Blog : 1983 – the year the supermini grew up

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Vauxhall Nova (1)
The Vauxhall Nova is 30 years old? Yes, really…

Here’s a sobering thought for all of our older readers – it’s 30 years since the Vauxhall Nova, Datsun Micra, Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 were launched. All were very different; each was refreshing; and for General Motors, the arrival of the Nova saw the company’s transformation into forward-thinking European car manufacturer completed. Given that the General Motors S-Car was considered a very late arrival to the supermini party and it was something of a derivative challenger in a market that was about to mature significantly, it’s sobering to think that the new boy has now reached its third decade.

The supermini market the Nova found itself competing in was about to be revolutionised. Back in 2011, I discussed the formative years of the supermini market and how the Autobianchi A112 defined the sector in the late 1960s. However, it was the huge success of the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 that made superminis the hottest property on the market and every important manufacturer introduced their own versions.

So, the 1970s were the decade of the supermini. Influential challengers came thick and fast after the Renault and Fiat – Honda had the Civic, Datsun had the Cherry, Innocenti had the 90/120 in 1973, Volkswagen-Audi had the Polo (launched as the Audi 50) in 1975; and the Ford Fiesta followed in 1976. By the time the Austin Metro finally arrived in October 1980, the first generation of superminis was complete and they were a mainstay in the motoring scene – as more drivers cottoned on to the benefits of smaller, more stylish, practical and economical cars.

That said, just as the early 1970s were the founding years of the supermini, then 1983 should be regarded as the year that the breed truly came of age and entered the second generation.

1984 Metro facelift ushered in the five-door option and uprated interior.
The 1984 Metro facelift ushered in the five-door option and uprated interior.

The Vauxhall Nova couldn’t come a moment too soon and, in 1983, Vauxhall’s representative was big news, as it was replacing the Vauxhall Chevette. As appealing as that car was in 1975 when it was launched, it was severely off the pace almost a decade later – its RWD platform compromised interior space and its reliance on a single engine – the 1256cc overhead valve Viva engine – was also doing it no favours.

The Nova was something else entirely. Built in Zaragoza, and riding on an all-new platform that owed much of its concept to the brilliant 1979 Kadett/Astra, it was powered by a mix of existing ohv engines and the impressive new Family II power unit. Styling was a good first generation effort, but conservative by the standards of 1983 – aside from the wheelarch blisters of the three-door hatchback.

But in the UK especially, from nowhere the Nova became a top 10 seller, falling in a consistent third place behind the Fiesta and Metro. Was the Nova a second-generation supermini, though, or just a very good first-generation one? The latter sadly, although honourable mention should be made of its availability in three- and five-door hatchback form and two- and four-door saloons.

The main rival on the UK market for the Nova was the Ford Fiesta – which in 1983 moved into Mk2 form. From launch, the Fiesta had been a huge success. Private buyers and fleets loved them – and it managed to do well in both northern and southern European markets – quite a feat. So it’s no surprise that GM used the Fiesta as a template for its own supermini. Both were built in Spain, based on all-new platforms and powered by carry-over engines.

Sadly, Ford didn’t anticipate the move to the supermini second generation and lightly facelifted the original car. Sure, the Fiesta grew up slightly, thanks to five-speed gearboxes and a more rounded front – and sales continued to be as strong as ever in the UK but, even as the Mk2 was launched, you could see it was about to be left behind.

The Ford Fiesta received a facelift in 1983. It wasn't exactly comprehensive, but it didn't stop it remaining the UK's favourite supermini.
The Ford Fiesta received a facelift in 1983. It wasn’t exactly comprehensive, but it didn’t stop it from remaining
the UK’s favourite supermini.

