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Peugeot 205 GTi Tolman Edition is a 1980s icon for the 21st century

Words: Elliott Hughes | Photography: Tolman Engineering

The hot hatch recipe used to be so simple: take a humdrum car, and fit a spicier engine, sportier suspension and bigger brakes. Then, garnish with some decals and a spoiler. Job done. Yet, over the past couple of decades, a laundry list of needs demanded by legislators and buyers has meant the once-simple, affordable hot hatch has become more heavy, complicated and expensive than ever before. 

A Peugeot 205 GTi is the perfect palate cleanser. Small, simple and lightweight, its vaunted handling and effervescent four-cylinder engine make it a textbook example of how things were done in the days before haptic touch controls and hybridised powertrains. Unfortunately, the 205 GTi went out of production in 1999, so finding one that isn’t a rattly rust-bucket in 2024 takes time, patience and money.

Luckily, Tolman Engineering offers a neat solution to those that dream of classic hot hatch hijinx without the drawbacks that come with buying and running an older car. It’s called the 205 GTi Tolman Edition, and it’s designed to be the pure, lightweight machine that so many enthusiasts wish OEMs would – or could – build. All you need to do is find a donor chassis, and then Tolman will transform it into the 205 of your dreams.

The addictive crescendo of that 7500rpm red line makes it very easy to get carried away

The addictive crescendo of that 7500rpm red line makes it very easy to get carried away

The headline figures are certainly mouthwatering: 193bhp and 149lb ft from a zesty four-cylinder engine that revs to 7500rpm, a five-speed manual transmission and a kerbweight of just 895kg. Hallelujah! Before we get too excited, there is, unfortunately, something of a catch: only 20 Tolman Edition 205 GTis will be built, and each will cost £125,000.

So, while the Tolman Edition GTi might not tick the affordability box, does it still deliver old-school thrills? There’s only one way to find out…

The pugnacious little Peugeot looks like it rolled off the marque’s Mulhouse production line only yesterday. Plastic trim and headlights are unfaded, decals intact and there isn’t a single swirl mark in its rich Rouge Vallelunga paintwork. 

Take a look through the windows, and you half expect to see protective plastic sheets still covering the seats. A glance at the F-reg number plate, however, confirms this car was indeed built in the late 1980s. Yet despite the originality and immaculate presentation, the performance stats and subtle ‘Tolman Edition’ badging confirm that this is no concours restoration. 

Open the bonnet, and you’ll find the original 130bhp eight-valve carburetted lump has been replaced by a bespoke 16-valve fuel-injected unit built in-house by Tolman using predominantly Peugeot parts. The basic architecture of the engine is a 1.9-litre 205 GTi block mated to the 16-valve cylinder head from a Peugeot 306 GTi 6. 

The attention to detail is simply astounding; despite being a heavily modified vehicle, this build looks completely OEM. “Ironically, we’ve done more work on what you can’t see than on what you can see,” says Tolman Engineering CEO Chris Tolman. “Each build takes around 1000 hours to complete.”

All the wiring and brake lines are motor sport spec, the exhaust manifold is ceramic coated with correctly tuned header lengths, and even the hydraulic power steering system is completely bespoke, but looks standard.

“When I mocked the engine up, I realised that the power steering belts would be going through the water pipes on this head,” explains Chris. “So, in the end, we had to make our own power steering pump that bolts on the head and is driven off the exhaust cam. Some of the guys suggested using electric power steering on the column, but then you have to chop half the steering column mounts away, and that weakens the car. It needed to be the right solution.”

Tolman’s fastidious attention to detail continues inside the cabin, which, again at first glance, seems completely standard aside from the Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel. The first clue comes as soon as you shut the driver’s door, which closes with the kind of reassuring ‘thunk’ not typically associated with French cars of the era. Then, your eyes are immediately drawn to another special feature: the digital display.

Instead of refinishing the traditional instrument cluster to move the red line from just north of 6000rpm to 7500rpm, Tolman opted to install a digidash that emulates the appearance of the original clocks. The display is so crisp that, at first glance, it looks entirely standard aside from ‘Tolman Edition’ branding that sits below the rev counter. The digidash’s party piece is revealed when you press the chunky Peugeot Sport button, swapping out the regular gauges for those of the iconic 205 T16 homologation special.

Twist the key past its second position, and the 1.9-litre engine bursts into life with a purposeful growl, before settling to idle. Aside from the more dramatic exhaust note and slightly grabby clutch, the Tolman Edition’s drive is quite close to that of a standard car at civilised speeds while the engine is warming up. Even the power steering is far heavier than what you would expect in a modern car, but things are somewhat more refined than the original GTi’s thanks to some extra sound-deadening and an amplified four-speaker sound system with a stealthy boot-mounted subwoofer.

One surprise at these speeds is how much mid-range pull this revvy powertrain puts at your disposal. This means you don’t continually need to row through ratios to make progress, but the feel of the reconditioned gearbox is entirely period correct – shifts feel light and the throws are pretty long, but new rods and metal bushings in the spindle joints make everything feel more taut than you might expect.

Our decrepit UK roads are a stern test of any suspension system – particularly one as simple as the 205 GTi’s, which uses MacPherson struts at the front with trailing arms and torsion bars at the rear. Playful handling has always been this car’s calling card so, logically, Tolman has simply honed the existing system with Bilstein dampers, new front wishbones and rear anti-roll bars, and a different geometry set-up.

“The 205 suspension system is fairly simple, and we’ve applied a few things that I’ve learned over the years while racing them: it’s mainly roll-centre changes, roll bar stiffness and damping changes. The car still has lift-off oversteer, but it’s a lot nicer.”

Tolman’s modifications have resulted in a car that feels remarkably compliant, allowing you to exploit all the car’s power even on a bumpy B-road without being bounced off-line or smashing the bump stops. Turn-in is sharp, and the steering feels direct through the Alcantara wheel.

Damper and steering settings are unchanged once you give the Peugeot Sport button a press, but the throttle becomes very responsive and a little jerky at low speeds. Peugeot Sport is best left to your favourite B-road, where it exaggerates the car’s energetic demeanour and appetite for revs, encouraging you to wring out the little engine all the way to the point at which the shift lights signal an encore.

The addictive crescendo of that 7500rpm red line makes it very easy to get carried away, but happily, the brakes and tyres are more than capable of keeping you on the asphalt. Unlike the standard car, the Tolman Edition benefits from bespoke AP Racing disc brakes all round, with ATEC braided brake lines to help prevent the pedal getting spongy. The fade resilience means that you can left-foot brake out of corners to keep some weight over the nose for plenty of traction, helped even further by the ATB limited-slip differential and Michelin Pilot Exalto Youngtimer rubber.

Driving the 205 GTi Tolman Edition is a blast, and you can’t help but feel the firm’s motor sport DNA after spending a couple of hours in the driver’s seat. The recipe is made even sweeter by pairing the experience behind the steering wheel with a fastidious attention to detail that’s the preserve of only the finest restomods. For us, the fact this has been applied to a vaunted hot hatch, rather than a supercar, only adds to the appeal. 

For some, the £125,000 asking price might be too steep for a Peugeot hatch, but as a tonic to the obesity and over-complication of its descendants, the Tolman Edition is worth every penny.

For more on the Peugeot 205 GTi Tolman Edition, click here.

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