). 

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66 Responses

  1. I had a 1985 GTI (black with black/gray cloth) from 1991-93, but what I REALLY wanted was one of those Helios cars. My car had 191k miles on it when I picked it up from the rebuilder lot at Foreign Auto Salvage. It needed a transmission (self-machining transmission syndrome) and an engine replacement, but after that it ran great. I never had idle troubles with my CIS-E. Being a broke college student at the time, the best I could do was the then-standard chassis setup of Neuspeed sport springs and Boge turbogas struts/shocks. It sounded pretty good with a Leistritz exhaust. I had a bunch of good times in that car. After that was a 1989 Jetta Carat in old man gold with tan/brown velour interior. Powertrain was the 8V 1.8L with Digifant EFI and 5-speed plus Techtonics exhaust. Had Neuspeed SofSport springs with Boge turbogas and 1983-84 GTI wheels. I put a lot of highway miles on that one. Had my first track day in that car at Grattan in Michigan. Good times.

    1. You had a couple great cars, I was not old enough to get any mk2s in their prime as good used cars. By the time I was driving they were all beater rot boxes in Cleveland. I did get the tail end of the mk3 as prime used cars and absolutely adore those as well. I do remember the tail end of having to order parts from the back of magazines thanks to older cousins.

    1. Trust me when I first saw that number I lost my mind. There was one for sale in the late 2000s for 30k. Not that I could have afforded that then but I am kicking myself now for not having picked one up. Then again I probably could have bought some Amazon stock too. 😀

  2. This is my favorite era of VW as well, though the Mk1 Scirocco’s styling will always have my heart (it was my first car). My dad bought a Mk2 Golf new in ’85, just about the first one the dealer had, and while it wasn’t a GREAT car, it did well for him as a commuter and survived several years of abuse from me during my college years. We also had a couple of Audi 5000s during the same period, excellent but fragile and finicky cars.

    I always wanted a 16V. GLI, GTI, or Scirocco; I’m not picky. But they do appear to have largely gone away, and too many of the remaining ones have been modified in horrible ways (what do VW bros have against stock ride heights? Suspension travel is good!).

    1. Mark,
      I am clearly one a huge fan of them as well. The mk1 scirocco is a beautiful car, the quad rounds is always a classic look and I am pretty sure you and Jeremy Clarkson share that car.
      To quote my vwvortex profile via dubraycer36: “if you’re into abusive, one way only relationships with European golddiggers, that have a penchant for BDSM roleplay without the use of safewords then yeah mk2s gtis are the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” Which I think goes for all VAG products of the era.
      And if you find someone who did slam the car as long as they didn’t go air you can always just get stock suspension and throw it back on. I don’t slam mine but I would go lower than stock, usually motorsport ride height. We should find you a nice Monty green gti.

      1. I am familiar with abusive relationships with cars: my current mistress is a 1971 MGB GT that took the better part of five years to get running right. VW issues are actually not that bad by comparison, at least on the simple ones…

        By the way, if you’re curious, I’ve posted a couple of tales of my old Golf over on Opposite Lock:

        1. I have been burnt by plenty of old vws over the years and a fair few other brands but I keep coming back like an idiot. as you are a fellow northerner you can likely sympathize with my curse of finding hidden rust the morning after I buy a new car.

          I enjoyed both the golf stories, I keep telling myself once I get the current project car running I will go get a red 4 door mk3 golf, paint it harlequin colors and get it race prepped for both gambler 500 and 24 hours of lemons depending on the tires and suspension height. One of these days when I win the lottery.

      2. I had a 1985 GTI that I bought new right out of college. Loved that car. Even when it was over 5 years old and yearly maintenance costs were starting to pile up I stayed in the one way relationship for 10 years. What saved me was it getting stolen, from the repair shop where I’d dropped it off for what was another (probably expensive) repair.

  3. I saw one for sale on a group a couple of weeks ago, pretty good condition. I can’t remember what exactly the price was, but it wasn’t all that much. Hope someone picked it up.

    I have a 16v Passat, those engines are pretty peppy if you take their age into consideration.

    1. If it’s the one I think it is overpriced and the respray is not quite the right color.
      Also, a b3 Passat is awesome, those are such a weird look that I feel connects the dots between water-cooled and air-cooled with the front end styling.

