"Active aerodynamics, the automatic gearbox and side-mounted radiators are all features of the 21st Century racing machine and features that you would expect to have been first found in Formula One. In fact they emerged from just one racing team "
Peugeot 205 GTi: a confession
It was a stupid thing to do.
But when your best mate’s mum leaves the keys to her Peugeot 205 GTi hanging from the hook in the kitchen when she went away for the weekend with her new boyfriend, a 16 year old may have been even more stupid, arguably, to ignore the opportunity. We took the car out to play. Of course we did.
Thing was, we were already veterans of illegal motoring. We had already taken to illicit round-town runs in Ray’s little Mini Clubman, the car his absent father had bought him to assuage his guilt for having run off with his secretary. Yes, the early eighties was full of clichés. Long lenses tend to flatten perspective. And when you look at the 205 GTi’s period lines it too might appear a corny trope that typifies a decadent era. But at the time, the car simply looked new, exciting and dynamic. The typography of the branding might have reflected the period concerns of dynamism and aspiration, but to us it was, well, just super cool. We didn’t even know that we were Thatcher’s children.
Ray was close to turning 17 and was taking driving lessons. His old man, who worked in the city, would take him out to The Rom, a hallowed corner of Essex where as well as a legendary skatepark, someone had built a classic little learner driver course, complete with mini roundabouts, traffic lights, stop signs – all the street furniture that an underage driver might encounter on the highway. Ray knew how to engage a clutch, set the gas, etc, and was confident enough to dangle the GTi’s keys tantalisingly before me. “Let’s do it”, he said. It was more than a body could bare.
As soon as you opened the door you knew this was different from the usual Dagenham Dustbins through which our contemporaries stepped into motoring. This was a red 1.9 edition, with colour-coded interior and bumpers and those distinctive alloys with holes in them. It was only a couple of years old back then in 1988, and the new car smell blended in perfectly with the heady scent of Ray’s mum’s Chanel no 19 and Oil of Ulay. I was well acquainted with everything to do with Ray’s mum grooming (but that’s another story). The car was everything I could have wanted wrought in lightweight steel and black plastic trim. Together, Ray’s mum and her car represented everything my sixteen year old self desired.
We had a route planned already, but soon as the kart-like directness of the GTi’s steering took hold, as soon as the rootedness of the balance became apparent, then we blew out the usual roundabout- A12 circuit and headed out to the country twisties out around Ongar. We let our imaginations go wild. Being in pole, Ray was of course Ari Vatanen and I was Hannu Mikkola. The fact that the latter never raced for Peugeot didn’t matter. Ray chucked the thing around corners with aplomb, and only the sight tendency to ride a clutch and crunch a shift belied his lack of road experience. I can feel to this day the urgent tug of the front wheels and the way that the back end would step out slightly, delicately even, when we hit the damper sections of the tarmac on those Essex apexes.
When it was my turn I nervously slipped into the drivers seat and tried to remember what I had to do. It was bliss. I can remember the rev counter leaping forward, the hedges scrolling to my side faster and faster, and the way that all of a sudden the GTi’s proportions seemed to make perfect sense. I could only have been five minutes into my dreams when it happened. A white Escort emerged from a driveway right on the apex of a long right-hand sweeper and I panicked. I jerked the wheel to the left and buried my right foot on the brake. My right foot slipped off and buried itself on the gas.
All I remember after that was the sound of Ray’s yell. 30 years on and I’ve never again ended up in a hedge again. Surprisingly and incredibly, the hedge was not one of those ancient jobs that could have put a halt to the advance of a Nazi Panzer division. It was a a nice soft privet, but there was a nasty ditch in front of it. The front end slid out and the GTi’s nose was dipped into it like a puppy taking water.
Ray and I still owe the nice old chap who towed us out a drink. We were young. We didn’t know better.
Let us never talk of these things again.
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