They say nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But pressing rewind on a year of driving fabulous old cars certainly gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling. The MR Retro Road Test is published every Thursday, and 2016 has seen us cover the full spectrum of classic cars – from a Vauxhall Nova to the £200,000 Porsche 911S pictured above. Join us as we round-up the highlights.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1
Launched in 1976, this outwardly-humble hatchback continues to influence car culture. Just look at the latest, seventh-generation Golf GTI: its tartan seats and red go-faster stripes are a direct homage to the classic Mk1. Richard, who owns a tidy Mk2 GTI, went to see what all the fuss is about.
Richard said: “If you want one, find one and can afford it, absolutely buy it. You’ll regret it if you don’t, and won’t be disappointed if you do. The Golf GTI Mk1 is a bona fide classic and fully lives up to the hype of being a legend. As hot hatches become ever more powerful and sophisticated, its delightful blend of simplicity, purity and performance shines ever brighter. It’s a lovely reminder of where the idolised hot hatch lineage started.”
Comfortable, understated and beautifully-built, the 1976 W123 may be the greatest Mercedes-Benz ever made. One man keen to make that case is MR’s Gavin, owner of the gold 1982 230E auto seen here. Is he biased? Possibly. But Gav has owned more old cars than most, and the W123 is a classic he recommends unreservedly.
Gav said: “It might not be the most expensive, the cheapest, the quickest or the most beautiful car we’ve ever bought, but it’s arguably the best. Spend some quality time with the W123 and evidence of the craftsmanship will shine through. Few cars offer such a supreme blend of charm and classlessness. Be warned: once you’ve own a W123, all other cars might seem rather ordinary.”
Ford Sierra RS Cosworth
Our Tim had two passions in the 1980s: Erika Eleniak (of Baywatch fame) and the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. Erika, sadly, never reciprocated, but Tim finally met Ford’s winged wonder in Dagenham this year. Could the squared-jawed Sierra possibly live up to the legend?
Tim said: “Like shoulder pads and Shakin’ Stevens, the Sierra Cosworth is a product of its time. Drive one today and it’s fun, but ever-so-slightly underwhelming: a little bit baggy and not outrageously fast. Does that matter? Probably not. The Cossie remains one of the coolest cars ever made. If, like us, you grew up reading Max Power and lusting after hot hatchbacks, it’s still the daddy.”
There was once a Vauxhall Nova on every street in Britain. Now, as Andrew points out, there are less than 1,800 left, which makes these endangered superminis worth saving. Andrew spent a week with the Nova seen here – a 1.2 Merit borrowed from Vauxhall’s heritage fleet – and compared it with the Austin Metro he owned at the time.
Andrew said: “Not everyone will understand the appeal of a 1.2-litre Nova. But as an affordable, cheap-to-run retro car, there’s a lot going for it. There’s a pure, simplistic pleasure to pootling around in a simple supermini such as the Nova. Just look after it more than you might have done as a 1990s 17-year-old.”
Porsche 964 Carrera RS
Here’s one for the fantasy garage. The lightweight 964 RS was the first 911 to wear the ‘Rennsport’ badge since the iconic 2.7 RS of 1973. Its 3.6-litre flat-six had a lightened flywheel and close-ratio five-speed gearbox, while 40mm-lower suspension sharpened the chassis. Tim was lucky enough to get behind the wheel.
Tim said: “The 964 Carrera RS is the Porsche 911 in one of its purest forms. Raw and unfiltered, it distils all that’s great about Germany’s sports car into a shot of pure petrolhead adrenalin. It’s a car you’ll ache to spend time with, to learn its quirks and exploit its talents. The buzz of driving it stayed with us many hours after we reluctantly handed back the keys.”
Bentley Turbo R
In 1985, the Bentley Turbo R was the fastest saloon money could buy. With a 6.75-litre V8 producing around 300hp, it reaches 60mph in 6.6 seconds: pretty respectable for something that weighs 2.4 tonnes. Andrew captained the Turbo R to ‘slightly illegal speeds’ and came away charmed – and thoroughly relaxed.
Andrew said: “A Bentley Turbo R would be a lovely thing to drive every day. Even the fanciest massaging seats of today’s super saloons can’t compete with the huge, cosseting leather of the Turbo R for pure stress relief after a tough day in the office, while the V8 engine will never get boring. There’s a line of thought that suggests the Turbo R much prefers regular use to being left standing, but you’ll have to have deep pockets to run one as a daily-driver.”
