Exactly one weekend ago I embarked on a 650 km trip from the small town of Benneveld in the Dutch country side, to my German hometown of Ansbach. It was my first journey with my new car, a 1988 Peugeot 205 GTI. Below is the (lengthy) story of how I got here.
1988 Peugeot 205 GTI 1.6
Some of you may recall the Peugeot 205 GTI as a car recently inducted into the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, but that was not my reason for buying this car. I have, since the last year, owned a softer version of the 205 GTI. My daily driver since last summer has been a Peugeot 205 CTI, a convertible version of this same car. The difference between the CTI and GTI, beyond the soft top and softer chassis, is subtle: the hardtop car has a stronger front suspension on a subframe (Peugeot didn't put this suspension on the ragtop because it twisted the open chassis), all else is pretty much the same. Despite the lesser suspension the convertible has a lower center of gravity, which makes up for its heavier weight and lack of agility due to suspension differences.
The handling of both cars is excellent for a small car, and souped up GTI's are known to terrorize much bigger cars in European race tracks. But all things being alike, the hard top is the car you really want.
Peugeot 205 TCT vs Porsche 911 GT3
Initially I intended to bring my CTI to the USA. It would probably be the first CTI in the US (there are already a few GTIs), but the longer I owned the car, the more I learned about its quirks, about the model's supply issues, about its mechanics, etc. The thing about a Peugeot 205 GTI is that mechanical parts are plentiful and cheap, while all the plastic trim bits are hard to find, and expensive once found. So, with my CTI needing bits of expensive and unobtainium trim here and there, I was considering a GTI. Somehow my wife went along with the idea of bringing a nicer car to America and approved a certain budget, and I started searching ads. I considered buying other cars instead of a GTI too, but this article isn't about that.
My 1989 Peugeot 205 CTI 1.6
That's when I found out that finding the right GTI isn't easy. I didn't find many GTIs for sale within a two hour drive from my home, one in particular looked OK in the tiny ad pictures online, but when I asked the owner for high resolution pictures I saw the car was a mess. Another had all the expensive trim bits but needed an engine rebuild and a new transmission (and there was nothing said about the rear beam suspension: they are expensive to rebuild and usually shot on abused GTIs). So I cast my net wider.
I found a 205 Rally in Hungary that was at the very top of my budget. The Rally isn't a GTI, but a close cousin. It has a smaller and less powerful engine, but it is more spartan (no sound proofing, no electric windows, etc), lighter, has the same suspension as a GTI, and its 1.3 engine is fed by two side draft Weber carburetors from the factory. This particular car had had a full rebuild in Hungary, including taking the entire engine apart and replacing every bearing, valve guide, etc. It was like a brand new car. And having Hungarian Peugeot lovers rebuild the car (it was rebuilt by the Peugeot Club Budapest) I bet it was better put together then when it left the factory in France, where the workers were probably slightly drunk on wine half the time. I contacted the Rally seller, he spoke great English, and asked for photos. Soon I received a zip file with dozens of pictures of the car and its restoration.
Indeed this Rally was in great shape, but I had a problem with some things they did on the restoration: the seats were the wrong ones for the car (leather, not cloth), the wheels too (aluminum, not steel), they added a stereo, and a few little details here and there were a bit too gaudy for me (hand painted Peugeot racing colors on the wheel center caps, for example). I figured if I was paying almost 7000 Euro for a fully restored 205 Rally I wanted it 100% original, not some improved, souped up version. I wanted cloth seats, white painted steel wheels and no stereo. I also questioned the wisdom of paying that much money for a 205.
NB-LS-95 showing off its repainted rear end
I hit pay dirt when I started searching in the Netherlands. There were many 205 for sale there, and the country was only a five hour drive and one border away from me. There were two cars specifically that enticed me: a GTI 1.9 that was said to be in very good shape with lots of recent maintenance, and receipts dating back ten years; and a GTI 1.6 that had been restored, with a new paint job, rebuilt rear beam, and many other new parts too. Both cars had all the plastic trim pieces in very good shape, both were red, and the price difference between the two was about 750 Euro. I emailed both sellers and waited.
Soon I was in communication with the seller of the 1.6. He said him and his dad were Peugeot collectors, had a few older Pugs, had just restored the 205, and were looking to sell it to buy a 404 to restore. He said the car had not a dent nor scratch, looked great inside and out, was 100% original, as his restoration meant to make the car as it appeared on the showroom when it was new. The engine and gearbox hadn't been restored, but items like belts, hoses, spark plugs, etc, had been replaced. He also sent me many pictures of the car, and a few videos, and we chatted via WhatsApp about the car. The seller of the 1.9 didn't reply to my email.
Stock interior with cloth seats and unfaded carpet? Yes!
