THE INSIDE MAN

The Return of the Hot Hatch - Part 1

The Return of the Hot Hatch - Part 1 image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Newspress UK | posted December 07, 2014 06:48

A Surprise Revival

Role reversal

Thanks to CO‘² emissions consciousness, petrol heads are seeing a revival of fun to drive cars using small displacement engines, boosted by either supercharger or turbocharger, breathing through multi-valves and supping through direct injection. Time was when anything to do with controlling emissions was always about sucking out the fun. The dawn of the EPA's strict emissions controls in the North American market of the 70s, led to throttled performance, aggravated fuel consumption and degraded refinement. The romance of car ownership was dying, as the car turned into another consumer white good. Motoring enthusiasts lobbied car makers to squeeze technology in order to recover that lost fun and power.

Less car, more fun

The ensuing decade of the 80s gave rise to the phenomenal 'hot hatch' revolution; ordinary and common small cars, factory tuned to deliver Goliath slaying performance. And most who lived through the genre, say that nothing beats the cheap thrills of an 80s hot hatch, damn the environment and safety.

The Euro hot hatch

Compact high performance hatchbacks like the VW Golf GTi, Ford Fiesta XR2 and Peugeot 205 GTi became Anglo-European youth market icons. The hot hatch had a halo effect, burnishing the image of lesser variants down the model line up, even though the rest of the world treated compact hatches as entry level motoring [Africa and Latin America] or some thrifty, quirky, foreign oddity [USA]. Nevertheless, the driving environment of the hot hatch was to homogenize the-behind-the-wheel ambience and experience as characteristic of the Eighties. Our PCMP limited choice market, got a taste of this trend. Domestic Europhile cognoscenti made do with garden variety rear wheel drive Toyota Starlets, tame Nissan Pulsars, minuscule Suzuki Frontes and the original 8-speed Mitsubishi Mirage, co-designed by Aldo Sessano, the Italian who designed the box type Lancer.

The Peugeot 205

Whats a hot hatch?

The hot hatch formula was deceptively simple. Take a popular compact, 3 or 5-door, put in a modified engine with hot cams, fuel injection, big valves and an engine management computer that ensures it won't overheat or chatter at city traffic idle. Put in sporty suspension, sporty alloys and tires, uprated brakes and free flow exhaust. Then add the distinguishing marks; badges, matte black trim, stripes, flares, spoilers and visors. Plus special paint. Then upgrade the interior, without, straying too far from the 80's family sedan look. The usual tricks are small diameter steering wheel, contrast stitching on seats, bolstered sporty seats in leather or alcantara – usually by RECARO - and a knock-your-teeth blaster of a stereo. Voila! Your humdrum VW, Ford or Peugeot now drives, sporty, feels sporty and most important of all, looks sporty. Imitators and pretenders got by with only the latter 2 out of the three sporties and it still managed to sell well.

Stayin' alive

Indeed, the 80s are alive and well among our local Old Schooler Clubs, but being a 3-box market, 2-box hatches are quite rare. Seventies cars are the minority among the Old Schoolers because most 70s cars rusted prematurely. Ziebart and Tuff Kote Dinol became household words as rustproofing became a standard dealer come-on by the 80s. Zincro-metal and cathodic phosphatizing of body shells at assembly plants were introduced to combat the severe corrosion that hit almost all small and light cars designed and built in the 70s.

Behind the wheel

So how was the in-car driving environment in the Eighties? Getting behind the wheel was a lot more straightforward then. Doors were more upright, roofs a bit taller and windshields were not that rakish, so ingress and egress didn't require tortured bending. Seats were closer to the floor so there was more headroom. Steering wheels were relatively large diameter thin rimmed plastic affairs positioned quite upright and high too. This invited upgrades to thicker rimmed smaller diameter leather wrapped steering wheels from MOMO of Italy and the many facsimiles made in nearby Asian countries.

The Ford Fiesta XR1

Plastics to the fore

The range of the quality of the interior plastic was from pinchable, durable to nasty, much in the same way we compare plastics of Chinese and East European against Japanese cars today. Painted sheet metal door sills and dashboards were part of the theme. Dashboards were shiny leatherette, rendered shinier still with Armor All, sewn and seam-fused over a foam backed sheet metal core. Dashboard protection from the brittling effects of sunlight radiation was promised by Dashield. Whatever the size of car, under-dash room was far more generous than today's cars.

The ergonomic uniform

The Ergonomics was essentially uniform: asymmetric speedo-tacho binnacle with face level vents on the driver's side, glove box on the other side. Extra gauges were usually the trio of oil pressure, voltmeter and engine vacuum, installed in the middle of the dash. Push buttons, controls and switches were scattered helter skelter on the console, dash and the ceiling. Despite the tendency to sport serried ranks of blank push buttons on some cars, switches of the rather sparse optional equipment were positioned, awkwardly, as if by afterthought.

The interior of the Peugeot 205

Aircraft influence

Aping aircraft cockpits, some switches and buttons went overhead. Panasonic sold a ceiling mount stereo console to appeal to fans of this cockpit look. Just like the fashion for dim interior lighting, so did cars follow with barely illumined instrument clusters and low wattage mini-bulbs for dome lights. These dim instrument cluster illumination posed difficulty to the usually bespectacled Japanese. This inspired them to invent Optitronic instrument cluster lighting.

A very different greenhouse

Now faired into the door A-pillar, side view mirrors began losing their pedestals. Front quarter lights were disappearing as air cons became standard fit. First generation climate controls were a combination of sliders and push buttons. Elsewhere, talking cars from Nissan and Austin were quite a novelty in the California and UK markets respectively.