Sir Clive Sinclair pitched his C5 electric trike as the future of commuter transport, but safety concerns and a distinct lack of weather protection meant it became little more than a historical footnote. Today, the C5 has a cult following, particularly among electric car fans. Richard Gooding wrapped up warm and clambered in…
Richard said: “The C5 is such a recognisable and symbolic piece of motoring folklore, due to both its promise and failure, that it will always be a talking point. ‘Driving’ a C5 in the UK is mostly a cold and draughty experience. And we’d dispute the ‘extremely safe’ claims, too. We certainly wouldn’t want to have an accident in one, however minor.”
Ford Fiesta Mk1
Amidst all the hype about the new, eighth-generation Ford Fiesta, we quietly published a Retro Road Test of the 1976 original. And guess what? The response was fantastic. Ford fans on social media got in touch to share their photos and wax lyrical about this simple small car. Andrew was somewhat smitten, too.
Andrew said: “It’s an absolute delight to drive. You forget how small superminis were 40 years ago, yet the interior manages to be surprisingly spacious, while the large windows and tiny windscreen pillars mean visibility is much better than modern cars. There’s a sense of vulnerability, though, which brings out an element of cautiousness. But once you get into the groove of the first-gen Fiesta, it’s a really fun little car.”
Toyota Corolla GT AE86
Most people would look at the picture above and see an old Toyota Corolla. A remarkably rust-free example, sure, but an old Corolla all the same. Yet to fans of drifting and hot Japanese cars in general, the rear-wheel-drive AE86 is close to the Holy Grail. Tim grabbed the keys and went in search of wet roundabouts.
Tim said: “It just looks so cool (especially to in-the-know petrolheads), and that analogue driving experience can’t fail to make you grin. We’d have one in our dream garage, no question. Back in the real world, though, a nearly-new GT86 offers similar thrills with all the convenience and reliability of a modern car. And it’s a guaranteed future classic, too. Alternatively, you could pick up an original MR2 for around a third of the price.”
Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe
We bent the rules a little here, as the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe is actually a new car. This beautifully-detailed Daytona replica is built in South Africa and was officially sanctioned by Carroll Shelby himself before he died. Powered by a 520hp Corvette LS3 V8, it’s the automotive equivalent of raw rib-eye. Richard was the man wearing the brave pants.
Richard said: “Looking for a head-turner that will cheer others as much as it delights you? This beautiful machine might just be for you. It’s a tantalising collectable that is packed with character, yet has abilities and long-striding comfort that may well surprise. It’s undoubtedly a challenge, of course, but far from insurmountable and, as a possession to have in your garage, is seriously tempting for any committed petrolhead.”
Peugeot 205 GTI 1.6 vs Peugeot 205 GTI Mi16
The first rule of motoring journalism states: ‘thou shalt not question the greatness of the Peugeot 205 GTI’. But can the original GTI be bettered – perhaps with the addition of a more powerful Mi16 engine? Richard and Andrew compared a 1.6 GTI – the hot 205 in its purest iteration – with a modified Mi16 built by Peugeot apprentices.
Andrew picked the standard car as his winner, saying: “As a car to truly enjoy, the light and nimble 1.6-litre 205 GTI is hard to beat.” Richard preferred the Mi16, however. His verdict: “It’s the greatest GTI that never was. It takes all that’s wonderful about the regular car and builds upon it with a searing, exotic, race-bred engine”. Tough call.
Mazda MX-5 Mk1
The world’s best-selling sports car seems a fitting subject for a Retro Road Test. As a former owner, Andrew knows the original MX-5 better than most, yet familiarity hasn’t blunted his enthusiasm. The car tested has the 130hp 1.8-litre engine, introduced in 1993, and little in the way of luxuries. It’s all you need for back-to-basics driving fun.
Andrew said: “There’s a reason why the original MX-5 is so popular. It’ll be a while before it draws crowds at classic car shows, but for a sunny weekend nothing will make you smile as much for the money. Find the elusive rust-free example while you still can.”
The NSX gave Ferrari a bloody nose, proving that mid-engined supercars don’t need to be unreliable or difficult to drive. It looked sensational (try to ignore the ‘1990s Honda Civic’ interior) and was laugh-out-loud thrilling to drive. Andrew, ahem, quite liked it.
Andrew said: “The NSX is incredible. It feels like a supercar should – how we’d want a supercar to drive if we could go back to a time when manufacturers weren’t pandering to ever-more-stringent emissions and safety regulations. The engine is out of this world. It wails like a nymphomaniac on acid. You hit the redline at 8,000rpm, but before you get to that point the VTEC variable valve timing kicks in and you surge down the road in a much more satisfying way than a modern turbo engine could manage.”
