Treating yourself to the hot hatch that you lusted after as a youth won’t just give you miles and miles of smiles, reckons Paul Cowland, it might get your bank manager grinning too.
Motor cars come in many forms. Coupés, convertibles, SUVs, estate cars, and with every kind of drivetrain imaginable. These days you can drive to work on volts, diesel, petrol, hydrogen, or seemingly, any combination of the above. No scientific boffin has ever sat down to work out the thousands of ways to create a car, but I’m assured that the technical term is ‘loads’. And that’s a very big number.
While nobody can agree on the best way to propel a car, there appears to be a greater degree of accord (or should that be Civic?) in identifying the best type of car. That one’s easy; it’s the hot hatch.
To almost every writer and presenter in my peer group, not to mention so many of the good folk I meet out and about at car-ccasions, the hot hatch represents the ultimate distillation of why we like cars. From its inception, the hot hatch recipe has always been beautifully simple; take a humble three-door, front-wheel-drive car from your range, you know, the kind you sell to students and old ladies, add a brisker engine, some bucket seats, a few stripes and arches, copious quantities of red lines and graphics and make sure that those customers know that you’ve turned your back on the luddite notion of the carburettor. Well, unless you were some of Ford’s early efforts, of course.
While it is generally the 1980s that we think of when we reminisce fondly about these tenacious little Tarmac terriers, you can rewind back almost a full decade earlier to really witness the start of the movement. The Autobianchi A112 Abarth launched unto the world in 1971, and while perhaps calling its 982cc engine, sports exhaust, trick cam and twin-choke carb anything more than a ‘warm’ hatch is perhaps a little generous, I think it’s fair to let the Italians claim first blood on this one.
Other countries and manufacturers quickly followed. Simca unleashed its 1.3-litre, 82(!) horsepower 1100TI in 1973, beginning a slightly asthmatic arms race of power, trim and handling that would watch the world’s motor manufacturers clamour to gain showroom sales.
The car that truly changed the game, however, and showed the boardrooms from Dagenham to Dieppe what to do, was the Golf GTI of 1975. Debuting at the prestigious Frankfurt Show it left showgoers open mouthed with its 113mph top speed and sub 10 second 0-60 time. It may not sound like much today, but back when the GTI’s showroom brother, the aircooled Beetle, would take more than twice that time to hit the magic numbers, while still being considered a reasonable performer, you can see why this practical, useable, affordable, chuckable little car suddenly became everybody’s most-wanted trinket, a trend led by the Sloane Range crowd.
It wasn’t just that the new breed of hot hatches offered attainable performance – they also offered tameable performance. Unlike the hairy-chested sports cars of the 1970s, with their required armfuls of opposite lock and scary chassis dynamics, the drivers of these new rapid runabouts found them to be relatively benign, with the simple ‘point and squirt’ mantra soon being the default driving style of the hot hatch owner. Add in a decent boot, affordable finance and marketing campaigns that are still shown today in college and university courses as the very best of their type and you can perhaps understand why so many people in the ’80s and ’90s went hot-hatch mad. They answered almost every driving need.
Fast forward to the present, and our demand for these incredible machines from the golden period of performance has never been higher. Enthusiasts in their 40s and 50s are now looking back to the car that they first bought in their relative youth to try and relive those golden years, and younger enthusiasts are clamouring to viscerally experience the nostalgia and excitement of the cars that their parents and peers had. Seeing as many of these cars were either launched into ditches, written off during the almost comically expensive hot-hatch theft insurance premium hikes of the 90s, ‘Max Powered’ into a fibreglass oblivion in the early noughties, or simply returned to the earth as ferrous oxide, it’s understandable why there are now so few straight, original or perfectly restored cars left to fight over.
There’s another factor, too. Although the hot-hatch genre is very much still with us, the modern incarnation of this pure and simple idea has become a bloated behemoth. A modern Golf GTI weighs over half a ton more than its 1975 progenitor, thanks to greater safety, space and driver aids. And while it also packs considerably more power to balance the equation, it’s never going to offer the pure, unassisted driving feedback and joy that the original car can. Even the most grizzled of automotive roadtesters see these early GTis as a piquant palate-cleanser in a world of lardy leviathans. A car that has to be driven purely on your own wits and skills, yet manages to offer true driving enjoyment well within the legal speed limit.
From a desirability aspect, this heady concoction has it all; nostalgia, collectability, relative rarity, drivability and dare I say, investability… Even the quickest of glances at the classifieds reveals that cars like the Renault 5 GT Turbo, Clio 16-valve, Golf and 205 GTi, Astra GTE and Fiesta XR2 are all handsomely outperforming the market in appreciation percentage terms, meaning that if you’ve been clever enough to find a good one, and plan on keeping it both shiny – and shiny side up – you can probably bank on a reasonable return in addition to all of that heel-and-toeing and lift off oversteer you’ll doubtless be enjoying.
The shapely Clio Williams made our own Bull Market list in 2022, while the R5 GT Turbo managed it the year before, showing that the hot hatch gravy train continues to chuff along quite merrily. Whatever your motivation for buying a hot hatch, as long as you follow the usual caveats, buying well with a beady eye on history, provenance and condition, then it’s quite possible that you’ll not only run the car for very little cost during your tenure, but maybe even make a small profit when you come to move it on, too. The pool of truly nice cars continues to get ever smaller, while, for the time being at least, the army of potential buyers seems to be growing exponentially. You only need to skim the first paragraph in any economics textbook on ‘supply and demand’ to see where it’s all heading.
While it’s always nice to make a few quid on a car (indeed for some of us, it’s been our living) I would add my usual advice that you should never make this your reason for scanning the small ads this evening to find and buy your dream GTI. Trawl to find the car you pressed your nine-year old nose up against the Renault showroom window to drink in. Find the facsimile of the poster-fodder Ford XR3i that you nodded goodnight to as you drifted off beneath your A-Team duvet or simply recreate the magic of your Mum’s 1.6 205 GTi, bought because she couldn’t quite justify the finance payments on the 1.9. Make these the reasons why you buy the hot hatch of your dreams. Because I promise you, when you sit there in the retirement home, looking back at the cars you’ve owned. It won’t be the memory of the few thousand quid you made when you finally flipped your digi-dash Astra GTE that makes you all misty-eyed. It will be the rose-tinted reminiscence of that perfect day of downshifting and tyre squealing when you bonded with it on the A272.
And that’s what will make your hot hatch purchase truly priceless.