      1. Would love to see a write-up about Passat B3’s ! But this one, about the Helios Jetta: I learnt at least two things and that as a life long VW fan. Fantastic article and I really, really love the MK2 Golf/Jettas. I am actively saving up money to add one to the collection next to my Vanagon and bug.

        About the B3’s and my 14 year love affair with Passats:
        My first car was a then 12 year old Passat B3 Variant, 1.9 turbodiesel with some goodies of the “Arriva” edition, the last year of the B3’s (1993). Drove that beast to 18 years old and almost 300k kms before accepting the rising costs of maintenance were becoming too high and buying a B5 Variant with a 1.9 TDI (130hp). Both still the best Passats in my opinion, the B3 for the room inside, the design and the robust built (as a biologist, drove it on quite some bad roads, only got stuck once); the B5 for the magnificent TDI engine and comfort. Because I only had diesel VW’s ’till recently, never encountered many problems except for age related issues like rubber intakes of the turbo going out or a leaking water hose. Still got my last Passat (B5 Variant 1.9 TDI but in the lesser 100hp form), though as nails to pull my trailer to the junkyard.

        1. So my favorite fun fact about the b4 and possibly the b3 as well was that in the US you could order the TDI wagon and get the optional secondary tank and get 800+ miles per fill up. If you get range anxiety with that kind of mileage there isn’t a drug in the world that will help.

          I too have driven my 80s/90s vws on some terrible roads living in Cleveland. I have taken more than a few off road, nothing serious like rock crawling but I probably would have felt better with a golf country with knobby tires but ended up being fine because they were just so damn solid.

      1. Do you know the build date on that gli? I have never heard of one that actually made it outside vws hands. All the ones I was aware existed were press cars and everything delivered to customers was once the 86 model year began.

        1. Just took a dive into some ancient photos… door sticker said April of ‘85. My dad bought it new off the showroom floor in May. The VIN decodes to MY85, and there was no third brake light (which began in ‘86). Black with red trim on bumpers, side rub strips, black vinyl interior with gray pinstripe velour inserts in the seats. The only unusual thing, that I never saw on any other GLI, was that the VW emblem in the front grill was chrome and not black.

          1. Was built in Wolfsburg, as opposed to the GTI‘s at least some of which were built in Pennsylvania. I had a buddy with an 85 GTI which was noticeably falling apart compared to mine.
            I was young and stupid and gave that car no love – just drove it hard until it started to die the death of 1000 cuts—shifter was like stirring oatmeal, no defroster, head gasket went—then totaled it on the freeway when the guy ahead of me just stopped.

            1. That is very interesting. I have one grille that has a similar all black with chrome emblem but it is a westy one so it had to be US made. The red stripe bumpers would definitely make it a gli but I have never seen one for sale in all my years. I even checked for sale threads on vortex with their search function to confirm and motor week didn’t get a gli until 86 model year. The shifter bushings always were bad on cars by the time I got them but they aren’t bad to swap out once you do it. I am learning something new each day still. 🙂

    1. That was a typo, my bad but good catch. I never had to deal with that particular issue but I also never had a 16v that ran right because someone before me messed with the fuel/idle screws and they were never the same after that.

  4. As it happens, I saw a Mk 2 just the other day, and pointed it out to my son (14, who’s not super into cars, but pays attention and has opinions). He admired the look but pegged it as ~20 years old—he was shocked when I told him it was from when I was his age. And it’s true—they looked good then, and they’ve aged incredibly. Contemporary Honda & Toyota sedans look like jokes, and while I think there were some handsome domestic sedans by the late ’80s, I don’t think anything being sold in 1984 looked remotely this good, let alone as timeless.

    1. So he is cross shopping the mk2 models for his first car? Start him out with a diesel and let him learn to drive a slow car fast then do a motor swap. I love the impracticality of a two door sedan so I vote Jetta coupe. I really think the mk2 has a timeless look but I may be biased.

  5. I actually had one of these and received a speeding ticket on day one.
    It was a fun car and looked cool but, parts began falling off rather quickly.
    The rear bumper gave way and was briefly held on by zip ties. The sunroof lining released itself after about 6 months. One of the two exhaust tips plopped off which gave it a real Slow & UnFurious burp. The Continental tires each committed suicide one by one within 12,000 miles. And the bolsters on the Recaros split open at the seams.
    Nonetheless, I enjoyed it until the VR6 Corrado came along.

