Classics Corner: 16V dreams

Major Gav looks back to a time when a 16V hot hatch made his 17-year-old self weak at the knees.

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith Freelance motoring writer and blogger
Gavin is a freelance motoring writer who lives in the automotive metropolis that is Dartmoor, Devon. When not creating waffle and bunk for PetrolBlog, Gavin can be found hurtling up and down the A303 to attend new car launches. He has an unhealthy obsession with obscure and mundane cars from the 1980s and 1990s. Will work for Hobnobs. Not keen on Shatchbacks.
Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
4 min read

When you reach a certain age, you begin to look back on the motoring world with a huge dose of nostalgia. You don't so much visit Specsavers for an annual checkup as to submit a repeat prescription for a pair of rose-tinted glasses. You see, when it comes to cars, time is a great leveller. I introduced this dusty corner of XCAR as a focus on the automotive twilight zone.

The period between classic and modern where only true enthusiasts dare tread. The unashamedly old school and unfashionable department of XCAR. You'll find us in the basement. Head down the fire escape stairs, turn left by the gents, and in the far corner you'll see a single light bulb, glowing dimly in the darkness.

Let me take you back to January 1992. A notable date for me, as it was the month I turned 17. Within hours of opening my birthday cards, I was out taking a driving lesson. I had waited all my life to get behind the wheel, so there wasn't a second to waste. Never again would the thought of driving a white, base-spec Nissan Micra fill me with such excitement.

I still have a copy of "Car Magazine" from that month. In just 150 pages it represents all that is good about cars in the early '90s. My very own "Wonder Years."

It all starts with the cover. Six hot hatches and a Ferrari Testarossa split by a headline proclaiming "Ferrari's new Testarossa and the 16-valve hatches it can't keep up with." And at the very foot of the page, the teasing sub headline "World Exclusive: We drive the Bentley Continental R." If this cover doesn't stir your soul, you're either not a petrolhead or you're clinically dead.

It gets better inside. There's an ad for the Alfa Romeo 164, reviews of the new Mazda RX-7, and Citroen XM Estate, plus a long term test of the Volkswagen Corrado 16v. Perhaps it's me, but these models seem so much more exciting than the range offered by the respective manufacturers in 2012.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly the 16-valve group test. To give it the same impact as "Car" in 1992, I'll present the lineup in glorious upper case: "HONDA CIVIC VTi-v-VAUXHALL ASTRA GSi-v-RENAULT 19 16v-v-FORD ESCORT RS2000-v-ROVER 220 GTi-v-FIAT TIPO 16v."

Boom! How exciting does that sound? Heroes of a distant age that for this 17-year-old were so far out of reach. Even if I could afford the purchase price, the insurance would have been crippling.

In 1992, it would have cost around £90,000 ($145,098 US) to fill your dream garage with these everyday heroes. For a similar price you could have owned a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. Fast-forward 20 years and, assuming you can find them, the entire lineup could be yours for little more than the price of a Dacia Sandero. As Gabrielle once sang, dreams can come true. You just need a little patience.

Reading the group test today is poignant for a number of reasons. Taking the cars to one side for a moment, the article itself was penned by Brett Fraser, a chap whose words I spent a great deal of time reading back in the day. But it also contained "counterpoints" by LJK Setright and Russell Bulgin. Carlsberg doesn't do group tests, but if it did...

As it happened, the writers weren't exactly lavish in their praise for the six road warriors. The Civic was considered the best, even after taking into account the "cramped cabin in rear," "pathetic boot space," "tiring road noise," and "stiff ride in town." It won, purely because it was the most fun. Common sense therefore prevailed.

Today I'd be happy to experience any one of them. The Fiat Tipo would top my own list, but my love of all things French would put the 19 close behind. But we need to move fast to save these cars. At the last count there were just 11 16v Tipos on the road and less than 100 of the Renaults. These cars are fast approaching extinction.

I know I'll be accused of indulging myself in a huge dollop of nostalgia here, but rather like a fine wine, cars like these mature nicely with age. Their respective shortcomings don't disappear of course, but with the onset of time and supposed progress, I can't help thinking that we never had it so good.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on vinyl. See, I told you things were better in 1992...