Luckily, in the UK, its main rival was the Austin Metro – that was one of the ultimate incarnations of the first generation superminis, alongside the Nova and the Mk2 Volkswagen Polo, launched at Frankfurt in 1981. Yes, it carried over the Mini’s drivetrain, but its compact and roomy (for its size) body was very clever indeed and its A-Plus engine could still punch above its weight in efficiency terms. Back in 1983, despite some increasingly public reliability wobbles, the Metro was still supermini hot property – in the UK.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, 1983 was a bit of a turning point for Austin Rover’s supermini fortunes – as not only was the company both finalising the 1984 facelift  and the addition of a useful five-door model, but it was also setting sail on the good ship AR6. Shame that ran aground in 1986, leaving the embattled company to fight – like Ford – the supermini war with a first generation product, right through the 1980s.

Another important arrival on the British supermini scene in 1983 was the Micra. For European markets, the Nissan March (which had first been shown in ‘concept’ NX-01 form at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1981) had been renamed the Datsun Micra and would retain the Datsun name for another year before adopting Nissan. When it went on sale in the UK, it repeated its Japanese success, picking up young buyers from the outset. Although smaller and more cramped than the principal opposition, the Micra stood out for its mechanical refinement, light controls and eager acceleration.

So what were the second-generation superminis that I keep going on about?

The 1983 Fiat Uno was a seriously impressive supermini development
The 1983 Fiat Uno was a seriously impressive supermini development

The Fiat Uno, 1984’s European Car of The Year, was the first genuinely new second-generation supermini. It was not a reskin of an existing car; instead it was all-new and contained lots of new and exciting thinking. The Fiat Uno didn’t have a vastly larger footprint than the 127 it replaced – it was a mere 5cm longer. But space efficiency was massively improved, and whereas in the old car, you’d struggle to get two plus two children in, the Uno was a genuine four seater. Where did all that additional room come from?

The Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned styling was key to the Uno’s success – it was good looking in the conventional sense of the word and also very clever because, in order to gain all that interior space, the Uno was built taller; its height was also up 5cm. Like the Metro and Polo, the Uno also featured an upright tailgate – but, by 1983, this styling feature was no longer visually jarring. Much of the Uno’s style was carried over from the groundbreaking 1978 Ital Megagamma Concept – and it vindicated Giugiaro’s belief that taller cars were not only space-efficient, but they could also be sleek – the 0.34 drag coefficient of the Uno proved that.

Once the FIRE engines were installed in 1985, here we had the near-perfect second-generation 1980s supermini.

The other hugely significant supermini entrant in 1983 was the Peugeot 205. It could be argued that the 205 wasn’t actually conceived as a supermini at all – and, at 3.70m in length, it was the sector’s longest car – but it was priced to fight the likes of the Ford Fiesta and Austin Metro, even if it looked like a product infinitely younger and fresher. We’ve already celebrated the 205’s birthday and don’t need to reiterate its huge success.

We should, though, celebrate that 1983 was the year of the supermini – and the year the breed truly matured thanks to the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205. From the moment they arrived, 30 years ago, the opposition busied itself creating cars around their new template – and, even as we moved into the 1990s, several struggled to catch up. When the 1989 Ford Fiesta Mk3 was launched, it was little more than an watered-down Peugeot 205 – perhaps the ultimate compliment to the French carmaker.

Along with the Fiat Uno, the Peugeot 205 revolutionised the supermini sector
Along with the Fiat Uno, the Peugeot 205 revolutionised the supermini sector
Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

29 Comments

  1. I may be wrong… but I think the first Micra’s were called Nissan Micra’s rather than “Datsun”. It, along with the Prairie was one of the first ranges to move away from Datsun badging in the UK. The original Datsun Stanza and others were also rebadged as Nissan’s in 1984 onwards.

  2. My old issue of Autocar says Datsun.

    Just checked Wikipedia (so it must be true), and it says this: ‘ Although Nissan was slowly phasing out the Datsun name, a small “Datsun” (ダットサン Dattosan?) appeared on the tailgate for the first two years, and in some European markets, the car was known as the “Datsun-Nissan Micra”. The Datsun badges had disappeared completely by the end of 1984. The Micra was initially available with an extremely refined all-aluminium MA10S SOHC engine.’