    1. That is a great first day of ownership. The rest, that sucks. I would ask if you owned my particular vin number and it was just cursed but the odds are low on that one. I suffered many of the same problems while my Helios was well into it’s second decade but I obviously didn’t spend new car money on it.
      I have never owned a ‘rado but have always enjoyed seeing them. One of the better cockpits VW made in that era and some great paint colors like dusty mauve paired with the best sounding engine short of supercar money (vr6) makes it a helluva ride.

  6. Gotta say, I’m always a sucker for limited edition veedubs! Love the blue ????

    Can’t recall if I ever saw a Helios blue (sick seats) but I did have a couple mk2s in the 2010-2013 era (great college cars!). POS rusty 92 golf -still great fun on stiff Bilsteins- and a 92 Jett, also surprisingly equipped with abs, cruise control and heated seats (both had the wicked crank sunroof). Best thing with the Jetta was it’s also ever-changing colour Calypso Green ???? . I really should’ve kept it considering its Fun/Cost ratio (I had kept the Bilsteins 😉 ) and what I sold it for..

    1. You and me both. I had a ton in college as well and was even flipping them for a bit to try and pay bills. At one point I even had a Calypso gli which while cool didn’t quite do it for me like the Helios so I ended up selling it. If I kept it I probably could make dumb money for it now, but then again I could say that about half the ones I owned.

  7. I had a 2-door Slalom from 95 to 2013, loved that car and met so many wonderful VW people over the years going to events. Please do a Slalom write up, would be happy to contribute. I still have the original paper pamphlet in my basement (the two page a2resource images are scans of my very document).

    1. That is awesome! I am jealous! I have the closest to a slalom I could find as my project car: an 87 Jetta coupe pirelli edition. We will see if DT/JT let me back for all the many holy grails I wish were in my driveway. 🙂 Thanks for reading and especially for contributing to a2resource, I use it so often and really appreciate Jason for keeping it going.

    1. Another slalom owner, I always liked those and the elusive Jetta Cat too. I probably have too many dream mk2s for my own good (my wife would certainly say so) I just want to save them all. Thanks for reading and you are most welcome for the rose colored road trip. 🙂

        1. I enjoy those sorts of meetings. I have been virtual friends with the owner of a2resource since the early 00s and we finally met up at l’oe show this year and had an awesome time just walking around looking at all the cars. We have both gone from mk2/3s to mk7 gsw/alltracks. One of the things I enjoy most about cars is how they make instant friends for us.

  8. Things that I wonder about. Do our big 3 keep the best of their lines from the export market? Do the European builders not understand our market? Big, awesome straight forward speed, RELIABILITY, austentatious like neuvre riche. Like under 200 HP only on golf carts or kids toys. We’re fat we want more room. But hey we will over extend our credit to get what we want but if you want us to buy a new one every couple of years we need resell value because as I said we spend more than we should. You say we shouldn’t but then we don’t buy your over priced Rube Goldberg contraption. I’d like to see an article on how many options we pay for and how many we never use after 30 days. For instance I can count on 1 hand the amount of times I’ve used cruise control on my Vehicross in the 20+ years I’ve owned it. I would like my $1,000 back. I’ve lived in Vermont, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania I don’t need heated seats or mirrors. I’ve lived in Florida, Texas, and Arizona I don’t need AC seats or more than 1 zone of climate control. Give me my money back.
    God that felt good. Hope everyone is having a good carday.

    1. The thing is, in Europe, US cars are imports. They’re expensive (because of shipping and taxes), expensive to run (because parts are hard to find and they tend to have thirsty engines), and generally not very suited for the roads (too big, won’t go around corners).
      That’s a massive oversimplification of course.
      The part that’s always confused me though is that over here, VW’s have a reputation for reliability, and I can’t think of any good reasons why they don’t seem to be the same in the US. Maybe because parts are cheaper and more available (overnight parts from Germany yo! [Until brexit anyway]), and I guess local mechanics are more familiar with them, but that still doesn’t add up to the reputation they have in North America.
      If anyone has any good explanations I’d love to hear them.