I ran into a slight problem with the seller of the GTI. I could only come to the Netherlands to see and buy the car during the weekend, but to get Dutch export license plates I would have to be there on a weekday. He also refused to do any export papers without me seeing the car beforehand. I insisted that I could not go to the Netherlands two weekends in a row, and said I could put a deposit on the car via Paypal to show that I am indeed interested in the car. Three days before the Saturday when I could come buy the car I had no concrete virtual handshake from the seller, and wasn't sure if I would be able to buy his car.
I enlisted the help of fellow Jalop duurtlang, who is not only Dutch like the seller, but also a Peugeot lover, owner of a 406 coupé and another 205 GTI 1.6. He and I had been in conversation for a while via Kinja, with he helping me in my car buying efforts in the Netherlands. Previously he had gone out of his way to look at another car that was a likely candidate for me, a Citroën BX GTI 16v. His help was truly invaluable. Duurtlang called the seller of the GTI, who just happened to live in the same town as him, and with a Dutchman calling another some sort of arrangement was made possible. The seller would agree to do the export papers beforehand if I put a deposit worth half the asking price of the car. I would need to get German 5-day license plates to drive the car from the Netherlands to home (much more expensive than Dutch export plates). I had never really bought a used car sight unseen before, but I figured beggars can't be choosers, and his GTI was the nicest one I had seen so far for sale at this price. His asking price was right along the 205 GTI price guide on the Classic And Performance Car website.
I contacted the seller after duurtlang told me his terms, asked him to send me a picture of his ID card, and the vehicle's registration papers, just so I could feel better about doing the deal: the last thing I wanted was to be scammed. The seller also told me he had been scammed before, that's why he was so wary of doing the transaction this way. The registration papers matched the seller's name, and the VIN on the registration matched the pictures he sent me.
That night I sent the seller that biggest Paypal payment I had ever sent, and I hoped everything would be alright. The last thing I needed was to arrive in the Netherlands on a Saturday morning, and find out that the car I had just put a 50% down payment was not what I had been shown.
Friday night I left Ansbach on a rented Mazda 3 (awesome car, I was thoroughly impressed at how nice the new Mazda 3 feels) and drove towards the Netherlands. I overnighted in Osnabruck, then on Saturday morning I returned the rental in the Dutch town of Hogeveen. Duurtlang went out of his way again, and picked me up in his very nice 406 Coupé, and gave me a ride to the seller's father's home in Benneveld, where the GTI was.
As we approached at the address I was given, my fears soon melted away: there were no indications that I was being scammed. Arriving at the home we first saw a glimmering red GTI parked in the front. Nearby were a Peugeot 504 sedan, a 406 coupé V6 (not duurtlang's), a new Ford Fiesta, and a beautiful barn filled with a Porsche 911, a Peugeot 304 sedan, and another vintage Peugeot I don't remember. The home was itself very nice too, very tidy and clean, occupying perhaps a half acre of land, with a wrought iron Peugeot logo hung by the front door.
406, 205 and 503
We greeted the seller, and soon started looking at the GTI in question. The car was indeed beautiful inside and out. The new paint looked very nice in the sunny Dutch morning, and the engine fired right up without touching the gas. Although the car looked beautiful it wasn't a brand new car and there were minor imperfections here and there. The trunk showed some wetness underneath the liner, a common problem on GTIs, usually due to water coming in though the rear side window gasket (very easy fix); the rear hatch window was very neatly glued on to the body due to a lack of a new hatch window gasket (Peugeot no longer makes them); the side trim pieces, while all there and in very good shape, showed two different shades of grey: truth is most people will never notice; the engine while running great showed a few bits of non standard pieces being used, like the fuel return hose. I could nitpick some more but the car was overall great, really in very good shape.
205, and two 406
I took it for a test drive around the small town: all gears went in smoothly, pedals required regular effort, brakes were smooth and pulled straight, hand brake was tight, no odd noises, the suspension felt supple yet firm, the heater and all electric pieces inside worked, the dash didn't rattle, etc. It drove as good as it looked: my fifty percent down payment hadn't been a waste after all. As soon as I returned to the seller's home we talked some more about the 205 and his other cars, then we shook hands on the sale.
The car was being sold with another 50 pounds worth of spare parts, which were actually mostly trim bits, which is not bad at all, since those are the hard to find items. In the three boxes were fender flares, a grille, four mirrors, a sunroof vent, a muffler, an instrument binnacle, etc. Lots of odds and ends. I didn't feel like carrying all that stuff with me on the car for the long drive home so I paid the seller a bit more to have all that shipped to my home at a later date.
The parts pile that came with the car
After we did the transaction, signed all papers, talked some more about cars and life in general, it was time for me to go. I had a good five hour drive home, and the ride home would be the true test of the car. Hopefully the car would do the 650 km home as well as it did the few kilometers around Benneveld.
