THE ORIGINAL HOT HATCHES
The 1970s will be remembered for many things to those people who were around to experience it, 1971 is pretty well recognized as the best year in rock ’n’ roll history. Construction of the Twin Towers in New York was completed, and the first Apple computer was released. Closer to home, our cricketers managed to get their first test wins against Australia and England, a young politician by the name of Robert Muldoon became Prime Minister, and Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its doors to ravenous Kiwis.
In the performance-car world, the status quo was very comfortable for some. Stateside, manufacturers generally stuck to the ‘big is best’ approach that had been working for them for so long. Add a bit of Mopar power and, despite the fuel crisis, the ’70s saw some now historic metal coming out of Detroit. The Aussies stuck to their knitting with the battle of Holden, Valiant, and Ford raging on, and the Land of the Rising Sun was beginning to make its mark on sensible commuters.
Meanwhile, in Europe, there was change afoot. Big luxury cars were falling out favour, ushering in a new era of performance vehicles boasting small bodies with smaller engines — the ‘hot hatch’ revolution was beginning.
As with any revolution, there were the more memorable trailblazers, those crazy enough to jump into uncharted waters with only a sieve for a paddle — like the Renault 5, a mad car with the focus far more on ‘hot’ than ‘hatch’; the original Fiat Abarth, a car so ill prepared to don a performance cloak that, when things wouldn’t quite fit, the engine was simply left hanging out the back; and, arguably, the Mini Cooper, which, while not a hatch in its purest form, was a small car with a few extra kilowatts that was capable of putting a smile on your face.
And that is the essence of the hot hatch — not the desire to fight for the biggest displacement or largest wheels or noisiest exhaust. Their performance was measured less in terms of power, though they often weren’t short of that, and more in smiles per hour, of which there were plenty.
Volkswagen Golf GTI MKI
Over the course of the last 40 years, while other manufacturers have come and gone from the hot-hatch game, the VW Golf GTI has entrenched itself as the mainstay. It was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in March 1975 as a small yet practical car; front-wheel drive, yet able to handle well; and powerful yet economical — which all seemed a bit of a paradox.
Powered by an Audi-sourced 82-kilowatt 1.6-litre unit and, later, a far torquier 84-kilowatt 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, the MKI GTI soon found its way into not only into the hearts and minds of a new breed of younger enthusiasts but also those of the old guard, who realized that this formula was really quite good, in part because it was simple. It was based on a
small, reliable family car with excellent economy and practicality, and it was easy enough to wring power and handling from a vehicle that weighed not much more than a chocolate fish.
Peugeot 205 GTI
Of course, lining up the original Golf against the 205 GTI isn’t an apple-for-apples comparison. The 205 GTI wasn’t released by its French manufacturer until nearly a decade after the Germans had proven that the concept works. But what the French did create has shaped the progress of hot hatches since.
The original 205 GTI was powered by a 1.6-litre eight-valve engine producing 77kw (104hp). In 1987, this engine was fitted new with the cylinder head sporting larger valves and able to produce 86kw.
While some purists believe that the 1.6-litre motor made the GTI, the 1.9 used in another upgrade in 1988 (as in our 1990 test car) was a step up in terms of performance. Now producing 94kw, the 205 GTI was a car that turned heads almost everywhere it went, and it put pressure on other European manufacturers in a race for speed and agility.
The VW Golf was not initially built with performance in mind. While not quite as revolutionary as the Beetle was for the brand, the Golf was most certainly a car for the people, as it was small, economical, and durable. With its all-new front-wheel drive and a front-mounted water-cooled engine, the Golf offered a large rear boot with a steep window. These features were purely function over form. So, while the VW retained the boxy look popular of the time and translated it to fit a performance model with the GTI, Peugeot had broken the mould somewhat by going for a rounder, sportier
body slung low for the 205. Indeed, with an even lower stance and larger 15-inch wheels on the later 1.9 versions, the 205 GTI left you with no illusions regarding what it was out to do, and that was to go fast. The 205 body shape remains a benchmark that manufacturers still refer to when building their hatchbacks now.
Interior and comfort
Time hasn’t been particularly kind to the Volkswagen or the Peugeot as far as interior styling goes. Even using the term ‘styling’ might be pushing the boat out a bit far — perhaps ‘quirks’ is a better word.
