When you work at one of the country’s leading bodyshops it’s only natural you’re going to want to build an amazing car. Taking inspiration from the likes of Singer, plus a few UK cars, Alex Downs has built his take on the ultimate resto-mod Mk1. Words: David Kennedy. Photos: Wipdesigns.
MODERN ROMANCEThe original plan wasn’t what I have now.” That innocent sentence, or variations of it, must be one of the most common phrases ever written down in PVW interview history. We can’t say for sure, but we bet if you look back through notebooks belonging to the PVW writers of the past, way back to the days of Greg Emmerson and Damien Blunt (aka Mick Clements) back in the mag’s early days in 1996, feature car owners would be saying, when asked to explain why they’ve built the car they have; “The original plan wasn’t what I have now.”
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, cars built by tuning firms with a particular goal in mind for example, but we reckon well over 50% of all PVW feature car owners didn’t actually plan to build the car they eventually ended up with. Things just, as they so often tend to do, spiralled out of control at some point or another along the build timeline. We've all been there…
Most people blame this project car spiralling on one of three things; seeing other cars at shows, seeing other cars in magazines or online, or peer pressure from mates. For 24-year old Alex Downs, owner of this stunning more-door Mk1 you see before you, that push down the path of things going too far came from what he saw at work all day. You see, Alex works as a panel beater at JH Pro Paint in Sheffield, home of the Route 32 crew. And if you’re a PVW regular you’ll know the Route 32 name is synonymous with two things, turning out amazing show cars for its customers, and JH Pro Paint main man Jon Hinchcliffe’s (recently sold) killer R32-swapped Mk1 that we had on cover back in PVW 1/14.
“If it wasn’t for seeing Jon’s car parked next to me when I was building mine, mine wouldn’t be where it is today” Alex explained. “Everything I did on my Mk1 I compared it to his. My original plan for a quick blow over lasted about a month if I’m honest, I found myself looking at his car parked in the shop every night and ended up asking myself why I would only want to do mine to half the standard.”
We’re getting ahead of ourselves here though, so let’s go back to the beginning. Alex has been interested in cars from an early age, going to classic car shows with his dad, a die-hard Ford man at first and later, getting his first taste of the Veedub scene at Bug Jam with his mate Jak and his father when he was just 11. This new found love for all things Veedub was only made worse, or better, depending on how you look at it, when he first picked up a copy of PVW, (which we’re all too aware doesn’t help with the whole inevitable ‘going too far with a build at some point’ thing), when he was just 13.
“I’d had a few cars, mostly older stuff like a Polo Breadvan and even a Volvo 340 at one point, and then found myself in an early-spec Mk2 which I just loved,” Alex explained. “I did a few rounds of shows in it, painted it and fitted coils and Porsche Teledials, but one day unfortunately it was written off by an uninsured driver and that was the end of it.” Out of pocket and out of car, Alex was understandably gutted but quickly saw some light close to home in the shape of an old Series 1 Mk1 Golf GLS that was parked up in the corner of the JH Pro Paint workshop.
“Jon knew I’d had my eyes on the Mk1 for a while, he’d bought it a while back as a donor for another car and it was just sitting there unloved in the corner of the workshop. I think he took pity on me as he knew I was on the project car rebound and we came to a deal. He let me work on it in one corner of the workshop after hours too which was very handy,” Alex explained.
Although before Alex could get to work on the Mk1, first he had to take stock of what he had to work with. “The engine was in one corner of the shop, the body panels were stored on the roof of the office and all the fixings were above the oven in the unit, it really was in bits,” he laughed. “Someone had bodged some rear arches on it and done a dodgy GTI engine conversion at some point, but fortunately the rare bronze glass and some of the rare interior parts were all intact.”
Now, five-door Mk1s aren’t the most common things on the show circuit, or in these pages for that matter. They’re usually over-looked by anyone building a show car in favour of the more iconic three-door. But for Alex, the car’s ‘grandad’ style, as he puts it, was all part of its appeal. “I liked the fact it’s a bit of an underdog being a five-door,” he smiled.
