5 Forgotten Hot Hatchbacks of the 1980's
Some things are better left in the past. But hot hatches can't be one of them, surely?
Ahh the 1980's. The decade of sweet, sweet excess. No mobile phone was too large, no synth pop ballad too grandiose. The 80's was the decade in which many world firsts took place. We had the first flight of NASA's Space Shuttle, and in California a man called Steve started selling a funny little computer called the Macintosh. Oh, and in 1988 a certain tall gentleman with curly hair took a job presenting a small motoring show for the BBC.
Something that epitomised motoring in the Eighties perhaps more than anything else though, was the rise of the hot hatchback. They started to trickle onto the marker at the tail end of the 70's, but it took a good few years for them to gain traction. Once they did though, this funky, flighty band of pocket rockets were seemingly everywhere.
We all know about the main protagonists in the hot hatch story. Countless words have been written on the Golf GTi, the Escort XR3, and the 205. However, the brilliant thing about the 80's was the sheer number of manufacturers who decided to give the new-fangled hot hatch a go! Here are some you might not remember so well...
Citroen Visa GTi
Back in 1974 Citroen was in what French financial analysts of the time would have called "la merde." They'd run out of cash and had to be bailed out by arch-rivals Peugeot, who took a controlling stake in the company. Sadly, this move put an end to much of the engineering ingenuity so prized by fans of the French marque.
Consider the case of the Citroen Visa. When it was launched in 1978 it was available with a quirky 652cc two cylinder 'flat twin' engine. So far, so Citroen, but by the 80's the wacky engines and wackier interior had been binned in favour of the 'Suitcase' inline four motors from its chief rival, the Peugeot 205.
It wasn't all bad news though, because the adoption of the 205's engine range meant that Citroen were able to shoehorn the 115 BHP 1560cc engine from the sparkling 205 1.6 GTi into the Visa engine bay. Unfortunately, favourable reviews and four headlamps weren't enough to save the imaginatively-named Visa GTi from a life in the shadow of its famous cousin. In 1987, the plug was pulled after just three years on sale.
Today, just 17 GTi's are known to exist in the UK, with only a handful more in mainland Europe. Citroen's next attempt at a hot hatch, the AX GT, fared much more successfully.
MG Maestro Turbo
Back in the late 1980's there were many different schools of thought about how to make the best hot hatchback. The French thought that lightness and deft chassis tuning was the answer, and came up with the 205 GTi and Renault 5 Turbo. Japanese manufacturers favoured advanced twin-cam engines and clever valve management with cars like the Honda Civic 1.6i-16. Over in Birmingham though, Austin Rover had a slightly simpler view on the best solution.
They got hold of one of their sort-of-alright MG Maestros and set about bolting on an enormous Garrett T3 turbocharger. The MG Maestro Turbo that resulted was extremely fast. A contemporary Golf GTi 16v took 7.9 seconds to haul itself to 60, the blown MG would be there in just 6.6. Unfortunately though, the lads at Longbridge paid a lot more attention to squeezing every last drop of power from the two-litre engine than they paid to getting it through the front wheels. The result was a wildly torque-steering menace of a car. It was fun, but only in the way that riding atop a nuclear missile is fun. Hilarious at first, but eventually it was going to put you in a sticky situation.
Just 505 Maestro Turbos were built, and those that remain today are coveted by some for their wayward nature. That means that you might need to part with a bit more cash than you'd expect for an old Maestro. On the rare occasions they do sell, it's often for £5000 or more.
Fiat Tipo Sedicivalvole
Even the most basic car names sound better in Italian, don't they? There was the Quattroporte, which translates as 'four door'. Then, more recently the Speciale which, if you hadn't guessed, just means 'Special'. My favourite though is Sedicivalvole, which sounds like the name of some fabled Milanese racing driver from the Fifties, but actually is merely Italian for 'Sixteen Valve.'
Back in 1988, this 16 valve version of the Fiat Tipo family hatchback was a genuine challenger for the hot hatch crown. The MkII Golf was too old, the Escort XR3i was too slow, and the 205 GTi couldn't match the bigger Fiat for practicality. With a revvy 146 horsepower 2.0 litre engine, it was great fun to drive and sold well in its native Italy.
In the rest of Europe though, it wasn't a common sight. Flaky build quality didn't help Fiats already patchy reputation and today just 9 are registered in Britain.
Ford Escort RS1600i
When Ford decided to switch to front wheel drive for the MkIII Escort of 1980, many assumed that the era of wide-arched rally going Escorts was over. It wasn't to be though, and in 1983 we were treated to the only true homologation special of the MkIII range, the RS1600i.
Unlike the XR3 and later RS Turbo, the RS1600i was developed by Ford of Germany, as opposed to their British counterparts. It was the first Escort to feature a fuel injected engine and a five-speed gearbox. With 113 horsepower on tap, the lightweight RS1600i was 19 BHP up on the 'standard' XR3 and could scramble to 60 in 8.3 seconds.
On the road, the RS1600i feels like it was meant for motorsport. The steering is heavy at low speeds and the highly-strung engine needs to be revved high to extract the best from it. On the open road though, the 1600i feels special. It looks great too, with its period decals and twin driving lamps.
Only 8659 RS1600i's were ever made and the dreaded old-school Ford tax has long since applied to these Escorts, so prices are predictably stratospheric. If you've got the cash though, the 1600i is more interesting and more accomplished than either the XR3 or RS Turbo that we all remember instead.
Daihatsu Charade GTti
One hundred horsepower from a one-litre engine may be commonplace in 2018, but prior to the introduction of the Ford Fiesta Ecoboost in 2012, only one other supermini could claim to have achieved 100 bhp per litre. The Daihatsu Charade GTti.
With a kerbweight of just 800 kilos, the turbocharged three-cylinder Charade was quite unlike any European attempt at a hot hatchback of the time, but from an engineering perspective it could claim to have bested many of the more established models.
It was good to drive too, the whizzy little engine kept lag to a minimum, and below the dull bodywork lurked a talented chassis. Daihatsu ceased operations in the UK back in 2009, and as time goes on any Daihatsu will become a rare sight on British roads, the little GTti even more so. Shame.