This Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI Is Part Of An Ongoing Legacy
Photography by George Bale
Story by Andrew Tucker
The significance of the Golf GTI in motoring history is well documented, and yet often underestimated. How many iconic cars simply would never have been built if it were not for the GTI? Though ubiquitous in the world of hot hatches, the relationship each and every owner has with theirs is very different and, in my case, began long ago. I was eight years old the day my father bought home his brand new three-door 8-valve Mk2 GTI with small bumpers and wearing a gleam of Atlas Grey.
Like so many of us, it was Dad that first got me hooked on cars as a child, just as his father had done with him. I’d grown up listening to tales of my grandfather rallying Land Rovers in the army, and of his good friend Ron Flockhart winning the 1956 and 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans in an Ecurrie Ecosse D-Type Jaguar… There was always petrol talk in our household is what I’m saying, and it’s never dwindled, with my old man’s latest acquisition being the very first V8-powered MG BGT to roll off the British leyland production line. Incidentally, it was the very same car my parents owned when they were expecting me.
Not every car story is a happy one though, as that grey 8v GTI lived a short life thanks to an accident that condemned it to the scrap heap. However, its replacement, a big bumper 8v GTI, followed soon after and quickly became a part of the family. And it was this car that shaped my passion for the Mk2 generation GTI.
I remember the exhaust note of that thing even to this day, some 27 years later. I also remember repeatedly begging my father to do 0-60 sprints down the long country lane near our house. 8.2 seconds was his record as I recall, and that was quite fast to an eight-year-old whose mates’ dads were all driving Ford Orions or Rover 320s! All fine and good, but ’’The 16 valve would be quicker,’’ I recall him saying.
I dreamed of the 16v. As a young boy sat in the back timing these sprints up and down the lane, I remember saying to my father almost every Sunday (pocket money day!) that one day, I was going to buy my own GTI and that if I really saved hard, it might even be a 16v.
Fast forward 13 years later to me as a 21-year-old, and my first car was a Mk2 Golf Driver, sporting a 1600cc motor; I loved that car despite it not carrying the all important three letter badge. It had the same steel wheels as the grey GTI my father had written off years before, and the same “Rainbow” cloth interior. It was completely stock, low mileage, was—at the time—as cool as first cars got. That Golf set the tone for what has continued to be a lifelong love affair with owning interesting cars, and whilst I’ve since owned several cars that are faster than the 16v, none have been so charismatic.
In 2009 I finally found myself in the right place and time to acquire a 1991 GTI 16v in the famous shade of Oak Green. It was the less-desirable five-door model, but I didn’t care; after all, it was a Mk2 16v in the best color around and It would be my daily driver for six short months until one night, whilst parked outside my house in Bristol, someone decided to set fire to the cover that it sat beneath. The next morning I found a smoking pile of melted rubber and paint.
“Devastated” doesn’t come close to it. Another Mk2 written off, never to be seen again. Several years and much grieving passed by, and I was still struggling to find a clean, original 16v until my dad came across this one, G484 PGJ, in Cornwall. Unbeknownst to me, he acquired it just before Christmas and presented it to me shortly after as “the one to keep.” It was perfect: a black three-door example with the later “KR” engine using the Bosch fuel injection system, a full service history, and most importantly, in completely original form.
Of course it was used, but the car was well cared for by the previous owner (who I believe was connected to the ClubGTI as a collector). Allegedly this was the “worst” of his Mk2 collection… I never did get to see the rest, and I can only imagine what else was there. I was more than happy with my own though, and she needed nothing, ran perfectly from the day I got it.
Today, “Whitney,” as she’s lovingly referred to, is not a daily driver but a well cared for hobby car that I continue to improve and restore as time and money permits. Originality is key for me; while so many cars lend themselves well to modifications, for me the big bumper Mk2 is just perfect as it is, and almost every modified one I’ve seen never quite resonated with me in the same way that an original one does. There is nothing about this car that differentiates it from how it rolled out of the factory in 1990.
Though not a daily car, she still gets used often, and deservedly so. I’ve never understood owners who simply polish and admire. Perhaps if I was staring at my late grandfather’s friend’s Le Mans winning D-Type I might think otherwise, but one of the beautiful things about a GTI is just how useable they are. My six-month-old son and labrador can happily ride along in style together in the VW, and that’s something you simply can’t experience with a show queen type of car.
Whilst not quick by today’s standards with just 139bhp on tap, driving the GTI I find it makes use of most of that power, and the manner in which it does is just so rewarding. Unlike the 8v, the 16v loves to rev right on through to 7k and beyond, with most of the smiles coming between 4 and 6.5k. Getting to the handling side, I must slightly deviate from my earlier statement on originality, as just last year I had the suspension rebuilt with the modern equivalent of the original Bilstein/Eibach setup. The 16v cars sat a little lower than the 8v ones from new anyway, and this one sits just a bit lower (5-8mm) than stock so as to be almost unnoticeable. It has made a world of difference to the drivability however, with a more precise turn-in and a sharper response in feedback from the road. A recent set of Brembo pads and discs provide a little more confidence too, but I’ve resisted the common upgrade to Corrado brakes, as the car doesn’t carry enough power to warrant them in my opinion. It doesn’t see track use, so the stock-sized discs work just fine in almost all conditions, provided you have the right rubber.
The engine, gearbox, clutch, and brake setup are all original, as is the infamous “Rainbow” interior, showing none of the tired sagging that so many Mk2s suffer from. The head unit is the original Panasonic cassette deck, and the original speakers sound suitably awful… None of which matters though, as the rebuilt exhaust system (using the original as a template of course) provides the best possible soundtrack in almost any driving scenario. 15” BBS RA alloys suit this car better than any other for me, and whilst mine may benefit from a refurb, they’re looking really good for a car that’s 27 years old and showing 142k miles on the odometer.
The challenge this year is to find a specialist fabricator who can rebuild or replace the aging original solid steel fuel and injector lines. Whilst braided seems like an obvious upgrade, the rigid horizontal lines of the four injector pipes running across the front of the manifold cover are how the engine bay should look if you’re interested in genuine OEM, and so for me it’s worth the effort to get them remade properly. Many bits and pieces are still readily available for the Mk2 thankfully, making ownership an easy affair for the most part compared to some other vintage cars, but still, there are some key parts that you just simply cannot find anymore. Too many “specialists” are far more interested in modification than preservation, and I’m not in a position to fabricate parts myself. The importance of finding a good, genuinely knowledgeable mechanic as opposed to a technician cannot be underestimated, no matter how good of a value these cars are.
To be to able to pass this car on to my son for another 142k miles will require continued sympathy, patience, and understanding from me, and an experienced engineer who loves these iconic cars as much as I do. They too, however are becoming equally hard to find.