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PH Heroes: Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9

Brett Fraser revisits the humble hatch that turned him (briefly) into a hooligan

By Brettfraser / Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Every so often the main motoring mags run a 'Best Hot Hatch Ever' feature. Almost inevitably the Renault Clio Williams wins. Now, it may be heresy to say it aloud, but I'm not convinced by that verdict; my vote goes to the Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9. Which explains why I once owned one (bought from Vicky Butler-Henderson's dad) and never a Renault, great though many of the hot Clios have been.

Probably you don't agree about the Pug: you've got your own champ. Yet whether or not you believe it's top of the pile, it's hard to dispute the fact that the rumbustious little tearaway belongs right up there with the other pretenders to the crown. And in terms of defining a genre, it's every bit as significant as the original Golf GTI.

Quite apart from the fact that it had extraordinary dynamic intensity, what marked out the 205 GTI as a special achievement was that it came from Peugeot. Sure, the French company had produced some fine, dependable machines prior to the 205 range's arrival in 1983 and had enjoyed enviable success on some of the world's toughest endurance rallies; but historically there was nothing in the line-up to really set your trousers alight. And then, out of the sacré bleu, the gorgeous-looking 205 rolls up, accompanied at launch by the mid-engined turbocharged T16 homologation special, in a vivid example of extreme rebranding.

The boggo 205 models were promptly hailed as mass-produced masterpieces, so when the 1.6-litre GTI rocked up in 1984, people were expecting it to be really good. In fact, it was brilliant. Boisterous, quick, responsive, light, agile and supple: it was a compelling combination. It looked the business and was the business. For both sheer driving pleasure and cross-country pace, the 205 GTI made not only many other hot hatches seem like dullards, but a good many 'sports cars', too.

At the end of 1986, along came the 1.9-litre GTI. The bigger engine capacity brought with it more power - 130bhp to the 1.6's 105bhp (and later, 115bhp) - and more torque, thanks to a longer stroke. There were some initial comments about the torquier motor making the driving experience less intense and frenetic, because you didn't have to rev it so hard: that's another school of thought I don't subscribe to.

Back when the 1.9 GTI was new, I remember driving it around central London, forever in fear - especially at night when the road were a bit clearer - of having my licence prised from my perspiring palms. The 1.9 GTI had a speed lust that you simply couldn't deny it, whether it were away from traffic lights, exiting roundabouts, or along short straights. It was as if you'd been hypnotised and turned into a hooligan, or at the very least a central Paris commuter. It was a real headbanger, and while there's a fair degree of shame attached to the memories of my behaviour in the uproarious little Pug, at the same time I can't help but smile...

Johnny Stokes, who runs Harleston Motor Company and has lent us the 1.9 GTI pictured here (for sale, £3995), is another bloke with a big grin when the subject turns to the 205. Seemingly more by default than design, he's ended up specialising in quick Pugs (although he does sell all manner of other interesting machinery) and is especially fond of 205 GTIs.

The biggest problem, he tells me, is finding tidy examples that haven't been tampered with; such is the demand for original-spec cars, apparently, that some people are removing modifications and returning GTIs to standard.

Peering at Johnny's car, gleaming in the spring sunshine, it's hard to imagine why you'd want to mess with it. The 205's proportions are spot-on, its GTI addenda modest yet suitably effective, and its signature telephone dial 15in alloys perfectly suited. The car's compact, too, in a way that modern safety regs no longer allow.

Ping open the flimsy door using the flimsy plastic lever, and its thinness and lightness betray its lack of side impact protection and airbags - the 205 GTI weighs in at about 880kg and these dainty doors contribute to its svelteness. In fact, just about everything in the cabin does; almost nothing in here feels robust. And while there are electric windows, the door mirrors are manual items, helping keep weight (and cost) down.

By modern standards the seats seem insubstantial, but at least they place you low to the floor, with the thin-rimmed steering wheel directly ahead. The engine sounds slightly tinny when you fire it up, echoey almost, and the idle is slightly lumpy, but then that's the way I remember the 205 when it was new; it never behaved with complete decorum. Age hasn't mellowed the 1.9 GTI. As we leave Johnny's driveway the Pug leaps off down the road after only the gentlest prod of the throttle, eager to get angry. A quick flick of the long-travel gearchange into a higher ratio doesn't quell its enthusiasm and all of a sudden we're travelling much, much faster than planned, history repeating itself, but fortunately this time on the open road.

Rather like in an Elise, you find yourself bonding with the GTI's controls and chassis. The low seating position keeps you directly in touch with the suspension's workings, which strangely these days seem far more compliant than they did when the car was new. The steering is fast and accurate and not at all nervy or twitchy. And thanks to modern tyre technology, the 205's notorious lift-off oversteer characteristic is very much subdued during regular driving - be silly and I'm sure you'd find it making a dramatic reappearance.

Some old cars feel precisely that - old. Not the Pug. It remains an invigorating drive. A talented drive. A drive you'd put ahead of many hot hatches - sure, modern cars are burdened by safety requirements and economy and emissions issues, but let's not forget they've also had the benefit of more than two decades of engineering advancements and electronics development. That the 205 GTI isn't outclassed by modern metal - is in fact more enjoyable - simply cements its status as a PistonHeads Hero.

If there's a drawback to driving Johnny's GTI it's that it's put me in the mind for ownership - PistonHeads classifieds, here I come. Again...

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