A revolution occurred 40 years ago and no one noticed. Although the phrase would not be used for at least another decade, the 1974 Simca 1100Ti was the world’s first hot hatch.
And we won’t let it delay us further, not least because it was never sold in the UK. Instead, our focus is on the cars that have helped define the concept of hot hatch over the past four decades, our hope that they’ll shed light on to the evolution of the genre and suggest not only which cars, but also which kind might suit you best.
We could have papered this tale with Peugeots and Renaults but that would have told a different kind of story. So the cars over the next five pages represent their eras as much as themselves. Also, for variety, we chose a different marque for each decade.
The 1970s - Volkswagen Golf GTi MK1 1976-1981
Just as the Range Rover was not the first luxury SUV, nor the Renault Espace the first MPV, so the Volkswagen Golf GTI was not the first hot hatch. Not even close, in fact. But like the Renault and Rangie, it is the one that turned a few small sparks into a fire that burns to this day.
It proved that to make a great hot hatch, you must start with a great donor vehicle and thereafter keep it simple. Its recipe of a large, lightly stressed normally aspirated injected engine driving the front wheels on a platform firm enough for fun but sufficiently compliant to live with set a template that would be followed for over 30 years. Only the imperative to drive down CO2 emissions has made smaller capacity turbos the norm today.
Then, as now, its greatest strength is its engine, this late ‘Campaign’ model featuring a 112bhp fuel-injected 1.8-litre motor. Impeccably smooth, stacked with torque and sweet to its 6700rpm red line, it offers throttle response and sound quality that modern turbo hatches cannot replicate. Its five-speed gearbox provides the perfect accompaniment.
Its chassis feels its age, with heavy, slow, vague unassisted steering and mediocre brakes that have terrible pedal feel, but it’s still hungry enough to sniff out an apex and wave a rear wheel in the air in time-honoured fashion. But you’re struck more by how spacious it is for such a tiny car, and how quiet and well built it is. VW’s light bulb moment was realising that even the most fun hatch would be useless if it didn’t also function as an everyday car. The Golf did then and, almost 40 years on, could now. That is its legacy and enduring achievement.
Alfa Romeo Alfasud
Even though it didn’t gain a hatch until the 1980s, you can’t ignore the little Alfa with its magical flat four engine, world-class chassis and telepathic steering.
Renault 5 Gordini
Brilliant-looking hatch. Mild rather than wild fun came from a 92bhp 1.4-litre but handling was fine. Replaced by 110bhp Gordini Turbo, which added power but lost charm.