Monday, 18 January 2016

Project Eighty-Seven - Part One

Words & photos - Daniel Bevis


You know you've bought a good car when you reach under the seat to investigate what just made the worrying clonking noise, and find a roached pack of king-size Rizla stuffed under there…

I have a patchy past with 205 GTIs. I’ve owned four of them over the years, with varying degrees of success. The first was a black H-reg 1.9, bought sight unseen from eBay. On the plus side, it had an LPG conversion. On the minus side, the engine had what my mechanic described as ‘a death rattle’. It didn’t stick around long. The second was a bog-standard silver F-plate 1.9, which I had a lot of fun in, then sold to buy a MkII Astra cabrio. Not really sure why. The third was a heavily modified J-reg 1.6, with a 1.9 engine from a 405 SRI, 16” OZ Superturismos that cocked up the handling, and a whole load of negative camber at the rear which looked cool, but actually pointed toward a knackered beam on the verge of collapse. And the fourth was a silver D-reg 1.9 on BBS rims, with half the Peter Lloyd Rallying catalogue thrown at it. It rocked. So I’ve had a few highs and lows with these little French poppets.

And this one? Well, we’ll see. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Project Eighty-Seven. The idea here is simple: is it possible to buy a retro hot hatch for under a grand, and then run and modify it for a limited monthly budget on the mean streets of southwest London?
Well, stage one has been achieved. I bought D494 MNW in September for the princely sum of £900. That’s right – a roadworthy example of one of the icons of eighties traffic-light hooliganism for under a bag of sand. It was offered for sale with a year’s MOT and plenty of tax, so what could there possibly be to worry about? It had also received a new clutch, driveshafts, battery, brake pads, ARB links and wheel bearings. And it’s a retro extravaganza of period nineties mods; there’s a full Magnex stainless-steel exhaust with four-branch manifold, K&N induction kit, Momo steering wheel and crusty Sparco strut brace, as well as being lowered (er, a bit, not altogether noticeably) on Bilsteins. It’s got a genuine 83k on the clock too. Could this be the eBay bargain of the year?

Hmm. Time will tell. I’ve made it sound ace there, but it is a bit rough-and-ready. What would you expect for nine hundred notes?
The dashboard is an exercise in guesswork, as none of the dials really do anything. The driver's seat is comically wobbly due to something having snapped underneath. There are one or two patches of cosmetic rust (GTI aficionados will know exactly where to find these – ahead of the rear arches, and above the side windows) and it’s had a minor front-end bump at some point; not enough to cause any alarm, but enough for the repairs to be mentioned on the logbook. The interior trim is… well, it’s made of crap plastic and it rattles like hell, but that’s true of every 205 I’ve ever been in. The passenger electric window motor is either missing or just sleepy. But on the whole, it seems to be pretty solid. Well, £900-worth of solid anyway.
…and forgetting those issues, it’s a hoot to drive! Quick, light, darty, feelsome, reassuringly old-school. And those lipstick-red carpets are awesome too.

So what’s the plan? Well, over the coming months there’ll be all kinds of changes to make. I’ll need to fix a few bits first – a temperature gauge would be nice – and then it’ll be a case of modifying different things every month to keep it fresh. There’s exciting news in the suspension department coming next month, and I’ve lined up a set of wheels that I believe have never been seen on a 205 before.
In reality, though, it could just end up bankrupting me! But we’ll see.

The first job, naturally, was insurance. How easy would it be to find a decent quote for a rather stealable hot hatch, parked out on the street in London, with a few modifications and plans for many more? Would I spend a couple of days on the phone, crying at the absurd four-figure sums?
Actually, no. Brentacre Insurance gave me a pretty magnificent quote, covering the car fully comp for £480, and that includes absolutely any non-horsepower-related mods I may wish to carry out (including the possibility of a rollcage, which is something that often sends insurers running for the hills). I’d love to waft this insurance paperwork under the nose of my seventeen year-old self back in 1999 and say ‘Look, stop worrying, everything’s going to be OK. Just wait till you’re in your thirties…’ I’m sure that’d be comforting.

Second job? Um, I managed to break it on the test drive actually. Chris, the seller, was not impressed. I pulled up the gear-lever to put it in reverse and the cable went TWANG! But fortunately it was just the thingy inside (‘thingy’ is a technical term, look it up) snapping off the gearstick shaft, so I hillbillied it back together with some picture wire. And so it begins.

The car hasn’t been nicked yet, so that’s good. It’s got an alarm and immobiliser, which is reassuring, and I’ve also invested in a Disklok because the general consensus seems to be that they’re pretty damned hardcore. However, I may well fit a snap-off boss at some point soon. It’s got to be fairly hard to pinch a car with no steering wheel, right?

Anyway, the really major task of this month is to get all of those clocks working. For this, I’ve entrusted the car to my local auto electrician, Earlsfield Car Maintenance Centre. It looks like a bit of a mixed bag, with each gauge having a different fault; the temp gauge is easy enough, as the wire had snapped – simple fix! – but the speedo is rather trickier, involving a lot of back-and-forth with Peugeot in Paris to get the right thingy with the right number of splines - it’s still ongoing. You’ll see how it’s all been resolved next time! And also, of course, we can then get on with the task of some seriously cool modifiying…

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