The rise and rise of the hot hatchback

I'll admit to some bias before you read this article – I'm a huge fan of this genre of affordable performance car. I've owned several over the years, and have one as a second car today.

It's the accessibility of sensible performance that captivates me the most; motoring you can enjoy on a relatively modest budget with the practically of a small family car.

It seems I may not be alone in thinking this. The value of older models of these cars have rocketed in recent years, and most European manufacturers include a rapid version of at least one otherwise humble model in their ranges.

But where did it all start?

A hole in one?

It's generally believed that Volkswagen invented the hot hatch with its legendary Golf model and, indeed, if your definition is a front wheel drive vehicle with a fuel injected engine, this fits the bill perfectly.

Now I'll admit that my previously flagged bias is further slanted towards French cars, so I apologise in advance.

The year was 1974. David Essex was “gonna make you a star”. It was the age of platform shoes and ridiculous flared trousers. Britain had joined the Common Market – which is probably a subject best avoided at the moment. 

By the early '70s, French car manufacturer Simca had been making cars around for 40 years. In 1966, Simca released the 1100 series, a medium-sized family car with a front wheel drive platform, pioneered by Sir Alec Issigonis ten years earlier in the ubiquitous Mini. The increased the amount of interior space available was naturally popular among designers of family cars.

I'll add here that I absolutely accept that the Mini was the original small front wheel drive car and, in Cooper form, undoubtedly a small, high-performance and hugely entertaining car. However, it had a boot so doesn't qualify as a hatchback for the purpose of this article. It did become a hatchback much, much later and rightly joined the ranks of hot hatchbacks of the time.

The 1100Ti arrived in 1974 sporting a larger engine, cosmetic “go faster” appendages including front and rear spoilers, alloy wheels but not fuel injection – delivery was via a traditional pair of carburettors.

So, the Golf came next? Well no, actually. Renault were next to the party with their Alpine-badged 5 model in 1976. Interestingly, this was only ever badged as the Gordini in the UK because Chrysler Europe owned the rights to the Alpine name in the UK (and coincidentally, Chrysler had owned a stake in Simca for some years prior to this and eventually sold out to Peugeot in the late 70's – this won't be the last time Peugeot get a mention in this article...).

At around this time, a group of engineers at Volkswagen began work in secret on a faster version of the then popular Golf model, their replacement for the iconic Beetle (which continued in production for a further 30 years).

The story reads a bit like a Hollywood script, with parts being smuggled off the main production line and the car being developed in secret. This included improvements to the suspension, steering and brakes plus cosmetic enhancements which set the standard that continues through to the present day.

The car was launched at the 1976 Frankfurt Motor Show. Its compact front wheel drive layout, excellent handling and performance and sharp looks made it an instant hit. Volkswagen sold over 460,000 units of the Mark 1 model, against an initial estimate of just 5,000 (to comply with motorsport regulations of the time).

The car was marketed in the USA as the 'Rabbit', although the success of the hot hatchback was relatively muted – a trait which continued for 30 more years until Ford's third generation Focus RS and fifth generation Fiesta ST found success with the American market.

Fast forward to 1984 and Frankie is telling us all to Relax.

French car maker Peugeot has launched its new small car, the 205, in 1983 and a higher performance model was to be added to the range within a year. This followed the accepted route established by Volkswagen a decade earlier – improvements to chassis, brakes, steering and, of course, topped off with alloy wheels and an abundance of red pinstriping, both inside and out.

This was a car developed by engineers and it showed. Sharp handling and performance were well received by the motoring press and enthusiasts alike – even if the chassis had the trait of catching out the unwary (or unskilled) mid-corner.

Like its German counterpart, the little French hatch found many friends within the car collector community – performance allied with practicality and price was an immediate hit.

As the decade progressed, the Golf morphed into its second generation, gaining a little weight and a useful performance boost thanks to a 16 valve cylinder head. Peugeot countered this by producing a 1900cc model and the '1.9' quickly became the hot hatch of choice – unless you were a fan of the Golf, of course.

Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, and by 1990 almost every European (and some Japanese) volume car maker included a performance hatchback in its model line-up. Ford's iconic RS brand was reinvented as the XR, and the GTI (or GTi) badge appeared on many other cars, changing the humble hatchback forever.

The mid 90's was arguably a low point for both the hot hatch and other performance cars, as they became the transport of choice for those who didn't want to pay for them. Ram raiding became a phrase used almost as commonly then as social distancing has become today. The TV news regularly featured footage of stolen cars being pursued by the police and racing around the streets.

This inevitably led to a spike in insurance premiums and for some years it seemed that the era of the affordable performance car was coming to an end. Manufacturers responded by improving security and penalties for vehicle theft became stiffer.

