Words & photos - Daniel Bevis
THIS FEATURE FIRST APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 2013 ISSUE OF RETRO CARS MAGAZINE
At the end of the last instalment, I left you on the edge of your seat waiting for the 205’s dials to be fixed. You’ll be pleased to know that they’re all functioning now; they had various independent faults, ranging from a snapped temp sensor wire to a partial gearbox dismantling in order to get the speedo working. The car ended up being with the auto electrician for three weeks. Why the long wait? Well, halfway through the job, the mechanic was gored by a deer… this story works best, I think, if you fill in the details for yourself!
So, on to yet more exciting things. The GTI is now sitting rather lower and handling a whole lot better thanks to a fun little package from Gaz Shocks. I went down to their machine shop base in Basildon back in early October to take a look at their premises - and I have to say, what a charming and friendly bunch of lads they are; everyone’s keen to talk you through what they’re up to, and there’s a real sense of passion for the craft.
If you don’t know a huge amount about suspension, you might assume that suspension units are produced en masse in giant machines. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Every single Gaz unit is handbuilt on site, from components which are all individually crafted by the in-house experts. The shock absorber bodies, for example, arrive as long poles that look like scaffolding, and it’s incredible to witness the many stages that occur between that tubular inception and the finished product. These fellas, it goes without saying, really know their stuff; it’s an old family business too, and every part is made with pride and precision in the UK. So who better to entrust the handling duties of Project Eighty-Seven to…?
OK, what have we got? Well, up front we have a set of Gaz GHA fully-adjustable coilovers with 300lb springs, little helper springs, and some beautifully machined roller-bearing top mounts. At the rear – owing to the 205 having torsion bars – there’s a pair of competition-spec shocks. It was genuinely fascinating to see these units come to life, observing the shocks being bounced on the testbed and then built up from the various unique parts. And how has it affected the ride? It’s like a different car! The suspension is noticeably firmer than the Konis that were on it before, but the 300lb springs are a great compromise on the road – it never feels crashy or abrasive, just focused and well-planted. Roadholding is vastly improved, inspiring greater corner speeds and, as you’d hope, widening my grin exponentially. Pretty impressive value for money, I’d say – sure, there are cheaper coilovers on the market, but you really do get what you pay for. I’m a little bit in love with this Gaz setup.
Of course, this fancy equipment had to be fitted to the car by somebody who knew what they were doing. My ham-fisted efforts would undoubtedly have seen the units gummed to the arch tubs with Sellotape, so I entrusted the job to the professionals: namely ED Motorsport in Bicester. Founded by the eponymous Eliot Dunmore, the company deals with motorsport preparation and are renowned Mini & Subaru specialists, but they’re also branching out into more retro fare. ‘I love these older cars, particularly eighties and nineties stuff,’ Eliot told me. ‘They’re the cars I cut my teeth on, and I get a lot more satisfaction working on them than with newer cars. Retro rides are always welcome at EDM!’
You’d do well to bear that in mind, as the service I got from Eliot and Edwin was absolutely flawless. I insisted on sticking around to watch them fit the suspension – I know some spanner-jockeys find this creepy, but I’m just really fascinated to watch such craftsmen at work. The job in total ended up taking over five hours, largely due to the 205’s rear torsion bar setup; those little bars fought the guys every step of the way, and it’s testament to their patience and tenacity that they didn’t do what I would have done (i.e. swear a lot, hit the thing with a mallet and storm off), but instead set about calmly and methodically disassembling and reassembling until everything was just right. The fastidiousness with which everything was checked and re-checked throughout the process, from the initial strip-down to the tracking at the end, was impressive to behold, and I now have total faith in the GTI’s handling. We jettisoned the crusty old strut brace along the way too, having discovered that its main strength lay in the double-sided tape that was holding it on!
End results? We went down two splines at the rear, which equated to around 40mm at the hub, and the front coilovers were set to match – in fact, they ended up being wound down as far as they would go, which should be around a 65mm drop. Godspeed, sump! The top mounts are positioned to dial in a smidge of negative camber at the front too, which should improve turn-in, and the whole thing sits nice and level.
