Piece by piece, I’ve mapped out the story of the 60 Euro Polo over here at Hooniverse during the years I’ve had it in my ownership. Starting from that drizzly late October day in 2013 when I trailered the 1986 VW home from the parking lot where it had sat with a failed head gasket since the previous winter, to the parts where I got it running badly, removed the head and let someone else finish the reassembly for me. After all that I got it through roadworthiness inspection on the first try, even if the car wasn’t all there. It took for a skilled old mechanic to tackle most of its running issues, including adjusting the carb and cambelt properly and diagnosing a shot vacuum cell, and after that I’ve just driven it and driven it, fixing whatever has popped up since last summer.
It’s proved itself to be such a reliable car for an over-30-year-old once-near-dead Volkswagen, that I’ve slowly built a lot of trust into it. Whenever asked, I say it’s my best car, and in a lot of respects that is certainly true: it’s still nearly rust free, has the lowest odometer reading and the tidiest appearance.
In fact, I’ve gotten so confident that I actually enrolled it in a rally. In another country. This is how it went.
A year ago I met a journalist friend of mine, Lauri, in Estonia, as their car journo bunch was heading back home from the 2016 Press Rally held in the Baltic states. It’s a long-standing annual gathering of car journalists from around the Baltic Sea, and usually it’s held somewhere in Latvia or Lithuania.
The rally consists of various stages and challenges over two days, on handling courses, racing tracks, country roads and autocross parking lots, and I was heartily ensured it’s a good time. Last year Lauri was there with a press Mazda MX-5 ND, but this year he wanted to bring the Peugeot 106 Rallye he’s been restoring for a couple years. Naturally, I had to match him with the Polo.
Before even reaching the starting point of Kaunas, Lithuania, we had to take the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn and drive pretty much straight on for the entire day.
While Finland still seemed grey at the beginning of summer, the roadside scenery in Baltia was vivid, with the green landscape stretching ahead for miles. I’ve grown fond of the Via Baltica route, and the Polo seemed a surprisingly good fit for the road. Especially since I had binned the aged, narrow Barum/Gislaved tire set for a fresher, wider set on restored Ronal Votex wheels. 185 wide tires gave the Polo a beefy look, but it rode well. And the usual fuel consumption figure dropped by a litre and a half per 100 km, as the road was so smooth and straight and the speeds constant. Who needs a fifth gear?
(6,08l/100km works out to 38,7 mpg for those interested, as usually the Polo’s needed seven and a half on the highway drives to Helsinki.)
Having reached scenic Kaunas late at night, with a little time to wash the cars and find dinner, we gathered the next morning at the starting point at a picturesque square in the old town. There were a few dozen cars to accompany us, with a large number of press cars like Nissan Micras, track cars such as Toyobarus and a great deal of classic cars, which would mostly compete in the separate, easy-going Tourism class. We were in the Sport class with everybody else, and the Polo had roughly half the horsepower output of the next least powerful cars – including the 100hp Peugeot 106.
It’s also good to note that this was the first occasion where I had ever driven competitively: I have some track time under my cambelts, but those have mostly been just for kicks, rarely timed. This was proper business.
As we had applied the mandatory sponsor stickers and race numbers and passed a very strict Lithuanian tech inspection that noted our battery to be loose – an earlier kludge had made it impossible to secure properly – we agreed with Henri, my co-driver that we would give it all we got. This meant that if the car were to display any worrying symptoms that would affect it mechanically, and make it difficult for us to get home, we’d ease up, but up until that point we’d drive it as hard as it would want to go.
We’d also try and minimize any easy, dumb errors that would cost us precious time, and we would definitely try our best to not end up last. It would have been the easy way just to hang along, blaming the 54-horsepower car for a half-hearted finish, but we didn’t want to be there just for comic relief. No pussyfooting for us, but doing it properly, just like the rest of the competitors in the Sport class.
And then, suddenly it was our turn to drive to the starting line, and the race was on.
The first outing was at a tarmac course outside the town. Most of these places were handling courses set up for new driver training, just garnished with VLC cones for a clearer outline and the occasional slalom bit. With the stock springs, it was immediately clear that the 185 wide Nankang Toursports would give the fender linings their money’s worth, as on the tighter turns the tires rubbed loudly on the plastic.
But with a keen eye on the notes, we negotiated the course without any glaring mistakes and pulled up cleanly on the finishing line – on both required attempts.
Then, we headed for what I can only describe as the Lithuanian Nordschleife. Nemuno Ziede is a Green Hell in its own right, a demanding track in a forest, with deep elevation changes and a track surface that left a bit to be desired for. Four laps of the track were preceded by a slalom challenge.
What surprised us was the relative lack of brake fade: common sense says that if you’re not exactly reaching frantic speeds, the brakes have less trouble slowing you down, but some of that must also be explained by the Polo’s low, 725kg kerb weight. It’s a lightweight car, so its 54 horses should have a reasonably light job getting it going, and the disc/drum setup would not be overwhelmed even on the track. This meant we didn’t burn our brakes with open flames unlike a ‘90s Mitsubishi Colt.
The “‘Schleife” behind us, with just a single cone missed, we hurried to a karting track in Smalininku. The rally’s press team and my camera-toting friend later provided us with some attractive body roll shots, as the Polo careened from a tight corner to another at maximum attack. For lunch, we were provided Lithuanian military rations. The less said of those, the better.
Blasting through the countryside to the day’s final handling course, with some average speed sections thrown in, the Polo gathered dust on its flanks – but that just made it look more like a rally car. We had no idea how we were actually doing, but the car seemed to hold up well. And the way the challenges were set up meant that there was always a first run where you could get a feel of the track, then try and improve. At the last stint of the day, I improved my couple-minute time by 14 seconds!
Since we needed to be at each starting point precisely as told, there was no time to waste on the transition sections. Luckily, the new Bilstein shocks afforded the Polo with a creak-free, no-complaints ride even on the patchier Lithuanian roads. Highly recommended.
Currently biggest problem is disintegrating foam inside my helmet.
— Antti Kautonen (@julkinen) June 2, 2017
Whenever stopped, I kept my eye on an oil leak I had tried to quench by having the crank seal done before the trip, but that didn’t take care of all of it: the oil pan gasket leaked oil on the driveshaft, which sprayed the oil around the passenger side wheel well. I wiped the accumulating oil off so it wouldn’t end up on anyone’s path, and made sure the engine still contained enough to keep things lubricated. Looking at the starting line on every course, it was clear we weren’t the only team leaking a little oil. What bothered me most was the cambelt squeak caused by an over-tightened belt when the crank seal was done, making the car sound worse than it was.
After a long day, we reached the hotel in Palanga, close to the Baltic Sea coast. We were exhausted, but not too much to enjoy a couple cold, well-deserved beers on the lodge’s patio with the rest of the racers. And looking at the first results posted on the wall, we were amazed to see the Polo wasn’t last on any of the stages we had tackled, and that we were definitely snapping on the heels of the Peugeot guys. The first day was hardly over, and it had already been the most challenging day the Polo had ever experienced – right after the long drive south to get to the starting line.
We are getting some results and THE POLO IS NOT LAST AT ANY STAGE
— Antti Kautonen (@julkinen) June 2, 2017
To Be Continued in Part 2
[Photos: Antti Kautonen/Lauri Ahtiainen/Pressauto.lt/Nemuno žiedas]