At first Alex’s plan was a simple one, a quick blow-over, semi-smooth the bay, keep the stock interior and some static suspension and simple wheels were the order of the day. “That’s when I started looking at Jon’s Mk1 sitting in the shop, and the cars our customers bring in, and thought why am I going to do mine half as good? Sure enough, one thing just lead to another. First the bay got fully smoothed, then the floor got cleaned up and painted, then it couldn’t be static and scrape the new floor when I put it in the garage so it had to go on air… the whole build went like this,” Alex laughed.
One particular car that inspired our man to take his Mk1 to the next level, outside of the confines of what he saw at work all day, was Martin Barker’s V6-swapped Audi 80 Coupe, which we featured in these pages a few years back. “That was an incredible build and I liked the way he badged it as a ‘resto mod’,” Alex remembered. “It was the perfect name for the way modifications fitted the character of the car, and it totally fitted with what I wanted to do with the Mk1.”
Over the course of the following year or so, Alex worked on the Mk1 in the evenings after he’d finished for the day, starting with the engine bay (as it was the only bit that wasn’t out of reach at the time due to other cars) and, as cars around moved and created space, he moved backwards down the body, widening the arches, de-ribbing the bonnet and out back, fitting a swallowtail-style rear end and smoothing over the towing eye.
“The original plan was for a quick blow over, half smooth the bay and stone-chip the floor, but the further I got with it the more it turned in to a full-on restoration and build. My mentality changed towards the car as I got more into it too, I knew when I eventually bought a house I wouldn’t be able to do a car to my best standard like this, so this was possibly my only chance, for a while at least, to build my ultimate Mk1!”
As you might have expected from someone who does bodywork for a living, Alex’s bay is a work of art in metal. The turrets have been raised to allow for extra clearance, while the scuttle panel and battery tray have been ditched to clear space for the intercooler pipework to fit, the bay’s metalwork cleaned up but retaining the factory lines so it still looks like a Mk1’s bay under there. The bodywork is, as you might expect from a pro' working out of hours, is flawless. The paint, laid down by boss Jon, is equally flawless. “Jon can paint Mk1s in his sleep so it made sense for him to do it, but I’ve done everything else other than the paint on the bodywork myself,” Alex said proudly. “But I couldn’t have done it though without the help of Jon, Oli, Ben, Steve and Jono and all the late night phone support and after work call outs when I’ve been close to a meltdown working on it,” he laughed.
Originally Alex wanted to repaint the car the stock colour, but after finding out the original paint had tinters in it that contained lead, and thus were discontinued, a custom mix was in order. “It’s very close to the original colour however, just with a lot more metallic in it and a bit of a copper flip in certain lights,” he explained. The result looks amazing, particularly popping in the bright sunshine at Edition 38 a few weeks back when we got to have a good look round Alex’s car when it was parked on our stand on the Sunday.
“Out of all the hours it took to build the car the bay was the biggest job but definitely the most rewarding, I love how clean it looks,” he smiled, adding, “either that or the floor which also took some time, it always makes me smile whenever I put it on a ramp.”
Alex didn’t want to go down the R32 route like what was in the car parked next to him at the shop, or any of the other more obvious Mk1 engine choices for that matter, instead he decided to go with probably one of the rarest Mk1 engine swaps going, a PD130. “I was going to put a PD130 in my Mk2 originally, so the fact it sort of came with the Mk1 as part of the deal was a bonus!” he explained.
Mated to a Mk3 TDI five-speed ‘box, the PD130 sits on custom engine mounts and thanks to a larger intercooler, EGR delete and a Stage 2 map makes around 190bhp, more than enough in a featherweight Mk1. “The biggest job was getting the engine wired up, before I took this on I hadn’t wired anything more than a stereo and a sub in my Mk2! With some advice from friends, and hours and hours looking at Mk1 and Mk4 Golf wiring diagrams online, it all came together though,” he smiled, adding, “I love how minimal it looks in a Mk1 compared to how complex it looks in a Mk4, nobody ever guesses it’s a turbo diesel at first.” It drives well, too, according to Alex. “The torque in such a lightweight car is unreal and it eats most cars pinned on your back end if you fancy it,” he smiled. “Or it can sit at 2k revs doing 70mph getting 60mpg, it’s the best of both worlds.”