  3. The Nova looked like a mini mk1 Astra (Kaddett).
    Ironically, Vauxhall/Opels’s own mk2 Astra (Kaddett), with aerodynamic styling (including integrated roof gutters) suddenly made the Nova look aged.

    The saloon models were popular in Ireland, where saloon variants often outsell hatchbacks.

    Unfortunately not many left, they became the weapon of choice for boy racers, who often poorly modified them and too often crashed or neglected maintenance.

  4. I saw an early Micra last week on an A plate and it looked tiny. However, it says something about Nissan quality that the car has lasted so long and by the eighties Nissan had managed to combine excellent reliability with decent rustproofing, something that some seventies Datsuns lacked. If you look hard enough, there are still a few Bluebirds and Sunnys on the road, more proof that eighties Nissans were built to last.

  5. I agree with Hilton D @ 1. I never saw one badged as a Datsun. My girlfriend of the time had access to her moms Nissan Micra (A 512 UOX). It was a great car as the article states, refined and really light controls and for a one litre very nippy. Great days.

  6. Yep, the 205 and Uno took the supermini on a step, followed by the mk2 R5 the following year. And all three formed the basis of really good sporty versions – GTI, Turbo and GTTurbo respectively. CAR referred to them as the first small supercars.

  7. My 1st Motor was an ’86 Uno, I loved it, so easy to drive and look after.
    Shame I wasn’t a more observant driver back then and it would not have ended it life smacking a Renault 21 of it’s rear axle 🙁

  8. That’s a nice picture of the SR at the top and dare I say it was probably the better car than the Fiesta at the time (had 3 of them) and eventually got a Nova 1.0 ohv (My one and only Vauxhall complete with the old Chavette engine) after my Diesel Fiesta disappeared.

    Remember the early 90s and the Insurance Hikes ! I remember The SR Nova’s were gold dust as not bad performance for the insurance group and also causing a rush for the older car when the Egg shaped Corsa came out as it alienated some older Nova owners.

    When I got mine I was at the boy racer age and after my new Scary premiums decided to turn a very basic item into GTE/GSi, managed to save up for the side sills, front bumper/headlights/grill from the later Nova and even got the six gauge clocks (it already had the wiring in place but taped up!) and later dashboard replacing the rather horrid early one, also fitted the 1.2 ohc engine and 5 speed gearbox then got it painted met Purple that was popular then and from a distance it wasn’t too bad until you noticed the tiny 13″ wheels and C reg which confused many.

    I used to use it for Delivering Pizzas and wasn’t a bad item until I got surrounded by 5 Police cars, They were looking for a red Nova which had been used in a robbery but spotted my rather fast delivery driving.

    As I got out looking slightly startled with a big red bag The Officer in charge asked “Did I know it had been written off?” This was news to me but when they started checking my details (No Road Tax and was a different colour on the log book and Insurance), as I had sent off the log book with amended Colour change but it took much longer to return and so couldn’t get the Tax… (I think back then you were allowed 14 days?, luckily it was within the time) But more amazed I got away with it as the Cops just laughed at my contraption.

    As for the Uno and 205, they did move the game on considerably.

  9. So second Generation Super-minis just means they where bigger? Given how bloated todays contenders have become we must have skipped sveral Generations to become so big so quickly!

