"The demise of Saab is one of the more painful episodes in the collective memory of car enthusiasts worldwide. Saab was always a manufacturer that did things its own way – and that sense of principle and engineering purity has left "
Top Five: Mod Heroes. Everyman tweakers of the late 20th Century
Nova owner Dave Piech and a fistful of moddable faves from the 1980s and 1990s
During the mid-late nineties and into the new millennium – the Max Power generation was the most visible UK car cult out there. This was before car finance and insurance and a general political correctness took hold. We might all now be driving around in Audis and M-Sport Bimmers – but back in the day there were a handful of modified stalwarts that you’d see everywhere. Here are my five most notables.
You’d most often see 205s on the scene in GTi guise. You needed a serious bit of money to buy and insure them. With the 1.9 engine it was the fastest naturally aspirated affordable hot hatch you could get. It was a popular choice in any spec, with its classic looks, cheap parts and simple mechanicals. The non-GTis were made to look as if they were top spec, with engines coming from scrapped 205 or 309 GTis, or even upgrading beyond that to the 405 MI-16. There was a bonus with the pug in that it had the best FWD handling as well. I was a big fan of the period ‘sporting’ details – the red detailing: carpet, seat belts and badging throughout. This was all before you even started modifying it.
Ford Escort Mk3/Mk4
You almost always saw these in RS Turbo form, with few pretenders on the scene. The Mk3 RS Turbo (Series 1) was the daddy for me; British Hot Hatch-ness in its purest form. The Escort was a loveable tin can of a mid-size town car, with that rattling CVH engine – blown by Ford with that aptly designed body kit. I always wanted one. The more jelly-moulded, less cool Mk4 RS was more common, more affordable – leaving you more dosh to modify with. These had to be turbocharged in order to beat the 205s. Turbo cars have a real sense of theatre: the Mk4 Escort RS Turbo was the entry into that.
Renault 5/GT Turbo
Take the Peugeot 205 GTi and mix it with the Ford Escort RS Turbo – and the Renault 5 GT Turbo is what you get. The Renault was lighter and smaller than the Escort and although it didn’t have any more power than the Pug 205 GTi – tuning that Turbocharged 1.4 got you the gains you needed. Perhaps it had the best of both worlds. The Renault was small, light and handled well – but it also had the theatrical element of the Escort Turbo. With the smallest engine of the popular modded cars, it was a bit of an underdog but could do the business – as long as they were running right. Which they often were not.
VW Golf Mk2 / GTi
The VWs were everything the Renault was not. Dependable AND reliable. The Golf had it all – in a more subtle, all rounder kind of way. It was sturdier, longer lasting and better built than all the other FWDs. It wasn’t a Turbo, nor particularly lightweight in comparison, nor did it handle the best. What I think you got with the Golf were no strings attached, no catches – no annoying ‘off days’. They were pretty cheap and plentiful – and there were loads of off-the-shelf mods to choose from in the Demon Tweeks catalogue. They might have been a little dull compared to the other FWDs but they worked. This is perhaps why the VW scene has done so much pioneering in the aftermarket/modifying world. Barely half the Golf Mk2s around at the time were genuine GTis – unlike the other FWDs where most were the pukka real deal hot variant. Even today there are more of these Golfs still around than any of the others.
The E30 3-series was at the time pretty much the only affordable RWD car you could find. They were so different from the other cars I’ve mentioned. Having one of these cars was the only affordable way you could ‘drift’/get sideways, as rear-driven Japanese cars were very few and far between back in the day. Most E30 BMWs on the scene were the lesser, non-sporting models as the M-badged stuff always commanded a massive premium. The BMW was heavy for its size and over engineered. It was a bit thirsty, expensive to run and repair – but it felt a more mature ‘grown up’ choice. Not only was it rear driven, it was that 2 litre or 2.5 litre straight 6 engine sound that was the defining factor of the car. It naturally had more power than all the FWD cars, so the cheeky little French or Jap FWD pocket rockets in its wake would often sit on its back bumper, before easing off to adore the way the bimmer could drift round that bend.
CLICK TO ENLARGE