Out of all the varied cars in my fleet, it is with the 1986 Volkswagen Polo Classic I feel the strongest kinship. I’ve often said I like a good underdog car, and what better demonstration of that than I bought for less than a tank of fuel? Obviously it came with a ton of issues, but it had been so sparingly used I saw great potential in its bare-bones appearance.
We’re talking about a 725kg two-door saloon with 54 factory horsepower, a four-speed manual, a 99% rust free body and an enormous trunk, complete with early-1980s minimalistic Volkswagen design. I had to have it, I grabbed it, I wrenched on it, I let it sit, I admitted nothing was going to happen to it if I didn’t take it to a shop, I took it to a shop, I bought a very expensive carburetor for it, they put it on wrong and adjusted it wrong, and then I got it back. This is where we probably left off in the tale of
a man’s slow descent into project car hell the #60EuroPolo and how it regained its funky Wolfsburg mojo.
Now, after battling with the badly running, often stalling white saloon for a while, I found much annoyment and let it sit for a while. I then realized I should take it to the garage where I found it, and talked to the old mechanic there. He took a look at my Sunday-wrenching ass and fine-tuned the carb by ear so it ran better and didn’t stall anymore – right there and then. Then he redid the timing belt as the shop had overtightened it, and he also replaced the vacuum cell of the distributor with an original Bosch part. After this, there were the basic fundamentals of actually driving the car.
Of course, it’s not perfectly there; the sealant-mounted carb needs to come off and have a proper seal put in place – I ordered a Weber service kit – but instead of pouring wrenching funds into the car I just decided to drive it with the choke pulled out by half a centimeter. It runs fine like that, I swear. Choke closed is dyno mode.
As I do have other cars, like the actual huge enormous money pit that is the 1992 405 Mi16 (which is also largely fixed and acts like a reliable car these days), I again let the Polo sit long enough to accumulate enough dust on its hood that someone sat on it. That is on top of my Do Not Like list, and if you look at the hood at a certain angle you see a wave that probably wasn’t there before. Oh well, at least no-one has keyed it yet.
The annual ice track meet where people sell cars from a ditch was soon at hand, and I had decided that I’d rather have a horrendous time than be bored. This meant I would take no other car for this 1000+ kilometer cut of Finland, but choose the Polo. I really wanted to see how it would run on a properly long drive, and how comfortable it would be, as just doing grocery runs doesn’t really tell you anything about a car’s real-world abilities. I also didn’t want to damage the precious front airdam of the Mi16 or the plastic nose on the MX-5 – and the Polo has the best winter tires in the house, ones that are suitably narrow for that winter rally car feel.
Surprise! The Polo handled the drive like a champ. The seats are flat like the topography here, and instead of listening to the cassette-deck-less Blaupunkt Volkswagen radio (“This is true. This head unit has no deck”) I had specifically bought for it I just perched a BT speaker on the rear parcel shelf, but otherwise it was a great long distance car, even with four forward speeds only. It also did 7,2 l/100km or 32,7 MPG which isn’t bad at all with a not-100% tuned carb, and the door seals I bought from a junk yard in Germany do not really whistle.
But the actual ice track driving? The Polo again redeemed itself. I’m not going to go all out and say a FWD car is more fun than a RWD beater on ice, but what it lost in lairy look-at-me slides it won in lap times. By being able to utilize the grippy apexes, and by not wasting its power by skidding all the time, it sliced seconds off the laps compared to nearly everything else at our disposal – with the same driver behind the wheel. For the record, this thing did a 1,25 lap where a studless Lexus LS400 could only muster a 1.40.
And it’s hilarious to twirl the huge-but thin steering wheel that’s just as basic-looking as everything else in the cabin. Lift-off oversteer was present when asked for, and the car’s lightness did it all the favours that were available on both of our ice tracks, the one on actual pond ice and the one that doubled as a rallycross track. I had thought the Polo would be an understeering sled of garbage and unfun, but it was a completely different animal. And when your bodyweight counts for over 10% of the car’s weight, moving around in the seat makes a difference. Dance and the car dances.
It is, in my opinion, a great underdog car. It looks brilliant with its balanced two-door form, it is in fantastic shape for a once-forgotten 30-year-old economy car, and I love driving it more than I love driving the MX-5. I don’t know why, but with the Polo you just get the feeling of driving a car that shouldn’t even exist anymore – yet it does, and it revels in it. Taking one to an ice track on the other side of the country and driving it like a maniac is even better. It earns its upkeep, no question.
You can follow my endeavours with the Polo by looking for the #60EuroPolo hashtag both in Twitter and Instagram. Most of it is stuff I’m buying for it and never fitting. I mean, who doesn’t need a spare rear window?
[Photos: Antti Kautonen except lede image by Wolfgang von Himmelgeist]