The Polo breadvan might be a bit of an underdog in Volkswagen circles, but Lance Thompson’s 200bhp G40 super-hatch shows there’s plenty of untapped potential if you’re prepared to stick with it. Words: Alex Grant. Photos: Nick Williams.
HIP TO BE SQUARE SUPERCHARGED! Bagged Mk2 Polo Breadvan running 200bhp tuned G40 motor mixes things up!
Ask most people what they see when they pick up a copy of this magazine, and they’ll probably tell you it’s all about cars. And yes, they’re right, to an extent, but we’d argue there’s more to it than that. Behind every feature car, show report and product, the pages of this publication are united in telling stories. Tales of frustration, imagination and determination, captured in metal, glass and plastic. And they get all the more interesting when - despite staring down the barrel of a process that’s clearly not as easy as it could be - someone just digs in their heels and carries on regardless.
That’s how you wind up with cars like this materialising. All things Eighties might be in vogue at the moment (as the bank balance of anyone looking for elusive Volkswagen parts from that era will testify), but it’s a revival that’s never quite reached the boxy Mk2 Polo hatchback. You’ll see plenty of coupes and a few surviving saloons knocking about at shows, but the ‘breadvan’ - an oddball mix of estate and city car once commonplace on UK roads - tends to miss out on the same following. Let alone a spot on our cover. And, according to Lance Thompson, the last 11 years could easily have turned out the same way for his.
“This was the cheapest roadworthy car I could find close to me when I was learning to drive,” he tells us, giving some impression of the scale of the turnaround that’s happened since. “I had no intention of keeping it, and to be honest I knew nothing about Polos. I didn’t even know you could get these as a coupe, or I would have gone for one of those instead. But I got fond of it, quickly ended up on the Club Polo forum, and started realising what could be done with them.”
Given that it last changed hands just before scrappage swept in and thinned the herd, we’d say it’s had a lucky escape. The Polo was straight and rot-free but it hadn’t been a museum piece, with bodywork wearing signs that every one of its 30,000 miles and 23 years on the road had been lived in hard service. This wasn’t the obvious machine to sell Lance the potential of a modified breadvan. In hindsight, the slow-burn that’s taken place since he deviated from factory spec with a debadged grille probably wouldn’t have sealed the deal either. But, let’s face it, plenty of us know that feeling.
For a start, this sort of chassis-laying stance doesn’t come easy, no matter what you’re starting out with, and pre-94 Polos don’t make that any simpler. So the parts letting Lance drop the breadvan’s underbelly into the sand of his work's quarry aren’t available off the shelf - or, at least, not when they’re bolted together like this. It’s running a custom air ride setup, with universal Air Lift kit at the back, and the front end swapped to Mk2 Golf spec in place of the Polo’s shock-in-strut setup, which means it can go lower. Nothing was plug-and-play here.
“I probably should have gone for Mk1 Golf struts, because things would have been a bit easier,” Lance explains. “My mate Peter James - StinkyPete on the socials - milled some top mounts and lower balljoint extenders for me, and he laser cut the steering arms so I could weld them to the struts. But I couldn’t use Mk2 hubs - I’d have had driveshaft issues because the Polo bearings don’t fit, and these Mk1 hubs needed spacing to fit properly. This wouldn’t have happened if I used Mk1 struts as well.”
The hardware wasn’t even half the battle. Lance had already come up against the headache of the breadvan’s flat-topped rear arches, and how quickly you run out of room when you’re trying to fit anything much wider than standard wheels. Even Volkswagen fitted narrower steels to the short-lived Polo GT hatch model than it did to the equivalent coupe. With no amount of metal pulling ever likely to cure the problem, Lance had Mk1 Golf arches blended into the wings to free up some extra space. It’s added a useful 20mm at both front corners and 15mm at the back, where it’s also re-shaped that flat arch top to a less restrictive curve cut higher into the wing. The wheels, in this case, really did make the car.
