315hp home-built Volkswagen Golf Mk3 Euro-tourer
After a string of bad luck with cheap Mk3s, Luke Cartwright pulled out all the stops with the third in the line-up – a 315hp home-built Euro-tourer, built to be driven but with a finish to rival the best in the scene.
Words: Alex Grant
Photos: James Wallace
RULE OF 3
Historically seen as the unloved chapter in the Golf’s early history, it’s taken until recently for the Mk3 to find its feet as a modern classic, and Luke Cartwright’s dedication to the cause is a bit of a rarity. The steps towards what you see here have been consistent – it’s his third Mk3 – but they haven’t been entirely smooth. His first was wrecked after a week, the second scrapped after a catastrophic MOT failure and the third one hasn’t gone to plan either. All things considered, we reckon that’s for the best.
“I’m more of a German car fan than a Mk3 fan,” he laughs. “I’ve always said I’ll own a Porsche one day, but as close as I’ve got to that is a 23-year-old Golf painted in a Porsche colour that’s spiralled wildly out of control. It probably would have been cheaper and easier to fix that last one. I probably could have just bought a Porsche by now, but here we are.” That financial black hole could have been a lot bigger if it had been bankrolled by a blank cheque, but this unfolded differently. Luke isn’t a mechanic – he’s a technician for FujiFilm, if you’re wondering – but the Golf is as close to a home-built project as rented lockups and a willingness for DIY have allowed, and it’s thrived as a result of keeping good company.
“My friend Jack Davey has a big part to play in this,” he continues. “He was my sister’s boyfriend for a while and heavily into his cars, though more on the motorsport side. We’d spend a lot of time chewing the fat, working on his cars, and he was super organised. I think that’s where my OCD comes from when I’m building stuff.”
It goes deeper than that. Luke’s teenage bank balance had put Mk2 ownership out of reach, and cheap Mk3s hadn’t lasted, so round three began with a bigger budget and Jack unearthed the perfect candidate. As Mk3s go, a ’97 Colour Concept in Black Magic Pearl isn’t a bad place to start – especially with a £1,600 price tag and only 62,500 miles on the clock. The previous owner had dropped it over a set of Audi fat fives before emigrating to Australia, leaving it with a friend who’d since decided he’d rather have a clear driveway than host an abandoned Volkswagen.
That extra cash avoided a lot of hassle, with only a coat of underseal and a couple of weekend projects needed to get it ready for all-season dailying. Within months, the Golf had been sound deadened from boot to firewall, dropped on an Air Lift V2 kit and shed its Audi wheels. The O-Z Fittipaldis turned up in Ireland, delivered to the UK while the owner visited Legoland, and made their way under each corner having been re-drilled and polished from lip to lip. This snowballing spec sheet introduced some challenges.
“It was still a daily, so everything had to be done between Friday night and Sunday evening and I was using the wheels all year round. Like an absolute sad act, I’d drive in the rain, salt and snow then hose them down when I got home. But I lived with them because I loved them and they’ve held up well. I haven’t split or re-polished them – look after what you’ve got, and it’ll look after you.”
The upshot was a few new and influential friendships, including Shyam Boyrangee, whose purple R32-swapped Mk4 made these pages in August 2014. Never shy of a project, he’d bought a SEAT Leon Cupra R to break for parts and had a full BAM 1.8T conversion going spare. At £700 for the full kit, it was a cheaper route to big power than a blown VR6, and an easy swap too.
“My original plan was to pull the 8v out on my parents’ driveway, clean the bay and fi t the new engine – if you know what you’re doing then you can get a 1.8T in and fi red up on a long weekend. Shyam, the fucker, had other ideas. He said I might as well smooth the bay while everything was out, or I’d be pulling it apart in a year and doing it again. That’s when things went sideways. I bought a toffee wheel and an angle grinder and started shaving the bay.”
This was no weekend build. The Golf moved into a rented barn in Dorking, and Luke might as well have moved in with it. Every hour spent not working or sleeping was dedicated to fabricating wiring looms, filling holes and deleting brackets with his mates, Kirk Pullen and Joe Saunders, and ideas began to flow again. Joe had enlisted metalwork mastercraftsman Olly Bartlett to help with his TFSI-swapped Mk3, and it wasn’t long before that line of conversation steered the rebuild even further sideways.
