Retro Road Test - Vauxhall Astra GTE Mk1

Aside from the high-octane world of motorcycles, it's hard to think of a method of transportation that has moved on quite as far as the passenger car over the last few decades.

Boeing might just have launched its Dreamliner aircraft, offering more passenger capacity than ever, but it isn't rare to find the good old 'Jumbo Jet' 747 ferrying you to your destination, a design which has been around since 1970.

And talking of ferries, the last one of those you travelled on was probably a good few decades old too. Inter-urban trains haven't changed much since the 1980s, and you'll still see school-age children scratching their names into the windows of buses which bear the marks of two or three decades of previous schoolkids.

Vauxhall classic sign

Essentially, planes, buses, trains, even some taxis, all do the job that's always been expected of them. But cars have it much tougher - the average punter simply wouldn't put up with a car with no ABS, no traction control, no air conditioning and windows operated by funny twirling knobs. Why carry a Sony Walkman when an iPhone does so much more, so much easier?

Why indeed. Some then will never understand the excitement of driving a car like you see here, in all its 1980s-tinted glory.

carwow joined enthusiast website PetrolBlog on its recent #PBbigdayout event, held at Vauxhall's heritage centre in Luton. Alongside some of Vauxhall's latest models, such as the funky Adam and futuristic Ampera, was a fantastic selection of the marque's finest historical models.

Vauxhall Astra GTE front

The fantastically square-edged Walkman - sorry, fantastically square-edged 1984 Vauxhall Astra GTE Mk1 - was our favourite of the day.

Like the Walkman, it cannot now be judged by objective means alone. Do so and you'll only find a car with heavy, unassisted steering, brakes which rely on friction and prayer in equal measure, and limited grip.

And yet, like the incessant hiss of a cassette tape in one of Sony's finest 80s products, the analogue experience doled out by the GTE brings back fond memories of first cars and morning blasts across empty blacktop.

Vauxhall Astra GTE rear

The heavy steering's slow rack encourages you to measure out your inputs in fluid motions. Like the best painting technique, it's all in the arm, rather than the wrist. The disinterested brakes elongate braking distances, and the modest 115 bhp output of the 8-valve 1.8-litre engine means carrying momentum is more important than pointing and squirting out of every bend.

It actually makes you a better driver. You think about what the car is doing at all times. The more effort you put into going quickly, the bigger the rewards.

Surprisingly, this 1980s hot hatch can also deal with 2013's craggy roads. It smothers away smaller imperfections and is compact enough to simply dodge larger ones.

Vauxhall Astra GTE interior

Combine that with a smooth, torquey engine - despite short gearing next to today's hot hatchbacks - and longer journeys probably wouldn't be too tiring. Every gearchange itself is a joy thanks to the short snick of the spindly gearlever, a perfectly-weighted clutch and responsive throttle pedal.

The interior too is comfortable, soft GTE-branded Recaro seats offering great support and comfort, and visibility knocks most modern metal into a cocked hat.

There's no leather, alcantara or fake carbon fibre inside - just scratchy plastics arranged in geometric shapes, with nary an integrated sat-nav system or mood lighting LED in sight.

Vauxhall Astra GTE seats


The whole experience of driving a classic like the Astra GTE is like comparing the big, satisfyingly tactile mechanical buttons of that old Walkman to the cold, impersonal touch of bare glass on your iPhone.

It's all the better for it - modern enough that you don't need to re-learn how to drive, but old enough that even the shortest of trips becomes a real journey. The Astra GTE, and its contemporary ilk, turn driving from a mere process into an experience.

You might not want to drive one every day, but if you consider yourself a driving enthusiast even in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to try out a classic car. It's probably cheaper than seeking out an original Sony Walkman. Or an iPhone...

Vauxhall Astra GTE wheel

Big thanks go to PetrolBlog and Vauxhall UK for organising the event.

If classic cars still aren't your thing, check out our full summary of the modern-day Vauxhall Astra GTC alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos!

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