Major bodywork surgery was adding time into the build and, in turn, that time was throwing life changes into the mix. The Polo would spend almost four years in the bodyshop and Lance didn’t avoid the lure of other projects in the meantime, including a very tidy Mk2 Jetta which could easily have pushed the long-termer into the sidelines. Then he ended up out of work. But the project carried on in the background and, eager to avoid it stalling completely, he put in a couple of weeks of prep work himself and the Candy Apple red bodyshell emerged from its lengthy hibernation in August 2013 (yes, five years ago).
We’d say it’s paid off. Powder-coated at Wheel Unique last year and widened another half inch at the front to fill those custom arches, the three-piece wheels it was built for are an aggressive fi t for a coupe, let alone a breadvan. And Lance says he hasn’t finished tinkering just yet: “It’s on manual management at the moment, but I’m planning to upgrade. I get people asking why I’ve gone for air on a track-inspired car, but I like function and form and didn’t want to choose between the two. So I went for both. I’ve got a few more handling mods to get through before it goes on track, though.”
It should have no issues surprising people when it gets there. While the breadvan was taking up space in the bodyshop, Geoff at Havair happened to be stripping the G40 engine out of his white Polo pickup, and Lance was in the right place to make use of it. You’ll have to look hard for a more complete engine. Built by PitStop Developments, the bottom end is stroked using the crank from the rare 1.4-litre diesel engine (which wasn’t sold in the UK), paired with a set of overbore pistons to up the capacity from 1272cc to 1473cc, and topped off with a set of custom cams in a big-valve head. In the pickup, it hadn’t turned a wheel since it was put together several years earlier.
Extra capacity is a good foundation for easy power gains, especially as the 1473cc conversion doesn’t raise the G40’s supercharger-friendly compression ratio. Geoff had opted for JabbaSport’s most aggressive porting on the G-Lader, and a toothed belt kit with a smaller 65mm pulley to spin it up quicker without losing power to belt-slip higher up the rev range. Lance gave the smoothed bay a coat of stone-chip paint, finishing the engine to match, and added the last parts to make the most of what it had. The Polo GT inlet manifold offers a larger bore and has been ported further to match the enlarged 51mm throttle body, while the vernier pulley is custom-made, and the charge cooler gets around the lack of space behind the slam panel without hunting for the obscure Mk2 G40 intercooler.
You’d expect the conversion to be a straightforward job, but he hit all the usual issues. That eBay-sourced four-branch manifold lived up to its reputation and didn’t fi t, needing an indent to clear the ‘charger and a new tail section to align with the rest of the exhaust. He’s also had to swap to a gravity-fed fuel supply to avoid the starvation issues that were killing pumps beforehand - though that’s preferable, no doubt, to the piston-melting tendencies of a lean-running, high-powered G40. Without the help of Danny and Simon at AD Autotechnik to wrap up the last of the wiring and brakes and make it road legal again, Lance admits it might have stumbled at the last hurdle and wound up being broken for parts.
“I needed an engine and this was… more than adequate,” he smirks. “The problem then was it took months to find someone to map it, because a lot of companies have got rid of the old Digifant tuning gear. But James Littler at DubForce did an amazing job live mapping it - the engine made 177bhp running lean and pinking badly, before we did any tuning. He says it’s about 200bhp now, and he’s been in a good few G40s so I trust his judgement. I hadn’t been in a G40 before by my own so I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s quick for what it is.”
And it’s only likely to get quicker now he’s had a chance to explore the car’s limits. Yep, he's not finished yet. There’s a Quaife limitedslip diff waiting in a rebuilt ‘box, aimed at curing the Polo’s tendency to bite back with third-gear torque steer while it’s on boost. And fitting this offers a chance to swap to a lighter flywheel and restore a bit of the standard engine’s freer-revving character on the way to that 6000rpm peak power figure. Lance also has methanol injection on the way, because… why not?
“I think another 30 or 40bhp would make it an absolute weapon - it’ll do high-end sports cars but it’s not quite keeping up with supercars yet,” he tells us, with that unmistakeable enthusiasm of someone totally hooked on ‘G-smiles’. “If I need more power I can upgrade to a G60 - the G-Lader just works for me, so I’ll stick with the supercharger route.”
