Ultimate Mk4 1.8T. Just when you thought you'd seen everything done to a Mk4 Golf. Think again, yeah! Neil Chapman took some drastic measures to breathe new life into his former daily drive, but since when have the best builds ever taken the easy route? Words: Alex Grant. Photos: Si Gray.
BREAKING THE MOULD
Given how bombarded we’ve become in this smartphone and social media age, it’s not unusual to find that the loudest voices in the virtual ‘room’ aren’t always the best-informed. Granted, the internet might be a bottomless global melting pot of help and inspiration, but it’s also an amplifier for the nay-sayers. People who will tell you, not necessarily with the benefit of experience, that you’re chasing a dead end. Luckily, not everyone listens.
For Neil Chapman, the last nine years might have turned out a little differently if he’d settled for something easy. But we’d challenge you to find faults with the sublime end result of filtering out the no-you-can’ts. “I always said if I was going to build a car, I’d go big,” he says, smiling broadly. “I had this crazy idea to paint the car brown, and I’ve always loved the look of big wheels and brakes. Everyone told me it wouldn’t work, but I proved them wrong.”
Experience helps. At 37, Neil has been building cars for as long as he’s been able to drive them, despite the added headache of fitting them in around work commitments. We’re not talking about a nine-to-five office job near his home in Glasgow, but weeks and even months out of the country commissioning wind turbines. Hardly the ideal work/life situation for a groundup reimagining of a Mk4 Golf that could pass Bentley’s quality control unscathed.
“I’ve had the car for nine years, and it was my daily for a few of those, before I really got started on it. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world back then – a silver GTI 20v Turbo with R32 bumpers, KW coilovers and 18” BBS LM reps. It had potential, but it needed some love.”
Luckily, it had come to the right place. Neil had struck up a friendship with a local Mk3 owner, Douglas Archer, and the resulting influx of knowledge and inspiration made its mark. The factory-fitted GTI Recaros retired in favour of R32 seats, those replica wheels made way for Porsche 911 997 ‘lobster claws’ with brakes to match. Although Douglas tragically lost his life in 2015, he’d not only helped revive the Golf, but he’d steered Neil towards Trix in Dunfermline as a safe pair of hands to have the work done – starting with the TT dashboard swap. No small job for a daily driver.
“I get asked about the dashboard all the time,” he says. “But it fits straight in, and it all plugs in apart from the hazard switch, which we ran down next to my left foot. The biggest issue we had was mine is an early car, a ’1999, so it had a manual heater box. Finding a donor TT with the manual heater was like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, until we found a company in Germany that made the control panels.”
Within months, Neil had picked up a used Rayvern Hydraulics setup from Douglas Flockhart (Douglas number two) at Trix, and had its previous owner transplant everything into its new home. As unconvinced by air ride as he is by throw-it-on builds, the hydro approach is a simple setup tailored to the Golf by using a set of adjustable front top mounts and IDF drop plates to re-centre the rear wheels when it’s laying low. Getting it right takes thought.
Pickiness meant the bodywork wasn’t quite so straightforward. Ironically, it was the toughest choice that came first – Volkswagen Toffee brown paint, spotted on a T5 Transporter and now flawlessly applied over every panel and trim piece at Simon’s Auto Body in Irvine. And not just once: “It’s been painted three or four times since I changed the colour. I’ve had three sets of doors, three tailgates and three different sets of bumpers, I kept changing it all the time because I wasn’t 100% happy with how it looked.”
“After four or five months I was crying out for a set of BBS again. This car needs BBS on it, I don’t care what anyone says”
Methodical trim deletion and sympathetic scavenging from the Volkswagen Group parts bin means it’s impossible to pick out everything that’s been done without a spec sheet or a standard Mk4 for comparison. Version three uses early-2010 Audi door handles with the slightly recessed VW roundel from a Mk8 Polo to release the tailgate, while every redundant hole was welded rather than filled to avoid any sinking or cracking later on. Some of the trickiest jobs you’d be forgiven for underestimating, or not noticing at all.
“The rear bumper is one of a kind,” he explains. “It’s a genuine R-Line bumper with a custom diffuser for the Mk5 R32 tailpipes, and it was major surgery to make it work. The R32 has a raised floor, but other Mk4s have a full-size spare wheel well. Douglas had to cut out the spare wheel and raise it for the exhaust to run through the middle. But I also have hydraulics, so the pistons, rams, pumps and batteries which all had to be refabricated to gel together.”
