Driven : Vauxhall Astra GTE (1984)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The Mk1 Vauxhall Astra GTE might be one of the underrated hot hatches of the 1980s, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not up there with the best.

Keith Adams drives one along the Route Napoléon in the South of France and comes away smiling.


Star in ascendency

For those old enough to remember the hot hatch wars of the 1980s, the Vauxhall Astra GTE Mk1 was always something of a bit-part player in a crowded feature full of mega-stars when it turned up in 1983. In a few short years since the Golf GTI arrived in 1977 (and in RHD form in the UK in 1979), it had come to dominate and define the sector like no other car. The one that came the closest in those formative years was 1980’s Ford Escort XR3 – as as we know, that really was a case of style over substance.

The Vauxhall Astra Mk1 (and Kadett cousin) actually had a year’s head start over the Escort III on the UK market, and established itself as an impressive overall package, with lots of room, keen handling and sharp styling. But what it lacked was a credible GTI-rivalling model in the line-up – the two-tone SR looked the part, but it wasn’t until 1982, it received anywhere near the power to go hot hatch fighting, with the fitment of the Cavalier’s 1.6-litre 90bhp Family Two under the bonnet.

Shame, because it looked the part and handed like it was on rails. So the potential was clearly there.

Ford, in the meantime didn’t make the same mistake. The 1980 Escort came with the XR3 from launch, and despite lacking the Golf GTI’s mechanical sophistication, its cloverleaf alloys, outrageous boot spoiler, lowered suspension and driver-focused interior meant oodles of showroom appeal, and Uncle Henry’s challenger sold like hotcakes from the word go. Vauxhall’s proper answer took until 1983, when the GTE was created, when those clever engineers at Russelsheim fitted a 1.8-litre 115bhp Cavalier SRi/CDi under the bonnet of the former hot-shot SR, leapfrogging to the head of the class.

The transformation from SR to GTE wasn’t just about its engine – the car’s flared arches were joined by aggressive looking skirts and spoilers, all of which were body-coloured. And that gave the GTE a newly beefed-up appearance that was truly in tune with the desires of its buyers.

Today, as appreciation for 1980s metal becomes increasingly mainstream, the GTE looks as sharp as it ever did. Other drivers stop and stare, and its four-square squat stance and daintiness (in modern terms) really set it apart. Of course, we’re motoring through the south of France, where a British-badged Vauxhall of this era is going to be as rare as a Talbot Tagora back in Luton, but it’s certainly not the rarity of the GTE that’s entirely responsible for all of this attention.

Sitting snugly in the Recaro driver’s seat, one can’t help but come away with the impression that this is a grown-up car to drive. The interior’s dark and quite sombre, the steering wheel rather upright, and the pedals widely spaced (and not ideally positioned for nifty footwork – the high clutch and low throttle will be familiar to GM drivers of this era). The visibility is also excellent, and the overall impression the GTE gives you is that, other than its heavy low-geared manual steering, it’s effortless and docile to drive, with a mature and well-engineered drivetrain. I’m warming to it quickly.

As the roads clear it’s time see how well the GTE goes. The crisp throttle response promises sharp acceleration, and it doesn’t disappoint, with the raspy exhaust complementing the smooth revving Family Two. Surprisingly, it needs revs for real performance, with a quite peaky response, but once it’s above 4000rpm, the GTE really flies. Compared with the Golf GTI 1.8 and (later) MG Maestro EFI, which really start delivering from 3000rpm, the Astra is a top-ender.

Performance are absolutely class-leading for their day – 0-60mph in 8.5 secs and a maximum speed of 115mph – and even today, where you average 2.0-litre turbodiesel would leave it for dead, it feels quick, alert, and sporting. Luckily our GTE – a star of the Vauxhall Heritage Collection – is one of the later Mk1s, which sports a lower set of gear ratios than were fitted to the earliest cars (the launch GTEs had the 25mph/1000rpm gearset straight from the Cavalier CDi). And in a nutshell, it means it punches hard exiting second and third gear corners, the weighty steering transmitting road feel without wriggling with torque steer.

