The Vauxhall Astra GTE MkI lasted 15 months, and has been forgotten – but now, with so few left, it's a true star.
Words: Nigel Boothman Photography: Andy McCandlish
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Fancy it? Everyone seems to. It’s hard to come up with any other hot hatch of the era that produces the same level of ‘phwoarr’. An Astra GTE MkI, in white, in near-perfect condition, seems to be the one Luton product every car nut of a certain age would like to try.
Maybe it’s the rarity. The first Astras, with their origami styling and water-soluble wheel arches, disappeared pretty quickly. The MkI GTE was only offered from April 1983 to August ’84, so there were never many of them to start with. Yet enough were sold to form a reputation for agility, speed and all-round ‘rightness’ that had many owners of Golfs and Escorts wondering if they’d made the wrong choice. Now those same owners are still gagging for a go in one.
How did Vauxhall do it? It’s tempting to suggest blind luck, because you can’t deny that the Astra GTE was an afterthought. VW started selling the Golf GTI with RHD in 1979 and Ford’s new Escort came with an XR3 version from launch in 1980, then from ’82 the RS1600i and XR3i. That year also saw the first warm Astra, the 90bhp carb-fed SR. It wasn’t enough.
The solution involved dropping in the 1.8-litre, LE-Jetronic engine from the Cavalier SRi. With 115bhp in a car weighing under a ton, Vauxhall had something to boast about. It wasn’t the finished article but found its market. Two things helped: lairy marketing slogans like ‘NOUGHT TO NAUGHTY NAUGHTY IN 8.5 SECONDS’, and glowing praise from mags.
It’s due for a bit more of that shortly, but before we climb aboard let’s remember something. There may be as few as nine MkI GTEs on the road in the UK. Among those, this one is unrestored. It’s had a bit of paint but it’s basically a long-stored survivor carefully re-commissioned, de-modified and buffed to show-winning condition. A Ferrari F40 is common by comparison...
The moment Mark McClelland steers his white GTE into the car park, I’m back in 1991. No, the Astra wouldn’t have been new then, but it was recent enough to be respectable and yet old enough to be within reach, at least in theory. I was 17 and in possession of my first car, which just happened to be a white Vauxhall. Only mine was a 1975 Viva SL with a tiger-fur seat cover and radio-cassette screwed to a piece of plywood by my right knee. It was less than ten years older than the GTE but might as well have come from a different century.
So whenever I was putting a fiver’s worth of four-star into the Viva and some hair-gelled hero in a GTE growled to a halt at the next pump, the over-riding emotion was jealousy. And that’s what comes back now, until I suddenly remember I’m going to be driving this one. About time, too.
Having slapped the door shut, the driver’s environment takes me by surprise – maybe it’s not as far from the Viva as I thought. The dash is a cliff of hard black plastic and the wheel seems large and rather skinny, positioned down near my lap. But the bucket seats are superb and the rorty noise from a couple of feet further forward is very promising. Blimey, that unassisted steering – you forget that even small cars could need a hefty effort through the wheel at parking speeds. The designers probably didn’t envisage boots as large as these modest 185/60 R14s.
It soon lightens up once you’re moving and the Astra’s preferred mode of travel becomes obvious: rev, change, rev, change, every few seconds. Apparently the first ones were criticised for being overgeared, so when a close-ratio box came along, as fitted to this car, the overall gearing was lowered too. It helps the GTE make the most of its power – there isn’t a lot of torque – but you need to keep it boiling to travel fast. At one point, I drop it into fourth and I’m surprised to see only 43mph. These first-gen 1980s hatches certainly feel faster than they really are… or do they?
Mark points out that the speedo is under-reading by something between 10 and 13mph. That would explain it, though on roads like this in the Ayrshire hills around Kilmarnock, you’re never far from a bend that makes you think hard about slowing down. Here’s where the Astra scores. It’s just as safe to chuck around as a Golf but it has more poise and less bias towards understeer. It feels nimble, but never alarming in the way a clumsily-handled 205 GTI can do. It also stops very well and changes gear nicely, albeit with a bit of a baulk between some of the intermediate slots. Still, try finding an unrestored, 30-year-old Golf that’s any better.
How does it make you feel? Naughty, if I’m honest. A man emerges from a house by the road, ostensibly to put the bins out, but I’m convinced he’s actually heard us blatting up and down and has stomped outside to disapprove. It takes all my self control not to screech round on the handbrake and go haring past him again with that tangerine tachometer needle swinging clockwise.
On one level, the Astra feels dated thanks to the drinks-tray cabin plastics, wind-up windows and doors as thin as a Rich Tea biscuit. It wouldn’t be relaxing on the motorway despite that fifth gear, with 70mph nudging the 4000rpm mark. But on another level it’s a properly exciting, well-balanced little tool that still offers about as many thrills as you can safely or legally use on a B-road. That’s because you’re exactly the right distance from the raw driving experience: it’s a practical, reliable, comfortable car but everything – hands, feet, ears, arse – receives feedback from the road. Later hot hatches increased power as well as luxury, but almost all lost some of that rawness and simplicity.
Maybe the Astra’s even more at home tearing around the one-way system, using the close-ratio box and neat steering to carve up the traffic. There’s a TV ad campaign running at the moment for the Smart ForTwo Brabus, describing the warmed over micro-machine as an ‘urban sports car’. Sorry, Smart… you’re about 35 years late to the party. Hot hatchbacks defined that idea and this Astra is as good as any of them.
We’ve nearly missed the boat with the MkI GTE. No one would suggest that MkI Golf GTIs are endangered, and though the XR3i isn’t an everyday sight there are other hot Escorts to choose from and a huge ‘fast Ford’ scene to keep them alive.
Vauxhall’s following is more fragmented; people who like Droop Snoot Firenzas or 3-litre Senators probably aren’t into FWD hot hatches, and the MkI and MkII Astras have different owners’ clubs.
And yet… there’s that reaction we mentioned right at the beginning. Everyone seems to love the GTE. When the owner of this car put a photo of it next to a Lamborghini on Facebook, it went viral, attracting hundreds of comments all saying much the same thing – stuff the Italian machine, I want the Astra.
Some startling auction prices for 1980s Escorts in the last 18 months tell us all we need to know about where MkI GTE values are heading. Modified ones are being put back to standard, rough ones are worth restoring and values will soon shock owners of MkI Golfs. At long last, it looks like the Astra GTE is getting the recognition it always deserved.
But this is more than just an appreciating asset. It's a trip back to when social networking meant nightclubs and car meets. Though new hatches and the internet may be 'better', they're not as much fun, are they?
Vauxhall Astra MkI GTE
Transmission: FWD, 5-speed manual
Top speed: 115mph
What to pay: