Resto-modded 1978 Volkswagen Derby LS Mk1 - rare splits, reworked interior & twin carbs
Taking on an ultra-rare, water-cooled VW as a project can soon turn into a tricky task as Steve Holden found out with this stunning 1978 Mk1 Derby.
Words & photos: Jon Cass
Its no secret the Brits often show support for an underdog which possibly explains why Huddersfield Town still has so many fans. Steve Holden is no exception, “I was reading a comment in the letters section of PVW where someone was talking unfavourably about VW Derbies,” he recalls, “I’d never heard of such a model prior to this, but after looking it up I decided right then and there that I needed one in my life!” Until that point, Steve’s taste in cars had varied, beginning with a Renault 19 1.4 fitted with a 16v bodykit before moving on to a string of Mk3 Golfs including a silver Gti, lowered on 15in Momo Racers with clear lights all round, Mk4 headlights and a Kamei grille – those were the days! “When I was 19, I bought a Porsche 924 funded by a sizeable chunk of my student loan,” Steve laughs, “it probably wasn’t the most sensible choice for a skint student, but that was another car I felt the sudden urge to own!”
Settled on the idea of purchasing a Mk1 VW Derby, Steve began the ambitious task of attempting to track one down. “I was quite happy to take one on requiring work, but after spending a year searching without success, things weren’t looking promising and this was in 2003,” Steve laughs, “I’d managed to find a Mk1F Polo in use as a skip at a local garage, but as much as I liked that car, restoration progress never began as my heart wasn’t in it.”
Luckily, the Polo came free of charge as long as Steve accepted responsibility of disposing of the rubbish inside that came with it. “It did provide me with lots of parts including the passenger door and rear lights, the remainder of the shell I sold on eBay for 1p,” he adds.
The value of scrap back then wasn’t quite where it is today, we should point out! In comparison, 2004 would prove more fruitful, the VWNW show at Tatton Park in particular. “I’d turned up with £100 in my pocket to buy parts from the autojumble,” Steve remembers, “then suddenly, there it was, an early chrome bumper Derby sat on a trailer with a for Sale sign in the window.”
The advertised price was just £150 which confirmed the Derby required a vast amount of work, but realizing he was unlikely to come across another any time soon, Steve decided to take the plunge. “We settled on £100 as that was all I had on me,” Steve explains, “I rang my dad to help tow it back home, where it would sit on my parents’ drive for a year while I saved up some cash to begin work on the project,” Steve adds.
Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the Derby 1.1LS turned out to be just as rough as it looked, if not worse. “I was good friends with a welder and painter which was a great help,” Steve recalls, “as I stripped the shell and cut out the rot, he’d be busy welding new metal in.” This was Steve’s first restoration of any capacity and he’s the first to confess he wasn’t totally sure what he was doing while putting a lot of trust into his more experienced friend. “If you looked closely, it wasn’t the best of jobs, but I deemed the result worthy of showing the car at Ultimate Dubs in 2007 where it was on display indoors,” Steve explains, “I’d lowered the ride height by 70mm and fitted 13in Smoor Roadsters so it at least looked the part.”
After spending a full year on the resto, the Derby attended as many shows as Steve could cram in his diary, even making the trip to VW Club Charly’s in Belgium where it won a top 3 in the Polo class, “I managed to pick up a winning trophy in the Polo class at VWNW that same year which was a fitting tribute,” he adds. Things were looking up and the Smoor Roadsters soon gave way to a set of 13in Compomotive Turbos, Steve’s all time dream wheels. “they rarely come up for sale, so when I immediately messaged the vendor saying I’d take them, I hadn’t realized they were located in Devon,” Steve remembers, “it was worth the long road trip and I soon had the split rims sent off and polished while I blasted and repainted the centres myself with new hardware.”
