Air Lift Performance 1991 Volkswagen Polo Breadvan Mk2F
Determined to preserve his Polo’s unusual utility fleet orange paint, automotive engineer Thomas Owczarski took an unconventional approach to the already challenging task of laying it low.
BRIGHT IDEASEURO-LOOK POLO
If one car demonstrates what Euro-look is all about then this 1991 Volkswagen Polo Breadvan Mk2F is it. Euro it hurts…
Words: Alex Grant
Photos: Artem Chernous
Modified cars tend to get noticed for their loudest elements, but it’s often the smallest details of a build that are the hardest to get right. The elements that raise the most knowledgeable eyebrows are often the result of laborious evening and weekend work, solving problems rooted only in an unwavering commitment to a self-made goal. With more than 40 early Polo projects to his name, Thomas Owczarski is all too familiar with exploring those dark alleys.
«The inner diameter of the pipework is 10mm, which means the system is almost as quick as using hydraulics»
It takes a bit of first-hand experience to really understand the effort that’s gone into what you see here. The Mk2 Polo, and the facelifted ‘2F’ version 41-year-old Thomas has been drawn to ever since he could drive, puts up more of a fight than Golfs of a similar age when you’re dialling in tyre-tucking stance like this. Factor in the even more restrictive breadvan bodystyle he’s working with, plus a self-inflicted reluctance to alter any of the factory metalwork, and you quickly get a feel for the scale of challenge involved. Especially as this one was almost entirely home-made.
“I’m an automotive engineer, but my passion for cars started in my father’s small garage,” he explains. “There was always something in there to work on, so I learned a lot early in life and started tuning my mother’s Trabant when I was 14. By the time I was 16 I had built three Trabants and three Simson motorbikes. Then I moved on to the Polos…”
If you’re imagining a storage yard packed with moss-covered and part-dismantled beaters, then you’re way out of line. In fact, Thomas’s affection for the Polo has turned out some of Europe’s most notable examples. The ‘Snow White Queen’, a red and chrome accented white breadvan usually displayed on mirrored floors, can and does still pull a crowd at shows 15 years after it first broke cover. Meanwhile, his aerodynamically re-worked, wide-body RocketPolo made these pages in 2019 and there’s an even more unhinged sequel on the way.
Between the showstoppers and feature cars, he’s kept himself entertained tracking down and restoring the rarest special editions, building hill climbers and tuning performance dailies, and each has been unique.
“I love giving materials and machines a soul, and I love the 2F Polo,” he smiles. “At the moment I have eight of them – seven breadvans, and one coupe. Over the years I’ve collected loads of parts, like engines, wheels, etc, so I can keep building and restoring them. Sometimes I’ll just build them 100% stock, others get engine mods or stance, and a few of them have been show cars too. It depends on my mood.”
Whoever ordered this car back in 1991 had very different plans for it. With the roofline of a miniature estate and an efficient small engine, the breadvan (which was also the basis of an actual Polo van) had some unique workhorse appeal and a few unusual options to go with it. That RAL2000 Yellow Orange paintjob wouldn’t have appeared in any brochures, but it’s the factory colour for German highway maintenance utility (kommunal) vehicles. Similarly specced to a regular mid spec Polo CL, the Polo had spent its early years hauling equipment as part of the City of Hamburg’s municipal fleet.
This was a novelty Thomas couldn’t resist. “Back in 2008 I was looking for a project car in good condition, and this came up in an auction. It hadn’t been used much so it had only done 84,000km and it still had the factory paint. The seats were worn out and the tailgate was rusty, but the rest was in good condition, so I decided not to disturb the bodywork at all. And I still haven’t.”
The scabbier panels offered some opportunities to put his own stamp on the car. Instead of just replacing the tailgate, Thomas enlisted the help of a bodyshop to shorten and re-shape the number plate tub to a square. The central Volkswagen badge and rear wiper were removed before the rust-free panel was re-worked in orange, and it’s now contrasted against the carbon fibre handle. Fully sold on the colour scheme, the same distinctive hue has also found its way onto the lower sections of the bumpers – something usually reserved for the most well-specced models in the Polo line-up. For preservation’s sake, the arches and under-body were given a fresh layer of protective paint, while all the suspension parts are powdercoated in black. Given how low it is, you’ll have to take our word for that one.
