Hot hatches are among the most democratic performance cars ever conceived, armed as they are with the twin virtues of real-world pace and attainability. Yes, an XJS might be able to show a Clio Williams a clean pair of (brake) shoes on a motorway, but you can bet your bottom dollar the Renault will be hustling the Jag when the going gets twisty. And we all know who’ll be having the most fun in the process.
Now, we’re not about to claim that the hot hatches of the eighties and nineties were technically better than those of today, because it’s demonstrably not the case. While there’s no denying the charms of a Mk2 Golf GTi with Oak Green paintwork and a tasty set of BBS wheels, there’s simply no way it will be able to live with, say, a Mercedes A-Class AMG. That’s just the march of time and improvements in technology for you.
Not that anyone at Retropower would dither for a moment given the choice of the cars above, because as much as modern cars are technologically impressive and breathtakingly capable examples of modern engineering, there’s just something delightfully…analogue about an old school (skool?) hot hatch.
With this in mind, we thought it a good time to compile a festive list of some of our favourite old school hot hatches, those from the seventies to the nineties. It is by no means an exhaustive list, especially as we’ve attempted to include some of the less common, somewhat left field cars, and also because we’ve excluded the majority of the eighties Group A homologation specials.
Either way, we’re sure that you’ll not hesitate to let us know which old school gems we’ve overlooked in compiling this unordered list. Enjoy.
Mk1/2 Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint
To many automotive historians, this is genesis – the first hot hatch of the genre…as long as you discount the Simca 1100TI and the Autobianchi A112 Abarth, naturally. It was front-wheel drive, powered by a buzzy little flat-four in sizes ranging from 1.2l to 1.5l, and it was light, both by the standards of today and 2019. That it handled sweetly and went like the proverbial of a shovel merely cemented the ‘sud’s place in hot hatch history.
Fiat Strada Abarth TC
A hot hatch close to the hearts of Retropower’s Cal and Nat, the Strada TC was one of the last ‘early’ hot hatches, effectively blurring the gap between seventies cars like the Mk1 Golf GTI and the Mk1 Astra. The mix of old and new (everything’s relative) was most definitely part of the appeal though, with the TC’s twin cam engine – fed in this installation via a pair of throaty Weber carbs – perhaps the best evidence of this. It’s just a shame nothing rots faster than an early ‘80s Fiat…
Mk3/4 Ford Escort RS Turbo
Odds are that those of you of a certain age will have owned an Escort RS Turbo ‘back in the day,’ and even if you didn’t then your mate probably did; the first ‘boosted’ Escort was just that popular. Ok so the CVH was hardly the most exciting of engines nor the most refined, but it was the eighties, meaning that the merest suggestion of a turbo in tow was enough to confer all the automotive cache your average hot hatch buyer could ever want or need.
Toyota Corolla GTI-16v
Another of those little recalled Japanese hot hatches from the late eighties and early nineties, and another with an engine more sophisticated than its European rivals by several orders of magnitude. A 16v engine was well worth crowing about when the E90 shape Corolla took its bow in 1987, let alone the 1587cc 4A-GE, good for a thumping 130bhp at 8000rpm.
Renault 5 GT Turbo
The original ‘turn up the wick and hope for the best’ hot hatch, and therein lies the reason decent examples of the Renault 5 GT Turbo now command such strong premiums. There really was little to stop your average GT Turbo owner from extracting extra performance from his or her Cléon push-rod by screwing up the boost, other than a desire to preserve the life of said engine. Needless to say, not many owners felt any such compulsion.
Mk1/2 Golf GTI
Yes it’s the obvious choice and, dare we say it, a tad boring for that reason, but it would be downright wrong to compile a list like this and not include the Golf GTI. It didn’t start the hot hatch trend, it wasn’t the most powerful or the most engaging, but it was the best screwed together, looked great and captured public opinion like no other hot hatch. Attempt to fill up a Fiat Strada Abarth in 2019, and no one will bat an eyelid. Do the same in a Mk2 Golf GTI, and you’ll spend the next 15 minutes fielding automotive questions from sections of the general public otherwise totally uninterested in cars.
Daihatsu Charade GTti
The best way of grasping how far ahead of its time the Charade GTti was, is to look at its spec: a 993cc three-pot turbo, good for 100bhp and happy to rev to 6500rpm, all wrapped in a 800kg package. An eyebrow raising enough spec in 2019, but in 1989, well, it must have been nothing short of astonishing! It looked weird and rotted as quickly as it went, but then that was pretty much par for the course with all old school Japanese hot hatches.
Citroen AX GT/GTI
French hot hatches were built to a simple enough formula throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties – simplify, then add lightness. Then add more lightness, just to be sure. This approach to ‘less is more’ hot hatch motoring reached its zenith with the Citroen AX GTI, a car with all the structural rigidity and crash protection of a blancmange yet with the ability to put a smile on anyone’s face, primarily as it weighed the square root of naff-all.
