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.
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.
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 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.
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