It needed little else. Having addressed the less desirable signs of its hard-working previous life, Thomas put the Polo to use as a daily driver, but not before he’d addressed the utilitarian ride height. Despite the confines of the breadvan’s flat-topped wheel arches – even the sportiest GT model missed out on the widest wheels fitted to the coupe – its rebirth was marked out by wheel options as loud as the paint. Light teal 17" Renault Megane wheels, polished Fiat Grande Punto multi-spokes and white 15" OZ rally monoblocks all found their way under the hatchback’s bodywork before the static drop eventually outstayed its welcome.
Thomas needed something more. “The car ended up on body-coloured 13" DDR Rennsports, but it was too low to drive,” he laughs, before hinting that this was more of a speedbump than roadblock. “That’s when I decided to make my own air ride system. Getting a Polo this low means touching nearly all parts of the suspension, and it takes a lot of measuring, too.”
That’s no exaggeration. Early Polos use a simple suspension strut up front, and the standard tubes that the shocks slot into would have prevented the body dropping as low as Thomas wanted. Undeterred, those have been cut off and replaced with shorter custom tubes for larger-diameter Gaz shocks as well as mounting points for the air bags, while the control arm pickups have been lowered to bring the geometry back in line.
Unwilling to take a knife to the breadvan’s rear arches, the beam axle at the back is 30mm shorter than stock, which tucks the wheels a little further under the body and offers a bit more clearance. It’s the sort of major surgery most passers-by wouldn’t even notice but, with a stance like this, it’s paid off. The elements you can see are just as well executed. Behind the custom tailgate, the twin Viair compressors and 20-litre fuel tank have been colour-coded to the vivid cyan of the airlines, and are contrasted against stainless overbraid, chrome fittings and polished metalwork of the near-symmetrical home-made install. To keep an eye on everything, Thomas added individual gauges with high- and low-pressure warnings and mounted them in a custom-made centre console with the switchgear.
With that level of effort, it’s no great surprise to discover that he hasn’t cut corners with the visual impact. “Everything is selfmade, and the inner diameter of the pipework is 10mm, which means the system is almost as quick as using hydraulics. I had to make new brackets for the brake lines, and the exhaust system is custom made to get it as close to the body as possible. It’s the only way to get it low enough,” he tells us. If the Rocketpolo, with its CAD-designed front wishbone suspension setup and bespoke GRP widebody kit had taught him anything, it’s that a lack of off-the-shelf parts isn’t necessarily a dead end for a build like this. Having gone tentenths with the belly-scraping ride height, the tiny radius of the 13-inch DDR Rennsports left the Polo bottoming out before the suspension could reach full drop, and it was becoming obvious he needed to scale up to get the stance how he wanted. This could easily have involved months of tracking down 14-inch wheels with exactly the right oddball fitment for a breadvan, but Thomas had other plans.
“My hobby has always been about creating new items with different production techniques. Sometimes I’ll build them by hand, like hand-laminating GRP parts for the Rocketpolo, and sometimes I’ll use CNC and CAD, or 3D printing, so I decided to make my own wheels,” he says, as if it’s a normal part of a build process.
“Because I didn’t want to touch the body, I had to focus on getting the wheels and suspension right. I found the smallest 14-inch outer dishes I could get, so they’re the same front and back, then designed new centres in CAD and had them milled from T6 aluminium. It’s a similar design to the DDR Rennsport, then I’ve adjusted the inner width to position them in the arches and get the stretch I wanted.” The wheel dimensions are far from typical.
Those restrictive rear arches required a reverse-staggered set, with 5.0-inch barrels at the back and 6.0-inch at the front, and the latter have been pushed out a further 20mm with the help of some spacers. That unusual fitment is masked by matching 1.5-inch Schmidt dishes all round, including a fifth centre built with a narrower barrel built as a space-saver spare. It’s a reflection of single-minded commitment to the Polo’s still-untouched bodywork.