“Olly only does things he’s interested in, but he’s a sucker for Mk3s – especially fivedoors – so I asked for help. I told I wanted everything to look like it had come from the factory, just with none of the divots of holes and he said it sounded like his sort of party, so we trailered it up to him,” Luke recalls.
“I had a picture of the bay on my phone, and I drew red lines showing where I wanted the air filter and boost pipework. All the stuff that could have made his life easier, like silicone or join lines, was stuff I didn’t want, but we’re on a similar wavelength. He was sending me pictures of it mocked up while I was in Wörthersee, and I was getting him to change bits until it was right. I haven’t changed it since.”
Of course, that level of detail was never going to mix well with stock bodywork. The parts wish list was carefully curated so it didn’t lose the factory boxiness, and Joe’s eye for eBay obscurities helped track down the US bumpers and early Vento front end with two grilles that could be blended into a single debadged one. The Projektzwo mirrors were inherited from a friend’s parted-out VR6 turbo, while the arches, sills and other rot-prone areas were replaced before the body was finished in Porsche Agate Grey. Look as close as you want, you won’t find a wire, clip or hose out of place. It’s flawless.
Retiring the Golf from daily driver duty removed the constraints of practicality. Joe at Trim Deluxe had already worked his magic on the Mk3’s interior, trimming the box-fresh Recaro CS seats in leather and alcantara matched to the dashboard with its continuous loop of red stitching around the instrument cluster. Today, hard-wearing leather has made way for alcantara and the Recaros are matched to a Vento rear bench, but the home-made touches have been carried into version two.
“I wanted the functionality of a double-din head unit and Google Maps for Euro trips, but with music storage as well,” he says. “So I bought the best Samsung tablet I could fit into the available space, then cut out centre section of the dash from the vents down and made a new one out of fibreglass on my Dad’s workbench. I covered the tablet in tinfoil and hoped I could get it back in – I was winging it, but what was the worst that could happen?”
Self-imposed deadlines were looming ever closer by this point. Luke had set sights on VW Days in France as a maiden voyage, and the rebuild was to the wire. The Golf arrived for the last MOT slot of the day, still ‘tink-tinking from the heat of a lead-footed drive and with the bonnet fitted minutes before departure. With zero fluids dropped, it set off for France under its own steam three days later. By the time autumn rolled in, it had done a tour of UK shows, picked up a top 30 trophy at Westside, and plans were forming for a busy 2019. That mechanical good fortune didn’t last. Weeks before its Worthersee trip, and now stored in Joe’s garage an hour from Luke’s home, the Golf’s turbo developed a death rattle and turned everything upside down and even getting a good deal on a hybrid K04 didn’t put things back on track.
“That was a nightmare. I took it to be mapped at Stealth and the fuel pump failed, so Vince fitted a 500hp one and did some more pulls. He told me it was getting to a certain point and didn’t want to pull any more boost, so I had to limp it home for an hour and a half-misfiring and mis-boosting. Not a good start,” continues Luke.
“Turns out it had blown a weld in the intercooler, at the end tank, so we triple welded that back into shape and the boost went through the roof. It was getting to 3000rpm and sounded like an automatic shotgun, and was totally undriveable. I ended up pulling the MAF out to put it into safe mode so I could drive it back to Stealth. It was making about 290bhp, with a nice smooth curve, and did 2,500 miles around Worthersee without missing a beat.”
In hindsight, the drama was worth it. The C-word uprooted 2020’s Euro trip and researching engine rebuilds became Luke’s antidote to lockdown boredom. Olly hooked him up with nearly new IE rods and JE pistons, but they came with a downside – a 0.5mm overbore, which would have left him dismantling a leak-free engine if a well-timed alternative hadn’t cropped up.
“In all his wisdom, or lack of it, Joe had bought probably the worst left-hand drive 1.8T Syncro I’ve ever seen,” he tells us. “He wanted one as a daily and was going to swap a Mk1 TT BAM engine into it, so he suggested I have the engine out of the TT and strip that instead. My old BAM lives on in Joe’s Syncro, and I spent two years during Covid building a new engine for mine.”
