Wookies in the Wild

What is it about the classic Volkswagen Golf R32 that makes it so special? Is it that compact-but-muscular hot hatch stance? The engaging on-road dynamics? Yes, and yes.

But as these keen Kiwi owners will also tell you, it has everything to do with the ‘wail and woosh’ of a Wookie at speed.

Words Cameron Officer Photos Giona Bridler

Mitch Cowie is a purist. He wouldn’t for a moment suggest his pristine Mk 4 Volkswagen Golf R32 is absolutely 100% original – for example, firing the hot hatch’s signature V6 into life reveals its sonorous bark to be amplified by a Milltek Sport custom exhaust. But keeping almost everything original and accounted for is all part of the passion for Mitch.

“Basically, bolts are fine, but I don’t drill holes,” he says. “The Mk 4 is such a fantastic package as it is, so why would you want to mess with it? I haven’t upgraded many components at all, but I keep everything I take off the car safely stored. I may never put the factory part back on again, but I need to know it’s there if I wanted to.”

And we can appreciate that. His amazingly turned-out New Zealand-new Mk 4 three-door in signature Deep Blue Pearl is, after all, a bit of a unicorn these days. Golf R32s’ of this era are seriously sought after. Mitch’s even has a factory sunroof which, we assure you, amounts to serious bragging rights in the scene.

Mitch essentially knows every single Mk 4 R32 in New Zealand, with and without a sunroof fitted. As do fellow ‘Wookies’, Curtis Leaning and Esther Hjelmström. Sorry, Wookies? Yes, that’s right: as in Chewbacca, the original “big walking carpet” from the Star Wars franchise.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a strange moniker for a bunch of car enthusiasts. But it makes sense when you hear the Golf R32’s V6 burbling howl at speed. It sounds not too dissimilar from a rather angry Wookie with something to say about it.

The term caught alight overseas, especially in the car’s native Germany and in the United States, where several ‘Wookies in the Woods’ clubs exist and hold big regular meets. Back here in New Zealand, Mitch, Curtis, and Esther are all members of the large-and-growing Wookies in the Wild owners’ club; an especially enthusiastic tribe of Golf R and R32 owners who get together for club runs and national events and have a big presence on social media.

“There is a fantastic community of people who just love these cars. It’s a really supportive and respectful community – they’re like family really,” says Esther, who has owned her silver R32 since early 2019, after declaring she absolutely had to have it within the first 200m of the test drive.

“Not a drive goes by when I don’t feel absolutely stoked to be at the wheel of that car,” she says. “It has its quirks; it does random things occasionally; it makes random sounds. But it’s so characterful – it’s so engaging to drive. Yes, the exhaust note it makes is definitely part of it, but it’s just a fun thing to be in.”

Curtis Leaning agrees. In addition to his blue Mk 5 R32, he also owns a Mk 7 Golf GTI – another fun car, he admits, but definitely a daily driver when compared to his cherished R32.

“I’ve owned a few different cars over the years, but nothing I’ve ever owned has soul like the R32. It never fails to put a smile on my face,” he says. “If I’m busy with work and just doing the commute and not using it as much, all I need to do is hop in it and go for a drive. I honestly think I say, ‘Man I love this car!’ out loud every time I drive it.”

With the more restrictive aspects of Auckland’s 2021 Lockdown in the rear view, talk has turned to the next Wookies in the Wild meet, which Curtis says will be held sometime next year in their favoured spot – the Central North Island.

“That location makes it easy to get to for everyone because members come from all over to attend. It helps that the Central Plateau also has a few entertaining roads too. We have a big online membership, but to keep things manageable we limit places on the event to 32 – of course!” he laughs.

Yes, it’s a little wink-wink. But then, Volkswagen has always been a bit cheeky where the R32 is concerned, as Mitch explains.

“Back in 2003, when Volkswagen New Zealand brought the original Golf R32 into the country, naturally the first order was for 32 units. They brought in 11 black ones, 14 blue, five silver, one red and one grey,” he says, highlighting a remarkable talent for recalling the minutiae of this cult model. Oh, and less than half the original 32 cars had factory sunroofs, he adds with a smile.

“I would try other cars I guess,” Mitch says cautiously when asked what other models interest him. “But not at the expense of the R32. I think that’s with me for life.”

And so it goes for all Wookies in the Wild members it would seem. Even when vehicles are traded, they’re often bought back again by other club members. Everyone knows everyone else’s car. Right around New Zealand there’s a strong mutual appreciation for every Kiwi example of this stone-cold German classic.

So, with an entire enthusiast movement named after its animated growl, do the Kiwi Wookies really think the R32’s exhaust note is that addictive?

“Put it this way,” says Esther definitively. “I never drive my R32 with the stereo on.”

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