Chassis-wise, Alex’s chopped the rear beam 4”, fitted custom bags mounted on GAZ shocks, changed the brakes to discs at the back and fitted Willwood four-pots up front. The wheels, 6.5” and 8x15” OZ Executives, were sourced by Zacne Wheels and have been rebuilt and refinished beautifully, the fronts specially machined to get the 0.5” dish to sit just right under the front arches.
“I took a lot of inspiration from the Singer Porsches when building the car,” said Alex. “Newer motor, everything retrimmed and more refined but still unmistakably a Mk1.” It’s an attitude most evident inside where the Harris Herringbone Tweed trimmed Porsche 914 seats sit beautifully with the contrasting door cards and the perforated headlining, not to mention the Singer-style mirrors and Singer-style sun visors. “I’m no good with the sewing machine so I left the trimming up to Edge Automotive and they’ve done an amazing job,” Alex confirmed.
The interior ties the whole car together and coupled with some choice period accessories like the rear window blinds, the Built by Basil gearknob and handbrake cover and the 80’s Pioneer rear speakers, give the car a retro style all its own. The simple boot build, with the floor also trimmed in Tweed, is the perfect finishing touch, as is the retro tobacco tin that houses the Air Lift V2 controller up front and the Momo Heritage wheel at the other end of the interior. Alex has got a few more plans for his Mk1 in the works but as it stands now, he’s happy with where it is. “We’ve got plans to buy a house this year. I think I owe it to my girlfriend, Jae, as I said the car would only take a year,” he laughed. “I’ve got a few special bits in the pipeline too that I planned from the start but ran out of time and cash to do. They’re never really finished though, everyone knows that.”
But the most important question, and the one that’s always a good gauge of just how far someone’s Veedub addition has gone, would he do it all again? “I’d like to do a home build when we buy a house but it’ll be different to a Mk1 that’s for sure. Would I go this far again? Well, I never planned for this to happen this time so who knows, it might well happen again…”
ENGINE: PD130 engine, Mk3 TDI gearbox, EGR delete, custom inter-cooler pipework, stainless exhaust system, custom Forge water pipes, single mass clutch conversion, shallow sump, Nickleplated hardware, modified engine cover, Stage 2 map running 190bhp (approx)
CHASSIS: 6.5” and 8x15” OZ Executive wheel, Air Lift V2 air ride management, custom GAZ air shocks, twin 440 compressors, Wilwood brakes with custom brackets, grooved front and rear discs, narrowed rear beam, seam welded and reinforced front wishbones chassis notches, custom driveshafts, polybushed, camber adjustable top mounts, raised top mounts, painted floor
EXTERIOR: Custom colour with extra metallic, widened arches, OE bronze tinted glass, tow eye delete, Werk 34 stainless bumper kit, early style mirrors and waist trims, aerial and rear wiper deleted
INTERIOR: Porsche 914 front seats with headrests removed mounted on custom frames trimmed in Harris Herringbone Tweed by Edge Automotive, custom headlining with a perforated material, Singer Porsche-style sun visors, Built by Basil custom gear knob and handbrake cover, Momo Heritage steering wheel, tobacco tin air ride controller display, 80’s Pioneer rear speakers, boot install trimmed in Tweed, rear window blind
SHOUT: Shout out to my girlfriend Jae and my parents for the support. Jon, Oli, Steve, Ben and Jono for the help and advice. Zacne wheels for sourcing the wheels and Edge Automotove for the trimming
THE FLOOR GOT CLEANED UP AND PAINTED, THEN IT COULDN’T BE STATIC AND SCRAPE THE NEW FLOOR WHEN I PUT IT IN THE GARAGE SO IT HAD TO GO ON AIR… THE WHOLE BUILD WENT LIKE THIS
Singer inspiration inside is obvious. We love the seats.
I’VE GOT A FEW SPECIAL BITS IN THE PIPELINE TOO THAT I PLANNED FROM THE START BUT RAN OUT OF TIME AND CASH TO DO