Mitsubishi Colt Turbo/GTI
The eighties and early nineties were an odd time for Mitsubishi outside of its native Japan, with the firm struggling to make an impression on the UK market, certainly in terms of performance offerings. The firm could and would sell you warmed up versions of its Colt, mind…it’s just that not many Brits took the bait. The Mk2 Colt of the mid eighties was turbocharged and made 122bhp, while the Mk3 GTi that followed was powered by the larger, naturally aspirated 1.8 and made 136bhp. Both are vanishingly rare in 2019.
Peugeot 205 GTi
The greatest hot hatch of the eighties? The 205 GTi was certainly up there, blessed as it was with one of the finest of chassis, an excellent engine in the XU (in either 1.6 or 1.9l flavours) and stunning good looks. There wasn’t anything especially revolutionary about Peugeot’s recipe – it really was just a lightweight, well sprung, modestly powerful little car, but it didn’t really matter. The 205 GTi became a hot hatch legend before it was even withdrawn from sale.
Mk1/2 Fiat Uno Turbo
Part of a generation of hot hatches you’ll struggle to spot nowadays, the Uno Turbo had a great deal going for it when new, something reflected in its specification. Even the pre-facelift cars of the mid eighties got Bosch fuel injection and a water-cooled turbo, while later, post-facelift Uno Turbos had a 1.4l engine replete with a Garrett T2 and 120bhp – serious pub bragging rights 30 odd years ago.
Proton Satria GTI
Really, the Satria GTI had no right to be as good as it was, especially when you realise it was effectively an old, late eighties Mitsubishi Colt with Malaysia’d styling. That it turned out to be something of a diamond in the rough is entirely down to Lotus, the firm purchased by Proton in 1997, then tasked with sprinkling some much needed chassis magic on the Satria. It worked, and a cult, left-field star was born.
Honda Civic Type R EK9
There was no way that the EK9 shape Civic Type R not going to attract a cult following, what with it being an import-only model from the late nineties, when such cars were conspired far more exotic than they are today. It no doubt helped that the very idea of a naturally aspirated 1.6l making 182bhp by means of VTEC was novel in the extreme, nor that Honda’s tie-up with the Jordan F1 team resulted in one of the coolest special editions of the decade.
Peugeot 306 GTI-6
Conventional wisdom states that Peugeot lost its hot hatch way as the eighties gave way to the nineties and the 205 and 309 GTi were replaced, but there was one, consistently overlooked gem in the lion’s range, the 306 GTI-6. Already a great handling car in any guise regardless of power, the 306 was given the engine it so clearly deserved with the 2.0 16v (good for 167bhp), and a motor made all the better for being mated to the close ratio six-speed gearbox, among the first of its type to be fitted to a hot hatch.
Renault Clio Willams
Thank god for nineties F1, and thank god Williams opted to get into bed with Renault for a good portion of it. Not only did the alliance give us a slew of truly stunning F1 cars it resulted in perhaps the greatest naturally aspirated hot hatch of the decade, the Clio Williams. Seldom have gold Speedlines looked as good.
Vauxhall Nova SR/GTE/GSI
‘Tony’s got a new motor, SR Nova, speed into the corner, your mother warned ya it’s a sound system banger!” If it was good enough for Mike Skinner at the very height of his The Streets based prime, then it was damn well good enough for you, me, and that shifty looking kid from down the road. You know, the one not allowed to use sharp scissors in Year 10.
Nissan Almera GTI
Another poorly remembered Japanese hot hatch oddity from the nineties, and it’s not too hard to see why, what with the Almera being distinctly underwhelming to look at – let alone sit in. Those willing to overlook the somewhat dumpy styling and Tupperware interior were treated to an immensely underrated hot hatch however, with one of the best realised chassis of its class and generation.
Mazda 323 Turbo
We can thank the WRC’s Group A homologation rules for any number of amazing road going cars, not least the Evos, hot Imprezas, Escort Cosworth and Celica GT-4s. Group A rallying also gave us the Mazda 323 Turbo, one of the most low-key homologation specials of all time and a car note all but extinct. We want one, badly.
MG Maestro Turbo
Seldom have Austin Rover’s poorly nailed together assortment of leftover parts, rotten Lucas electrics and Stevie Wonder-style styling been as effective as in the MG Maestro Turbo. Yes it lacked polish, poise, reliability and much else, but it was quick – indecently so. Indeed, the turbocharged version of the Maestro was faster to 60mph than any of its rivals, fast enough for many to overlook its more awkward lines.
Mk1/2 Vauxhall Astra Mk2 Astra GTE
Yes, the Mk1 GTE was the better handling car but the Mk2 – specifically the 16v Mk2, is the Vauxhall hot hatch that truly captured the public imagination. The reason, of course, was GM’s decision to equip it with its then box-fresh 20XE, the ‘Redtop,’ and itself a fully paid up Retropower Hero of some note. That the chassis was essentially the same as the Mk1 (hardly the most polished of handlers at the best of times) and therefore ill-equipped to deal with its newfound 150bhp potential, was irrelevant.