After five Performance VW features, John Williams set out to find a daily driver he wouldn’t be tempted to modify. Luckily for us, even a top-spec TT RS couldn’t meet the brief. We check out his tuned Audi TT RS.
Feature from Performance VW. Words: Alex Grant. Photos: Si Gray
Although trends come and go, there are some notable recurring threads running through the Performance VW’s first 25 years, and John Williams is definitely one of them. Detail driven and a lover of lows, his inimitable style has re-appeared in these pages no less than five previous times starting with his legendary Mk1, which was featured in our second issue (PVW November 1996). So when we wrapped up his Scirocco shoot at the start of 2016, we took it with a pinch of salt when he said his fifth feature would be his last. It turns out old habits die hard.
“I think it was inevitable that this was gonna happen,” he says, smiling at the recap of our last conversation. “The Scirocco went back to standard before I part-exed it for the TT, so I had the air ride sat there looking at me every time I went into the garage. I said to myself I wouldn’t mess with this one, but it was eating away at me. Eventually it got the better of me…”
This is an instinct born out of a deep-rooted fascination with how things go together. John’s spent the last 22 years building car bodies at the Nissan factory in Sunderland, but he grew up around his Dad’s Mk1 Golfs and – aside from a brief, expensive, foray into RenaultSport ownership – it’s Volkswagen Group machinery that’s held his attention. If his mind wanders, then chances are it’s mentally exploring the potential of whatever’s on his driveway. And it tends not to be too long before those passing thoughts turn into spanner-rattling reality.
By the time the Scirocco reached our photo studio in 2016, he’d reached a fork in the road. John had further plans lined up for the coupe, but was also starting to battle concerns that he’d be taking the project too far if he put them into action. Particularly as it was lacking in one very important department, and it was an shortfall which would have required major work to put right.
“I absolutely loved the Scirocco, but I had always wanted something that sounds good,” he continues. “I wanted a VR6, but I’ve never had one. I wanted an R32, and I haven’t had one of those either. So the TT with the 2.5-litre engine was the only option. The soundtrack was one of the main reasons I went for it, but I knew if I decided to lower it then it would look good as well.”
Factory spec has come on a bit since the 1990s. The TT RS packs enough performance to outrun an R8, and the Plus version – of which there are only a couple of hundred in the UK – bumps up the power from 340hp to 360hp. John wasn’t that fussed about the performance uplift, but he had red lines for his upcoming project that this car happened to meet. S-tronic was a must after a DSG-equipped Scirocco, and finding one with the £1,900 optional leather Recaro wingbacks would save him the temptation of upgrades later on. Sepang Blue wasn’t his first choice, but the car ticked every other box.
Well, almost. “After three or four weeks I started thinking about some lowering springs,” he says. “Instead, I fitted the rear bags on my drive one weekend and couldn’t believe how good it looked. So the following weekend put the front struts on too, and ran it around with no management for a bit, just to get the hang of it. Then I fitted all the height sensors with my friend Paul [Brown] at C6 Carbon, and we got it all working properly.”
To his relief, the full Scirocco setup – comprising Air Lift struts with Accuair management and a wireless iLevel controller – was a straight swap, despite the TT’s additional four-wheel drive system. John’s been experimenting with sump-worrying ride heights for a quarter century and, while the end result is the same, modern tech bypasses the hassle of the heavily-chopped coils he had on his Mk1 or the static drops he’d lived with during later projects.
“Avo brought out the first coilovers for the Mk2 when I had mine [PVW 02/99], so I bought a set and thought I’d have the ultimate lows. I remember putting them on and winding them to the bottom, and as soon as I went out, I could hear the driveshaft catching the chassis leg. So it wasn’t going to be that straightforward,” he tells us.
“The TT has a factory notch on the driver’s side, so you can run it proper low and nothing catches. Everything on the front is dead high, out of the way – the Scirocco and Mk4 Golf have everything hung low so you’re scraping the road constantly. If I could have a car on coilovers [lowered to] where I wanted it, I would probably sway towards them instead. But for daily use, you can’t achieve that – air gives you that driveability.”
Suspension tech wasn’t the only lesson learned from the Scirocco. The TT swaps wheels more often than most of us change kicks; John has four sets in the garage, including the BBS E88s fitted for our shoot. It’s a combo loosely inspired by a gold-on-blue R32 he saw a few years ago, but that interchangeability set some difficult requirements when he was hunting for them two years ago.
“I have a few sets of wheels, and they are all the same fitment; 8.5×20, ET45. It means I can unbolt one set, fit another and I know it’s gonna be right, and if I get something else they’ll still fit. When I started looking at a set of BBS, you could only get then in 9×20, and I didn’t want to go up that half size because I know the problems you can get when you’re running this low and go up half an inch,” he explains.
“It ended up that this lass in Belgium was selling her car, and it had 8.5x20s. She said if I placed a deposit, then I could have them. I didn’t want to take a chance with them getting lost or damaged in shipping, so I drove there and back in a day – 1,100 miles – to pick them up. They’re absolutely amazing wheels.”
Impeccably maintained by their previous owner, these could have been built to order for the TT; the centres are still painted factory gold, and bolted into genuine BBS Motorsport lips and with the original primer grey finish on the barrels. As per his previous projects, the faintest outline of Hankook rubber is tucked up behind the Audi’s bodywork, which was subtly flared 30mm per side at the front with the help of Muecke flared arches and is gently raked towards the nose. There’s more to an aggressive stance than just laying it low.