      1. So I can speak to why they suck in the US. We do not maintain cars to the standards of Europe and our cars in earlier generations. Euro inspections and cheaper parts availability means when you have something break you go fix it. Americans tend to ignore it and hope to goes away until it breaks catastrophically and then bitch about how much it costs because it took out three other systems on its deathbed. Our VW dealership network is so damn bad that most specialty shops in America are German focused and VW/Audi is their bread and butter.

        Europeans also all buy diesel engines which VW can make decently. They haven’t built a 4 banger gasser that wasnt hot garbage or a live grenade since the ABA stopped production in 99. We also don’t have primary production from Germany like you so our Puebla and Chattanooga aren’t at the same level as Wolfsburg.

    2. I will say I’ve always felt uk/eu/Aussie Ford was way way cooler than us Ford so I see where you are going. As far as cheap cars it seems like no one was buying them for a good decade and margins were low. I think there was a market for small cars but they were economically out of the reach of people who actually needed them but that brings in macro questions greater than cars.

      I just got back from a beautiful fall Cuyahoga valley cruise so my car day is going well. The browns game on the other hand…

  9. Jetta…? Funny that this car is so attractive outside Germany. Over here it was the car for old, retired people, a symbol for the (if even) middle-class bourgeois. Besides that, it was definitely ugly with this much too high rear deck (which made the big trunk, of course).

    1. Haha, those were roached due to a bad alignment in the pics. I replaced them a week after and then sold it for next to nothing. It was badly rotted but I still kinda miss it. Thanks for reading!

  10. Excellent writeup! I hope Torch and Tracy see fit to let you go full VW nerd mode. Obviously these stories appeal to us VW fanbois but I think they’re also fascinating in general because VW is unusual in their willingness to constantly experiment in making weird/hyper limited production spec vehicles.

    1. I enjoyed this writeup as well – a combination of bits I knew from a relative who had an ’87 GLI and a friend who had a series of Mk2 Jettae, along with a few new facts.

      Gives me hope that I might be able to discuss special-edition New Beetles with folks who don’t normally care about ’em, too!

      1. Thank you both for the kind remarks. I hope to write another couple about weird vws if the staff let’s me go crazy but I also hope others write up articles about the cars they love because I want to read about others passion vehicles.

  11. When I was much more involved in the VW scene in my area (I’m going on my first fall foliage cruise in more than 20 years this weekend) one of the guys in the club had a Helios. He might still have it for all I know. It was glorious, and in the sweet spot for Mk2 Golfs and Jettas; the small bumpers but the big front door windows. 1988 and 1989 were IMO the best of the generation.

    1. I knew of a vw golf harlequin back in the early 00s that I wanted as my first car and lost track of, wish I had made more effort now. Also, we are doing a local foliage this weekend too, always fun to do cold temps beautiful scenery and curvy roads. I am also 100% with you, small bumpers big doors is the best look. Its not the most popular look but it is absolutely perfect.

  12. “Europe always gets the best of their domestic brand production, always, right?”

    What’s funny about this is that in my experience, it’s more like everyone wishes for what they can’t have. When I lived in Europe, the cars they were jealous of were things we consider pretty commonplace here. Importing and registering a Mustang GT or F150 was a sign of real wealth, and the cost of doing so was comparable to high end German cars. A friend of mine nearly fell out of his chair when I told him I had recently purchased a 6 liter G8 GT for the equivalent of 20,000 euros at the time.

    1. Confirmed. It’s fun to watch the eyes bulge when I tell the gearheads related to my wife in Brazil what’s available here in the states. Even with the exchange rate what it is, they’re generally amazed. And, much like DT’s German Voyager experience, people there think I’m nuts when I tell them that I really want to find a reasonably priced Brasilia to purchase, and wonder why I would even bother.

        1. Absolutely! Those things are amazing, in particular the 2-door van/truck looking versions. The first time I saw one there it was 2004 and I thought it had to be a custom job of some sort. Then I saw another a couple days later, started asking around about them, and was amazed to learn they were factory-built. I told a friend of mine back home about them and he had to go to Uberlândia a few years later for something work-related. He must have thought I was exaggerating, because not long after arrival he sent a picture back of one of those F-1000s captioned with “Holy Shit – you weren’t kidding, the trucks here are Awesome!”

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