With a house deposit taking priority, this could only ever be a slow burner. A spreadsheet-calculated process of renewing every spare part and rebuilding the newly-over-bored 1.8T in his workshop before transporting it to Joe’s house to be united with the rest of the car. With scope to up the boost, the spec sheet included a tubular manifold to help the K04 breathe more easily, and the learning curve wasn’t getting any gentler.
“The boost pipes are solid, so they didn’t fi t, and nobody could confirm whether their manifolds fi t the same space as the factory one. Olly and I bought a spare head so we could make a jig based on the factory manifold, and tried to build a tubular one that wouldn’t move the turbo,” he explains.
“There’s a reason they don’t exist. It’s impossible. The only way to do it was to change the hard pipes, but Olly pointed out that I might as well get an even bigger turbo if I was doing that. I’ve ported the factory manifold to open it up, and Ben at Devil Developments mapped it. In 28ÅãC weather, it made 315hp and 310lb/ft, so there’s probably a bit more in it. You can feel the difference on a cold day, for sure.”
However, intrusive thoughts die hard. Manifold and turbo upgrades are still on the ‘maybe’ list, though they’re competing with the urge to put some American muscle on the driveway. After all, stepping up to 400hp makes four-wheel drive desirable too, and that’s a route to putting an already enjoyable machine off the road again. It can wait.
“Cars now are so intelligent that you can’t even replace a battery without paying someone £50 to press OK on a computer to make sure it works,” adds Luke. “That takes the fun away, which is why I think older cars will always be at the forefront of real car enthusiasts’ minds. You can do anything to them, they’re raw, and you can just get in and drive them. There are a couple of bits I want to make better, but for now I just want to enjoy it.”
That’s hard to argue with. From an underappreciated eBay bargain, the Mk3 has stepped up to become a modern classic in its own right. And with timeless styling and modern performance on tap, this one’s deviation from its original plans hasn’t done that formula any harm.
«He pointed out I might as well get an even bigger turbo if I was doing that»
DUB DETAILSVolkswagen Golf Mk3 Euro-tourer
- ENGINE: 1802cc, four-cylinder 20v turbo, forged internals (IE rods and JE 81.5mm pistons), ported head, Supertech valves, BBT K418T Hybrid K04 turbocharger, custom boost pipes, custom exhaust system, Devil Developments map, smoothed engine bay, body-coloured inlet manifold, 02J EHH gearbox, Forge front-mount intercooler, Custom aluminium radiator
- CHASSIS: 9x16 (front) and 9.5x16 (rear) O-Z Fittipaldi wheels, 195/40 Falken (front) and 205/40 Nankang (rear) tyres Air Lift Performance struts, AccuAir e-Level management, Still Static top mounts, TAROX 6-pot brake kit with 305mm discs front, 286mm GTI rear brakes
- EXTERIOR: Full respray in Porsche Agate Grey, Projektzwo mirrors, Vento phase 1 front end conversion with smoked headlights and custom debadged grille, US-spec bumpers, smoked indicators, air intakes (front), smoked sidelights, shaved wings, bonnet, aerial, rear light drains, custom rear hatch with badges and wiper deleted and shortened number plate tub, Hella Magic Colour red/black/red rear lights
- INTERIOR: Recaro CS front seats, Vento rear bench with arm rest, Momo wheel, custom alcantara retrim with red stitching, red seat belts, US centre console ICE: Custom dashboard with Samsung tablet, wireless audio with Audison processor, Genesis profi le ultra amps, Focal 6.5" component speakers in custom door pods/sail panels, JBL 10" sub in custom made foot well enclosure, sound deadening front to back
- SHOUTS: Olly Bartlett for fab work, Joe Clarke on trim, Joe Saunders for storage/parts/comedy, Craig Charlton and Chris Mason helping the move and helping out with manual labour, Rikkie Peters @ Paintshed Automotive for the recent paint, Scott Charlton @ SMC detailing for keeping her clean and stored
«It sounded like an automatic shotgun, and was totally undriveable»