We push into the mountains and as the bends tighten and the road flows, the GTE does something that only the best hot hatches of this era do – it gets more enjoyable the harder you drive it. Thanks to the heavy steering and long and almost dead-feeling brake pedal, it’s quite a physical car to drive quickly, but in the magnificent setting of the Alpes Maritimes, which stars the legendary Route Napoléon, the effort is more than worth it.

Given the solidity and generally well-engineered feel of the GTE, it’s a huge surprise that there are so few survivors today. But that’s down to the car’s one undoubted weak point – a propensity to rust in an almost Alfasudesque way. Which is kind of fitting, as the exhaust rasps in a way that reminds me of the Italian car. The way this car corners reminds me of an Italian, too – flat, keen and playful. Amazing to think it has German DNA.

And when the day ends in Grenoble, I really don’t want to give back the GTE!

By the time the Astra GTE went out of production in mid-1984, the hot hatch market had changed again. The Escort RS1600i proved there was still potential in the hot Ford, while the Golf GTI had progressed into Mk2 form. From Italy, the Fiat Strada 130TC and Lancia Delta HF Turbo moved the 0-60mph benchmark into the sub-8 second barrier. But this was the beginning of the next phase of the hot hatch war, with the Astra Mk2 fighting from the front. But that’s another story.

Back to the GTE Mk1, and after a day buzzing through the mountains, I come away really respecting this car’s ability. In modern terms, you could quite happily live with this on a day-to-day basis (or you would if it wasn’t so rare), and it not only be a pain-free experience, but fun, too. Finding one might be a more difficult ask given how few were sold, and the low survival rate, but the search would be worth it.

As an ’80s hot hatch, an early GTE offers the best of both worlds – the ultimate grip of a P6-shod XR3 and the solidity of fun of a Golf GTI. A truly underrated challenger in a crowded market. Just don’t be tempted to buy a Mk2 and expect it to be as good…

Gallery

 

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

44 Comments

  1. It really looked the part and had the performance to back up its appearance. It’s a wonder they didn’t sell more.

  2. Great write-up. Can’t say the car appeals to me either now or then (I was a young teen when this came out)- I think the rather bland styling ‘livened up’ with body coloured bumpers was a bit loud. I preferred the ‘toned down’ Golf GTi Mk1 (a mate has a rare late A Reg 1.8 stored in a garage somewhere).

    Thats not to say I’m anti the Astra GTE- I thought the follow up model was much better looking (although I suspect I might be in a minority on that one). Whilst the second one wasn’t exactly demure, the front spoiler treatment alone was an object lesson in how to spice up a small hatch- and left its Essex couterpart looking rather oafish and lairy by comparison.

  3. Too true.. there was no way that the Mk2 could match this and by the time the 2.0 16v came along things had to move on again. Another car of the Opelisation era – the Mk1 was another car I wanted to sink my teeth into. Thankfully I still had it’s engine in my Manta.

  4. At the time of release it was a car I wanted and so I did.Had an ’84 model when it was 4 years old.Had it painted in the yellow,red and blue slashes across the bonnet and tailgate as per Vaux sport colours.Loved it for its interior,full stack of clocks and punchy oomph.3years later and found it to be going a bit frilly in the rear valance and inner wings.FAB MOTOR.

  5. Remember seeing an Opel version in Germany in ’83 with round rather thanb square headlamps. Certainly looked the business, and that 2.8 SOHC could shift. Even in my Cavalier SRi it could comfortably overtake from 5th gear with no effort.

  6. I must say i never liked the Astra. It might have been a good car but it had no styling and looked like a shoebox on wheels. Even the interior was awful with a huge square slab of plastic for a dashboard.

    The Leyland alternatives at least had some styling appeal even if they lacked quality and reliability.

    You can see how Ford swept up the market in the early 80’s with their XR range. The only real competitor was the Golf GTI.

  7. I always wondered how they wrestled the GTE name from the Reliant Scimitar instead of using the European GSi name.

  8. The astra GTE was a brilliant car,i had very rare four door model and regret parting with it now,getting very thin on the ground for mint,non-modified (red top engine)and getting expensive,the XR3 was shit compared to this car-you could screw it to the limiter and it still sounded fine.

