Peugeot 205 GTI Tolman Edition 2024 review – worth the £125,000 price tag?
Beautifully restored and boasting a 193bhp, 16-valve engine, is the Tolman Edition the best Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9 ever?
With its red paint almost glowing in the supernaturally clear light, the 205 GTI 1.9 looks so perfect it feels like I’ve stepped into a Peugeot brochure shoot, circa 1988. Up close, the impression of perfection is maintained, the finish of the Rouge Vallelunga paint exceptionally smooth and glossy, the trim and detailing spot on. Press your nose against the glass and the interior looks brand new too.
There are a couple of clues that this is not some ‘time warp’ car that’s been found shrink-wrapped in a hermetically sealed barn with only delivery miles on the clock (though its odometer does show barely 1000 miles). First, the factory paint was never this good, and second, the boot badges read ‘205 Tolman Edition’.
Regular readers will be familiar with Tolman Engineering and its 205s. We drove a Tolman 205 GTI 1.6 in evo 292 and it was superb. Not cheap at £45k but that’s about the going rate for a full nut-and-bolt rebuild with many improved parts and a near-concours finish. In fact, due to increasing energy costs, parts price rises and a higher specification, that car now costs £65k, plus a donor car.
The Tolman Edition takes things a fair bit further. Instead of the eight-valve 1.6 engine, it has a bespoke 1905cc 16-valve, created in-house using the cylinder head from the later 306 GTi 6. It has taken some clever work to get it to fit but the result is a reputed 193bhp zinger that revs to 7500rpm. Does it feel like almost 200bhp? You bet it does. Can the 205 handle it? Turns out that’s the wrong question. The correct question is can you handle it?
There will be just 20 Tolman Edition 205s, each costing £125k. Yep, £125k. You can debate ‘value for money’ until the cows come home, but I reckon for people who can afford it, what the Tolman Edition needs to do is drive better than any other 205 GTI ever. That’s certainly what I’m expecting.
We go back a long way, the Peugeot 205 GTI and me. A couple of weeks after starting as a road test assistant at Motor magazine in late January 1987, the cover car was the new 205 GTI 1.9. It was silver, shot at dusk in the snow, and it looked fantastic. Visually, all that had changed versus the 1.6 GTI was inch-bigger alloys, but it looked so much more aggressive.
It would be some time before I got to drive the 1.9 but in the meantime I benefited from an office reshuffle, swapping my Sunderland-built, white Nissan Bluebird LX for a light metallic blue 205 CTI. Oh my. It may have been wobbly but it was wonderful. I can still remember one particular top-down drive across Derbyshire, where my older brother was then living, at speed, nailing every apex, four-up. I expect my brother, his ex and her mum still can, too.
Even the smallest-engined, most basic 205s drove with brio, their tappety little petrol engines fizzy and willing, their styling tight, neat, their interiors insubstantial. The GTIs married supple, dynamic flair with enthusiastic performance; the 1.6-litre GTI (and CTI) with the 115bhp XU engine was a gem, and the 130bhp 1.9, I eventually discovered, was a hoot.
It seems hard to believe these days but 130bhp felt like plenty, partly because the 205 was so small and light – well under a ton – and partly because there wasn’t an excess of grip. The 1.9 had just 185/55 R15s but all the elements of the package fitted together so well that it was perfectly balanced; torque and traction, grip and agility. Well, maybe not quite perfect; the 1.9 in particular had a reputation for snappy lift-off oversteer.
That didn’t stop people putting in the 16-valve 1.9 from the 405 Mi16 or Citroën BX GTi 16V, which boosted power to 158bhp. The engine was a tight fit and in both of the cars thus equipped that I tried the installation was untidy, and neither felt as taut and together as the original. Quicker but unruly. Then there was the Turbo Technics conversion that boosted power to 175bhp and increased torque by 50 per cent. It really shouldn’t have worked but it was sensational: loopily fast on boost and an absorbing exercise in wheelspin management in anything less than ideal conditions, i.e. anything other than warm, smooth, straight asphalt.
The Tolman Edition has the opportunity to be the best, thanks to its engine delivering a naturally aspirated 193bhp – that’s over 100bhp per litre. To get the wider head to fit, boss Chris Tolman had to design his own cam cover and specify newer, smaller, individual ignition coil packs. Pop the bonnet and it looks very tidy, the 16-valve cylinder head with its slim cam cover – machined from billet aluminium – fitting just under the brake master cylinder.
As with the previous Tolman 205 we drove, the restoration is so thorough that you don’t need to start with the best donor car. ‘What you need is the best body shell that you can find,’ says Chris. ‘It can be a non-runner, somebody can have put a knife through all the seats, the wheels can be seized, because all of that is new.’ Body shells are pretty good as long as there’s no crash damage because they were galvanised. Also, most parts are available. Tolman strips, sandblasts and makes good any damage and then repaints the shell using the latest paint techniques to achieve an outstanding finish.
‘The rear axle is fully restored, repainted and fitted with our springs. The front dampers are changed to our spec and we modify the front wishbones, which gives slightly different geometry and roll-centres, which makes turn-in a lot sharper.’ The brakes are bespoke: four-pot front calipers by AP Racing with discs on aluminium bells, saving almost 3kg per corner.
The gearbox is completely stripped, vapour blasted, inspected, crack tested and rebuilt with new bearings and, if required, new synchros. The shift is one of those characteristics that helps define the 205 driving experience and Tolman simply fits new rods and spindle joints, with metal instead of plastic bushings on the joints. ‘It doesn’t need a quick shift or anything like that,’ says Chris.
