07 September 2023 ~ 0 Comments

Smiles per gallon: Stewart Sims’ 1990 Volkswagen Polo Fox

Once commonplace on Britain’s roads, the boxy – and very popular – Mk 2 Polo provided tough, well-made, but few-frills transport for many drivers. Four decades later, it is carving out a niche as a starter classic. Perhaps not the obvious choice after a string of more traditional classics, car enthusiast Stewart Sims is glad he hunted down his Polo Fox

When the Volkswagen Polo was launched in 1975, it quickly set the template for small cars with its nicely proportioned style, high quality build, sweet-revving engines and nimble handling. The second-generation car which arrived in 1981 continued that trend – unsurprising perhaps as it was based on the mechanical bones of its feted predecessor – but with one big difference. The silhouette now resembled a small estate car, rather than sharing the slope-tailed outline of the first generation car. This made it distinctive, though, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s Mk 2 ‘breadvan’ Polos were easy to spot.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and 40 years after its introduction, the second-generation VW Polo is now much harder to find. Usually driven by ‘older’ folks in-period, younger drivers now take a shine to the car, lured by its simple mechanical nature, and no-nonsense, no-frills make-up and specification. Stewart Sims is one such owner. He purchased the 1990 Polo Fox seen here in May 2021 from UK Volkswagen specialist UKD Auto in Bristol. Previously owning cars such as a Rover 220 Coupé, the Polo seems an odd choice.

Distinctive and characterful
“I wasn’t specifically looking for a Polo,” Stewart says. “Having owned a string of classics from the 1970s up to 1999, I felt drawn towards older, simpler cars again. In fact, I am more in my comfort zone with British cars and was actually considering a Mini,” he continues. So why did the Polo appeal? “The Mk 2 Polo is just such a clean design, and this car is an incredibly clean example, too,” Stewart says. “I’ve always liked Mk 2 Golfs, but the ‘breadvan’ shape of this Polo in my view makes it even more distinctive and characterful. It also helps that it’s small so it can fit in a garage yet it has a big hatchback boot that can easily swallow some comfy chairs for car shows or picnics,” he explains.

It’s worth pointing out that the Fox was more ‘characterful’ than most other Mk 2 Polos. Later cars such as Stewart’s featured distinctive ‘Checkweave’ padded interior trim, white bumper and grille pinstriping, and distinctive star-shaped wheel trims, the latter items Stewart’s car lacks. First introduced as a special edition version of the Polo hatchback in 1984 aimed at younger buyers with a palette of bright colors and special ‘Fox’ decals that adorned its flanks, the model became a mainstay of the range in 1985 (the badge also appearing on the Polo Coupé) and served as the entry point in the Polo range, right up until the Mk 2 Polo’s – post-facelift – demise in 1994.

G550 DPY has had seven or eight owners over its 33-year life, but sadly Stewart has very little in the way of history. “I bought it from UKD Auto who are German classic car specialists, and I imagine they’d found it sitting in a garage for a long time and bought it to restore,” says Stewart. The car has had a full respray in Tornado Red and a mechanical overhaul, and as a result, Stewart reports that it drives very well.

The car is Stewart’s first Volkswagen, having had his eye on other Wolfsburg classic. “Not long before I bought the Polo, I was outbid on a Beetle at a car auction. I was a bit disappointed but then the Polo came along, so one way or another the universe provided my first Volkswagen!” he says. At the time of purchase, the car had covered just under 52,000 miles since 2 February 1990 when it was first registered, and the odometer now reads almost 53,500 miles. Not a ‘daily’, those extra 1,500 miles have largely been added through the journeys to and from classic car events. “We’ve been to lots of shows!” says Stewart. “The car came from near Bristol, and I live in Norfolk now. It’s seen most of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire in the time I’ve owned it.”

Stewart planned to carry out a few minor tasks to make the Polo a little more user-friendly in the 2020s, including adding a 12V socket (yes, the Fox was that basic, folks). Overall, though, Stewart’s plan was to retain the look of a car that was everywhere when he was young and now you rarely see in such original condition. Compared to the ‘fun’, and mostly sporty cars he owned before – also including an MG Midget as well as his beloved Rover 220 Coupe – Stewart says the 45bhp, 1,043cc Polo is definitely more sedate, and has half the power of any other car he has owned! “But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun,” he says. “It is now at an age where it turns heads and is also a really great car to nip about in – it just might not win a traffic light drag race!”

