Friday, 22 February 2008

Classic - Vauxhall Astra GTE mkI

Car designers, for the most part, are artisans. Practical considerations are fed to them from corporate marketing focus groups, and around this framework they form elegant, swooping shapes, cutting-edge swirls, melodies of curves. From a ’66 Miura to a ’99 206, you can see the love of design and sheer joy of the craft that has gone into the creation of a radical and mould-breaking new shape. Like all artists, the desire for immortality is at the forefront; to create something unique and memorable that will resonate through the ages, latterly to be called upon as a fine example of beautiful thinking. (I am, of course, excluding the designers of the FSO Polonez from this sweeping generalisation. But you get the point.)

The obsession with striking curves and liquid crescents is a timeless and enduring one, but it hasn’t always been this way. Oh no. They didn’t do this in the eighties. The tools of the trade back then were a big chunky marker pen, a set square, and… well, that’s all. If you try this method for yourself, you’ll notice that every time you put pen to paper, you end up with the Opel Kadett (or, as we know it, the mkI Vauxhall Astra). This is not to say that the design language of the era was in any way inferior, of course – merely that the overriding boxiness meant that most cars of the early eighties needed to be approached with caution, lest one snagged one’s pullover on the pointy angular corners.

The Astra was something of a landmark for Vauxhall, being the first front wheel drive car produced by the marque. This was the way the tide was turning at that time, with Ford controversially switching to the FWD format for their radical mkIII Escort and a brace of other small family hatchbacks offering cheap competition in the market. There was also a fresh new genre to tap into: the hot hatch.

Volkswagen had the Golf GTI. Ford had the Escort XR3. Fiat had the Strada Abarth. It was clear that Vauxhall would never excel in this market with the old Opel OHV engine, so they took the top-of-the-range 1800cc version of their new family of engines (aluminium head, hydraulic lifters, reasonably advanced in its day), replaced the carburettor with a fuel-injection system and tarted the Astra up a bit. An airdam here, a pointy sideskirt there, and the GTE was born.

It wasn’t a massive seller, but then it was up against some pretty stiff competition; Ford enthusiasts are loyal folk, Volkswagen’s new baby was astonishingly accomplished and a couple of short years after the GTE’s launch came the mother of all hot hatches, the Peugeot 205 GTi. However, this all adds to the cachet of the GTE now – when’s the last time you saw one on the road? Probably a long time ago, I should imagine, but if you have seen one recently then I bet it was in amazing condition, right? The fanbase, as with any niche classic, is fanatical to the point of obsession.

Equipped with everything an eighties boy racer could wish for, it offered an attractive offbeat proposition. Heavily-bolstered Recaro seats hugged you in as you gripped the meaty three-spoke steering wheel, the newly developed gas shocks offering taut handling as the eager little engine barked through the surprisingly sonorous exhaust. And of course, like all plastic body addenda of the age, the razor-edged bodykit was specifically designed to cause maximum damage to any foolhardy pedestrians that may wander into your path.

It wasn’t the most refined of the hot hatches, or the best-handling, or the fastest, or even the cheapest. Still, just look at it… there’s oodles of retro cool there, and it has the promise of good times and mischief in spades. With good useable examples popping up for well under two grand, just imagine the old-school eighties fun you could be having in a GTE this summer - and don’t forget that the Calibra turbo engine slips in there pretty easily…

So it’s not a riot of sculptured elegance in the traditional sense, but it would be a very different beast if it was. It may not quite have the presence to make you dive out of the way if it’s bearing down on your mirrors, but at least it’ll raise a wistful and nostalgic smile. For the dedicated few at least, it’s earned its place in the pantheon of strong design.

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