Peugeot Perfected

Giving a tired, engine-swapped 205 GTI to Peugeot UK’s apprentices meant they benefited almost as much as the car did.

Words Nigel Boothman Photography Laurens Parsons/PSA Academy

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T

he Peugeot 205 GTI should be a perfect subject for restoration: small, simple and enjoying a recent and sustained surge in value. 

The appealing little Peugeot’s classic credentials are assured, but its status is still changing. In the past 15 years, 205 GTI fans have watched them move from an everyday sight as third-hand, beer-money cars to something rare and desirable. Now, as parts support dwindles away, it's far from simple.

So, how would Peugeot fare when it turned 150 of its own apprentices loose on a 205 GTI it bought especially for the job?

This restoration had to be organised like no other. Imagine you have a car to strip, fix and rebuild, but you also have six groups of teenage apprentices as your manpower. They arrive for week-long residential blocks of training before disappearing for six weeks until their next block. It calls for imagination and no small amount of flexibility, as PSA Academy's Jason Giblett and senior trainer Simon Foster know well.

‘The lads come in for four or five days in a row,’ says Simon. ‘Each of these training blocks covers a different topic. We tend to introduce that topic with a couple of days of theory and take it from there.’

This is more than just a long session in a stuffy classroom. With a teaching aid like a 205 GTI on hand, Foster can give the apprentices a bit of freedom to get inquisitive and even to lead the direction that the project takes.

‘Take the suspension as an example,’ he says. ‘The lads would learn how it’s arranged, but also what the shortcomings might be on a Modern Classic like the 205,' he adds. 'Most importantly, are there ways to modernise or improve the set-up? They’d research this, and when we’d come to a decision about the best way forward, it would be up to them to source the parts too.’

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‘We arranged the work to the 205 against the needs of the training, not the other way round,’ adds Foster.

With the car fully stripped, rotten floorpans and isolated holes elsewhere became apparent. PSA’s training academy didn't have a bodyshop programme, but ended up running one, anyway. 

‘Our lads did all they could as far as stripping and preparation went – I reckon 400 or 500 hours went into the shell alone,’ says Giblett. ‘After that, the guys in the technical centre took over, welding in new floorpans and fixes to the other damage before painting it and returning it to us.’

That non-standard Mi16 engine seemed in to be fine health, so the apprentices concentrated on cleaning and re-finishing the alloy parts and replacing every service item – belts, seals, hoses, plugs and filters.  

‘The Mi16 engine goes straight in to the 205’s engine bay, albeit on to different engine mounts, but it’s a tight fit.’

Away from the running gear and power unit, the interior was deemed too grubby to re-use and the project received a new kit of seats and cards bought as a set from a trimmer. The apprentices learned how to re-fit the loom and replace all the ancillaries, but some of the most time-consuming puzzles arose simply from a lack of parts availability. If Peugeot themselves get stuck, then what?

‘There are some things for the 205 GTI still listed in our catalogue, but most items are hard to source. Spoox Motorsport, who supplied the car, tracked down a good deal for us,’ says Giblett. Throughout the 18-month restoration, trainers made extra time for apprentices who wanted to stick around and do more.

‘In every group there were always a few who wanted to stay an extra hour and keep working on the car,’ he says.

One of those apprentices was Dan Cook. He works for Howard's Peugeot in Weston Super-Mare and was halfway through his apprenticeship when the 205 arrived. ‘I was already well into older cars,' he says. 'I’d even done some autotests in a BMW 3-series I bought before I started. The work on the 205 gave me more confidence, and since then I’ve done a few projects of my own. I bought a MkI Scirocco Storm for £150 and spent eight months restoring it.’

Cook wound up as PSA UK’s Apprentice of the Year and went on to train as a Master Technician. When the busy weeks of hard work on the 205 finally came to an end, you’d think the car’s role as a learning aid did too.

Apparently not, says Jason Giblett. ‘It’s a tribute to what the apprentice programme can do and we’re keeping it to inspire others. We’re also planning what the next car will be. A 2CV? Maybe an AX GT?’ 

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Is it good to drive?

If you've never driven a 205 GTI, then you'll be completely unprepared for the sensory overload it's capable of delivering. From the tips of your fingers, via your gluteus maximus, and down to the ends of your toes, every bit of you is bombarded with feedback.

But hang on a second. Aren't we here to judge this car on the merits of its restoration? Nah. You already know it's flawless, and everything looks, feels and operates like new. The seats have been retrimmed beautifully, the carpets are box-fresh, and even the boot floor looks like it's just come out of the factory. 

So, yes, thank you PSA Academy for building us a new 205 GTI to play with. For a generation of petrolheads, a day in this car is automotive nirvana. 

First thing to consider, though, is that Mi16 power unit under the bonnet. Oh yes, that thing. Although it looks like it has always been there, the race-bred XU9J4 power unit – all 160bhp of it –was never fitted to the 205 GTI by the factory. PSA reserved it for the 309 GTI, 405 Mi16, and Citroen BX 16 Valve. Let's not think about these as donors.

Instead, consider its boisterousness when you fire it up. It idles cleanly, if noisily, and comes with hair-trigger throttle response. The slender gearstick controls a frankly truculent change, and the non-power-assisted steering makes it feel cumbersome even before the off. You sit high, and dominate the light, airy cabin – the perfect driving position for fast and committed driving. 

Forget the biscuit tin feeling of flimsiness, and enjoy what's to come on the open road. Once underway, the 205 GTI really weaves its magic on you. As there's 160bhp to shift just 875kg, it's hardly a surprise that it pulls vigorously. Although  it's an engine that's known for peakiness, there's no lag in the 205 GTI. It pulls hard from idle speed and in pretty much any gear. Although there are no official performance figures, anything this side of a BMW 330i is easy prey.

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So, it's fast. Compellingly fast. That much is obvious from the off. But we all know that what the 205 GTI is legendary for is its sublime handling and delicate feedback. So, heading away from the Coventry base of the PSA Academy, we stay away from the A-roads and dual carriageways that criss-cross the region, and hunt for challenging B-roads. Although it's a challenge in wettest Warwickshire, it's one we can live with in the 205 – it's a sheer delight to drive.

When we do find those sinuous back roads, the lively GTI takes on an altogether more playful persona. Let's start with the ride and handling, which are simply superb. It's been fettled to perfection by the PSA Academy apprentices, and as a consequence, suspension control is superb.

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It's stiff, but never to the point of discomfort, and that's a trade-off that  results in electrifying turn-in and roll-free, neutral handling. Surface lumps and bumps you'll find on your typical British B-roads are shrugged off disdainfully, and when you really push on,  you can lean on it, and depend on it to grip and go.

Waiting to hear about lift-off oversteer? Forget it. On the modern tyres this one is wearing, you'll struggle to get near to its limits of adhesion. Impressive stuff.

But let's leave the best 'til last – the steering. It's here that the 205 GTI sets itself apart from every other hot hatch, and emerges as a true sports car. It positively writhes in your hands, nearly overwhelming in its feedback, telegraphing every nuance of the road's surface. It's the primary reason why you'll make the 205 GTI dance. 

This driving brilliance is the reason to restore. We're glad the PSA Academy is far from being alone in feeling this way.