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Period Correct Power Swap

When you undergo an engine transplant in any car, it’s worth setting out your ideas as to exactly what the function is going to be. Want to go fast over the ¼ mile? LS Turbo swap. Need to hammer around Barbagallo Raceway in 60 seconds? Yep, RB26 is your go. But what about when you’re wanting a modify a streetcar in such a way that still has the same feel and DNA as it came out of the factory? That can be a tough one, and so often results in the futile pursuit of massive dyno numbers rather than perfecting the intangible feel of an incredibly well-balanced drive.

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For many enthusiasts, that’s exactly what the original Mark I Volkswagen Golf GTi offered. It was a package of performance, reliability and practicality - three hallmark characteristics of any real world sports car. It’s no surprise the GTI was the flashpoint that ignited the hot-hatch mania of the late 70s. GTis sold in their millions, and by 1983, the original Golf was superseded by the bigger and more powerful Mark II. The new and improved 8-valve GTi continuing the lineage of affordable performance cars that could upset the very best from Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz

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This Mark II Golf GTi is currently cared for by Billy Moon. After parting ways with a hotted-up BMW 135i, Billy was looking for a project with classic charm and old-school performance. After getting wind that a GTi which took out the Front Wheel Drive trophy at Racewars 2013, a car he’d come to love as a teenager, was soon to go up for sale. He knew it was one car to tick off the bucket list, and this Mark II was no ordinary GTi.

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The 1990 model has undergone a fairly comprehensive mechanical transformation over the last decade or so. The ageing naturally aspirated 8-valve 1.8L has been binned in favour of a modernised 20-valve Turbo four-pot, borrowed from a 1999 Audi S3, an iconic engine from the Volkswagen Automotive Group’s Audi division. While the change to forced induction has allowed allowed the 990kg chassis to realise its full potential, the engine swap is still of the same vein as the original build, the capacity remains at 1.8L, the weight around the same mark too. Billy reckons only the most diehard of purists would object, for most petrolheads, the 20v swap does nothing but enhance the charm (and performance) of a classic hot hatch.

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Built by Wade Saunders, the car has been an ongoing project since the heart transplant from its VAG cousin in 2008. Today it’s around 90% of the way to being complete. The 20v motor sports an upgraded K04 Turbo, running through a Haltech Elite 750 dynamic ECU. When I was given the keys, the tune was pushing roughly 225hp to the front wheels on a ‘conservative’ flash. Billy expects with a new actuator, and crucially more boost, the car will be much closer to the 300bhp figure.

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That might sound a lot in a car that weighs about as much as a bratwurst, but with a custom built Quaife LSD keeping the front wheels in check, it is surprising how manageable the package feels. I think when it comes to these kind of cars, the numbers become completely arbitrary; they’re meaningless in the context of driver involvement and how the car actually feels when your arse is squashed into a recaro and your right foot is mashed into the firewall.

A touch more power should be about perfect to take advantage of a well set up car that is undeniably very light on its feet. Everything feels very sturdy but featherweight. Well-built, but stripped of anything but the bare necessities, just as these cars were designed in 1983. Creature comforts might be capped at a radio-cassette and a cool blower, but It feels like a genuine alternative to the modern hot hatch. It’s still reliable, it’s still practical, and you get all the power and thrills of the latest GTi, without the bulk and bloated body it has developed over the last 30 or so years. It’s a hot hatch in a much more pure form, where the driving experience takes precedence over anything else.

In the corners, the composure is managed by a full brake package from a late model VR6, with braided lines and KW V2 coilovers ensuring the Golf stops and handles better than it ever could in 1992. It does have some characteristics of the S3 carried over, but that hasn't altered the feel of the peppy Golf GTi DNA. The heavy clutch is probably the only immediate feel that separates the persona away from a standard GTI.

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Recently getting a new coat of Alpine White, Billy has his sights set on new plastics and red-stripe GTi trims to refresh the boxy retro looks. The only current aesthetic choice that is possibly letting the look of the Mark II slip are the polarising replica BBS-RS mesh wheels, as fitted to the car by the previous owner. Billy has already sourced some original 15” BBS-RA boots from local VW/Minitruck Guru Byron Riches, which should help push the Golf back in a more original OEM+ direction, while keeping the car functional for some hot laps of Barbagallo and Collie.  

We’ll make sure we catch up again with Billy in a few months time to see how the build is progressing, but  for now, the Mark II’s charm and 20-valve enhanced personality perfectly capture that well-balanced approach to modifying a classic. We can’t wait to see what the next step will be.     

For more information on the Golf, make sure you follow the build’s progress on instagram @mk2.20vt