Joseph Mann had two directions in mind for his now dubbed Harlequin Skoda Fabia vRS makeover: down to the ground, then off into the stratosphere in a glimmering disco freakout of LSD-tinged technicolour dreams…
Feature from Fast Car. Words: Dan Bevis. Photos: Dan Sherwood.
Hot hatches work to a proven formula. The whole point of them is to blend practicality and day-to-day usability with tactile agility and amusing levels of firepower. It’s a concept that has endured for generations; when manufacturers started dipping their toes into these fragrant waters back in the 1970s, it became immediately apparent that they were on to a winner, and enthusiasts have been scooping up and cherishing these things ever since.
Where things get a little more peculiar is when car-makers start to distort the fun/practicality balance. The idea of making a fuel-efficient hot hatch, for instance, is one that’s kept designers and engineers scratching their heads for a while; today such things are easily achievable with the likes of Ford’s three-pot EcoBoost motor with cylinder deactivation and what-have-you. But back in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was diesel power that kept popping its head over the parapet. And yes, there were diesel hot hatches before the Skoda Fabia vRS of 2003, but this was the first solely diesel hot hatch with no petrol alternative.
Against all the odds, it quickly became a bit of a hit. In essence, the Skoda Fabia vRS is an exercise in how a car can be greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, it doesn’t sound all that exciting; honestly, who would want a self-styled hot hatch that was packing a dirty oil-burner under the bonnet? And a peak power figure of just 130bhp? That may have been an impressive number when the 205 GTI appeared in the early 1980s, but the Fabia is a 21st-century car. You can see why some people initially turned their noses up at it. Oh, but how wrong they were… 130bhp wasn’t the whole story by any means, as the vRS’s key number was a meaty 228lb ft of torque, available from just 1,500rpm. If you kept it in the sweet spot between about 1,500-2,700rpm, this perplexing heavy-hitter had the ability to leave a lot of more credible rivals with egg all over their faces. Indeed, it’s so torquey that the traction control cuts in rather more than you might like when you’re hustling it along country lanes, but there’s nothing to stop you switching that off and getting into a bit of mischief. What you get for your money is proven VW build quality, a playful chassis, way more usable power than you’d ever expect, and a surprising amount of sensibleness too. It’s not expensive to service, it’ll return 55mpg on a long motorway run, it’s cheap to insure, and it’s right at the bottom of its depreciation curve so it’s not going to lose you any money when it comes time to let it go.
For all these reasons and more, this is why Joseph Mann found himself signing on the line for a Fabia – the one you see before you here. Of course, it looked a little different then to how it does now… but before we get into all that, let’s have a little dig into the back-story.
“My history of owning modified cars goes back to when I first passed my test,” Joseph explains. “My first car was a gold Mk1 Ford Focus, which came pretty standard until I started playing around with it! Back then Max Power and cruises were a big thing, so I used to spend my Saturday nights down Southend seafront admiring all the builds that were going on. From the Focus I then went onto a classic Subaru Impreza which had a half-and-half paint job – it was such a lovely import and I believe it was an ex-police one as well. I did so much to that car!”
Following that was a Mk7 Fiesta ST, perhaps his magnum opus, which Joseph owned from when it was just 4,000 miles old. Some pretty wild stuff happened in the five years that he had it, from a pearlescent pink paintjob to a full retrim and audio build, plus air-ride over Fifteen52s… which was all fun and games until it got written off. And with a massive hole in his pocket, Joseph needed to replace the ST with something affordable. A car that would provide some hedonistic thrills, but also be cheap to buy and relatively frugal to run. So yeah, you can see where this is going. The idea of a Fabia vRS fitted the bill perfectly.
“I found this car on a Skoda Fabia Facebook page for £1,400, and instantly knew it was the one I wanted,” Joseph recalls. “However, the condition really wasn’t the best – the bodywork was pretty awful and it had scratches all over, along with a fair few dents and a lot of stone chips. The wheels had a few kerb marks to them, the interior wasn’t the cleanest and the seats weren’t great either so it all needed a good scrub-up – but I couldn’t complain as it was a pretty cheap price! On the plus side the spec was good, as it had the induction kit and had already been mapped. It also had the bigger Octavia brakes and some brand new lowering springs fitted.”
