Vauxhall Astra GTE: Ben Barry on his first hot hatch

Published: 18 June 2012

Last year, my parents’ home caught fire. No-one died or anything, and the fire brigade caught the blaze before the whole place burned down, but there was some pretty significant damage, so my folks took the decision to gut the house and start again. This was a significant event for me, because I’d lived in that house since 1976 and, even though I moved out years back, my room was still my room, you know?

On the back of my bedroom door, I’d carefully affixed a number of stickers when I was seven or eight years old. I’d got them from the Vauxhall dealership that was a five-minute walk from my house. It was the era just after Walter Rohrl had won the WRC in an Opel Ascona 400 in 1982 – after which four-wheel drive and Group B changed things forever – but when Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes were still winning the British Rally Championship in Opel Asconas and Manta 400s, and a white Mk1 Astra GTE was cleaning up in the near-showroom-spec Group N category. The stickers were of these cars, and anytime my bedroom door got painted, I made sure the stickers were painted around. They were still there until the fire, so every time I left my bedroom during my formative years, I saw pictures of hot Vauxhalls and Opels.

The 1980s Vauxhall Astra hot hatches

Long before I passed my driving test, I’d already homed in on a Mk1 Astra as my first car, but I couldn’t afford to buy or insure the GTE, so I settled on the next best thing: the 1.6 SR. It had a 1.6-litre engine with 90bhp to the 1.8-litre GTE’s 115bhp, but looked pretty similar: its bodykit wasn’t colour-coded and lacked the spoiler under the rear bumper of the GTE (but, oddly, had a unique kind of lip spoiler on the roof), and put a different twist on a similar set of alloys and Recaro seats. I had the SR for a few years, took it up to Glasgow uni with me, whereupon Kelly Dalglish, daughter of ex-Liverpool Football Club manager Kenny Dalglish and fellow student at Glasgow, backed into the front of the car, causing a reasonable amount of damage. I used the insurance money – you thought they’d have just given me the cash? Me too – to repair the car and get it all repainted, only for it to be stolen within the year.

Before the insurance money came through, I’d already set my heart on a replacement: a Mk1 Astra GTE. They came in red, silver, black or white and were produced very briefly from Y- to B-plate; I didn’t like the silver ones, but I particularly liked the white ones, because you got colour-coded bumpers and white wheels, which I thought were incredibly cool. Plus, importantly, it also matched the car on the back of my bedroom door. Then a white, A-plate, 68,000-miler turned up locally for about £750 and I snapped it up with a summer of petrol-pump attendant wages.

I had that car for four years, drove it up and down to Glasgow, and as hard as I dared over Cumbrian back roads when I came home for the holidays.

Back in those days, I had the hours to spend washing and waxing it, and a bit more time to sand down the rusty bottoms of the doors and bootlid before carefully spray painting them as best as I could with a Halfords aerosol. I remember the excellent Recaros, the fact that the windscreen would take an eternity to demist on a wintery Scottish night, that the cylinder head gasket gave up just outside Silverstone, and that I had my only ever brake failure going fast into a roundabout near CAR’s current offices – pumping the pedal brought back just enough pressure to avoid a huge shunt.

I also remember thoroughly enjoying driving my Astra GTE, but I sold it back in 2001 – and made a massive leap into my E36 M3! – before I really had the kind of context that I do today from constantly driving different cars.

These days, I like to think that I approach cars pretty objectively, but I was probably more like most of the population back then: I’d fallen for the GTE before I’d even driven it, and I didn’t care what any magazine review might say. I just wanted it.

That still lives with me today, a sense of fondness for the GTE that’s bound up in youthful desires and dreams rather than any objective judgement of what it was like in comparison to rivals and so on. And part of me still wants to find the best one I can and tuck it away in a garage; if I had the cash and the space, I absolutely would.

Reviewing a Vauxhall Astra GTE a decade on

I’ve often wondered how the GTE would feel to the me of more than a decade on, and when I went to Vauxhall in Luton to pick up the new Astra VXR for a test drive last month, I learnt that Vauxhall actually had a mint B-plate on its heritage fleet. I begged to borrow it and, a week or so later, a man turned up with the car, brimmed it with fuel and handed over the keys. I’m used to this happening with new cars, but the fact that it was a GTE blew me away. Suddenly I was 19 again and I couldn’t believe that Vauxhall was actually bringing its own car to me and leaving me to it. It felt like a huge privilege, a wake-up call from the 19-year-old me as to how good I’ve got it now.

I spent a good half hour just walking round the GTE and all the details came flooding back: I knew the tyres were 185/60 R14s without even looking at the sidewalls, that the fan had three speeds where other Astras had just one – mine broke once, and I could only find a one-speeder in the scrappie – that the Griffin was blacked out on the grille but the GTE highlighted. There’s only one other car I know to this level of geeky detail, and that’s the E36 M3.

I spent the next three days ignoring every test car in the car park – my long-term BMW M5 included – and driving the GTE everywhere. Those Recaros still felt great, but constant exposure to newer cars had made me forget how shallow and upright the dashboard felt, and how heavy the unassisted steering was at car-park speeds. Soon, though, it all felt second nature: the fact that the brakes need a good solid push, and that the gearchange feels pretty long-winded and can sometimes engage easily and sometimes feel rubbery, responding better to good ol’ blip on the downchange. The 1.8-litre engine still felt pretty strong in an eager, rorty sort of way, and was still capable of pulling strongly from 85mph. Even the steering felt better to me than the Mk2 16v GTE I got to try soon after.

Yes, my road-test mind could pick faults all over the place, but I wasn’t thinking like that; mostly I just cruised about, windows down, big smile plastered all over my face, like it was 1999 all over again. And when the man came to take the GTE away from me, I felt a pang of sorrow that genuinely took me by surprise.

A couple of weeks on and I’m still scanning the classifieds.

>> Don't miss the July 2012 issue of CAR Magazine for our new Vauxhall Astra VXR group test

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator