Last year we produced a run-down of some of our favourite hot hatches from back in the day, and while it’s true that the likes of the Golf GTi and Renault 5 GT Turbo featured (because how could they not), we were all far more interested by those all but forgotten hot hatch heroes. The sort of hot hatches we’ve not seen on British roads with any regularity since the jungle became drum and bass, basically.
We thought we’d take things a little further and produce a follow up piece, this one dedicated to those hot hatches that were never especially popular when new, and are therefore now all but extinct outside of the odd super niche owners club meeting. These are 10 of our favourite obscure hot hatches from ‘back in the day.’
Make sure to let us know which – if any – you owned, your experiences of owning and driving them, and which equally overlooked gems we forgot to add.
1 – Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole – Tipo The Iceberg
That there are approximately naff-all Fiat Tipos left in the UK should not detract from what was at the time one of the most modern and advanced hatchbacks on the market, with precise handling, neat looks and decent performance. The range topping Sedicivalvole variant obviously built upon these find traits to create one of the best yet most underappreciated hot hatches of the early nineties.
Sedicivalvole means sixteen valve, which demonstrates yet again that everything sounds much, much cooler in Italian, while also confirming the Tipo 16v as being from a different age, one where you could reliably lord it over your mates and their decrepit bangers with paltry valve counts.
The Tipo Sedicivalvole went well too, the 16v in question being the 1995cc Lampredi, the exact same unit as that utilised by Lancia in its all-conquering Group A Delta Integrale, albeit in naturally aspirated guise. This meant 148bhp, a sub eight-second 0-60mph dash and a top speed just under 130mph, good enough to make hitherto secure Golf GTI owners shift nervously in their seats.
2 – Renault 11 Turbo – French Fancy
Renault embraced the concept of the turbocharged hot hatch before pretty much anyone else and wasted no time in trying to draw a link between its Formula 1 exploits of the time (the early eighties), and its burgeoning range of forced induced cars. The 11 Turbo was one of the first of the Le Regie’s offerings to be given the turbo-treatment, which when coupled with the rudimentary nature of the setup in question and the suspect steel used to produce the car that contained it, helps explain why so few remain in the here and now.
Those buyers that managed to avoid the more obvious charms of the Ford Escort XR3 and Mk1 Golf GTI were treated to a delightfully capable hot hatch, one with its own unique, incredibly French, sometimes idiosyncratic charms. The Phase 1 car sported natty quad lights and prominent black trium, as well as typically massive ‘turbo’ graphics running the length of its sills. Because you’d hate to take a punt on a finicky Gallic turbo-garlic-rocket and not have your neighbours know about it, right?
Power came from the same Cléon-Fonte 1.4 eight-valve engine as would later be found in the 5 Turbo, and with similar results; the 11 Turbo made 105bhp in Phase 1 guise and 115bhp in Phase 2. Not a lot by the standards of today of course, but worth crowing about in the early eighties. And in any case, the whole car tipped the scales at a mere 915kg, so it wasn’t as if there was much weight to be pulled around!
Finding one now, any Renault 11, actually, will be a tall task indeed, what with the twin evils of rot and improper tuning having decimated their ranks as the nineties progressed.
3 – Nissan Cherry Turbo – Eastern Promise
Japanese hot hatches from the eighties tended to pair conservative in styling with brilliant engineering, both of which were true of the Cherry Turbo. This was an era before Japanese car makers had conquered the world of motorsport with numerous forced-inducted creations, so buying a turbocharged example – and a Nissan Cherry in particular – would’ve sent eyebrows skyward at the time.
The passage of time has served to make the Cherry a far more appealing prospect than it was at launch though, at least from a visual perspective. Those lines which seemed so mundane at the time now look crisp, and the whole car manages to look remarkably sharp and uncluttered, a case study in less-is-more, early eighties Japanese penmanship.
As is the case with every other car on this list, most buyers in period ignored the Cherry’s boxy, understated charms in favour of more obvious offerings from Ford and Vauxhall. Those that did fall for the Cherry’s charms were almost always won over by its mix of good build and decent (but not earth shattering) performance, the latter thanks to the range topper’s turbocharged 1488cc motor with 114bhp output.
