Tolman Peugeot 205 GTI 2022 review

Today’s best hot hatches originate from the Far East, but 30 years ago Europe was the epicentre. So how does one of the icons from that era perform with some 21st century upgrades?

Now we’re really flying. The little, single-cam, eight-valve motor is well into the red zone on the Jaeger rev-counter, surging past 7000rpm, the note hardening into a tight, percussive sound, like a drill. Perhaps a small, cordless, low voltage sort of drill rather than something you’d use to cut through a rock face. But what it can’t offer in raw power, it makes up for in spirit. It is rev-tastic, tuneful, and as I glance down at the speedometer I realise we’re really covering the ground, as just over 800kg skims and shimmies down this fast, sweeping B-road, exhibiting an economy of movement and a loose-limbed ease perfectly in tune with the stylish insouciance so associated with this car’s mother country. My face almost hurts from smiling so much, an emotion out of all proportion to the power output and price of this car. Which says everything really.  

Like many car enthusiasts, particularly of a certain age, Chris Tolman’s back catalogue of car ownership includes a Peugeot 205 GTI. Quite a few, in fact, including a number built for competition. No great surprise there, given that the 205 remains one of the greatest hot hatchbacks of all time and the car that more than any other, bar perhaps the Mk1 Golf GTI, can lay claim to defining the genre. And like many, myself included, more recently Chris had bought a rather tired 205 GTI with the idea of restoring it. This was when tired examples were still available for pocket change and the memories of a very special car still burned brightly. However, that’s where this story diverges from the usual trajectory. My GTI remains in an embarrassing state of semi-slumber; Chris’s, emphatically, does not. 

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If the Tolman name is familiar, there’s a good reason for that. In evo 285 we featured the extraordinary Tolman Motorsport Sunbeam Lotus, a track-focused restomod that turned everyone’s favourite rear-wheel-drive hatchback into a beast of machine with serious lap-time potential. It was a riot, but also clearly a product finished to the sort of very high standard you’d associate with a professional motorsport team – which Tolman also is. With Chris’s passion for 205s, and his family history with the Chrysler and Peugeot marques, it was inevitable that any 205 project would escalate into something much greater than a simple restoration. 

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Essentially, Chris has followed a central tenet of the restomod scene: to create a car that drives how you think you remember the original drove, that looks how your mind tells you the original looked, but that uses modern solutions to deal with the inevitable vices that the original definitely had. 

The initial restoration of this 205 was relatively straightforward. The bodyshell was sand-blasted inside and out and new metal was added where it was needed. Original 205s are suprisingly resistant to major rot, but after 30 years in the British climate it’s not unusual for rust to eat away at the sills and inner arches. It was then painted and rebuilt to a fine standard, with every last nut and bolt plated or replaced, and with a nod to what would have been a very high specification for a lowly 1.6 GTI at the time, it has power steering, central locking, a sunroof, and those inimitable seats – at least half a size too small, I always think – trimmed in full leather with green stitching. The aim has been to make it feel, smell and sound like a new 205 GTI, and there’s new plastic trim and badges on the outside (hideously expensive to procure) and even recreated under-bonnet stickers for the authentic ‘fresh-from-Sochaux’ look. 

Less ‘Sochaux’ is the in-line four, which has been treated not only to a complete rebuild, but also a good deal of tuning and modernisation too. The blueprinted engine features a polished and balanced crankshaft, a skimmed head with a little work to the ports, and a lightweight flywheel. Most tellingly of all, the original Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection set-up, the bane of many a GTI mechanic, has been replaced with a full Motec M130 ECU with throttle, crank position, lambda and MAP sensors all fitted, the whole lot then hidden within the gutted remnants of the original system. 

Not only has this allowed vastly more sophistication to the way the engine runs, enabling a significant boost to the mid-range pull as well as raising power from 115bhp to around 134bhp – in excess of the 1.9-litre model – but it has also significantly improved the car’s manners. GTIs are notorious for cantankerous cold start behaviour and stalling when brought to a sudden stop, but these flaws should, I’m told, now be a thing of the past. A ‘sport’ button has been nicely integrated as well, offering a sharper throttle response and a barrage of overrun pops and bangs when pressed.

