Usually I’d would argue that attending an Ace Café meeting immediately following a day of rain wouldn’t lead to much success. Who wants to hang out in the rain while both you and your freshly cleaned car get soaked? However, if it wasn’t for the saving grace of a pint and some cheesy chips I wouldn’t have met this recently imported AE86 and it’s owner, Mike.
It was an InCarNation night where the weather ensured that a grand total of around 7 cars showed up. Amongst the Golf Rs and Skodas that were there, in the corner, parked on its own near the exit was this bright white Toyota AE86 Levin, sat under the streetlamp. Immediately I felt like a damp evening at Ace wasn’t going to be a letdown after-all. I tore myself away from half-baked cheesy chips and went to go and speak with the owner.
It had only been in the country a matter of weeks before it made its grand debut at Ace. As the story goes, the car was already on a boat over from Japan when Mike was given the option to buy the car. Apparently he’d always been looking around for a white coupe and this car had a certain look to it that appealed. I must say, I agree. There’s something about the entirely white body paired with a subtle bodykit that gives it a clean look. All too often these cars are absolutely battered with add ons and stickers. Toyota’s AE86 is an icon amongst the modified scene, most notably being the go to car for grassroots drifters. This car has a little bit of heritage having been previously enjoyed as a track car in Japan. It’s a GT-Apex 2-door coupe in case you were wondering, engine bay as the original Toyota Motor Corporation plaque displays.
That unsullied state was to be expected though as it had only been in the country for a month or two by the time I first saw it, and the modifications didn’t extend beyond fixing up a couple trouble areas. It rolled off the boat with coilovers, a TRD clutch, 2-way LSD, full exhaust and manifold, roll cage and additional braces welded to the rear axle – and that’s how it remains.
My favourite bit is the 20-valve Blacktop 4A-GE engine swap. The highlight being the bright purple carburettor trumpets that scream for attention when the bonnet is up, but despite those, this car is meant to be a practice in the art of keep things clean. There’s no plans for big modifications to mechanics or exterior, just to make sure that everything’s all neat and tidied up nicely. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Outside of the realm of autistically screeching for attention on IG there’s nothing wrong with just enjoying your car. Being content with what you have. You know, being happy.
That’s what drew me to it in the first place – the simplicity in the approach to a car that is all too often turned into a something that no longer resembles the starting point. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s boring – far from it – but rather than be flashy status symbol it’s after the attention of those who appreciate a pared down approach.
Chris O Day will not let this VR6 Highline die. Originally a 21st birthday present, this car represents more than just the first true luxury 6 banger Golf. It represents Chris’ passion and it’s every inch the fighter the black exterior suggests.
“I hung out in my teens with the local lot in a big rented lock up In Birmingham. Like-minded skint lads smoking rolled up cigarettes, barely employed but with a thing for modifying cheap European cars.”
Early on Chris was forging himself a life of the car guy. We’re not talking the kind of dude who goes and flicks a credit card at a one-stop-modification-shop and collects it a week later, Chris is a hard and fast, working out in the rain, eating breakfast lunch and dinner with filthy hands in the workshop kind of car guy.
“I first went to Hams Hall in a Peugeot 205 rallye. I’d never seen anything like it, my eyes were opened – wide. Lining the carriageway I could see hundreds of people crammed along the embankments. In this moment I realised we weren’t alone, this was a real thing and other people were just as nuts about it too.
This was the kind of visceral atmosphere you get where a fight breaks out in school, that kind of raw un-controlled energy which can only come from something completely illegal. I was hooked. It was so so dangerous and the sheer scale of the whole thing meant we overwhelmed the law. I watched these lads ragging absolutely anything and everything around those two famous round abouts as fast as possible, it was everything you shouldn’t do.”
I’m sure most UK based people will have a similar story, starting during the late 1990’s and standing strong right through the 2000’s cruise culture was pivotal in defining thousands of young lives, male and female.
It was during this time Chris first encountered a Mk3 Golf VR6 in the luxurious ‘Highline’ trim. This was a car aimed at the successful individual, who wanted a silky smooth power plant and sumptuous leather bound interior. A far cry from the stripped out street racer Chris lusted for.
