GTI CONS

THE ORIG­I­NAL HOT HATCHES

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words: Lach­lan Jones

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.

Styling

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.

The drive

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.

Progress

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.

Bub­bling up

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.

The ver­dict

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.

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Photos: Adam Croy

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.

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