  10. Yet another great article about an important but overlooked part of car design history. I really wanted an Uno when I passed my test, but sadly couldn’t afford one – I ended up with a Renault Supercinq – which I hated! I remember 1983 being a turning point for car design in many ways – manufacturers had finally let go of the 70s – we had the Citroen BX, Audi 100, Ford Sierra, Pug 205 and FIAT Uno – all important cars. IIRC, Giugiaro also ha a hand in the styling for the Nissan Micra? I learnt to drive in a Micra A – bloomin’ ‘orrible thing – base model (Collette?) in white- it was like driving a washing machine! I kept engaging reverse instead of forth. as for the Nova – the SR always looked rather good, but the cooking models, and especially the saloon were dire, with a dashboard which would have looked basic in a Chevette! So, the pick of the 80s supermini crop (in hindsight!) – how about the Citroen AX? Lightweight, funky, efficient, great interior, and as witnessed my myself after a trip to London, capable of transporting 5 students to Newcastle at an average speed of 80mph without any fuss……

  11. at 2 – Keith. That may be right but all the MK1 Micra’s I ever saw were badged as Nissans. Having said that, my Dad’s (later mine) 1983 B11 Sunny Coupe had a Nissan nameplate on the grille but DATSUN lettering on the tailgate.

  12. That small Datsun badge appeared on all UK (and European?) Nissans between about 1982 and 1984, as a kind of transition from one brand to the other. The main badging, from and rear, was Nissan, and they were advertised in the press as Nissans.

  13. One interesting thing in supermini terms is how much they’ve grown since.

    So much that a new class of car has had to be developed under them.

    So Ford has the Ka under the Fiesta, Peugeot has the 107 under the 208, Toyota has the Aygo and the IQ under the Yaris, Vauxhall has the Adam and Agila under the Corsa, VW has the up! under the Polo etc

    And when you think about it that’s what the superminis did.

    Ten years before the Nova was launched, the smallest Vauxhall was the Viva, the smallest Ford an Escort.

    Another example of how far ahead of the game the BMC Mini was!

  14. You know, it brings back a lot of memories and context reading this.

    It’s all from a used-car perspective, of course, but in the first 3 years of driving I had most of the options.

    I started out with a Chevette. I liked Chevettes, as a rule – comfortable enough, fun, and I like RWD. From there I went to a Metro and because I’d originally wanted a BX, the Metro (a C-reg MG) was pretty much hated.

    But when I think about the other options – I had Mk 1 and Mk 2 Fiestas, I had an Uno available (I chose the Chevette over it despite it having stripes, foglights and a sunroof – because the driving position was awful), Novas were everywhere. And the Metro, up against the Nova and Mk 2 Fiesta, felt well finished, smart and was a good, solid little car. I rarely drove Metros with baggy steering and knackered TCAs. Novas were awful in base form, only getting interesting as GSi models.

    The 205 was probably the very best, in my opinion – but the Uno was nicely designed and felt like a significantly more mature, upmarket car before it became apparent I’d have to dislocate my ankle to drive it.

    Of course, the R6 showed us what potential the Metro had.

    Still feeling vaguely ill at the memory of Mk 2 Fiestas, though. Horrid interiors, horrid exteriors.

  15. After reading this article came a sad realisation that very few examples of these superminis are now seen on a daily basis. I might be lucky to see two Fiat Unos a year and a similar number for the Vauxhall Nova. The Peugeot 205, Ford Fiesta and Austin Metro maybe up to dozen examples (excluding at Pride of Longbridge). A real shame that many younger enthusiasts won’t be aware of the golden era of small hatchbacks before the arrival of the Citroen Saxo and Peugeot 106.

    However, I do recall some of the idiosyncracies with fondness. The Vauxhal Nova had a mildly tamed version of the Chevette’s rather fiercesome clutch action, while in the Austin Metro I could almost cover all three pedals simultaneously with one foot. Happy days!

  16. Punto > Uno? (Had a 1.2 Sporting, new)
    Saxo/106 > AX?
    Mk 3 Fiesta > Mk 1/2 Fiesta (no question mark at all, that’s undeniable)
    R6 > A-series Metro
    Corsa B… Hmm. Not sure. Liked them. Tigra was an interesting spinoff.

    Which one is the golden age, again?

