Sometimes, a car can come along that really surprises you. And that’s the case with my 25 GTi, which I acquired back in April in the knowledge I was about to be made redundant from my old job, and needed something cheap and economical to run around in for a few months after handing back the company car I had in my old job.
Prior to that, most of my car fleet was purely indulgent. Rover 800s, a Jaguar X300, a Land Rover Defender and various others that were enormous fun to own in small doses, but weren’t necessarily ideal for daily use due to their heady fuel consumption. Enter the 25 GTi – a car that was staring into the jaws of the crusher at the same time as I was looking for a cheap runabout to keep me inexpensively mobile for three months while I was between jobs.
The car’s elderly owner had been its custodian since early 2002, having purchased it from Marshall’s Rover in Bedford when it was 18 months old. Alas, the owner had become frail in his later years and was no longer able to drive, so the 25 had sat on his driveway for three years, with its only mileage being an annual trip to the MoT station as he was adamant that he might need to use it again one day. Between 2011 and 2014, the total distance covered was just 90 miles – a 15 mile trip to the MoT garage and back, three times. With a couple of months’ ticket left, though, the owner’s family convinced him that the car would become a liability he didn’t need, and so he decided to dispose of it.
That’s where I came in – having rescued various old cars through the years, it’s got to the point now where they tend to find me – and, in the case of the 25 GTi, it was brought to my attention by a friend of a friend. It was early in the week, and the car was due to be scrapped on the Saturday unless someone picked it up before then. Having established it was still MoT’d, had only covered 71k, had four nearly new tyres and even had a couple of months’ tax in the windscreen, I figured it was worth a gamble so, on the Friday afternoon, the princely sum of £180 changed hands and I hopped on a train to Bedford to drive it home.
Several things became apparent during the gingerly conducted 40-mile drive back. First, the car was utterly filthy having lived outside for three years. There was moss growing in all of the door channels, cobwebs between the windscreen and headlining, fungus in the footwells and a weird oily film across the whole car from where it had languished beneath a tree. Second, it hadn’t been driven any distance for a very long time – the brakes were heavily corroded, it felt lumpy under acceleration and the alternator pulley was making a horrid screeching noise, not helped by the fact the battery light kept flickering on and off. While there was potentially a half-decent car underneath, the 25 wouldn’t be a daily driver from the get-go.
Some of you, then, may wonder why I even bothered. After all, there are still quite a few 25s left on the road to choose from, and finding a good one isn’t impossible. Finding a nice GTI, on the other hand, is a real rarity. Powered by the 1.8-litre VVC K-Series as found in the MGF and 200Vi models, the GTi is a real Q-Car, with 142bhp on tap and a 0-60mph sprint time of only eight seconds – making it significantly faster than the contemporary VW Golf GTi. The precursor of the much less discreet MG ZR 160, the GTi is more of a discerning warm to hot hatch, with traditional Rover cues such as half-leather upholstery and chrome trim. Rover only sold around 1,400 GTis in the UK during a two-year production run and, according to howmanyleft.co.uk, there are now only 277 still taxed.
Indeed, it was only when I discovered how rare it was that I committed to getting it sorted out – the photos don’t really show quite how revolting the car was when first collected, and I have to confess that I did consider breaking it at first, knowing that the engine alone should be enough to get me my money back.
First up, I changed all the belts under the bonnet. Alas, the battery light remained on, so I procured a used alternator from my local breakers for £25. That extinguished the warning light, but the battery itself was no longer taking charge, so I had to add a new battery to my shopping list. I dismantled, cleaned and refitted all of the brakes – the discs were actually in surprisingly okay condition – cleaned up all the electrical connections and coil packs, and changed all the fluids. Taking it for a test drive subsequently was a revelation – the car still felt a little lumpy at idle with a slight chugging noise as if it has an air leak of some description (I’ve yet to investigate further, as it never stalls and seems to run okay) but the performance and braking were transformed – indeed, as my confidence with the car grew, it soon became apparent that it was actually massively entertaining to drive and, aside from a slight bang from a loose exhaust bracket, was really tight and responsive to drive. Why Rover didn’t really market it properly, then, is anyone’s guess – you only have to look at the success of the subsequent MG ZR (the car that almost saved MG Rover) to recognise that the demand would have been there.
Although it was now much improved mechanically, I didn’t want to spend any more on the GTi until the MoT man had given it the once over. The emissions were at the upper limit of acceptability, but other than that, the car went straight through – leading me to give it the attention it had now earned.
A rather busy time in my personal life meant I left the 25 parked up for a few weeks, but when I got chance to go over it properly I discovered it was actually a far better car than I expected. Aside from a few small scuffs on both bumpers and a tiny bit of surface rust on the trailing edge of one sill (I know, catch it quick because that’s where they go!), the Tahiti Blue bodywork was in exceptional order, as was the interior – the only downsides there being a small crack in the leather on the driver’s seat side panel and a loose door bin. It also came with the added bonus of genuine Rover rubber overmats and a boot liner – nice accessories that imply the car was properly looked after early in its life.
Such was the filth and grime both inside and out that cleaning the 25 took me around 16 hours – at my local Land Rover dealership, that’d be £1600 in labour alone! Nevertheless, the results were worth it – gone was the grubby, down-at-heel shed that I’d picked up in April, to be replaced by a car that was clean, bright, mechanically sorted and rewarding to drive – just what I needed, then, for my short-term transport requirements.
The question, though, was what next for the GTi? With a new job on the horizon and new company car imminent (all will be revealed…), it’s work will very soon be done and, as is always the case, I’d hate for it to once again fall into the danger zone of being a cheap, unloved banger. Luckily, it looks like it will be going to a very good home in the non-too-distant future to someone who lives and breathes Austin-Rover cars much in the same way that I do and, funnily enough, needs a short-term transport solution. He needs it so he doesn’t need to subject last year’s short-term transport to another British winter, and I supplied him with that one as well, so maybe it’s safe after all…