This is all well and good, but for a truly out-there ‘hot hatch’ buy you needed to look to the Datsun Cherry Europe/Alfa Romeo Arna. The product of a tie-up between Alfa Romo and Nissan, Cherry Europe buyers got the same bodyshell as the regular car but with Italian mechanicals, which meant a 1.5 ‘boxer’ taken from the Alfasud, not to mention its suspension and transmission. No it wasn’t a powerhouse even by the standards of the day, but there’s something deeply cool about the idea of a fettled Japanese-Italian link-up.
4 – Chrysler /Talbot Sunbeam Ti – Sunny Delight
Chrysler offloaded its British arm to PSA in the late seventies, and the French responded by cooking up a delightful entrée of sporting leftovers, chiefly the Lotus Sunbeam (a Group 4 homologation special and therefore a little ‘rich’ for a list of this nature) and the Sunbeam Ti, a low-weight, low-frills entry level hot hatch for the late seventies.
Key to the Ti’s appeal was its 1600cc engine with twin carbs, a setup carried over from the earlier Avenger Tiger. This meant 100bhp, all sent to the rear axle in gloriously old school manner. This went against the grain of the period, with most of Talbot’s rivals instead opting to extol the virtues of the front-wheel drive hot hatch. It also helped make the Sunbeam a darling of the club rallying scene, with a plethora of off-the-shelf parts for budding Henri Toivonens and Guy Frequelins to pick from.
Oh by the way, we appreciate that some of you of a certain vintage might well dispute the inclusion of the Ti on the basis of obscurity, because these were justifiably popular cars ‘back in the day.’ But their numbers have been decimated by rust and generations of young drivers will little to no mechanical sympathy, and as such the Ti’s profile in there here and now is positively minuscule.
5 – Alfa Romeo 33 Cloverleaf – Boxing Clever
Alfa Romeo are one of several car makers to be able to make a claim for having produced the first true hot hatch with its Alfasud of the seventies, now an Italian automotive icon and a fully paid up classic in its own right. The ‘sud lived long, too – its oil bits found their way underneath plenty of different models over the years (not all of them with an Alfa badge – see above) before being given their final outing in the 33 Cloverleaf.
The Alfa Romeo 33 is one of those cars that’s been almost completely forgotten in the second decade of the 21st century, and this despite over a million having been built over a ten year production run. That the 33 handled so keenly undoubtedly helped so many find homes, which was a legacy of the Aflasud running gear, mildly updated but essentially carried over from the old car wholesale. The Cloverleaf (or Quadrofoglio in Europe) came with a 1.5 flat four with twin carbs, though later buyers were able to select a 1,7l engine car with a 16v head and fuel injection, a sign of just how long lived the 33, and its carried over running gear, were.
6 – Citroen BX GTI 16v – Precision Wafting
Being a Citroen engineer in the mid-eighties must’ve been a trying, somewhat surreal experience. Because as much as it was no doubt rewarding to be known for creating well sprung, weirdly styled French barges (and the 2CV), you had only to cast a glance over your shoulder to Peugeot, the PSA sibling very much in the ascendency at the time, to be left feeling a tad overlooked, and dare we say it, second-rate.
At least the familial relationship meant Citroen could access Peugeot’s engines, which in practice meant freedom to utlilise the same XU engine as would later be found in the 405Mi16, one of the best sporting saloons of its era. Yet the BX also made use of Citroen’s famed hydropneumatic suspension, an arrangement which made for a more rewarding drive than you might have expected. Indeed countless contemporary road tests remarked on how well resolved the relationship between high-revving engine and cosseting spherical damping actually was.
Sadly for anyone considering buying themselves a lovely slice of eighties French eccentricity, the ranks of BX 16vs were decimated, largely through keen 205 owners viewing them as nothing more than a decent, cheap engine donor, which is a shame to say the least.
7 – Fiat 128 Rally – Genesis
Depending on who you ask, the Fiat 128 Rally is hot hatch genesis. It might not be, that honour might yet go to the little Simca 1100 Ti, but we’ve decided to give the 128 the nod here because it’s one of those cars we long to build at Retropower sometime. Any takers?
The basic 128 can claim to have set the template for the modern car, and by extension, the modern hot hatch. It was light, front-wheel drive and mounted its gearbox end-on, next to the transversely located four-pot. It wasn’t the first front-wheel drive car of course, but it certainly led the way as far as front-wheel drive convention was concerned.
