Stephen McKenna has a sensible formula for building winning show cars that are also great to drive: you’ve just got to keep it simple, and remember that it’s supposed to be fun…
It’s easy to get carried away in this car modding game. There’s more pressure today than there’s ever been, with the relentless hype machine of Instagram and Facebook keeping us all involved in the minutiae of everybody’s builds, and the ever-higher standards of cars at shows, and – most significantly of all – the likelihood of keyboard warriors bitching you out from behind the safety of their screens. It’s easy to overthink project builds, to get hysterically wound up in the details until you approach the precipice of meltdown. Sometimes it’s healthiest just to take a step back, to remember that we’re not making parachutes here. Modding should be fun. And a lot of that fun stems from spontaneity.
Take Stephen McKenna and his tasty little Golf. He didn’t mean for it to end up looking like this. In fact, he wasn’t even planning to do anything to it at all, he barely even wanted the car. But it worked its way into his affections and, through a number of spontaneous acts, he’s ended up with a really tidy little project.
“I had no intentions of getting another VAG car, I had my eye on a Honda S2000,” he laughs. The two cars couldn’t be more different really, could they? But VAG tends to have that effect on people, once you find yourself deep inside the thing it can be hard to coax yourself out. Stephen’s first project car had been a Mk6 Golf, which was used as a daily and gradually evolved over a couple of years, wearing four different sets of wheels, Air Lift suspension, a full GTI interior transplant, and a respray with all sorts of bits flushed and smoothed. Safe to say he’s pretty comfortable with playing Golf then, and you can see where the germ of this current idea began its gestation.
When it was time for that car to hit the ol’ dusty trail, Stephen replaced it with a B8-generation Audi A4, which saw a frantic flurry of activity to take it from standard to show car within three months in order to get it sitting pretty for Dubshed. In that time, like the Golf, it got a repaint with a smattering of smoothing, a set of 3-piece Rotiforms, and found itself sitting on the floor. ‘A proper neck-breaker’ is how Stephen describes it.
So you can see how the pieces of the puzzle are starting to tumble into place. He knows his way around a Golf. He likes to build things a certain way and to tight show-dictated deadlines. He also kinda likes to leave decisions to fate. These are all stepping stones to this shiny red Mk5.
“I took this Golf in part-exchange for the A4, with full intentions to sell it straight on to fund the next project,” he recalls. “But I quickly fell for it! After a week of driving it around I took down the for-sale ad and bought an Air Lift kit and a set of RS4 wingbacks. It’s just such a fun car! I knew I had to build it.”
The GTI was completely stock and showing very low miles, and Stephen’s head was immediately filling with plans to shake up the formula and make the thing his own. After all, his previous projects were both multiple show-winners across Ireland and beyond, so not only does he have form, but he has a reputation to uphold.
Stephen’s approach here has been essentially make a sort of Golf Plus. And we’re not talking about that dumbass contraption VW marketed a few years back (you know, the thing that was basically a Golf with a taller roof for some reason); no, what it entails in this instance is to take the revered Mk5 GTI platform and amp it up a bit. Make it the car that VW should have built – a bit faster, a bit more focused, more attractive in the details, just a well-specced and upgraded version of what was already an excellent car. It’s as if he’s taken the spec sheet and photocopied it at 110%, tweaking here, improving there – not revolution, but sublime evolution.
“I got the car over the winter and quickly decided to get started, so within two or three weeks of ownership it had a set of RS4 wingbacks, WCI wheels, and was bagged on Air Lift suspension,” he explains. “All the work was carried out by myself and a couple friends, with only the paint and mapping being done elsewhere. The biggest hurdle was getting the car ready for Ultimate Dubs this year – I got the acceptance letter and decided to give the car an overhaul in a short space of time; I got the car in for a full respray and it was due back three days before I got the ferry to England, however a bad snowstorm hit and the painter was snowed in! The new windows couldn’t be delivered, and the booth broke down, all due to the weather. I ended up getting the car back the day before Ultimate Dubs, put it back together including all the new parts I’d been hoarding as quickly as possible to make the ferry… it was tight, but I managed to meet Ade on the way to the ferry for this photoshoot!”
Yep, you often hear about builds going down to the wire and headbutting deadlines, but it’s not often we shoot a car which was literally in pieces just hours before. You’ve got to hand it to Stephen, he really thrives under pressure!
The spec in this show-ready state is impressive. The GTI is first-and-foremost a capable hot hatch, so the eager and willing FSI engine has had its head patted with a Stage 2 tune along with ITG induction, Audi R8 coils and a custom turbo-back exhaust system, all of which adds up to an impressive and very usable 270bhp. The Air Lift suspension is, as we well know, honed as much for the track as for hard-parking, and the setup’s augmented by Hardrace camber arms to ensure that everything’s strong and accurate where it needs to be, meaning that Stephen can have fun in the twisties. The interior backs this up, rocking a fantastic Clubsport-esque vibe with its tastefully retrimmed Recaro Pole Positions and half-cage. And of course there’s always one eye on the trophies, Stephen’s builds have to be polymaths, so the exterior now looks gorgeous in its fresh Tornado Red with copious subtle carbon fibre details, and the Infinitewerks SS3 rims are an inspired choice. Every element of it just works – it’s not overdone, it’s not overthought, it’s just well-chosen mods fitted with consideration and care. Just the way it should be.
“The car’s got great reactions on the road and at shows, taking home its fair share of Top Tens,” says Stephen, justly proud of what he’s achieved here. “It’s my second car so it’s largely used just for fun on the weekends and for shows… and to be honest I do get bored quite easily, that’s why this car has had thirteen sets of show wheels in under two years of ownership! It’s had three different interiors too, so who knows what I’ll do over the winter, but no doubt I’ll either change everything or have a new project.”
The key thing here, which you’ve presumably gauged from Stephen’s tone, is the lack of stress. He’s not overthinking any of this. He’s just making cool things happen as and when he feels like it. We could probably all take a lesson from this. Modding cars is supposed to be fun, and the way this fella does it seems like he’s having a great time.
TECH SPEC MK5 VW GOLF GTI
Full respray in Tornado Red, flushed rubstrips and bumpers, colour-coded with plastics in gloss black, pulled arches, carbon fibre grille, mirrors, spoiler and custom-made front lip, open-air fog grilles, R32 headlights, Valeo LED tails.
2.0-litre FSI turbo, Stage 2 tune (270bhp), ITG intake with gold heat wrap, Audi R8 coils and iridium plugs, red coil harness, DV+ diverter valve, red silicone hoses, custom 3.5″ turbo-back exhaust system with decat and larger twin tails.
9×19” (front) and 9.5×19” (rear) Infinitewerks SS3 polished 3-piece wheels, Pirelli P-Zero tyres, Air Lift V2 air-ride, Hardrace camber arms.
Colour-coded half-cage, Recaro Pole Position seats – retrimmed in Alcantara with red stitch and red backs, Sparco 4-point harnesses, flat-floor with colour-coded air tank and fire extinguisher, colour-coded X UNIbrace, black leather doorcards, Mk7 steering wheel, BFI gearknob, RCD double-DIN stereo.
“I would like to thank all my mates for helping out, especially Graham Culligan. Also a big thanks to the Irish car scene, which is growing and putting out some amazing VAG and Jap builds.”
Words Dan Bevis Photography Ade Brannan