Retro, Rad, And Reimagined: This Is Tolman Engineering’s Peugeot 205 GTI Restomod
Photography by Will Broadhead
Remember the 1980s? The music? The fashion? The Hoff bringing down the Berlin Wall at the very end of it? The thing is, when you revisit all that “rad” stuff it’s rarely as good in reality as it is in memory (and that’s not to say that all of the decade’s manifestations were good to start with). The ’80s have been in vogue for a while now—especially in the automotive world—and with the amount of internal combustion analog cars only decreasing, it’s easy to understand why enthusiasts are scooping up the survivors and driving up their prices.
We’re far enough removed from the hairspray days that we can pick and choose the cooler artifacts and enjoy the rest of it ironically, because for all the gaudy neon and fog machine stereotypes that we shake our heads and laugh at, there are some genuinely awesome creations from the era that have always been cool.
Case in point: hot hatches. The Mini had arrived twenty years earlier, but the ’80s took that idea and made a whole new market segment out of it. The practical compacts were remade into mischievously quick and nimble little devils, and in doing so put a new generation of poster cars on the walls of young kids, and sent many of the slightly older kids who drove them into the hedges and ditches. The cars that survived their exuberant young owners have aged into a more mature existence, but 30 years of automotive development has served to highlight whatever flaws they may have had originally. But seeing as many of these cars were modified in period, it only makes sense that some people never stopped playing around with them. One of the first and best early icons of that group of cars was the Peugeot 205 GTI, and the Brits at Tolman Engineering have created their own version of the French rally hatch that lives up to the car’s enduring popularity while bringing it closer to the present day.
To glance at it, the Tolman 205 appears to just be a restored GTI, albeit an exceptionally clean one, but there are some aces up its sleeves. The build followed the same basic ethos as a total restoration—taking it down to the bare shell and back up to the finished article with no expense spared—but they’ve imbued with with more potency than the original spec, and you need to look beneath the surface to find out what separates this from a standard Pug. This is a restomod, but I use that term carefully, as cosmetically it is a faithful restoration of the original car, and intentionally so. For the Tolman team, headed up by Christopher Tolman, this car is all about technical upgrades and engineering development. Instead of flaring it and swapping the halogens for LEDs, they’ve taken a non-invasive approach to produce a 205 that preserves as much of the original car and driving experience as possible, while still bringing it into the 21st century.
After the donor car was broken down to its component parts and everything was stripped, coated or plated, the team started to tweak and improve. The chassis sees modern Bilsteins all around which stiffen and lower the car, better-spec brakes from a 306 GTI, as well as that car’s power steering. This helps manage the output of the rebuilt 1.6L four-pot, which was blueprinted and put back together with polished and lightened parts and mated to a Motec ECU to squeeze the best out of the improved power plant, and add some modern reliability to boot. The result is not a staggering amount of power, but that was never the goal. The output has been bumped to 132bhp and 102lb-ft of torque (or roughly 30 horses more than standard 1.6L, and just a bit more torque), which is good for a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds, over a second faster than the original.
There is plenty of more on the spec sheet as well, too much to talk about, including the addition of some creature comforts that we now take for granted like better sound proofing, central locking, and electric windows, as well as DAB and Bluetooth, but all housed within a tasteful, period-style head unit; there are no awful 6x9s here. Everything else fits within its original housings, and looks the part, including inside the engine bay. It all looks very OEM.
But how does this translate to the road? Many thousands of words have been written about how good the original 205 was and still is, but as Christopher puts it, this version “drives how we remember it.” If we have a tendency to aggrandize our fond memories, why not pump up their literal sources, too? The first thing I’m struck by during my test drive in this Peugeot is just how small it is, as even with my modest stature the seat felt tiny by modern standards, as does the rest of the cockpit, but to say it feels like cramming oneself into a go-kart would be a disservice to the quality of the cockpit.
The power output, although a 30% increase over the stock spec, is still very humble by current standards, but in the context of a car weighing in under 900kg that power-to-weight ratio is pretty potent. It’s also a very useable delivery, with no meekness or disagreeability if you ask it to accelerate from the lower end of the tach. The torque output may not be much higher, but the curve itself is less peaky and more accessible. It still likes to be revved out, and rewards you for doing so.
When our test route gets tighter and starts to wind back and forth, the chassis upgrades pick up their end of the bargain to create a car that, like Chris says, fits our imagination of what it’s like to drive one of these old hooligan boxes. The 205 is more planted and sure of itself, but it’s far from boring, and the way it responds in stride to boisterous driving only encourages you to push a bit harder into the next corner. Push too hard, though, and the lift-off oversteer that was ever present on the first incarnation of this car is still there to remind you that you aren’t quite as talented as Juha Kankkunen in his Group B car. That said, it takes an awful lot of bravery (or stupidity) to get to that point.
The speedometer needle quickly sweeps to the regions that pay the salaries of our dear traffic officers, but I’m enjoying it too much to worry about a ticket. The little mill has more than enough punch to pull the flyweight machine out of an apex, but the greatest satisfaction comes from momentum driving, keeping the speed maintained through the curves and the revs in their happiest range.
Christopher’s synopsis that this car drives like we remember the 205 is bang on. The work his team have put in has created something special that couples nostalgia with a little dose of modernity. That little delight of an engine in the lightweight hatchback-shaped package has always been good, but even unbroken things can use a little fixing up sometimes.