“I could lie, but to be honest it was not love at first sight. I had grand dreams of a fast MK1 Golf but I was driving a beat up mk3 Polo with brown stripes down it and ATS classics. A ‘VW guy starter pack’ if you will. It had a side exist exhaust and it spat flames up the tracksuit bottoms of girls in the street. I thought it was sick. Two thousand watts of pure VIBE bass rattled every piece of poorly attached trim, so as you can imagine, the nature of a highline was lost on me.”
The Highline had another sideline to it’s main business however. Look past the VW advertising images and boil the Highline down to what is essentially is; a small hatchback with a bloody great 2.8 V6(ish) engine stuffed in the front. This, coupled with a 140mph top speed and the jigsaw pieces should start falling into place. The 140mph figure became a particularly important top trump as Chris explains…
“One evening we were sat outside our lock up and a mate decided he wanted to do ‘a 140 run’. I had absolutely no idea what this meant and went along with him, besides he said we could go to Maccies after and I was absolutely starving.
I didn’t expect him to actually travel Tamworth bypass at twice the legal limit. I immediately understood what a ‘140 run’ meant. I was no longer wanting a Maccies, I wanted the nearest thing that could do 140 out of the box. I wanted a Highline. The ‘140 run’ stuck with me. I no longer wanted to show off, I wanted to drive.”
The next bit isn’t the start of the love story you might hope. Sometimes these ideas never get fulfilled and get boxed up at the back of your mind. Chris cites a list of pretty common hurdles killing the dream in the early stages. Too young to insure it, changing friendship groups, other priorities and a lack of all important dough. Fed up and skint Chris gave in to normal life.
“When I was in that 205 screaming around roundabouts, I wasn’t thinking about the baggage. No one cared what the wheels looked like or what angles I was going to post on social media. The experience was real, raw and all consuming.
Once you’ve felt that rush it’s hard to put down, no matter where life leads you. I’ve always found great pleasure engaging with the ‘moment’, life is much more engaging when you are not constantly thinking about ways to document what is happening. Of course this can mean that memories can get lost, but I’d rather feel alive at the time then wait to rose tint the memory.”
By now, you might be getting a flavour for Chris’ character and it’s probably no surprise that he ended up at art school at 21. Locked in with a long term girlfriend and absolutely removed from cars at this point Chris’ Hams Hall Highline dream was looking ever more distant. That was until that 21 year milestone brought a moment of clarity. He could insure one, he could afford one… but could he find one?
“What I didn’t realise was how beat up they all had become, time wasn’t kind to the MK3 chassis. All of them either looked like they had been built by an 18 year old me in a parallel universe or they were rotten as hell. I finally managed to find one in Liverpool and the advert read like a cliché perfect what’s what of vehicle advertisements.
The one lady owner was the wife of an affluent builder and was selling the car having owned it from new and used it infrequently. When I got there it wasn’t quite as good as I hoped. After a lifetime of in-warranty dealer servicing they obviously just let it go to the dogs once warranty was out. A classic list of problems; rot, leaks, electrical faults, rot, no air on, rot and rot. But it was the best of a bad bunch and in budget. It wasn’t crashed, recorded as stolen and most importantly to me it was 100% original, it even had the factory option hella quads.”
In as quick as it takes to shove an envelope of money on a Liverpudlian dinner table and do a silly squiggle, Chris was the owner of a Mulberry Highline. Yes, this car is a Mulberry. Not a black Highline as you might expect, but we’ll get into that later.
A decent amount of time away from cars, and especially Volkswagens, left Chris with the impression that all 90% of modified golfs looked stupid. Imitations if you will, Porsche wheels here and engine swaps there, no one seemed to be enjoying them for what they were – just Golfs. The VR6 Highline is a hugely cult car and Chris didn’t want to ruin that. After all, not trying that hard is always cooler than busting a nut. For 3 whole years Chris just enjoyed the car and that 140 top speed.
“Over this time I realised this car stood for honesty. It was what it was and it did what it did. It’s a good time and it’s not forced. If you want to burble along it’s like silk, if you want to have some fun it would go well. Granted 174bhp won’t set the world alight but it makes a hell of a noise trying. Thinking back to the Hams Hall days, 99% of the buzz was sharing it with others. Look at every single car and there would be at least one passenger, usually three. It’s the same reason that my mate got the gang to do the 140 run, it’s not really about the car. Its the experience and who it’s shared with that’s important.