Inside, the R32 seats lasted long enough to get a leather and Alcantara retrim by Dell at Optimus Trimmers in Glasgow before being cast aside for the RS4 wingbacks Neil had wanted from the start. Over the course of a following month at the Optimus workshop, every square inch of the cabin was re-trimmed in luxurious Bridge of Weir brown leather and Alcantara, stitched in silver to match the aluminium accents of the TT dashboard.
Again, it’s a reflection of a meticulous eye for details that this mashup of parts looks so at home together. Like the Anniversary-spec redstriped seatbelts, the R logos embossed into the headrests, or the Mk7 GTI non-multifunction steering wheel so rare it had to be imported from Poland, only to be stripped and re-trimmed with Audi-style double-stitching once it landed in the UK. Nothing is accidental.
“You can run TT clocks, but they’re not very nice on the eye. So we put R32 clocks into the back of the TT bezel, which also meant I didn’t have any coding issues when we swapped the dash. It was plug and play and they worked off the key,” Neil tells us.
Cross-bred clocks aren’t the only thing that fires up with a twist of the key. It’s years since the Golf was a daily driver, but it’s no ornament. The 400bhp putting the SQS sequential ‘box and Quaife diff through their paces comes from a Leon Cupra R ‘BAM’ engine, running forged internals and a sizeable IHI hybrid turbo. The conversion was a shortcut, but not without some drastic measures. Neil, it seems, has form for those.
“If chopping structural parts sounds drastic, then the thread of work that unravelled afterwards sounds equally daunting”
“The old engine ran a good 260bhp, it was a strong motor but the conversion offered more power, six gears and the Quaife diff. I ended up buying a whole Leon Cupra R that had been built by JabbaSport as a donor car. To be honest, it was probably too good to destroy, but I needed the engine and it was built well.”
Predictably, the push for more power snowballed. Instead of dropping an extra 140bhp under the bonnet and calling it a day, Neil stripped and rebuilt the engine in his garage, re-polishing already detailed parts and having the rest copper-plated to add his own stamp to it, before taking the whole lot back to Trix to go back under the knife.
“Douglas has a smoothed firewall on his Mk3 VR6 turbo, and it’s on a different level,” he tells us, lifting the bonnet to a treasure chest of mirrorfinish metal surfaces. “We spent many a late night cutting the car to bits and welding holes, then we cut the bulkhead out and put a flat firewall in its place. I wanted to go above and beyond.”
If chopping structural parts sounds drastic, then the thread of work that unravelled afterwards sounds equally daunting, even with the upsides it brought. In the years before its latest incarnation, the Golf had gone through a set of eight-pot Lamborghini brakes as well as the Porsche setup Neil had fitted originally. Finding and fitting big brakes hadn’t been overly problematic, but it had pushed some of the factory parts beyond their original design brief. “The brakes were the biggest headache of my life,” he explains. “The ABS and master cylinder on a Mk4 can’t handle big brakes. It’ll stop, but the pedal goes to the floor. We had tried numerous sets of brakes, so when we smoothed the bay, we took the ABS and master cylinder out and set fire to them, to get them out of my life.”
Any inadequacies in the standard hardware are long gone. The floor-mounted OBP race pedal box features a set of brake boosters tucked up behind the dashboard, paired with a muscular PB eight and six-piston calipers and possibly the largest discs we’ve ever seen on anything with a Volkswagen badge. For context, at 405mm and 380mm front and rear, even the handbrake has more surface area at its disposal than the business end of an RS6. Losing the heaters to make room for it all feels a worthwhile sacrifice, even in Scottish weather.
Bigger brakes would require larger wheels than the polished 19s it had been running up to this point. Neil tested clearance with a friend’s 20" OZ Superleggeras, before hunting out a set of Audi A8 Cantonas and the slimmest possible band of rubber to get them under the arches. But he never shook off the feeling that they’d been a bit of a compromise.
“After four or five months I was crying out for a set of BBS again,” he says. “It took about eight or nine months to track these down in the Netherlands, and I was almost at the point where I was going to have some made. I had to sell the Audi A8 I was running as a daily to get the wheels, but I was determined to have them. This car needs BBS on it, I don’t care what anyone says.”
