Back in April, PetrolBlog organised a Big Day Out at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre in Luton. A grand day out was had by all, with many biscuits consumed and a total of nine cars available for us to drive, kindly provided by the good people of Vauxhall.
The original plan was to prepare a simple overview of the day – a quick summary of each car and some waffle to hold it all together. But given the amount of words received from Team PB and the level of enthusiasm received, it’s only right that single post status is awarded to each car driven.
You can therefore look forward to some words on the Firenza, MK2 Astra GTE, Calibra and VXR220. But in the meantime, we’ll kick things off with the MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE.
It’s hard to believe this MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE is nearly 30 years old, a point well made by Ton Dumans who accurately pointed out that it’s nearly as old as him but, in his own words, “has aged better”. That’s as maybe, but the MK1 Astra GTE epitomises the early 1980s, which isn’t necessarily something you can say about Ton.
The MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE was always a bit of an underdog, which probably contributes to its underrated and understated status today. That said, prices have firmed up and the Astra GTE is becoming quite collectable.
Back in the 1980s the Astra seemed to live in the shadows of its rivals from Volkswagen and Ford, with the Golf GTi and Escort XR3 enjoying more of the limelight than Vauxhall’s great pretender from Luton. In fact, the MK1 Astra GTE enjoyed a relatively short shelf-life, being introduced in 1983 and bowing out gracefully in 1984 to make way for the pearl-drop MK2 Astra.
The MK1 GTE is arguably the most PetrolBloggy Astras of all time. Its body-coloured side skirts, spoilers and flared arches helping to transform an anonymous looking hatchback into a very good looking hot hatch. Throw in a 1.8-litre engine from the Cavalier SRi and you’ve got the makings of a PB hero. A 0-60mph time of 8.5 seconds proves the GTE is no slouch – not even by today’s standards.
It was one of the most eagerly anticipated cars of the event with everyone taking a turn behind the wheel at some point throughout the day. Along with the Firenza, the MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE was very much the PB tart of Luton. And that’s a good thing.
Maybe it’s the boxy styling wrapped by a very ’80s paint job that makes it appealing. Or maybe it’s simply because you don’t see them anymore. After all, there are only 107 1984-registered MK1 Astra GTEs left on the roads of Britain. But given the outpouring of love at the Heritage Centre, every single one needs to be cherished and enjoyed by future generations.
Antony Ingram was arguably the MK1’s biggest fan, awarding it a perfect ten on the PetrolBloggyness rating. He actually went home that night to dine on fridge magnet letters claiming that the Astra GTE “makes me want to eat my words regarding Vauxhalls”, before going on to say “I’d be driving it all the time”. The last we saw Antony was suffering terribly from a lack of sleep and a diet consisting solely of the letters V, A, U, X, H, A, L and L. Someone pass him a Red Bull and Rennies chaser…
What made the Astra so appealing to Antony? Well the throttle, clutch and gearbox received praise, as did the “satisfyingly torquey” engine. All of which “conspired to create a car that just flowed from corner to corner…the perfect antidote to point ‘n squirt modern hot hatches”. Antony even took time to slam the untouchable Peugeot 205 GTi, arguing that the Astra was “surprisingly refined and comfortable for its age – every mile in a 205 GTi of similar vintage feels like being mugged”. Strong words that will undoubtedly ruffle a few French feathers.
There was one feature of the MK1 Astra that didn’t receive widespread praise – its brakes, or lack of them. Ralph Hosier was the most vocal of the bunch – “the brakes really don’t do that much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much. Press it harder and a wheel locks up and you still don’t slow down very much”. Rumours of a MK1 Astra-shaped hole in wall on the road to Harpenden are unfounded.
David Tillyer was quick to pour scorn on the Astra’s brakes too, arguing “it would be a great little car if it had brakes”, before going on to say, “you have to pray that it’ll stop rather than having the confidence to push it”. A sentiment shared by Alex Wilcox who compared the brakes to a stroppy teenager by suggesting “they do as they wish”. Darren Leslie stepped in with some good parenting advice by suggesting the teen-like brakes simply required “a little force”.
It was left to Richard Gooding to hammer the nail into the coffin by simply describing the Astra’s brakes as “comical”. Not even Antony Ingram’s claim that the brakes were “not powerful, but not horrific” could save the MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE’s brakes from sliding into Room 101.
There were no such complaints over the MK1 Astra’s styling though, with the white stiletto and shoulder pads look receiving almost universal acclaim. In fact, only Ralph was critical of the styling, describing it as “quite forgettable”, before awarding it one out of ten on the Petrol Station Forecourt test. Ouch.
Darren was quick to defend the Astra, describing the GTE as a “cracking car to look at”, rightly pointing out that the “straight lines date it to the early eighties without even looking at the registration”. David described it as “handsome” with the newly crowned ‘Biggest MK1 Astra GTE Fan in the World’, Antony Ingram preferring the word “cool”.
By today’s standards, the miserly 115bhp developed by the 1.8-litre 8-valve engine seems positively tepid. Heck, the new Astra VXR pumps out 267bhp – over twice as much as its retro-cool cousin. So there was no talk of the Astra’s ‘explosive performance’ or ‘rapid pace’, with the feedback being much more muted.
Ton kicked things off by praising the “quite torquey engine”, with Darren going on to describe it as “not especially quick”. Darren’s view was shared by Richard who, perhaps with a hint of disappointment, admitted the Astra was “not as quick as I was expecting”. But then given the Astra’s new-found reputation for dismal brakes, perhaps this is no bad thing?
And yet, despite misgivings about the brakes and a rather damning verdict from Ralph, the MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE was one of the belles of the PetrolBlog ball. Richard revelled in the car’s “crisp and delicate responses”, with Darren loving the opportunity to “extract the car’s total potential without scaring yourself silly”. Wise words.
As we’ll find out in a future instalment, Alex preferred the MK2 Astra, arguing that it had all the charm of the MK1 combined with a more modern and accessible feel. Ralph struggled to find anything good to say about the car, but found time to applaud the steering’s “lovely feedback” and view from the windows. But in the light of the Astra’s “poor handling”, “horrible understeer” and “annoying” lift-off oversteer, you could tell that Ralph was struggle to find positive things to say about the car.
The MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE was the second oldest car available on the day, yet were it not for a low score from Ralph, it could have driven away with the PB Car of the Day award. In Antony’s eyes it was easily the best, with Alex torn between it and its successor. Maybe it’s the novelty factor associated with driving an old car, but even so, 30 years on, the MK1 Vauxhall Astra GTE presents itself as a massively involving hatchback that could easily be used on a daily basis.
It’s less obvious than the Golf GTi and Escort XR3 and prices are, at the moment anyway, slightly more realistic. But this will change – the Astra GTE might just be a good bet for a future investment. And heck, even if prices don’t rise, you’ve got yourself an ’80s hero that’s just a little different to the norm. Just keep an eye on the brakes, yeah?
Final scores (out of 10):
Images © PetrolBlog, except for detail shots © Daniel Bevis.