At a mere 780kg, there isn’t much weight to get in the way. Lance had the cage built while the car was in the bodyshop, and wound up stripping the Polo back to bare essentials to go with its new-found power output. There’s no heater matrix, no fans, no firewall in the engine bay, and even the separate quarter-light windows on the doors have been deleted, replaced with a single, lighter, pane of perspex. And while we’ve seen filler necks smoothed out of the rear wings of a Polo before, a DTM-style fuel cap cut into the side window is a new one on us.
It’s as function-over-form inside; carpeted and lined on the inside of the roof, but home to little more than a pair of bucket seats and a dashboard from the later Polo 2F, now smoothed of all its buttons and vents like something out of a works rally car and flocked to match. There’s a bank of toggle switches to control the air ride and what’s left of the electrical equipment, and an ETB Digidash and AEM air/fuel gauge to keep tabs on what the engine is up to, and that’s pretty much the extent of the creature comforts. Pretty hardcore for something road-legal, right?
“Not much air gets through the slot in the window, so it’s a sweatbox during summer days,” he admits. “And in winter? Forget it, it’s too cold to drive. But I do try and get it out every weekend if the weather is good, as it’s at that point where it’s reliable and I can just get in it and go. Everything works, and I’m not fixing it every weekend, so I’m making the most of it.”
Given the grit and determination that’s got him here, we’re almost surprised to hear a little weather-dictated discomfort is a put-off. Having come close to being a first rung on the ladder, that slow burn has taken it all the way to the top - and it sounds like this is a story with a few more chapters left in it. Like we said, it’s never just about the cars.
ENGINE: 1473cc four-cylinder (PY) Polo G40 engine with 1W diesel crank, 77mm overbore pistons, big valve head, Pitstop Developments 252/272 camshaft, custom Peter James Vernier pulley, Jabba Motorsport ported supercharger, PitStop Developments toothed belt kit with 65mm pulley, charge cooler, 51mm throttle body, ported Polo GT inlet manifold, G60 injectors, Magnecor KV85 competition leads, Dub Force live map, alloy race fuel tank in the boot with filler neck through driver’s side rear window, firewall removed, custom alloy expansion tank, foam air filter with custom pipework, engine bay painted in stonechip paint, boost return hoses removed, rocker cover smoothed and painted matte black, slam panel cut for supercharger, standard Polo G40 gearbox and clutch
CHASSIS: 8.5x13 ET8 (front) and 9x13 ET10 (rear) Image HT three-piece split rims with powdercoated centres, 175/50 (front) and 195/45 (rear) Continental ContiSportContact tyres with white sidewall lettering. Custom air suspension using modified Gaz Mk2 Golf struts with and Mk1 Golf hubs custom-made rosejointed steering arms adjustable top mounts by Peter James (front) and universal Air Lift shocks (rear), Polo G40 brake calipers (front) with EBC GreenStuff pads
EXTERIOR: Mk1 Golf arches all round, passenger door handle, filler flap and boot release removed, rear badges removed, front bumper number plate recess deleted, Candy Apple Red paint, Venom Motorsport debadged grille, F1-style carbon wing mirrors, polycarbonate windows, G40 grille badge, gutter trims and rub strips removed, pressed metal number plate (rear), small front number plate, left-hand drive near-side rear lamp
INTERIOR: Smoothed and flocked Polo 2F dashboard, custom switch panels for air ride and electrical controls, ETB DigiDash 2 Lite, AEM wide-band and boost failsafe gauge, OMP suede steering wheel, Cobra Evolution Pro seats, Schroth harnesses, OBP floor-mounted pedal box, suede roof liner, carbon battery box, heater matrix and fans removed, flocked Mk2 Polo door cards, shifter extension, Firebeater fire extinguisher
SHOUT: My mate Ben for always being my extra pair of hands. James Littler of DubForce for the map. Danny and Simon at AD Autotechnik, as if it wasn’t for them the car wouldn’t be done. Peter James for the custom parts. Dan Taylor at Wheel Unique
We love the contrast between the lairy exterior and the toned-down engine bay. The car isn't just about show… far from it!
‘People ask why I’ve gone for air on a track-inspired car, but I like function and form and didn’t want to choose between the two”