All in all, a pretty decent starting point on a budget. Although as we’re about to discover, budgets are malleable things when the creative juices start flowing. You see, with a such a long and illustrious career of doing offbeat and creative things to cars, there was no way that this little derv runabout was going to be staying in that rough-and-ready condition. It was making Joseph’s eye twitch. And it was within just the twinkling of an eye that developments started to
Wheels maketh the car, as has long been established in this parish, so the first move was to acquire a fresh set of Fifteen52 rims for the Harlequin Skoda Fabia vRS, plus some 10mm spacers for the front in order to neatly fill out those chunky little arches. An air-ride kit was then bought from Offset AutoHaus, along with fittings from those good people over at Only Charged Dubs. And with the haul of loot turning into a substantial pile, Joseph had to formulate a plan of action. Without further ado, he packed a suitcase and hightailed it over to his mate Daniel Kenny’s house, where the fellas set aside a full two weeks to give the Fabia a proper makeover. Everything was stripped down and the air-ride installed, side-stepping a few hurdles with air lines being too close to the exhaust and entry points brushing wheels, and before long it was all safely located and working correctly. With that taken care of, the two guys along with Daniel’s dad set about sprucing up the bodywork ready for wrapping, which required endless amounts of filling, sanding and repeating, until finally the Skoda was prepped for its disco facelift.
“The wrap was the hardest thing,” Joseph laughs. “I couldn’t find a single colour I liked, so I ended up with 32 wrap samples! I was doing edits on my car to see if I liked a particular shade, but nothing was interesting me until I started riffing off the Harlequin design and tried editing a few colours together.”
The Harlequin idea will probably be familiar to most readers; essentially, in 1995 Volkswagen released a special edition Polo with its panels variously painted in Flash Red, Ginster Yellow, Pistachio Green and Chagall Blue – the way they achieved this was to take finished cars in each colour and swap the panels around, and it’s become a cult hit. We’ve seen the home-built Harlequin treatment on everything from Mk3 Golfs to Passat CCs. However, most people tend to stick to those original four colours, whereas Joseph had something more super-freaky in mind.
“I decided I really liked the multi-colour edit, and bought a whole bunch of super-gloss metallic colours from CSK Wraps,” he says. “Daniel and I, along with another mate, Kirsty Rushbrook, got to work on the wrapping side of things, taking it one shade at a time. As we got halfway through the process, we decided to make a few changes to the scheme and reduced the number of different colours from nine down to six.”
It’s a truly inspired idea, and one that’s had crowds buzzing around the Fabia at shows ever since. Joseph receives a lot of attention and praise for it while he’s out and about too; it may have a show car finish, but this is still his daily driver for commuting and errands and everything else. All over Essex and far beyond, jaws drop and phones flash; young kids love the rainbow vibe, older folks quiz him about the Harlequin influence, it really does bring a little colour and vibrancy into people’s lives.
Indeed, we’ve got so caught up in the rainbows that we haven’t even addressed the ‘hot’ element of this hot hatch… yes, with a PD150 turbo, straight-through exhaust and a healthy remap, it’s putting out a meaty 188bhp – up 45% over stock. But the really chewy number is the torque figure; 292lb ft is a hilariously unexpected result, the amount you’d find in a Mk3 Audi TTS or a Mk7 Golf R. The diesel slugger is a force to be reckoned with, for sure. But it’s all wrapped up in such a delightful, wonderful, fairground-fabulous package that the performance always comes as a huge surprise.
Of course, surprising performance has always been the Fabia vRS’s modus operandi. What Joseph has done here is to take that stealth and warp it into something so in-your-face it stretches the very fabric of your retinas. A missile streaking through a rainbow, spreading joy and good cheer wherever it flies.
Tech Spec: Harlequin Skoda Fabia
1.9-litre PD TDI, PD150 turbo and head bolts, Airtec air filter and silicone hose, 2.5in straight-through Jetex exhaust system, remapped to 188bhp / 292lb ft
Air Lift Performance suspension with V2 management
Octavia vRS 312mm front brake upgrade
7.5x16in Fifteen52 Deltona wheels with 205/40/16 tyres
Wrapped in assorted super-gloss metallic shades from CSK Wraps, front number plate recess smoothed and flushed, de-badged and smoothed bootlid, RSP Stores lowline kit, smoked front and
Half-leather Octavia vRS front seats, boost gauge, double-DIN Pioneer SPH-DA120 head unit, boot build inc. air tank and 2x JBL subs wrapped in wavy black fabric, floors re-laid in matching fabric, hand-made Air Lift controller holder in ashtray rear lights, wiper delete, LED fog lights, shark fin aerial, bonnet vents, wind deflectors