It can be argued that the late '90s and early '00s saw engineers and designers relegated behind the marketing teams. As a result, many hot hatches produced during this time failed to live up to their exciting predecessors – even the manufacturers who brought the cars to the mainstream were producing cars that were acknowledged to be nowhere near as good as ten years earlier.

By this point, the iconic 205 had long since been replaced, and although its 106 and 306 replacements were excellent, it could be argued that Renault picked up the baton with its Clio. In 1993, Clio's collaboration with Williams F1 produced another headline moment – even if the Williams connection was primarily about slick marketing (Williams had no design or engineering involvement with the car). Blue paint and gold wheels linked perfectly to the equally iconic Subaru rally cars that found fame at the same moment.

Such was its success that two further versions followed, named, unsurprisingly, the 2 and 3 – a move which upset many owners of the original cars.

By the early noughties, Beyonce was Crazy in Love and we'd sadly had our generation's JFK moment one autumn morning watching the dreadful scenes unfolding in Manhattan.

The hot hatch renaissance was well underway. Renault had by this point developed the Clio into its second generation and sporting over 170hp from its two litre engine, the 'small car/big engine' recipe was in its heyday.

Volkswagen returned to the sector with a bang in 2004; its fifth generation GTI model was an immediate and resounding success. Sporting just under 200hp from a two litre turbocharged engine, available with a semi-automatic transmission (a first in the sector) it was once again accepted as being the class leader, 25 years after the original model wowed the world.

The hot hatchback was back. Much like 10-15 years before, manufacturers were once again producing a raft of high-performance hatchbacks. Power output climbed to over three times the original Golf GTI's 108hp.

In its ultimate (and current production) forms, outputs well north of 300hp are the norm and performance figures rival many more expensive and exotic sports cars, echoing the ethos of the originals from 40 years earlier. The term 'hyper hatch' is regularly used to describe these cars, with good reason.

So that brings us to today and the climax of our story. As at the point of writing, simply going out for a spirited early morning drive has been massively impacted but it will return.

An original Mark 1 Golf GTI in presentable condition would now cost you upwards of £10,000, with concours examples fetching more than double this figure.

Peugeot's 205 is equally as popular with the very best examples closing in on £30,000 – as expensive as all but a handful of current production hot hatches.

Earlier cars are now being restored. Though time does take its toll and it's a reflection of recent acceptance of these motor cars as 'modern classics' that cars are now being brought back to factory original standard – in many cases at considerable expense.

Other greats from the sector are rising similarly and as numbers of good cars reduce through natural attrition, this trend looks set to continue into the later versions.

It's no secret that the next generation of hot and hyper hatches will look to hybrid or 100% electric drivetrains, and Renault sport models, for example, will now be branded as Alpine and completely electric. With the incredible performance available from this power source, the future of the performance hatchback is, we hope, assured for future generations to enjoy.

Inevitably, this will result in enthusiasts increasingly seeking petrol powered older cars to enjoy in future – perhaps at weekends and sunny days only, similarly to older classic vehicles.

For many of these amazing little cars, there is a strong and enthusiastic following – owners clubs, forums and social media ensure a plentiful supply of new and used parts. There is varying support from manufacturers (given the understandable trend for spares for obsolete models to quickly become unavailable) but the network of independent specialists is growing steadily, in common with the rest of the classic car world.

Finding a good one can be a minefield as many have been 'well used'. For older cars, there are some specialist dealers and enthusiast websites, and for later cars, clubs and social media are your friends – you're unlikely to find many using Auto Trader for example.

The future is therefore pretty bright for hot hatches. I don't think there's been a better time to find one of these affordable and hugely entertaining little cars.

Rob Hubbard, Head of Bonhams MPH comments:

“At MPH – the modern, popular and historics arm of Bonhams – we are seeing more and more hot hatches crossing the block at Bicester Heritage, where our sales are held.

There are now many younger buyers aged in their 30s and 40s who have disposable income to spend on the cars they were familiar with – and even lusted after – in their youth.”

There is also a desire among many car enthusiasts to take a step back to the relatively recent past when cars had become far more reliable and better made, but still had manual gearboxes and none of the electronic safety aids that are now fitted as standard. People want to relive the feeling of being fully in control of a car, especially one with classic looks and a nostalgic feel.

Hot hatches deliver these things in spades and so are commanding strong prices at the rostrum. Some recent examples that have sold at MPH sales include a 1995 Lancia Delta Integrale Evo II, the final incarnation and pinnacle of the Integrale road model, sold for £45,000, at our September sale.

In the same auction, a 1983 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus made £29,250.

A year ago, a restored 1986 Ford Escort RS Turbo realised £25,312, (£25,000 – 28,000) while a later 1993 Ford Escort RS Cosworth achieved just shy of £50,000 its top estimate in our debut sale in September 2019. Just five years earlier, a left-hand drive 1996 example, which had covered fewer than 14,000 kms sold for £15,833.