  17. @12 Jonathon… that goes along from my understanding of the naming / badging process too. I recall the later model Stanza’s had their badging changed to Nissan in 1984. The 300ZX was always a Nissan after the Datsun 280ZX

  18. The first Micras definately had some form of Datsun badge on the back (it may have been Datsun by Nissan) as I used to walk past one every day on my walk to school. I have an autistic-like obsession with tiny details like this! The Nova was so much better than the Mk1/Mk2 Fiesta. When I was looking for my first car back in 1992 I looked at countless clapped out Fiestas where either the engine was knackered or the bodywork was too eaten away. Found a lot of Fiestas where the drivers door had a crack around the quaterlight strip because the door flexed so much when being opened and closed. The Nova felt like a scaled down Astra, but the early ones suffered from terrible rot problems around the sills.

  19. Please dont remind me about the Uno & Polo – nicknamed the oh-no and the Polio respectively. Horrible things… mum had a blue uno that went ok but dropped its entire exhaust at every pothole and the less said about the brakes the better, which was sandwiched between a Renault 5 and a 25 (and I should have had payments for mental anguish every time she mis selected 3rd for 5th in the latter). An ex had the Polio which was frankly terrifying – the brakes werent bad, they were non existant – standing on the pedal in abject terror got you the stopping power of rod type bicycle brakes, in the wet, on tired pads, on black ice, over diesel! Add to this she drove like Colin McRae with a case of dehli belly and had undiagnosed epilepsy… (we actually met after she’d blacked out on the A12, at which point the Polio had drifted, untouched, through three lanes of traffic (still flat out) and proceeded across the hard shoulder at a fair percentage of local light speed and up the embankment until it stalled out and got stuck..).
    The Nova was actually quite nice looking for its time – specially the fast models like the SR – I seem to remember that there was a totally mad version just before they killed it off but for the life of me I cant remember what it was called. Had one of those Irmscher bodykits that looked the mutts proverbials but had the all the aerodynamic grace and poise of a badly shot up Junkers 52, I may be confusing it with the Cavalier one of course. Remember the saloon version? there was a saloon version of the 5 as well, known as the 7 on the continent.
    The fiesta looked ok – but the engines were horrible – sounded like a 45 gallon drum of beans had been bought into forcible conjuction with a bisons digestive system, tappet clatter that could be heard two counties away and curtains of blue smoke that could have hidden half a division of Chieftains. I thank the gods never had the personal experience but NTM (a mk5 Orion) was more than evil and vile enough to make up for it (kinda the motoring equivalent of distilled David Cameron).
    Oh gods, the Citroen AX – a Pagan friend had one – usually full to the gunnels with like minded students well beyond safe tare weight… it used to wallow like a panzer in a peat bog even when it was empty, you could have used the bonnet as a trampoline as it had the structural stiffness of clinically depressed plasticene but the thing was indestructible. Drive over a landmine and it’d leap 10 feet into the air, land on its wheels and just keep going – although it’d probably be a pain to start the next morning cos it was in a mood with you..
    The R5 Turbos were downright terrifying when you think it weighed less than 800kg and even my 4 speed campus would make 90+ and sit there all day on almost precisely half the power.. of course it wasnt quite that unsafe since they tended to eat their turbos (watercooling a turbo is not the best idea ever dreamt up) … but putting a Turbo in an Oh-no was just asking for trouble. I seem to remember there was a turbo Strada too which should have come with a next of kin form and a disclaimer… not for nothing did the tagline for that car morph to “Built by Robots, Driven by Morons…”. And im sure everyone remembers the immortal tagline, for the Almera I think it was; “The car they dont want you to have…” so we didnt…

    I learned to drive on a mix of XR2 (the four foglight model) & GTA Metro – under the expert eye of a police driving instructor who was borderline insane one moment and sex obsessed the next – I will always the remember the bowel knotting enjoyment of screaming up the A12 past Kelvedon at 85mph on my second driving lesson – I was barely past managing clutch control and this nutcase kept telling me to go faster. It was like being tutored by a cross between Douglas Bader, Mad Max and Jimmy Saville…

  20. @ 2. I think the badge was something like ‘Nissan by Datsun’ or something similar, its a long time ago. I dont think the Micra was the only one to have it either – didnt the early Bluebirds have something similar on them?