With that in mind, the visual changes are sympathetic to the original styling. The Hella grille is a rare period-correct upgrade, and its twin spotlights have been tinted yellow to match the equally hard-to-come-by French foglights set into the front bumper. That colour scheme is carried into the stock headlights, which have been dismantled and tinted internally, while the rear lights were given a coat of transparent red mimicking the lamps fitted to early-2000s Polos. The custom exhaust system is tipped by a polished tailpipe curved as the it was from the factory, and the passenger mirror has been blanked off to further tone down the visual clutter.
“The original interior was quite badly worn,” he says, squeezing the trigger of the door handle to peer inside. “I managed to get a completely stock interior from a 30,000km Polo Fox from my friend Ferry, and that was like brand new. Then I added an early Jamex steering wheel and gear knob, as they match the colours in the seats. They came from a local tuning shop, and I think they had been in the window since the early 1990s. Otherwise it’s standard, except I’ve added the factory wiring loom for rear speakers – those are quite rare too.”
Of course, with an ever-shifting stock of parts and no plans to sell up, there’s no reason for that steady evolution to stop any time soon. Used regularly, and still practical enough to be dragged back into daily driver duty if needed, over a decade of meticulous re-engineering hasn’t exhausted the possibilities buzzing around Thomas’s Polo-obsessed brain. In the short term, though, it seems other projects and the wider parts stack might benefit from the hard work put into this one. After all, with RocketPolo V2 under construction, there’s room to dial back a little bit with the former ute.
“The Polo has just turned 30, so it’s close to an oldtimer and still has the original paint and engine,” he says. “I still have the parts to rebuild it to stock, so I’ll drive it like that then I’ll probably modify it with some good parts again later on. It’s a long-term project, so I’ll keep changing things to suit the time and trends, but I’m never going to disturb that bodywork.” Considering Thomas’s unbounded appetite for re-engineering and the still-growing stock of spares to experiment with, who knows where that curiosity will lead. Distinctive even in standard spec thanks to that unusual colour, and built with an unwavering focus on every tiny detail, we reckon he still has a few undiscovered dark alleys to explore when the mood takes him.
- ENGINE: 1272cc SPI petrol engine (AAV), custom exhaust manifold with metal catalyst, custom exhaust system with polished tailpipe
- CHASSIS: 7.5x14” (front) and 6.5x14” (rear) wheels with CAD-designed T6 aluminium centres and Schmidt TH-Line dishes (1.5-inch outer, 6.0-inch front and 5.0-inch rear inners), 20mm spacers (front), 155/55 Nankang NS-2 tyres, re-routed brake lines. Custom air suspension including adjustable Gaz dampers, Air Lift Performance sprints front and rear, shortened struts with air bag mounts modified track arm pickups (front), rear beam narrowed 30mm, 2x Viair 440 compressors, 20-litre air tank, 10mm (3/8- inch) lines, four valve control unit, manual switches and high/low pressure warning gauges and lights mounted in custom centre console panel
- EXTERIOR: Factory RAL2000 Yellow Orange utility fleet paint, headlights tinted yellow, Hella grille with tinted spotlights, French-spec OE yellow-tinted fog lights, side repeaters relocated to front bumper, custom tailgate with square number plate tub, rear wiper and Volkswagen badge deleted, smooth carbon fibre grab handle, half-colour coded bumpers, passenger mirror deleted, rear lights tinted red, all under-floor and suspension parts painted or powder-coated black
- INTERIOR: Polo Fox interior, Jamex steering wheel and gear knob, factory rear speaker cabling, custom-made central gauge and switch panel
- SHOUT: Ferry for the interior, Mario for the paintwork, Mario Buschmann for the Jamex steering wheel, my dudes from Polo Club Frankenberg, the BMX riders from ‘The Last Hole’ and of course Artem for his amazing photography.
Polo Breadvans were never meant to be this cool. In fact, they weren't meant to cool in the slightest. Euro-look for life!