‘We put in a lot more sound deadening just to make them a bit nicer, and hopefully less tinny, although you can’t stop all of it. And it helps with the radio. Everybody expects really good sound and connectivity. It’s got an amplifier with four speakers and a sub in the boot, and USB connectors in the cigar lighter. But it’s still only 895kg.’
In the run up to driving the Tolman Edition, I’ve been bothered by the meeting of expectation and reality. Do restomods have to be better than the original – faster, quieter – just to stand still, because the car that we hold in our mind’s eye is an idealised version? Do we only remember the good times? And has the steady and relentless improvement in technology and refinement and quality led us to expect unrealistic standards from cars built 35 years ago? Or has progress robbed cars of their vitality, smothered it under blankets of safety and refinement and kerb weight?
Well, at the first sight of the glossy red 205 I’m instantly grinning. What a terrific piece of design it is, as taut and neat and attractive as when it was launched 40 years ago, in 1983. And so small. It’s not just the paint finish that is a notch above the original, either; open and close the driver’s door and the sound is more Golf thud than 205 clang. I slip into the half-leather seat and am transported back a few decades, the floor a sea of red carpet, red highlights everywhere and facia plastics of a quality that would be rejected by the maker of a budget car today.
The feeling of being back in the ’80s intensifies when I twist the key and fire up the motor. It may have 16 valves and an intricate, ceramic-coated exhaust manifold, but the noise coming from the authentic-looking, single tailpipe is pure 205 GTI. It’s a very expensive exhaust but well worth the effort, as is the fitment of power steering. Not all 1.9s had PAS but I thought it was a must-have back in the day because the efforts were so high. It was quite a job to fit it with the 16-valve engine, though, but I’m glad Tolman persevered.
‘It’s usually under the plenum chamber and the alternator,’ says Chris, ‘but with this set-up, it won’t fit. On an Mi16, which is very similar, they bolted it on top of the gearbox and drove it off the exhaust cam pulley, which I thought would be easy… but that would go through all the water pipes on the cylinder head that I used. So I ended up making my own power steering pump, which is driven directly off the exhaust cam.’
Another unique feature: rather than rework the original instrument pack to shift the red line, Tolman has created a digital dashboard that mimics the original. It’s so perfectly rendered that at a glance it looks analogue, though at a press of the ‘sport’ button (the dimpled switch with the Peugeot Sport logo) it becomes the simpler dial pack from the T16 rally car.
That button also delivers a much more aggressive throttle map, which I won’t be needing for a while because even with the softer map I’m finding the clutch a bit tricky pulling away. Even later in the day, it still won’t be instinctive. This is odd because on a light throttle the engine is a right softy, pulling smoothly from tickover in top gear, which is good for about 19mph per 1000rpm. There are a variety of final drives available and this car has the shortest ratio from the 1.6, which, with almost 200bhp, makes for ‘sprint’ gearing.
Resisting the urge to nail it at the first sniff of a straight, I drink-in the 205 GTI experience, faithfully rendered by the Tolman Edition: the light engine note, the still stringy but swift gearshift and the supple ride – despite slightly firmer springs and this car being set 25mm lower than standard. After a diet of modern fast hatches you can already sense the lack of kerb weight, see it almost in the low waistline and tiny scale.
Everything warmed up, the throttle hits the red carpet and very quickly everything becomes urgent. The pace picks up in a moment as decent torque (149lb ft) meets very little weight, the light note still there but now dominated by a guttural bark reminiscent of a pair of Weber Twin 40s. Torque hands over to power and the urgency seems to escalate, to rise exponentially, the rev counter needle suddenly in the red. Grab another gear and in a flash it’s in the red again, another and now you’re really motoring, corners arriving fast, some bumps punching through and rattling loose change in the coin holders. But the car feels planted, in control.
Sport mode offers sharper throttle response but the car is a little jumpier on and off the gas. Modern turbo engines are brilliant but this is a slap-in-the-chops reminder of how thrilling a high-power, naturally aspirated four-cylinder can be. Happily, the steering is well weighted and not too responsive around the straight-ahead because in an original 205 GTI 1.9, the last thing you’d want to do at speed is excite the back end. Sure, you’ll see this car cocking a rear wheel in the photos but that’s playing for the camera, diving into a tight turn and backing off until the rear comes round. In reality, you’d be back on the throttle and hauling hard for the next corner.
Wet roads show just how planted, how stable the Tolman Edition is; you can work the engine just as hard as in the dry and it will grip and resist wheelspin and carry speed even on tricky B-roads. Traction is phenomenal, unreal almost, which is down to a combination of the chassis set-up, the excellent Michelin Pilot Exaltos from the ‘Youngtimer’ range and the torque-biasing limited-slip diff. The diff obviously has a very positive effect but you never feel it working through the steering wheel or tugging at the front wheels. Remarkable. The limit seems to be your bravery.
So, is the Tolman Edition the best-handling 205 GTI I’ve ever driven? Yes, yes it is. It manages to turn everything up to 11 yet remain poised and exploitable. Is it worth £125k? That’s a different question.
Peugeot 205 GTI Tolman Edition specs
|In-line 4-cyl, 1905cc
|193bhp @ 6870rpm
|149lb ft @ 6870rpm
This story was first featured in evo issue 308.