    We used to call them the Macra (after the Dr Who nasties) – who had a worthy appearance on the M25 caricature episode (who can ever forget the lesbigrannies) among others, although at least *they* were spared Cliff Richard and BBC bloody 2. Given the choice I’d rather be lunch for 32 tonne crabs than be stuck in a traffic jam for 6 hours listening to the insatiably joyful Sally Traffic – I *know* theres a traffic jam dear, I’m sat in it, and have been sat in it so long I cannot feel my left leg below the hip…

  21. @21 Jemma

    I believe there was a Nova GTE like the Astra GTE. A friend of mine had two Nova SR’s – they really were little pocket rockets but were (by all accounts – not from experience!) really easy to break into. First one was found by the police albeit in a relatively trashed state. The second one had it’s wheels removed then burnt out – the delights of living in one of the many dodgy areas of Reading.

  22. @22 – I remember a teacher at school having a gold 83 Y reg Micra, it had a Nissan badge on one side of the tailgate with a smaller Datsun Micra badge on the other. It must have been one of the very first ones while they were phasing out the Datsun brand name.

    As for the Nova, a great car in it’s day, a huge leap forward for Vauxhall, but as already mentioned far too easy to break into. I knew someone who had theirs broken into 4 times in about 18 months (amazingly it was never driven joyriders trying to drive it off).

  23. @ 24 and 25, Yes in the North East in the early 90s if it wasn’t chained to the ground… Mine surprisingly never got touched (who would want it?) I did remove the door lock buttons on the inside which was almost a Deadlock system as even pulling the inside door handle it would not open without the key, However we all know thieves go for the lock itself, So I also did an early Mr Bean of removing the Steering wheel when left at home (Quite a few of us did this with our cars! But incidentally You cant do this many times with Fords as they snap the Steering column near the big nut).

    As for the Micra, a petty thief at Collage could pop the door lock button just by flexing the door skin around the lock!.

    Big question is what was the best of the early 80s? You can but them all in two category’s (Povety and Sporting) all were pretty much austerity until the top models,

    Metro for cheapest, but Uno the cleverest, Micra for reliability (usually outliving their owners!)

    Whilst the sporting items all were decent at what they did (Friend had Uno Turbo which was scary before you got to the limit, huge fun but always thought we were going to Die!)

    MG Metro was likeable, (never driven the Turbo) XR2 somehow “could be better” sprung to mind. As for the others I couldn’t say as never had much to do with them but at a guess Renault 5 Turbo (probably most fun but major headaches?), Peug 205 Gti,(best all rounder?) Nova GSI (sensible but slightly dreary?).

  24. @21 Jemma

    Three sportier versions were made of the Ritmo/Strada, none of which was supercharged – they were the 105 TC – 125 TC (MkI) / 130 TC (MkII), all of them in Abarth spec and 3-door only.

    Don’t know if all three made it to UK shores or not.

  25. Fiat had a 3 pronged approach to the supermini sector.

    The Uno was almost straddling the B-C segment, borderline Escort sized.

    This left the 126 and original Panda to look after the A-B segments, where small Fiats had traditionally done well.

    This 2/3 pronged approach carried on with the Panda-Cinquecento-Punto, Sciento-GrandePunto, right up to the modern 500-Panda-Punto

  26. Speaking of 126’s, my dad’s work assistant drove one, which she crashed. (possibly giving a rabbit a bad headache – c.f. Jasper Carrott and 2CV’s) A policeman came to clean up the mess, and burst out laughing. Why don’t you get one for the other foot, he asked her – she wasn’t in a mood to see the funny side!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*