This same layout ensured that the sporting models of the 128 were imbued with the sort of handling we now associate with all the best hot hatches; it was immensely ‘chuckable’ and needed little encouragement to cock a wheel when pressing on, all while scrabbling madly for grip and imprinting a grin on the face of anyone lucky enough to be behind the wheel. Not bad for a 1290cc mill making just 75bhp.
8 – Nissan March Super Turbo – Homologation Hero
You can gauge how well engineered the first Nissan Micra was – or at least the first generation we in the UK could buy, the K10, by the fact that it’s still by no means uncommon to see one today in 2020, almost thirty years on from its replacement at the forecourts. Try doing the same with a hatchback from the same era, a Nova or a Mk2 Fiesta for example, and you’ll be waiting a very long time indeed.
While undoubtedly something of a ‘cockroach car’ the K10 Micra was never known for being a particularly sporting proposition, probably because Nissan only ever bothered to sell economy focussed, bread and butter models over here. Closer to home however, and Micra (March) fans could get their hands on something rather more exciting, Nissan’s homologation special and one of the coolest cars of the era, the March Super Turbo.
Built to satisfy Group A regulations and thus a one-make race and rally series, the March Super Turbo was twin-charged and thus made us of both super and turbocharged. The engine given the task of handling all this pressure was the delightfully named Nissan PLASMA – Powerful & Economic, Light, Accurate, Silent, Mighty, Advance MA09ERT. It was an all alloy affair with 930cc, four cylinders and eight valves, and had its roots in the turbocharged MA10ET engine already offered by Nissan.
The thinking behind this arrangement was the same as that which convinced Lancia to design and homologate the Delta S4, increased performance and, at lower rpm, enhanced response thanks to the crank-driven supercharger. The results were startling, and performance jumped from 74bhp to 110bhp. The 0-62 mph dash took just 7.7 seconds and the top speed jumped to a decent 112mph, while handling was sharpened by the addition of a limited slip differential.
10,000 March Super Turbos were built to satisfy homologation requirements, though Nissan would also sell you an even more specialised, stripped-out version called the March R. We’d be happy with either.
9 – Golf GTI 16S – Franco-Prussian Alliance
This one is kind of a cheat, as unlike most of the entries on this list the GTI 16S was never officially sold by VW outside of France. Rather it was a regional special edition, one set in motion by French VW dealers keen to re-inject – inject being the operative word – some class competitiveness into the aging Mk1 Golf GTI.
If the Golf GTI didn’t exactly create the hot hatch segment it certainly helped catapult it into the wider public consciousness, and incredibly strong sales throughout Europe were VW’s reward. It didn’t take long for the opposition to catch up though, and come the end of the eighties the Mk1 Golf GTI was beginning to look a little old hat, and dare we say it, underpowered compared to the influx of imitators.
Which is where the GTI 16S comes in. The product of a backroom tie-up between VW France and German tuning house Oettinger, the 16S was designed to give French GTI fans a reason to keep walking past the Ford and Opel showrooms. The French would ship standard GTIs to Oettinger, whereupon the firm would add a myriad of extras, including ATS alloys and a BBS-penned bodykit.
The big changes, however, were under the bonnet, where Oettinger fitted a completely redesigned head with sixteen valves. The 16S also received lightweight forged pistons, a lightweight flywheel and revised Bosch injection, all of which meant 136bhp, a hike of 25% over the standard car.
10 – Randall 401-XR – Monsters Inc
We thought we’d conclude with something a little out-there, something about as far removed from the traditional hot hatch recipe as it’s possible to get, the Randall 401-XR. Yes, it’s an AMC Gremlin, albeit one modified and sold by Randall, a prominent AMC dealer and clearly time to spend.
Randall set about imbuing the otherwise asthmatic Gremlin with added performance, and because this was America in the early seventies, this meant fitting a new, larger V8 engine into its nose. The engine selected was a monster 6.6l, good for a European-shaming 225bhp right out of the box and much, much more should the buyer feel like ticking some of the myriad optional extras boxes.
No, we’re not about to claim that it would’ve been as fun to thread through a narrow British B-road as a GTI, but then Golf couldn’t go sideways with anything like as much ease or aplomb.