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Childhood Hero

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Iain Curry explains how Group B rally cars from the 1980s inspired his 1989 Peugeot 205 GTi hill climb and sprint special.

As a young lad growing up in 1980s England – the weather often too miserable to be outside – escape was possible each Saturday afternoon through a TV programme called Grandstand. Sports from around the world were broadcast, and I’d gorge on Formula One’s turbo era, boxy touring cars and even truck racing. But for me, the most exotic of all motorsport was rally. And from 1983 to 1986, we never had it so good.

This was the fearsome Group B age: four-wheel-drive, 500bhp versions of the sensible cars we’d see on our roads, but spitting flames, screaming, jumping and sliding, often within inches of crazed fans. Not only that, these Audi Quattros, Lancia Deltas, Ford RS2000s and Peugeot 205s performed their tricks in fascinating, colourful locations. The snow of Monte Carlo or Sweden, the wilds of Kenya at the Safari Rally, and the dusty heat of Greece’s Acropolis Rally and Italy’s Rallye Sanremo. With cars hitting 100km/h in 2.5-seconds – on gravel – plus practically zero crowd control, deaths to spectators and drivers brought a swift end to this golden era.

The cars stayed with me however, and I’ve retained a soft spot for road versions of these Group B rally legends. Kids love a winner, and it was the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 that secured the WRC Constructors’ and Drivers’ titles in 1985 and 1986. Therefore, I liked it best. Dressed in Peugeot Sport’s red, yellow and blue colour scheme and Shell livery, these wide-arched little hatchbacks also looked fantastic. I was hooked.

I’d worked my way through a couple of VW Beetles, a Renault 19, Toyota Corona and then a couple of track-prepared BMWs before I ever drove a Peugeot 205. My then-girlfriend (later to become wife) brought a black 1991 Peugeot 205 GTi into the relationship, and when my BMW was off the road I’d grab keys to her little hot hatch and begin learning the dark art of lift-off oversteer. It wasn’t terribly reliable, leaked a fair bit and often didn’t start, but its sweet revving four-cylinder, short-throw gear shift, incredible chassis and light weight made it an utter joy. It was no fire-breathing WRC monster, but I loved it.

Fast forward over a decade and I was seeking something fun and cheap to compete in hill climbs and sprints. The rear-drive BMW E30 3 Series I used to campaign were now stupidly expensive, but Peugeot 205 GTis, although rare in Australia, looked excellent value. Pampered original ones are now fetching over $20,000, but five years ago I picked up a rather tired, well-loved 1989 1.9-litre version for $6000. My reckoning was if something serious went wrong – it was to be a competition car after all – I’d never be too out of pocket.

What a bargain. These things cost a mighty $29,500 when first imported to Australia in 1987, or roughly $10,000 more than a Holden Commodore.

I’ve Been Tempted To Add A Half Or Full Roll Cage, But It Would Then Become A Strict Race Car And The Kids Wouldn’t Be Able To Enjoy Thrill Rides In The Back Of Dad’s “Vintage Car”.

They were quite fancy for the era with electric windows, central locking and air conditioning as standard. No power steering though. So stuffed was the engine bay that engineers couldn’t find a way to include both air-con and power steering, and for Australia, the former was deemed more integral.

European-sold 205 GTis were available with a 1.6-litre or 1.9-litre four-cylinder, but Australia received only the latter, and disappointingly, it had to comply with our harsh emissions laws and offered a rather fun-sapping 75kW and 142Nm (Euro versions had 94kW/161Nm). Weighing just 875kg and having a chassis from the gods meant power wasn’t everything, but these first Australian-delivered hot hatches could feel hard done by. Fortunately, 1991-94 versions got an appreciated bump to 90kW.

I was pleased to see my 1989 car had undergone an engine rebuild by Wuillemins Peugeot specialists some 40,000km before I bought it. No dyno figures sadly, but I’m hopeful a few extra kW were freed as certainly the motor feels stronger than 75kW. The gearbox had also been rebuilt with a Quaife LSD and shorter ratio gearing – ideal for twisty hill climb racing – while there was evidence of rust being cut out and the paint tidied up (not brilliantly) in areas. No show pony, with some 250,000km on the clock (it’s at 270,000km now) this was a 205 GTi that had already lived a good life.

The car’s first owner was a doctor in Newcastle, before moving in very rich circles in Sydney’s Mosman in the 1990s. It saw plenty of use – the odometer showed 170,000km by 2001, before finding its way to Brisbane where I bought it. Time had not been kind to the classic Frenchie. Lovely from a distance, but up close the roof’s rainwater gutter seam has paint cracks (a common issue) and the dashboard, after a quarter-century in the Australian sun, has the structural integrity of a snail’s shell.

The dash binnacle is held on with cable ties as the screw holes are broken, dash bins have cracked and fallen off during hill climb events and plastic fault lines get ever wider each year. Getting hold of a good replacement dash is near impossible (and expensive) as they’re so brittle.

Peugeot Australia 3D printed some rare plastic dash parts when it restored a 205 GTi a few years ago, and I’m hoping such options will become cheaper in future.

My car’s beautiful original GTi steering wheel, gear knob and Veglia gauges remain, as do the model’s standout red floor and door carpets. Another common problem is the original seats falling apart in dramatic fashion, so a set of Peugeot 205 Si chairs have taken their place, covered in chequered (and very 1990s) upholstery, unfortunately with lettering from a VW Golf GTI. Race seats are on the agenda, unless I can find a tidy original set beforehand.

As for now, my GTi remains road registered but specifically set up for racing. I’ve been tempted to add a half or full roll cage, but it would then become a strict race car and the kids wouldn’t be able to enjoy thrill rides in the back of dad’s “vintage car”, as they call it. Power steering has been added from a later model 205 GTi, making low speed manoeuvring far easier.

It’s been fitted with GAZ coilovers, adjustable for height, damper and camber which has proved invaluable at race events. Some hill climbs, such as my local Noosa event, are incredibly bumpy and demand a softer setting to avoid shattering my spine. A mirror-smooth surface such as the round-the-house Leyburn Sprints means the little Peugeot can sit far more squat.

Brakes aren’t a strong point on early 205 GTis (they still use rear drums), so I now use later Peugeot 206 GTi 283mm Brembo front rotors, Pagid pads and a Peugeot 406’s master cylinder. There’s a short shift kit fitted to the five-speed manual to speed up changes, while wheels are classic 15-inch Peugeot Speedline alloys painted anthracite, and I’ve shod them in 195/55 Nangkang NS-2R road-legal cut slick tyres. These were a budget choice and certainly add to the harsh ride, but on a hot day (typical in Queensland) they warm up rapidly and have proved reasonably grippy and long-lasting.

After my wife’s somewhat unreliable Peugeot 205GTi, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with our Australian version’s behaviour. I’ve had to change a starter motor (which failed at a race event), and changed the timing belt and water pump after it started playing up, but beyond that, it’s been general maintenance, repairing corrosion in the centre of the ignition coil and fluid changes every six months.

Depsite its age, it remains one of the most enjoyable, communicative hatchbacks in automotive history. The formula of a revvy eager engine, sharp manual gear change, superb chassis and light weight has rarely been bettered, and on a tight twisty road, there’s little to touch it for speed and fun. And the final part of the jigsaw? Adding subtle Shell and Michelin sponsorship stickers, plus a Peugeot Sport tricolour for the front grille, just like those rally cars from my childhood. It’s a dream realised.

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