Despite a queue of people telling him otherwise, the new wheels and brakes caused no fitment issues whatsoever. The slim adaptors needed to fit the Mk4 hubs, also help the spokes clear the calipers, while subtly pulled arches avoid any rubbing while driving. Which is probably just as well, given that the 18-month part-hoarding process came together in a frantic three-week build ahead of an un-tested run down to Ultimate Dubs. Sometimes it pays not to take much notice of the nay-sayers.
That said, you can forgive a little caution when it comes to the most expensive parts of the build: “The tyres are like rubber bands, there’s hardly anything there, and I’ve got expensive wheels that I don’t want to ruin. So I’ve got sensors on the valves, and a readout in the car that shows me the temperatures and pressures. If anything changes, I can stop and fix it.”
Sound thinking for a car that gets all-season use. The Mk4 is the only one of Neil’s fleet that lives at his house, not at his lockup, and it’s there for whenever he feels the need to get behind the wheel. “It’s no show queen, I drive it everywhere,” he says. “The looks you get when you rock up to a set of traffic lights and people hear the clunks from the sequential box, wondering if it’s broken. Nah, I’m just changing gear.”
There are a million different ways to take on a Mk4, and even Neil would probably admit most are easier than the route he’s taken. But, when you’re adding to that global melting pot, we’d say it’s worth filtering out the loudest noises in the room and chancing a few dead ends along the way.
ENGINE: 1.8 20v Turbo (BAM) from Seat Leon Cupra R built by JabbaSport, forged internals, IHI hybrid turbo, Pro Alloy frontmount intercooler, custom intake, JabbaSport map, full threeinch stainless steel exhaust with de-cat pipe and Mk5 R32 style backbox, Pro Alloy radiator, Quaife limited-slip differential, SQS sequential shifter, engine bay and bulkhead smoothed, engine fully polished and copper plated, R8 oil cap, RamAir filter
CHASSIS: 20x8.5 ET50 BBS LM 299 wheels, 225/30 Achilles ATR Sport tyres, 20mm (front) and 15mm (rear) 5x112-5x100 adaptors, tyre pressure monitoring system, Rayvern Hydraulics suspension installed by Trix, front strut brace, Silver Project front camber plates, IDF drop plates (rear), 8-pot PB calipers with custom two-piece 405mm discs (front), 6-pot PB calipers with 380mm discs (rear), ABS and brake master cylinder deleted, OBP race pedal box
EXTERIOR: Full respray in Volkswagen Toffee Brown, fully smoothed doors and quarter panels, custom Audi door handles, smoothed genuine R32 front bumper and side skirts, wings smoothed and widened, indicators removed, roof aerial removed and smoothed, Mk8 Polo boot handle, bonnet extended over headlights, Lupo stubby wing mirrors, custom R-Line rear bumper modified for Mk5 R32 tailpipes, R32 headlights, Hella all red rear lights, custom front grille, rear wiper deleted, spoiler removed, rubbing strips removed and smoothed, Leon Cupra splitter
INTERIOR: Audi TT dashboard installed by Trix, Mk4 R32 clocks in TT bezel, Audi RS4 seats, Mk7 Golf GTI non-multifunction wheel with Audi-style retrim, custom retrim by Dell at Optimus Trimmers using toffee brown Bridge of Weir leather and matching Alcantara with silver stitching and embossed R logos, heaters removed, black Alcantara headlining, Mk4 GTI Anniversary seat belts, Defi boost gauge
SHOUT: John and Carol Chapman. My parents for allowing me to build cars since I was young. My misses, Lesley, and my son Marcus. My best friend Gary Kavanagh for the help since day one. Simon Russell and his team at Simons Auto Body. Douglas Flockhart of Trix Dunfermline. Andrew Halkett. Craig Steel at Reep Scotland. Dell at Optimus Trimming. Mark Ikeda/Team Hoffman Racing. Si Sweetland/Still Static. Mike “The Polisher”. All the Dubshed crew. Adrian Hassall and the Edition 38 crew. Yervant Bogosyan and the Dubtech Customs crew. My sponsor, Auto Finesse for all their good cleaning supplies, Jordan Wallace. Paul Todd for letting me try his wheels. Keep it Clean team