If you’re in the market for getting some performance upgrades bolted to your retro, I’d strongly recommend giving these guys a call. On top of the quality work, Eliot’s pretty generous with the tea and his missus makes a mean walnut cake…
‘The timescale for fitting and setting up a coilover kit varies from car to car,’ says Eliot. ‘On average I'd say it’s normally between 4.5 to 6 hours. Some cars are difficult to quote for due to their age and the expectancy for components to be seized making the job very time consuming! We always partially disassemble the units and make sure that spring perches and adjusters are lubricated and protected from corrosion as much as possible. The beauty of coilovers is adjustability, but they're not much fun when they're seized solid! A little preventative maintenance makes a big difference. This also adds time to the job, but we think it’s worth it.’
And now, on to the wheels. These are going to divide opinion, aren’t they?! It was always going to be difficult to choose a replacement for the standard-issue GTI Speedlines, firstly because they’re such a naturally gorgeous rim, and secondly because they’re so iconic. I’ve already been besieged by people who are shouting words like ‘sacrilege’ and ‘ruined’ at me, somehow forgetting that one of the key advantages of a set of wheels is that they’re pretty easy to unbolt and change… The modern world of sharing photos online makes it ever-easier to receive aggressive criticism for your decisions, but running this car for RC takes it to a whole new level for me – since fitting these wheels, I’ve been exposed to thrilling new heights of abuse from the Facebook masses. All part of the fun, eh?
But I wanted to do something to set the cat amongst the pigeons, so I scratched my head and had a think about what kind of wheels I could fit that nobody had bolted to a 205 before. I considered the cross-spoke rims from a Porsche 924 initially, and that kind of scenester thinking led me to the 0.05 rim by 3SDM (although I’d struggle with the width of those – and the cost). Friend of Retro Cars, Paul Cowland, suggested a set of Saab three-spokes – ‘they’re the correct PCD and the right offset!’, he enthused. But in the end, I got on the blower to Wolfrace. Why? Well, let me explain…
Retro Cars deals with cars of various ages. And back in the 1970s, the Wolfrace slotmag was the wheel to have; from Cortinas to Vivas, Bedford CFs and beyond, anyone who was anyone was rocking slots. Now, Wolfrace may work hard to keep their range contemporary, but I was very interested to note a few years ago that they launched a modern reworking of the classic slotmags. So I ordered a set – they’re the same diameter and offset as the standard rims, and an inch wider, and I was nervous to see how they’d look on the car as a direct replacement. And the answer is… not bad at all, actually. I’m rather pleased with ’em. Their mixture of curvaceousness and severity works well with the lines of the Pug and, while I had a few reservations when they first went on, the efforts of EDM and Gaz to bring the car to the ground have brought those spangly rims to the fore. I think they look ace.
Wheels need tyres, naturally, so this sparked off a whole new round of window shopping. I wouldn’t need anything as hardcore as a Toyo R888 or Yokohama A048R for road use, so I was after something that would offer a decent balance of grip, rain displacement and, of course, quality. I also wanted to go for a slightly lower profile than the standard 195/50 R15s. In the end, I decided to try Avon – I’d had a set of ZZ3s on my old E36 and they were very impressive. And, somewhat serendipitously, Avon’s ZV3 is one of the few quality tyres available in a 195/45 R15. Decision made! They’ve certainly helped to circumvent any tyre/arch interface that might have occurred running this low on a 50-section, and they have the performance credentials to work well with the GTI.
So, we’ve got it looking sharp and rolling hard. What’s next? Well, I’d been thinking about beefing up the brakes, as despite having discs all round, they’re not totally confidence-inspiring. This idea was reinforced by the lady in the Audi TT who randomly pulled an emergency stop in front of me in Fulham the other day: in leaping on the brakes, I managed to blow out one of the rear brake lines. Have you ever negotiated West London in rush hour with no brakes? It’s, er, challenging… Tune in next time for the solution!