Christian Gale’s show-stopping, home-built modified VW Golf GTI Mk5 returns with some hard-fought updates that put it back among the UK’s best.
It’s a personal thing, building a car. You don’t have to have spend long chatting to owners to realise their interpretation how something should look or feel is unique, or that each feature car is born out of a lifetime of individual inspirations. For those who love the process, the nod of appreciation for a finished project can be bittersweet – a hard-earned reward, tinged with the nagging urge to explore fresh ideas with something new. So when you see a former feature car still breaking boundaries years later, it’s always worthy of a second look.
Three years on from its first PVW feature, and Christian Gale’s modified VW Golf GTI Mk5 is one of those rare machines. “I remember a friend saying at the time, now it’s been featured I might as well sell it,” he tells us. “But I had a picture of what I wanted the car to be, and the only way to have that show-winning project is to keep changing things. It all escalated from looking at what I could do to make this the best Mk5 in the UK.”
Those ambitions are a far cry from where the Golf started out. Raised around his Dad’s bodyshop work and classic Mini projects, Christian cut his own automotive teeth on modified Novas and RenaultSport Clios before a Mk3 Golf steered him towards Volkswagens and a friend’s Mk5 GTI set him on a course for this one in 2016. The only Candy White three-door GTI on sale in the UK seemed made to order – but it wasn’t as sound a purchase as it seemed.
“When I got it home and gave it its first clean, it was about 50 shades of white – every panel was a different colour,” he remembers. “It turned out Volkswagen had done loads of warranty work on it, and it had had paintwork done previously which I didn’t see, so I was a bit disappointed. But I drove it around for a while as my daily, and I’d put my tools in the back and take it onto building sites for work. That soon changed, obviously, but it’s mad looking back at that now…”
Despite the setbacks, and the daily driving, the project moved quickly. A cheap paint job took 49 of those shades of white out of the Golf’s tired bodywork and, though it never quite made the grade, it was short-lived. When an accident in 2017 damaged the driver’s side, Christian forked out the extra to get the whole car painted, then redid everything 18 months later starting from bare metal. By 2018, the workhorse had become an aired-out Wörthersee-touring show car with a PVW feature in waiting. Not a bad turnaround, really.
But where do you go from there? “It all kicked off in winter 2019,” he continues. “I’ve been to a lot of shows in the UK, but I’ve never seen a modified VW Golf GTI Mk5 with a shaved and wire-tucked engine bay – they’re normally on a Mk1, Mk2 or Mk3. At that point the car was in a perfect state to do the work, so I had to do it. Within a day the engine was out, the front end was off and it was down to nothing but wires. My Dad thought I was bonkers.”
There is, unsurprisingly, a reason for that rarity. Stripping the front end down to its chassis legs revealed masses of visual clutter to clean, including seams, brackets and unwanted bulges which had to be carefully slitted, flattened and re-welded back together. No element was left untouched – even down to the reshaped gearbox mount – which makes the environment where this all happened seem almost unreal. With Ultimate Dubs 2020 looming ever closer, the winter project unfolded through frost and snowfall in an unheated unit, not a bodyshop, with help from his Dad and guidance from a knowledgeable Mk6 owner in Florida who’d already been through it all.
Worse still, the bigger problems were still ahead. “The main reason, I think, why people don’t really do this to newer cars is the wiring. In a Mk1 or a Mk2, you’ve got maybe 50 wires, but I had almost 200 to cut and lengthen. I cut my wiring as high as I could, and the wiring from the donor car as low as I could, then pushed it all through the channels of the car, marking them all to make sure they matched,” he says.
“Then, when we fitted it back in the car, it would start but wouldn’t rev. I spent two weeks checking the wiring and ended up getting an auto electrician out from the bodyshop. It turns out I had two wires which were the same colour and I’d got them the wrong way around. All I had to do was swap them and it solved the issue. It’s been like this for almost three years, and it’s been absolutely fine.”