  9. It was called Kadett GTE in Germany, not GSI. GSI was a new introduction with the Kadett E, GTE (or GT/E) and GSE (or GS/E) had a long tradtion at Opel before.

    Here in Germany only a few people fell for the XR3, the press very quickly pointed out that it was no match for most fuel injected hot hatches (mainly the Golf GTI of course). Opel on the other hand always had a strong standing on the sporty side of the market with the RWD Kadett and Manta being the ‘German’ alternatives to the GTI. Shame these Kadetts had a habit to rust quicker than any Opel before.

  10. you can tell its from the 80s look at the cassette storage box lol. my s2 sd1 has one also in the middle but is covered by a lift up lid. in 40 years what will stand out interior wise on modern cars like that i wonder?

  11. Prob with the Astra was that it did not look overtly sporty compared to the jobs done on the Golf and Escort – it looked a little warmed over and not distinctively sporty, so missed out on sales in the UK. Also I think GM’s model line up of SR and GTE confused punters from buying them.

  12. Thanks @Alexander Bouche.

    Perhaps there was a gentlemans agreement with Reliant re: GTE (before the Suing culture) or it couldn’t be trademarked (as per GTi).

  13. GTI hasn’t been trademarked by anyone either, presumably because all it stands for is Grand Tourer Injection. To date, at least VW, Peugeot, Ford, Austin Rover have use the GTI badge, some with more success than others…

    …yes Montego GTI estate, I’m looking at you! The Escort GTI was a bit pants, too – mechanically the same as an Escort 1.8 Si just with the RS2000 bodykit and half leather seats added. I also think that the GTI badge on the Rover R8 series seemed wrong somehow (especially on the 400), fine car that it was. Vitesse would have been far more appropriate.

  14. My Dad’s C reg Cavalier CD had a set of those tape storage drawers. They ended up being mainly used for holding talking books so me & my siblings had something to take our minds off a long journey.

  15. When the Astra MK1 was launched I “desired” a 1.3GL, but when the GTE came along, the object of my attentions rapidly changed! Never owned any Astra though…

    The photos of this wonderful preserved GTE look great and even now it looks a stunner in white. Another great topic Keith.

  16. The low point must have been Jimmy Corkhill selling coke from his Mk1 GTE…..wasn’t there also a detuned SR version – looked the part, but with a cooking 1.6 engine and lots of black trim?

  17. Excellent car, sporty, reliable and economical (once they sorted camshaft problems). Just a petty Vauxhall took to the end of the 80’s to remember to rustproof their cars properly.
    The family2 engine in 1.8 would blow the socks off any ford equivalent.

  18. These were very nice cars and were far more pleasing (in my eyes) than the Mark 2 version that followed it, despite its successor offering a bigger 2-litre engine and even 16-valves.

    I have been trying to find the owner of one of a Mark 1 Astra GTe who would be prepared to display their example on the Modern Classics display I have co-organising at the Powderham Castle Historic Vehicle Gathering, near, Exeter, over the weekend of 7th and 8th July. We have an MG Maestro 2.0i, a couple of Ford XRs and a Golf, but no Vauxhall Astra GTe (or Nova GTe). A shame as they conjure up some great memories…

  19. Keith… nice photo of the Kadett SR. I note it has colour coded mirrors unlike the Astra GTE. I remember those square centre caps on the wheels aswell.

  20. The Kadett GTE had the same sports mirrors as the SR in the pic above. Why were Vauxhall customers denied these? Back in the day I always thought the 5 door SR or GTE looked better than the 3 door shape.

  21. Memories of my old Mk1 come flooding back! It had the 90bhp “SR” engine in it, though it was a 5 door estate it still went like the proverbial off a shovel. Rust eventually won its battle at 23 years old (never welded in its life) so I think she did pretty well. A tradesman in my hometown uses a Mk1 Bedford Astra van (with GTE bodykit and wheels) for work, which makes me smile whenever I see it. I’ve coveted a Mk1 GTE for a very very long time.