Of course, the Golf has the well-known GTI hallmarks (er, quirks) — tartan seat cloth and golf-ball gear shifter (those Germans are famous for their wacky sense of humour) — but otherwise, it’s a pretty simple set-up. The seats offer very little support, while the dash and console panels are made of plastic that hasn’t aged particularly well. Legroom is more a concept than a reality in the Golf. I understand that people were smaller overall some 40 years ago, but I think even then the preference was for blood flow below the knee. Surprisingly, the boot is a cavernous space. The Golf’s box-like dimensions mean that the rear window is almost at 90 degrees to the roofline, making for a very useable boot.
The Peugeot fares a bit worse in this department. While the Germans appeared to be at the beginning of a cost-cutting generation with the inside of the Golf, it seems the French were further down that the line. While they might have got away with leaving some features out of the GTI and calling it ‘performance-focused weight reduction’, the absence of almost any creature comfort does make the Peugeot feel more the result of bean counters and laziness rather than a performance focus.
At just 860kg, the Golf is a very light car, and being light means it is nimble. It also means a fantastic power-to-weight ratio has been achieved. The Golf found favour among city commuters worldwide, but it was also very capable as an open road car. The later five-speed variant simply begs to be revved hard and pushed at every opportunity. When things get a bit much for the VW in the corners, its reaction (which became typical of quick, small, frontwheel-drive cars) is to cock an inside wheel. The raspy exhaust note and lack of sounddeadening materials make driving the Golf a sensory experience, too. Even the smell from the carburetted four-pot makes you feel like you’re stayin’ alive in the ’ 70s.
The Peugeot, while not quite a smooth ride, is far more refined than the Golf. The gearbox doesn’t feel as if it needs to be moved rapidly, as there is a fluidity to it that the Golf doesn’t have. While the Golf sports a high seating position, the Peugeot feels like it was designed more with the driver in mind. Still, today, the 205 offers a comfortable drive. It doesn’t appear to have the same desire to be driven hard into every turn, so does the job of all-round driver’s car better than the Golf.
The 205 body shape was such a success that there was never a facelift. And never a follow-up. In the years that followed the 205, Peugeot seemed to lose its way somewhat. While it looked as if the 205 could be the kick in the pants that the brand could use to propel it into global success, it chose a different, more dreary path. There were flashes of inspiration with the likes of the 405 Mi16 (using the same 1.9-litre engine from the 205) and the
Kids of the 80’s and 90’s now have the means to buy a weekend car, and what better start than a 205 GTI?
diminutive and excellent 106 XSI, but, for the most part, Peugeot seemed to lean towards appeasing French taxi drivers and the unimaginative.
Volkswagen, on the other hand, knew it was on to a winner. The MKII GTI was released in 1983, now offering a five-door model as well as the threedoor. Some saw the MKII as a step away from the wheel-cocking brilliance of the MKI. With the 1.8-litre engine from the later Mkis repurposed for the new version, they held their value for a time (the MKI sold 10,000 cars in its final year of production, and it was the 14th-best-selling car in Britain). Of course, VW didn’t stop there, and we’re currently up to MKVII of the Golf and counting. There were a couple of generations (MKIII and MKIV) that won’t necessarily go down as classics, but the MKV in 2005 saw a return to form, with the subsequent versions being simply magnificent cars.
Several years ago, the 205 GTI found a happy niche as a 2K Cup car (a Kiwi race series with all vehicles valued under $2K). Of course, it was more than capable on the track and quickly become a race and series winner.
Then something odd began to occur, as it sometimes does when car reaches a certain age. Prices began to rise. As soon as vehicles came up for sale, they’d be snapped up. It wasn’t only in New Zealand; this was a trend everywhere. People who grew up with posters of Countachs and early 911 Turbos on their bedroom walls in the ’80s and ’90s now have the means to buy a weekend car, and what better start than a 205 GTI? This upward trend doesn’t appear likely to ease off any time soon, with good examples fetching in excess of $10K in New Zealand.
The MKI Golf GTI has been a desirable car for a number of collectors for a long time. Because of inherent rust issues, finding a good example can be hard work, but bringing them back to life doesn’t have to be difficult, with most parts readily available online. There are very few MKI GTIS left in New Zealand, and the ones that are still around are held onto tightly by owners who can’t bear to give up the keys.
As we’ve established, this isn’t a likefor-like comparison. Some readers will love the quirkiness of the Golf, and others will enjoy the genuine practicality of the Peugeot — but there’s nothing surer than this: if you’ve been thinking about jumping on the early hot-hatch bandwagon, there is no better time than now to cock that wheel.
Bursting Bubble or just catching up? Last year, a mint example of a 1989 205 GTI sold for £31,000 at auction in the UK.
Thanks to the team at International Motorsport in Auckland for giving us the keys to the Golf and Richard Mccarthy Jnr and Snr for getting the 205 out for us.