At this point i wasn’t that 17 year old trying to show off to girls anymore, I had no interest in build threads and the such, the road lay ahead of me and that felt like absolute freedom.”
With new found inspiration Chris set about bringing the Golf into the 21st century. Since 1998 a lot had happened, kids could lease Corsa VXRs and the game out there had changed. A sympathetic restoration of the Golf was in order. During the 3 years in Chris’ care more than a few bits had fallen off the Highline, it was pretty rotten in places and it needed some attention to prevent it getting any worse. A set of ST suspensions XTA coilovers was the kickstart to the overhaul and by far the most expensive part on the car but as I hope you have gathered, this isn’t a flash story about loads of shiny parts. It’s about progression and a journey with a car, sort of like a man and his dog I suppose.
“The term ‘Club Sport’ was said to me during this period. I’d already decided I wanted to build the car to stay as original as possible, close to the original ethos, but with some cool parts to take the man-handling i’d intended to give it. Above all it had to be balanced.”
With the car up on axle stands Chris set about removing pretty much all the running gear from the car. He systematically stripped and restored everything that he could unbolt and even some of the stuff that needed cutting off. After stripping, cleaning, painting and polybushing it was all assembled with OEM Volkswagen nuts and bolts. Chris was adamant to do all the work himself and did tonnes of research into doing things properly. Armed with no real experience and 3 months of weekends he did it, the VR6 was tighter than ever and drove fantastically. Toyo R1R tyres gave all the benefits of an R888 with a nod to wet wether performance and a freshly refurbished braking system with grooved discs brought it to a stop perfectly. Chris stuck with the OEM+ vibe and got performance fluid running through all new lines and Goodridge hoses.
“From then I went back to enjoying it for another year or so. I think when people realise that you are sticking with a project you earn a sort of respect. I could have bought any number of new cars all the way through, but it was never about the outright performance. The VR and I had a bit of a bond.”
Things then took a bit of a darker turn, Chris took the decision to up sticks and move to London. Bringing a car into London can be a challenge, especially if you care about it. With an unpredictable lifestyle the Highline became an important constant in Chris finding his feet. It even came in pretty handy as a hotel on the odd occasion. London streets seem to age cars, and it was really starting to show. The rot inspected at purchase hadn’t magically disappeared despite Chris’ blind eye during the polybushing stage. Years of bent MOT’s and increasingly furrowed browed mechanics hadn’t helped either. Enough was enough and it was time to really give the Highline the overhaul it needed.
“Life was well and truly back on track and I’d began as a tattooist for real. I was back in my own place and had a steady lifestyle. Anyone sensible would have cut their losses and got something faster. I didn’t.
I wanted the Golf fixed properly by good people that I trusted. This lead me to Regal Autosport, it’s not the usual work they usually take on but the story resonated. To say the thing was rotten was an understatement. They were quick to point out that the car was probably a lost cause but I knew that there was still something left in there. If i gave up now it felt like karma would come and bite me.”
Chris isn’t being dramatic either. New sills, new floors and a host of other panels were required to make this once Mulberry Highline into some sort of purple/black/baremetal harlequin. It wasn’t looking good for the VR6 but persistence paid off. Chris got the car back will a fresh (legit) MOT and a clean bill of health.
“I was over the moon. My old mate was saved the scrap heap. It looked absolutely terrible however. I just looked at it and thought how the hell did we get here. We’ve come so far, spent so much and although I know you drive great… well look at you.
Thankfully, that’s nothing a little sticky back plastic can’t fix. At the first opportunity I got the car booked in with my good friend Alex Wright at Vivid Vinyl to work some magic and salvage the aesthetics.”
To quote the words of W.H Auden ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so’ but time can do one. People who say that are also usually boring as fuck. Do what you want when you want and do it because you mean it. This car stands for enjoyment in the rawest form, be it tinker time or actually driving.
The landscape may have changed, cruise culture is all but a smouldering ember on Youtube but if there’s one thing that reminds you not to be too worried about Instagram likes and actually enjoy your car, let it be Chris and this Trigger’s broom of a VR6.