A few years passed and Steve had bought his second house, unfortunately devoid of any form of storing his car away from the elements. “I ended up moving the Derby into my parent’s damp garage for another couple of years, while I saved up again to build my own garage,” Steve continues, “by the time I’d sorted somewhere suitable at my house, the Derby’s bodywork had began to suffer badly.”
Not only had the previously immaculate paintwork started to micro blister, rust had also appeared in numerous areas too. “I made the reluctant decision to strip the whole car again, this time back to bare metal,” Steve recalls, “I soon noticed the previous welding work had been done to a poor standard, so this all had to be cut out and redone.”
It must have felt like history repeating as Steve got to grips cutting out the rot and repairing panels as another friend, Jim Painter welded new metal into place. “Jim’s welding skills are excellent and I was confident this would be a much better result this time around,” Steve tells us, “the process took quite a while though as I’d got married, had children, bought a VW split screen camper and still had work to do on my house.” Steve was also willing to take the mods one step further this time, electing to smooth the bay and strip out the interior. “Jim did all the welding including the passenger side sill and bay,” Steve explains, “the inner sill on the driver’s side was a real mess too, Jim advised me on more than one occasion that I’d be better off scrapping the car and starting again with a better shell.” Yet, Steve had become attached to his Derby so this was never going to be a viable option.
In the meantime, a replacement engine in the form of a 1272cc HH with twin carbs had been purchased, but during the rebuild which Steve somehow was finding time to tackle himself, he spotted an ad for a Mk2 Polo saloon already running a similar set up. “It came with coilovers and a BIAS pedal box too, so I decided to purchase the car to use as a donor for my Derby,” Steve tells us, “this would make things a little easier.”
By this stage, Jim had set up his own business and with no end of work coming in, he no longer had time to work on Steve’s project. “I took the Derby to another bodyshop where the bare shell was blasted,” he recalls, “sadly, I was told some of the panels were beyond saving.” This included the complete front end panel and both front wings with replacement NOS parts needing to be sourced from Finland and Austria in addition to the UK, such is the scarcity of pretty much anything, Mk1 Derby related! Fully resprayed in LA3A Mars Red, the bodyshell looks stunning once again with little chance of any rust reappearing any time soon. “Its not quite the original colour as that was L31B Mars red,” Steve points out, “it appears I received the wrong shade, but as they’re so similar, it took me a month to even realize the mistake!”
Some of you may have spotted the mega rare opening quarter light windows, a cool upgrade Steve had been after for years. “I spoke to a gentleman who was breaking a couple of Derbies,” Steve recalls, “I sent him an offer for a pair of quarterlights on Christmas day, abandoning my plans and driving to Liverpool to pick them up.” The frames were rotten, the glass was missing the turnbuckles but the all important rubber was in great condition. “My father in law remade the bottom of the frames for me and I was surprised to find you can still buy the glass with turnbuckles fitted from VW Classic Parts in Germany,” Steve adds.
The Derby’s original engine had died on the A50, ironically close to Derby and was subsequently replaced with the 1272HH we mentioned earlier. In typical third time lucky fashion, the 1272HH has itself given way to a 1272cc GK unit, once used as a spare for a Formula König race car in Germany which had more recently resided in a Mk2 Steve acquired from Belfast. “I fitted a Schrick 270 fast road cam, Sorg camshaft pulley, Sorg inlet manifold and Twin Weber 40 carbs,” Steve points out, “I’ve also since fitted this rare Sorg motorsport valve cover.” Complete with electronic ignition which has the ignition control panel hidden under the slam panel along with an aluminium top fill radiator, this latest incarnation is surprisingly quick for a 1.3 while swapping to a 5spd Polo GT gearbox improves high speed cruising.
After opting to take the smoothed bay route, this meant Steve had to become creative when it came to ensuring all ancillaries remained uncluttered. The custom wiring loom he made himself while the hidden fuse panel now lives under the dashboard. Switching from GPS to a mechanical speedo drive hides the cable and enables Steve to use that rare Audi 50 speedo and rev counter, sourced from Germany. The heating system has been removed entirely while he’s also managed to hide the bonnet catch cable too.