“Fire up the Quattro!” Forget Philip Glenister, the undisputed star of Life On Mars was a Tornado Red Audi ur-Quattro. Boxy, butch and brilliant, the four-wheel drive Quattro redefined the performance car – not least for a young and impressionable Gav. Years later, on rural Welsh B-roads, he met his childhood hero.
Gav said: “This is a bona fide legend of road and track, so you’re unlikely to lose any money if you buy a good one. Given the prices being asked for certain fast Fords and a particular hot Pug, we think £20,000 is a small price to pay for a car that changed the fortunes of an entire car company and revolutionised world rallying. In fact, we think it’s a bit of a bargain.”
Renault Clio V6
The Clio V6 is an unholy alliance between supermini and supercar. Following the template of the original 5 Turbo, Renault stuffed a 3.0-litre V6 behind the front seats, creating an instant classic. Andrew found out if this mid-engined monster is as wild as it looks.
Andrew said: “A budget of £35,000 buys you a lot of car. You could treat yourself to the brilliant Ford Focus RS, fresh out of the factory, and have a couple of grand left over. Or, on the secondhand market, how about a mint Lotus Exige, a more useable Porsche Cayman, or even a three-year-old BMW M3? None of these have the novelty factor of being an ageing French supermini from a time when Renault was bonkers enough to use a mid-engined V6. Do you want to be different that much? Only you can make that call.”
Toyota MR2 Mk1 vs. Toyota MR2 Mk3
A visit to Toyota’s heritage collection gave Andrew a chance to sample both Mk1 (1984) and Mk3 (1999) iterations of the MR2. They’re both mid-engined and very impractical, but the similarities end there. Which proves more appealing as a budget classic sports car?
Andrew said: “The Mk3, despite its limitations in a practical sense, is a much more usable buy. If you pack light and want to take it on a European road trip, you can feel pretty reassured it’ll get you there – and in more comfort than the Mk1. But if you gave this reviewer £5,000 and told him to buy a Mk1 or Mk3 Toyota MR2? I’ll take the original, thanks.”
The inspiration for one of motoring’s most successful retro-remakes, the original Cinquecento is a car even non-petrolheads recognise. It’s as cute as it is slow (this 500F develops 18hp) and driving one can’t fail to make you smile – as Richard Gooding discovered.
Richard said: “As with almost all classic cars, there’s characterful appeal to the 500 that rubs off on you as you drive it. A happy little car with plenty of personality, for retro-chic appeal, a Nuova 500 beats the current Fiat 500 hands down.”
Ford Fiesta XR2
The Fiesta XR2 has always lived in the shadow of other 1980s hot hatches, such as the 205 and Golf GTIs – and perhaps deservedly so. But there’s still lots to love about this underdog 97hp fast Ford, as Tim discovered on yet another trip to Dagenham.
Tim said: “Of all our Retro Road Tests so far, this one surprised us the most. We approached the XR2 with low expectations and it resolutely won us over. Its engine is rough, performance is mediocre and it’s hardly the last word in dynamic finesse. But the XR2 is also a car that you can wring every last horsepower from. It connects you to the road in a way that few modern cars can.”
That’s ‘Z’ for ‘zukunft’ – the German word for ‘future’. And yes, the future looked pretty damn good in 1986, even if we didn’t all adopt disappearing, drop-down doors. The Z1 is one of the bravest BMW designs ever to make production, and now a fast-appreciating classic. Richard borrowed one for his journey to Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Richard said: “Very few Brits know what the BMW Z1 is. Most were sold in Germany and its lack of official right-hand status here affords it an exclusive image. This makes it a genuine modern-classic BMW curio, one that you can pick up for similar-to-E30 M3 money and turn far more heads. It’s not as thrilling to drive as an M3 but it’s surely a bona fide classic that, so long as you’re careful with it and keep it in tip-top condition, will surely only go up in value in years to come.”
We finish with this beautiful Blood Orange Porsche 911S, one of our most exquisite (and expensive) Retro Road Tests yet. A lifelong 911 fan, Tim jumped at this one – and he wasn’t disappointed. The classic Porsche was a feast for the senses, a car that commands respect and admiration in equal measure.
Tim said: “The 911S is so much more than a set of figures on a balance sheet. I loved every minute of driving it – climbing back into a modern car seemed desperately dull by comparison. Sadly, I’m firmly in the ‘dreamer’ category when it comes to cars of this calibre. But if my numbers came up…”