Search for some stock Mk5 GTI engine pics if you need to, because it’s easy to miss just how much has changed. Re-wiring the Golf offered Christian some extra options with locating components where he wanted – like tucking the fuses into the glovebox and the battery in the boot – while either deleting or replacing anything that didn’t fit in. The induction pipework was custom made to wrap it closely around the custom Audi TTS engine cover, while the chrome hardware was a US import and is the only set in the UK. It’s a pursuit of cleanliness that left nothing unturned, down to binning the wipers and washer bottle and even building a quarter-length bonnet to hide the slam panel.
But there’s more to it than that. Max at Hawke Autoworks had already lined the cabin in red-stitched alcantara and leather, around a Tornado Red roll cage and GTI tartan-trimmed Recaro Pole Position buckets, but he also apparently suffers the same tendency for the obsessive as his customer. Stage one of the interior overhaul had set a high bar, and stage two moves it up a few notches further. In part because the parts-bin raiding really isn’t obvious.
“I was getting a bit annoyed with the harnesses and wanted a cleaner OEM-looking interior,” he says. “The Recaro CS seats turned up at the right time – they’re from a RenaultSport Clio 197 – but they were in terrible condition, the foams were shot and Max said they were the worst he’d seen. Luckily the Pole Positions covered me to get them retrimmed, so I said to Max to just design something and I’d say yes or no.”
The result has a hint of Clubsport spec, with hexagonally textured alcantara centres bordered by red-accented and re-stitched leather bolsters to match the grille and pinstriping outside. Aftermarket add-ons of 2019 have disappeared, too, replaced by OEM+ enhancements such as the Mk6 GTI gear knob and Mk7 steering wheel. That McEwan Customs roll cage is bespoke and raises the rear legs to offer more space for the air ride install underneath and the whole lot hangs together with a sense of factory-built continuity.
But the bulk of what’s under the skin came together in Wiltshire, not Wolfsburg. Christian ditched cheap coilovers for second-hand air ride in 2017, but almost all of the system has been upgraded in the meantime. Twin VIAIR compressors in LED-lit, glass-topped compartments are paired with larger 3/8-inch lines and Air Lift 3P management, which means the Golf can air up or down quickly and works off a smartphone app. And you may be surprised to find out who’s behind it all.
“I built the install in my front garden,” Christian says, smiling. “It took a lot of stressful evenings and I went through 15 metres of hardline, taking measurements and working out how to get the right angles then bending them with a tool I bought on the internet and sent it to Max to be trimmed. I’m not a plumber, I taught myself, but I think it works well.”
Of course, that sort of hardware requires an equally uncompromising set of wheels. The turbofan-clad 18-inch BBS RS step-ups of 2019 had long gone when Christian got the chance to pick up set of second-hand E88s at a knock-down price. It was an unplanned diversion from the LMs he’d just bought, but one that transforms the car. Measuring 20×8.5 at each corner, the fronts tucked under the 25mm wider SRS-Tec arches he already had, while the Golf swallowed the rears with only light modification to the bumper brackets and a touch of negative camber.
“My mates all said a Mk5 Golf needs to be on 20s, but I always said I’d never go there. Then I put these on, aired it out and was like, ‘yeah, these work!’. For me, they’re probably the best wheels you can buy, and it drives better than it did on the 19s. I’ve got a Caddy on coilovers and it’s horrific, but this feels like driving a normal car. You forget it’s lowered. But you can’t have big wheels like that and not have big brakes to go under them.”
Naturally, he’s done more than just tick a box. There’s a set of Porsche Cayenne six-piston calipers and 350mm discs tucked in behind the front wheels – a bolt-on upgrade – but the rear axle required some mashing of donor parts. On the advice of his Floridian engine bay-smoothing friend, Christian tracked down a set of Mk6 Golf R handbrake calipers and had an adaptor plate made to mount them with the Porsche rear brakes. It’s a simpler swap than using R8 parts, he says.