    Nice article!

  22. Brilliant car – went round corners faster than I would let it – legendary roadholding and ate front tyres 🙂 – well I was younger then 🙂
    Super article – makes me want to reprise my old A reg GTE

  23. Well, I’ve never had a GTE, but I did once (out of desperation and poverty) buy a Mk 3 Merit diesel estate (the GM turbodiesel, not the Isuzu, which was fitted to the more expensive versions). In my defense, it was an estate, and it did have a towbar, which I needed at the time as I was doing up my house.

    Needless to say, upon collection the engine expired quite flamboyantly all over the slow lane of the M1. After fitting a replacement second-hand engine, it served me quite well for about 6 months, and was actually quite entertaining as a car I used when moonlighting as a Chinese takeaway delivery driver. I ran it on about 75% vegetable oil and diesel (messy but cheap), and it was actually quite brisk, if a little raucous. Roadholding was not the best, which meant that I used to use lift-off oversteer to overcome the otherwise terminal understeer served up by the wooden Chinese tyres, so it was actually quite fun for urban driving.

    Some Russian geezer broke into it (quite ineptly) but failed to drive it away (I’d have suggested a length of wet string to pick the steering lock with), but he broke the steering lock by brute force, so I had to buy it back off the insurance company and get it repaired, as it was a write-off. Sod’s law, and after all that, about a month later it decided to lunch its own gearbox…

  24. I had a Mk2 2 litre in the mid 80s. I worked for a Local Authority at the time and was able to lease it for £80 a month, insured, maintained, taxed the lot! It was a great car but was always being broken into. I once returned to the car in a Glasgow multi-storey to find the steering wheel lying in the drivers footwell. They had tried to shear the steering lock, but the knuckle for the steering wheel adjustment gave way instead.

  25. Wasn’t the first Astra SR’s a two door saloon, the same shape but instead of a hatch it had a boot lid or was that a Opel only thing?

  26. @38- Not sure about the SR, but certainly the base model (with round headlights) had a boot opening, but a hatchback profile.

    I had a brochure for the Astra at the time (used to pester car dealers for them as a teen), and kept seeing reference to the ‘Astra saloon’- so was expecting a boot extension- like the later Belmont. Then I noticed that one of my teachers had an Astra saloon. I think the boot hinges were external.

    Having a hatch-shaped saloon always seemed a bit pointless to me, unless the vehicle is long enough for the boot to be of a reasonable size, such as the Citroen CX.

  27. Lovely car , best colour for one as well , I havent seen one on the road for years though , although theres a Mk2 GTE on an F plate that comes out in the summer near me. This MK1 looks like it originally came from the North East , *TN is a Tyneside reg suffix.

  28. I had this engine in a 1985 mk2 Cavalier SRi and still remember it fondly.I remember it being amazingly responsive, thriving on revs, and punting even the bigger Cavalier down the road way quicker than you’d think possible from just 1800cc.

    Always super smooth and faultlessly reliable. The only time mine stopped was when the fuel pump relay burnt out. Zero oil or water consumption even at 140,000 miles. Brilliant, brilliant engine. Still going strong as the car literally fell apart and rotted around it.

  29. The number is a few out from my old teacher’s GTE. She bought it new and we lived in Newcastle.

    The saloon thing was wierd. We had a new W reg 3 door Kadette in the family in about 1981. Big black hinges on the boot. Pointless configuration if you ask me.

    A lot of these, and the lesser models used to ground their front air dams.

    The record for me was seeing a new X Reg Astra with a dented spoiler on August 3!

    Such a shame so few of these survive. A MK1 GTE would be such a usable classic.

  30. mk1 was always the best,im 40yrs old and after 22yrs from owning my last one iv just treated my self to a mk1 4×4 2.0 turbo and they isnt many cars that will get near it,will be joining mk1 owners a.s.a.p love it.

  31. Hi I have a mrk 1 shell gte need interior seats etc also headlights n tail lights and pas side front corner trim any help where anyparts could be sourced would be greatly appreciated.

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