That's me grinning like an idiot after buying my GTI
As soon as I left the seller's home I realized one thing: I didn't really know how to get out of here. I hadn't paid attention to the roads as duurtlang drove in, and got lost on the Dutch country side. I tried my cellphone GPS but my battery somehow was down to 4%. My cellphone charger wouldn't power up on the cigarette lighter socket, despite the lighter being operational. No luck. So I just drove around country roads for 45 minutes, trying to head east, as that would be where the German border was. Soon I found a Dutch Autobahn, got on it, and ten minutes later crossed into Germany.
Once on the German Autobahn I cruised mostly between 120 to 130 km/h, with a few bouts to 150 km/h. The car drove as well here as on the country roads. I could feel it had only 105 hp, as it felt slower then my 115 hp CTI, but the car ran smoother and was also more responsive. The weather on the way home was perfect and when the sun came out I opened the big sunroof and aired out the car. The long ride home was uneventful: my new old Pug arrived home without a hitch.
On the road I could feel exactly why this car is so special. I grew up driving small 80s European hatchbacks, from Fiat 147 and Uno, to VW Golf and Scirocco, Chevrolet (Opel) Corsa, Citroën AX; I have owned a bunch of other Japanese and Korean hatchbacks too, and none feel as responsive as this. The suspension on this car is lively, the engine eager to rev, the throttle responsive. The tight gears are matched to the revvy engine quite well, and although it isn't necessarily the quickest car out there (even by 1980s standards), taking the car to 4000 rpm at 75% throttle will definitely make you feel the urge that this little machine has to accelerate.
The Autobahn ends up being the wrong kind of road for the GTI. With a low top speed (below 180 km/h, or 111 mph) and tight gears (3500 rpm at 100 km/h in fifth gear), you are really relegated to just being passed by everybody on the Autobahn, from the fast wagons in black, to retirees in their diesel Opel Corsas and VW Polos.
No, the 205 GTI is more suited to a small, tight, curvy road. It is here that the car shines. I had tasted that on my CTI before, but the lowered and hardened suspension on my cabriolet makes taking the backroads very uncomfortable. Thankfully this GTI has a very compliant stock suspension that has plenty of wheel travel, and it welcomes the uneven pavement of backroads.
The country roads nearby (last year's picture: we have no snow yet)
It is here on the tight rural roads of Europe that this car comes alive: wringing out the 4 cylinder engine to 5000 rpm or higher, letting the exhaust sing; blipping the throttle before downshifting into third gear for a left hand sweeper; flooring the gas through a curve, trusting that the capable suspension will just take you around the uneven road; not lifting the throttle even though you want to, halfway through a decreasing radius corner, you just turn the steering wheel tighter into the curve and keep the right foot down: trust the GTI, it does magic! And you do all that without breaking the speed limit!
Here in the tight black ribbons surrounded by farm fields, trees, meadows, lakes... here is where the GTI earns its pay. It is here where the little French hot rod will say "this is why I exist, this is my reason for being. I am not just an economic hatchback!" After heading out for a jaunt on your favorite back road you head home, park the car and head inside, wondering if you shouldn't just go out for some more... But I digress.
During my first week of ownership I have discovered two flaws on my GTI that will need repair. First one, and the reason I am still using "USA" military temporary plates and not German permanent plates, is that the car has developed a small oil leak on the right side driveshaft output seal. The vehicle failed the mandatory inspection due to this leak. When I saw the car in the Netherlands there was no leak, but after the long drive the leak developed. That's the way with old cars. I bought the new seal at my Peugeot dealer (8 Euro), now I just need to put in the time and effort to replace the seal. Then I can get the car re-inspected and get permanent D plates.
That high rear end...
The other problem is that I have realized that the rear end of this car is about one inch too high. I should have caught that beforehand and asked the seller to fix it, but it's my mistake now. Fortunately the height is adjustable in these cars, but that requires partially disassembling the rear suspension and re-setting the torsion bars. Not minor work, it should take me about three to four hours to get it all right and level, but it's not the end of the line.
The master mechanic at my Peugeot dealer came out to see the car when I went there to buy the driveshaft seal. He is himself restoring a 205 Rally, and was like a little kid looking and probing around my GTI. He loves the car, says he hasn't seen one so pretty and original in a long time, and asked me if I would sell it to him. I told him I would sell it for what I paid for it plus 1500 Euro. Too much of course, but I want to enjoy this car before I pass it on. He gave me some pointers on re-setting the rear height, and said he would give me a discount on an oil change just so he could test drive my car.
So for now this little French firecracker is mine. It is my intention to bring this car to the US with me. I am moving to Virginia this December, and will be shipping the 205 sometime then. By March I hope to have it in the US, where it will join the other dozen or so GTIs on our shores. It is indeed a tiny car by US standards, but it is also unique and special. With it's low speed the GTI might be the perfect car to explore Virginia's back roads, hopefully the car will keep me from going to jail just for enjoying the State's great country roads...
Below are some pictures I snapped up today.