But for all that aggressive stance and the uncompromising mix of parts it’s involved, the GTI’s unmistakeable character hasn’t been diluted at all. It’s a build forged out of subtle details, like the US-spec smooth grille surround and the matching rear bumper that shortens the plate recess, to the accents of carbon fibre on the mirrors and B-pillars that link it back to that luxurious cabin. And if that first glance had missed some of the shades of white the Golf had come in, later passes haven’t – every badge, arch liner and almost every pane of glass has been renewed as part of the restoration.
“It’s a proper driveway build, but it’s done to a very high standard, like my Dad’s cars always were,” explains Christian. “I wanted to do as much as I could myself, that’s better than going to a company with X amount of money and telling them to build it for me. Instead, I’ve got involved, friends have come over and helped me do stuff, my Dad has helped, my partner’s helped and even my little boy was helping re-fit what he could in the interior. That’s what I like about it.”
Don’t take our word for it. The modified VW Golf GTI Mk5 has won seven of the nine shows it’s entered and, while it’s evolved, Christian has kept busy with some side projects too. PlusFourFour, a group founded off the back of a Wörthersee trip in 2019 and named after the UK’s international phone dialling code, has grown into its own event – the third is due in 2023. So the Golf isn’t in line for another winter overhaul, but the nagging urge to start again still hasn’t kicked in.
“Next year I’d like to get out to a few more European shows, and just enjoy the car for a bit,” he says. “I’m really happy with the way it looks, and I’ve put so much time and effort into this car that I can’t see myself ever selling it. Eventually I’d love to do a Porsche project, but for now I’m just planning to enjoy the Golf as much as I can – and when my boy gets a bit older, I’ll go to shows with him too.”
That border-hopping ought to offer some extra opportunities for a car that’s still capable of breaking boundaries years after it first found its way into these pages. Immaculate, individual and as personal as ever, stage two of the Golf’s evolution is still well worth another look.
Feature from Performance VW magazine. Words: Alex Grant. Photos: Mark Rodway.
Tech Spec: Modified VW Golf GTI Mk5
1984cc, four-cylinder, TSI turbo, RamAir oversized PRORAM air filter with custom intake, 3” downpipe, de-cat and custom exhaust system, Revo black and red engine mounts with custom polished hardware, powder-coated alternator and throttle body, Forge diverter valve, Audi R8 coil packs, shaved and smoothed engine bay with wire tuck, Forge black hose kit, new clips, bolts, wing bolts and hinge bolts, Audi TTS (8J) engine cover painted Candy White with custom metal plaque and carbon details, Porsche oil cap, Mishimoto high pressure radiator cap
8.5×20” ET45 BBS E88 wheels with red and gold centre caps and rim stickers, 225/30 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo tyres Air Lift Performance Slam Series struts and bags, Air Lift Performance 3P management with 3/8-inch lines, Twin Viair compressors, Porsche Cayenne (955) 18Z brake conversion with 6-piston calipers and 350mm discs (front), Porsche four-pot twin calipers with Mk6 Golf R handbrake caliper and 310mm discs (rear), solid camber top mounts (front)
Full bare metal respray in original Candy White, SRS-Tec 25mm wider front wings, door strips smoothed, ¼ bonnet for smoothed bay, new genuine side skirts, new windscreen, new side glass, new arch linings and bolts, all new badges, US spec smooth front grille, US spec rear bumper, carbon fibre mirror covers, carbon fibre b-pillar trims, Edition 30 front valance textured to match side skirts, New Depo headlights, Valeo rear lights, Polo stubby aerial
Full retrim by Hawkes Autoworks including: Recaro CS seats in anthracite alcantara with red stitching and red and black leather with trimmed backs, dashboard, door cards, arm rest gear gaiter, handbrake and gearknob trimmed in anthracite alcantara with red stitching, custom parcel shelf panels trimmed and fibreglassed, filled and retrimmed in alcantara and red stitching, Mk7 GTI steering wheel, Mk6 GTI gear knob, C6 Carbon custom dash trim, custom alcantara-trimmed air install with floating tank, LED-lit twin compressors under glass viewing panel and curved centre piece supporting the manifold and hardlines, McEwan Customs custom rear cage painted Candy White, Pioneer SPH-DA120 head unit