Right from the start, Steve had always planned for his Derby to sit as low as possible. Unfortunately, his first attempt using coilovers didn’t work out so well. “Once I’d achieved the ride height I wanted, it became almost undriveable,” he confesses, “that’s when I bit the bullet and bought an air ride system, supplied by Only charged dubs.” The TA Technix system uses Airlift 3P management with the compressor and manifold now residing in a custom housing under a space saver spare wheel. Meanwhile the air tank is mounted underneath the parcel shelf inside the boot. Rear camber shims and camber adjustable front top mounts were deemed necessary too while 3mm spacers up front and 8mm at the rear help avoid any fouling against the brake calipers.
The original Derby interior was always pretty basic and Steve was happy to continue that tradition in his third incarnation of this rebuild too. The detailed floorpan loses all sound deadening and carpets with just early Polo N mats taking their place. The original seats minus their headrests remain, though these have since been dyed from beige to tan and contrast well with the Mars Red paintwork. The Momo Prototipo steering wheel and custom reclaimed skateboard deck gear knob finishes off the retro look perfectly.
The reward for the unimaginable amount of work and stress this project must have created for Steve came last year in the form of awards won at every show the Derby has so far attended. “It was great to receive such admiration for the car but I’m not sure if I’d want to do it all over again,” Steve laughs, “maybe I should have bought a Porsche 912 when they were affordable instead!” There’s currently talk of a replacement project in the form of a Porsche Cayman on air, but after now owning the Derby for some 19 years, Steve is understandably reluctant to part with it. Let’s face it, this car has become a huge part of his life and we suspect it will remain with him for a long time yet!
As a technical illustrator, Steve’s profession has allowed him to develop a useful app that a decade or so ago we could only have dreamed of. “One of our biggest clients is Bentley and I produce the illustrations for the owners handbook, parts diagrams and workshop illustrations,” he explains,” when we were quiet at work a few years ago I created the mk1 and mk2 modifier apps, which allows you to modify mk1 and mk2 VW Golfs at the touch of a button.” Steve is currently working on an updated app, which will contain more options including ‘in app purchasing’ for other marques such as Porsche. This could certainly be something to keep an eye on!
“I sent him an offer for a pair of quarterlights on Christmas day, abandoning my plans and driving to Liverpool to get them”
- ENGINE: 1272cc GK Formula König motor, Schrick 270 fast road camshaft, Sorg Camshaft pulley, Sorg inlet manifold and Weber Twin 40 carbs, electronic ignition, with coil and ignition control module hidden under slam panel, alunimium radiator and custom top fill top hose, 5 speed GT gearbox. Smooth engine bay with battery relocated to the boot, custom wiring loom with fuse panel hidden under the dashboard. GPS to mechanical speedo drive to hide speedo cable in engine bay to use early Audi 50 speedo and rev counter, this is hidden under the dashboard. Hidden bonnet catch cable. heating system removed. custom bias pedal box with brake fluid reservoir hidden under centre air flaps in dashboard
- CHASSIS: 7x13” Compomotive Turbo split rims 145/60/13 tyres, camber adjustable front top mounts, TA Technix air ride with Airlift 3p management, rear camber shims
- EXTERIOR: Full bare shell resto repainted in LA3A Mars Red
- INTERIOR: Detailed floor pan with no sound deadening or carpet, early Polo N mats. Vinyl retrimmed interior with headrests removed. Custom reclaimed skateboard deck gear knob, Momo Prototipo steering wheel, early Polo speedo and Audi 50 rev counter, opening ¼ windows
- SHOUT: Mum and dad, my wife Laura, my kids Sammy and Olly, Vic, Dan, Ian, Simmo, Tim, Andy, Pete Slater, Dave Rees, Matt Loxton, Jim Painter, Matt at OCD, Dave at Phoenix Autobodies all any other friends who have helped out