The Mazda MX-5 I bought early in 2015 injected me with a new-found passion for rear-wheel-drive, introduced open-top daily driving into my life and took me to Nordkapp, the northernmost point in mainland Europe that’s reachable by car. It proved itself to be an immensely great buy for very little money, and there’s no doubt it’s my personal favourite car of 2015.
It’s not my Hooniversal Car of the Year, though. The 60 Euro Polo is. It works, finally!
Some of you might remember the 1986 Volkswagen Polo Classic I rescued from sitting on a street a little more than two years ago. It had a failed head gasket, an air filter housing full of oil and little hope of making it anywhere but the crusher. In fact, some calls had already been made to get the Polo hauled away from the garage parking lot, where it had sat for months, still wearing the studded tires from the previous winter.
I bought it very, very cheaply, transferred it under my name and got it transported into a storage garage.
In the following months, I assessed what was wrong with it, and got it running in a sputtering, steamy fashion. As I removed the cylinder head and got it reconditioned at the local school auto shop, I also accumulated the parts necessary to get it running well.
And then, after I got the head back from the shop, I didn’t do much of anything. Some sort of block got into me, as I proceeded to aimlessly fiddle with the car in the dark corner of the garage, failing to really produce any meaningful sort of progress.
I got as far as removing the old water pump buried under the pulleys and plastic bits, and then the process truly stopped. The Polo sat in the garage, gathering dust, as I bought and sold other cars that felt more relevant to me at the time.
My friends asked when I was going to get it running again, whether it would ever make it back on the road, and some people offered me cash for it, as it was still a complete, clean and original car. I declined all offers, since I felt I owed the car a chance to get back on the open road. As a token of that, I went to Germany and bought new junkyard door seals for it.
A few months ago the storage garage guys asked me to kindly move the car, as I had gathered bits and bobs in and around the Polo and they needed to tidy up the entire place, including my murky corner of stagnation. I filled the tires with air and moved the Polo outside, washing the storage dust off a little later.
As I finally had it out, it didn’t take long until I called the auto shop again and asked whether they would like to re-assemble the car for me, as a trainee job. It’s fairly simple as a car, but as work bucks come, it’s still somehow relevant for a modern-day student. I again arranged a trailer ride for the VW and a little bit later it was on the shop floor, head torqued down, cambelt being timed and so on. In a couple weeks, they did more than I had managed to do in a couple years.
Soon enough, the Pierburg carburettor was deemed a bit schlocky. The choke flap was disconnected from any internal workings, and neither they nor I were sure how much work it would take to source parts for it or to kludge it into function again. It didn’t take long for me to come up with a replacement Weber carb, complete with a manual choke instead of the automatic bimetal wonder in the Pierburg.
During the following months, the Weber got installed, then adjusted, with everything put back together again, then removed, then adjusted, and rinsed and repeated. But just now, last week, I went down to the shop and the supervising teacher greeted me with the long-awaited words, “You can take it home, finally! It’s done.”
I was filled with glee, as they checked the emissions there and then and printed me a receipt with all the levels deemed certainly appropriate. I called the inspection station that was still open for a couple hours and booked a check-up, to make it road legal.
The Polo sailed through the check-up and it’s now road legal to drive, until April 2017. I couldn’t believe it, but the brakes, the suspension, all the workings were good to go. It did earn a couple demerits, namely a headlight bulb being out and a rear wheel bearing looking like it should be changed soon, but half an hour after seeing the Polo move on its own power for the first time in years, I was driving it home all legal.
I’ve now driven it around town for a few days. The carb still needs a little fiddling, the throttle cable has a habit of catching into something under the carb, and it still needs a proper clean-up inside.
The underbody has some surface rust that I plan to have soda-blasted, and I’ve ordered a factory-correct Grundig radio along with some period-exact cosmetic items that will brighten up the looks, like chrome center caps and an original Hella four-light grille. In time, I’ll get it registered as a historic vehicle.
But just in time for Christmas, just in time for HCOTY, the humble, ultra-underdog Polo has turned into a working car that I can just hop into and take for a lovely little drive. The steering is amazingly light for a non-PAS one, the engine runs sweetly without weird noises, and the 54-horsepower 1272cc unit propels the vehicle without running out of puff all too soon.
The four-speed gearchange is wonderfully precise, the ride is clunk-free and tight, and the general feel of the car is that of a 83 000 km mid-‘80s car in the early 1990s. It’s a lot better to drive than I expected it to be, with a simplicity and austerity that it wears on its sleeve. It makes me inexplicably happy by being just the way it is.
It’s good enough for me to make it my own HCOTY 2015 nominee, despite it being my own freaking car, you know. Having a shop finish my stalled project isn’t really the same kind of accomplishment as doing it all by myself, but was this not the case, it would now sit in the snow, with the engine still open. I’m glad I caved in and got the guys to finish it up for me. It’s worth whatever they end up billing me.