The attention to detail and the sensitive approach to modification is impressive, redolent of people who have a real love for the original. Take the exhaust, for example, which has been made bespoke for the car – not necessarily for performance (few if any systems are more efficient than the original GTI one), but because finding a new one that recreates the split downpipe and original tailpipe design is virtually impossible. The Tolman stainless steel version features a few tweaks to improve the flow, but the note is pure 205 GTI – instantly recognisable to the ear. 

The headlamps, too, retain the same appearance but have been upgraded from the hopeless originals to LED items, albeit below the lumens rating where a wash and self-levelling function is required. 

Finally, there’s been the delicate task of refreshing the 205’s dynamics without spoiling the magic of the original car. The Tolman car runs Bilstein dampers with Eibach springs, partly because the famed original Peugeot ‘red’ dampers are no longer available. The new set-up drops the ride height slightly from the lofty original, reducing body roll too, but aims to recapture the blend of ride control and nimble handling that made the GTI so special. The front brakes have been updated to those from a 306 GTi 6 (hence the move to a 1.9-litre car’s 15-inch Speedline wheels, so that they fit), with a 1.6-litre’s drum brakes retained on the rear. 

The engine fires cleanly and immediately idles rock-steady, with no assistance from the throttle pedal required. It’s that same old gorgeous induction and exhaust note, all hollow and metallic and instantly keen to rev. As you’d hope, everything feels tight and together, and we’re soon up to speed, waiting – as GTI drivers will recall – an eternity for the oil temperature gauge to move.

These early miles provide a reminder of how beautifully the 205 steers. The GTI’s power rack is up there with the very best of them, including such luminaries as the Lotus Esprit. It’s so much more direct than the unassisted GTI rack, obviously far easier at low-speed manoeuvring, but retaining the most incredible sense of connection between driver and the front wheels. As you up the pace and start placing more lateral loads on the chassis, you can sense the tread-blocks shifting, the sidewalls taking up the slack, the amount of outright grip available and the way it changes with the road’s surface. After much fine-tuning, the Tolman car retains the fluidity that marked out this generation of French cars: it flows down the road, untroubled by nasty-looking bumps and awkward cambers, yet there’s so much control in the corners, with no suggestion of the snap oversteer of 205 folklore. 

Of course, like a lot of folklore, stories about the GTI’s handling have been exaggerated over the years, and fresh suspension components and modern tyres help keep it faithful. Another gamechanger is that Michelin now offers the correct 185/55 R15 tyre in its Youngtimer Sport range, so quality performance tyres are a reality for the 205, and the result is that it feels really planted. Adjustable on the throttle, yes, but far from frightening. Zipping through the ultra-short gear ratios, letting the engine rev and rev and tucking it tightly into turns where there’s so much more road width to play with compared to in a wide, modern car, the Tolman 205 feels alive and vibrant. It’s impossible to suppress a grin. 

This particular car has been something of a proof of concept for Chris Tolman, and is now up for sale at £45,000. For those of us who remember when 1.6 GTIs could barely reach a grand, that sounds spectacular, but it’s a price comparable with the very best ultra-low-mileage examples at auction, and of course this car has been rebuilt and upgraded with expensive components. Given the price of rear-wheel-drive Ford Escorts, back in the day and now, there’s a certain logic – and inevitability – to it. 

Tolman hopes to build a limited run of ten full restomod GTIs, based on the 1.9 and with further modernisation. Those cars will cost a bit more, but given that most restomods seem to start at £350,000 – and that the 205 can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of them for the grin factor – it almost seems like good value.

Tolman 205 GTI specs

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1580cc
Power134bhp @ 7250rpm
Torque101lb ft @ 6200rpm
0-60mph7.5sec (est)
Top speed125mph (est)
Price£45,000 (see text)

This story was first feature in evo issue 292.

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