Paul at C6 Carbon didn’t stop at helping with the air ride. John started working with him having underestimated the challenges of carbon skinning on the Scirocco, and the friendship they’ve struck up since has had a big impact on its successor. Audi went as far as adding a little carbon fibre on the mirrors and under the bonnet on the TT RS Plus, and repeat visits to Paul’s workshop have evicted every trace of chrome and brushed aluminium from the rest of the car. Even the headlight internals didn’t escape untouched; stripped to their component parts, blacked out and with an RS Plus logo etched into the projectors.
Working closely together offered up a few opportunities to experiment. The branded plates set into the sill panels feature a satin finish composite pioneered by Lamborghini, with carbon fibre pressed into shape instead of the more typical holographic weave. Pleased with the results, that same forged carbon process was used to produce a glare-free binnacle for the instruments, too. John might have stopped short of going the whole nine yards with the Scirocco, but this is in a different league.
“I had always wanted to do a rear seat delete in the Scirocco, but I didn’t get to it. The back seat in a TT is neither here nor there – you can’t get an adult in – so I made a seat delete panel with space for a fire extinguisher, which Paul skinned in carbon. Then I started looking for a roll cage” he says.
“There wasn’t anything that looked right – they didn’t follow the roofline – so we built one out of aluminium. I cut the sections, Paul did the welding and then carbon skinned the whole thing. The first one had a straight bar across the roof lining, but it blocked the rear-view mirror, so we cut that section out and made another one that follows the shape of the roof. It was the first time Paul had built a cage.”
It also created some extra challenges. Exposed by the lack of rear bench, the visible fittings of the Scirocco’s hand-me-down air tank suddenly looked out of place. Version two of the install features one of the first Accuair Endo tanks in the UK, its cleaner design tied into the rest of the build with the help of blue anodised end caps and a carbon-skinned core. The rebuild uncovered a leak in the manifold, so that got the same colour-coded treatment while it was being refurbished, and even the controller’s baseplate now matches the car. So much for not messing with things.
Of course, the upshot of starting with a top-spec Audi TT RS was a limited need to tinker with its mechanical parts. John spaced the standard brake calipers and upsized the warp-prone factory discs to RS-6 spec with lighter aluminium bells up front. The powertrain is stock apart from the Milltek race-spec exhaust and 034Motorsport inlet unlocking a little more of that all-important five-pot soundtrack. But a tractable 360hp and four-second sprint to 62mph is hard to argue with anyway.
“People say you lose the driving experience [with the S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox], but I don’t think you do,” he says. “Half the time I have it in manual, using the stick to go up and down through the gears, and the changes are instant. With so much power, I was dubious about whether the air ride would be up to the job, but it drives really well. Most people who get in the car say they wouldn’t even know it’s on air – it’s as good as standard in my mind, so it was a win-win.”
However, it’s become an increasingly rare experience. The TT’s evolving spec has retired it from daily use, especially once the wide arches had steered John towards fresh paint. Having ticked the ‘good soundtrack’ box, he’s recently bought himself a 100hp Caddy van as a runaround and – surprise, surprise – it wasn’t long before it started asking for the same TLC too. Old habits die hard, right?
“I’ve always wanted a van, but I didn’t want it to be my main vehicle. Now I’ve got one, I absolutely love driving it, and I’m enjoying having something I can just leave outside and not be bothered where I park it. It came with coilovers, and I’ve just bought some Tarmacs for it, but I’m not going mad with it,” he says, clocking our scepticism.
“The wheel fitment’s the same, so I could change them over, and the air ride would go on too. When the TT goes it’ll be put back to standard, so I’ll have all the bits from that. They would go on the Caddy, but we’ll see. I’m always thinking about what I can do with the weekend, what I can pull apart and put back together. It’s one of those things I’ll probably always do. It’s just me.”
Not going mad with it? Excuse us for a second while we reach for another pinch of salt. The tuned Audi TT RS might be about to step aside, but it’s only a matter of time before temptation takes hold and this 25-year thread marches on towards its seventh instalment. See you in five years, John? We’ll be waiting…
Tech Spec: Tuned Audi TT RS
2480cc, five-cylinder, 20-valve turbocharged petrol (CEPB), 034Motorsport carbon fibre intake, Milltek non-resonated cat-back race exhaust system with carbon fibre tailpipes
8.5×20 ET45 BBS Motorsport E88 wheels, 225/30 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo K107 tyres, Air Lift Performance struts, Accuair E-Level with I-Level, Custom Accuair Endo air tank finished in carbon with blue anodised end caps, blue anodised touchpad and controller with C6 Carbon top plates, OE TT-RS calipers spaced for 380mm (front) and 356mm (rear) RS-6 discs
Muecke 30mm wider wings, OE carbon fibre mirror caps, splitter, rear spoiler and lower valance, OE headlights with carbon and gloss black internals and RS Plus logo etched into projector lenses, all-red rear lights, blue RS badges
Rear seat delete with custom lower section, custom carbon fibre rear roll cage and strut brace, forged carbon fibre binnacle, carbon fibre steering wheel with factory leather sides, carbon fibre gear knob, full carbon fibre interior pack, carbon fibre sill trims with forged carbon inserts and custom TT-RS Plus logos, Still Static floor mats (CHECK), carbon fibre fire extinguisher