A broad appeal
Stewart’s little red Polo doesn’t just turn heads on the road. A regular on the local and national show circuit, the now rare small Volkswagen attracts attention wherever it goes. “A lot of people want to take photos and have a chat,” Stewart reports. “This age and era of Polo has a broad appeal to a lot of people because they were so practical and versatile. Most people of a certain age remember one being in their lives or had a friend who owned one,” he says.

“It’s such an easy classic to live with, too, because everything is simple to access and also to disassemble. It’s a very practical car as well and I think Polos will become a very popular ‘starter classic’ for a lot of people in the coming years,” Stewart enthuses. However, despite the car’s ease of tinkering with, it’s not always been plain sailing. A blowing exhaust, coolant leaks, a new coolant bottle and the speedo cable have all caused issues, but the biggest problem Stewart has experienced, is the age-old Mk 2 Polo ailment of an iced carburettor.

“This has definitely been the most problematic thing to deal with,” Stewart confirms. “The others are all things I’ve experienced and dealt with before. It was pretty scary losing power on a dual carriageway! To be fair, other Polo owners had warned me the cars are susceptible to this, but as it only shows up in certain weather conditions it’s hard to tell if you have the problem until it’s too late. Fortunately it all turned out OK and once the carb had thawed out I could continue my journey and the fix was straightforward,” he says. Stewart has documented fixing a few of these problems on his Substack pages.

Sadly, some signs of corrosion on the bodywork have forced Stewart’s hand and he is selling the car, entering it into an East Anglian Motor Auctions sale in Norwich on 9 September. “The bodywork showing signs of poor repair only a couple of years after being resprayed was a real shame. It can be sorted, but I didn’t buy the car to get into the level of work it might need to put right. It passed its last MOT with no advisories, so it’s not got to the stage where it is structurally a problem. It could easily be rescued by someone willing to put the time and money into it. No-one has even commented on it at a car show yet either,” he explains.

Practical and well-rejuvenated
As he enjoys owning it, Stewart initially planned to keep the little red Polo for a long time. “My motivation for buying a more practical and well-rejuvenated car was that I could spend a bit more time enjoying it, rather than fixing it, or waiting for the right conditions or opportunity to take it out. It has fitted very well into my lifestyle,” he says.

“I’ve enjoyed owning it very much because it is such an easy-going ownership experience: it’s easy to drive, simple to maintain and practical. The running costs and part prices are low and it’s also the sort of car that always puts a smile on people’s faces. I always intended to do what I could to keep it in good condition,” Stewart adds. The car has had its moment in the spotlight, though, attending those local shows and also the Festival of the Unexceptional, where it was snapped for inclusion in a recent issue of Classic.Retro.Modern magazine.

Very much a reluctant sale, the Polo will be replaced at some point in the future, but with life events currently taking priority, Stewart is unsure what form its successor will take. “Eventually I think the Polo will be replaced. At the moment, with a home renovation to contend with, I’m going to (try) to have a break from owning a classic for a little while,” he says. “I don’t know what I would replace it with yet. One thing I enjoy, and want to try to spend more time doing, is going out on walks with the dog in the countryside, so perhaps something a bit more rugged, and that I’m less likely to be worried about getting dirty might be an idea!” he says.

Whatever that car might be, Stewart’s little and simple Volkswagen has set the bar high. “The Polo is such a relaxing car to drive, but if you push it a bit, then it can also be really involving,” he reports. “I think a combination of everything being manual and more ‘analogue’ than modern cars, as well as a great design mean it really is a ‘driver’s car’ despite it not being sporty or fast,” he says.

Early Polos were rarely sporty or fast, but that’s just part of their charm. If you would like to own a piece of late, pre-facelift Mk 2 Polo history, be a little wily and head over to Norwich on 9 September to grab yourself a starter classic. This little red Polo needs to be kept on the road to continue to make people smile.

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