In the past two issues we’ve looked back at how performance cars moved from being the enjoyable playthings of lucky people within some sectors of society, to their availability as everyday cars for family use. This trend accelerated through the 1960s and continued through the 1970s, with manufacturers becoming more adept at developing performance cars, first by getting more powerful engines into smaller cars, and second, by improving the handling of larger cars. Option one was the chosen method in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when well-developed small family hatchbacks with the right engine and handling options became roadburners of startling capability, while still remaining relatively affordable.
The appearance of the VW Golf GTi in 1976 is often accepted as the start of hot-hatch development. But take a closer look and it’s not hard to find some distinctly lively hatches on the market prior to 1976. Smaller contenders include the almost forgotten Abarth variant of the Autobianchi A112 from 1971, Simca’s 1100 TI (61kW) and the 1204 with bigger engine in 1974, and in 1975, Renault’s Alpine version of the 5 (Renault 5 Gordini in some markets) with 69kW from its 1397cc version of the old pushrod OHV Cleon engine. These had all actually appeared on the market ahead of the Golf GTi. And there were slightly larger warm hatches like the 62kW Renault 16TS from 1968 and more powerful 69kW 16TX from 1973, and BMW’s Touring version of the 02 series from 1971–1974. The bigger-engine versions of this model, including the Tii with 97kW, were real hot hatches. And stretching the definition of a hatchback perhaps, but not far off it, was maybe another early claimant, BMC’s MGB GT from 1965. I think there’s also some validity behind the view that BMC’s Mini-Cooper and Cooper S, though not hatchbacks at all, actually were the cars that broke the market open for powerful engines in light small cars, and that really was the critical factor, not the hatchback body.
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