Timewarp Tuesday: Vauxhall Astra Mk1 GTE

Vauxhall Heritage Fleet car Astra GTE Mk1 parked

Not everything is fair in the motoring world, and sometimes the most deserving of cars simply don’t get the credit they’re owed. Enter the Mk1 Astra GTE, an A-star student that missed the exam.

The first Astra was a milestone car for Vauxhall, debuting front wheel drive and sporting (with the exception of the 1200 OHV) a range of strong, refined and efficient overhead camshaft engines. The same can be said for Opel’s Kadett D sister car.

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The GTE was the Astra’s hottest variant – available in 3-door form only, it used a Cavalier-derived, fuel-injected 1.8 litre lump that pushed 115bhp through its front wheels. Earlier models were quickly critiqued for ill-chosen gear ratios while this later car used a revised short-ratio gearbox that was good for an 8.5 second 0-60 sprint. Impressive, even now.

It looked the part too, with its boisterous colour-coded body kit and flared wheel arches. Inside there were figure hugging, GTE branded Recaro seats and a steering wheel that left you with no doubts as to what you were driving.

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Reviewers praised the GTE’s performance, its handling, its efficiency and image. Vauxhalls from this era were also remarkably strong mechanically, and their clever design made cambelt changes and clutch swaps easy and relatively stress free for the keen home mechanic. The Astra hadn’t put a foot wrong and yet – unlike so many of its competitors – it would end up barely remembered. For those who do remember this car they probably won’t be able to forget its tendency to rust, which would explain why just 9 examples are taxed to use on the UK’s road this year – one of which being B570 DTN.

Sadly the Mk1 GTE never made the mark it should’ve done, and instead found itself pitched amongst solid, well-established offerings from the likes of Volkswagen and Ford. Before long, Vauxhall had replaced its Astra with the slippery Mk2 and so the Mk1 GTE’s short but sweet reign was quickly buried amongst a new-era of hot hatches.

Let’s take her for a spin

 

I was lucky enough to get a drive in B570 DTN, a car owned by Vauxhall as part of its Heritage Fleet based in Luton. Boy oh boy has this car been about, just take a good look for reviews or press coverage of these cars and you’ll quickly see the number plate pop up. Here’s B570 DTN in Auto Express, here’s the same car on Honest John, Pistonheads, you get the idea…

Yes, its been shared around more than the common cold, but this car really is a survivor of the best kind. Regularly wax, oiled since new, the UK-built car is free of rot in an almost unbelievable way. Not a scab, not a bubble, it really is a credit to its former owner and the continual full-time efforts of the Vauxhall Heritage Fleet team.

 

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After a lumpy, fuel-rich start, the GTE dips into a stable, drama-free tickover in a way that a carbureted car simply wouldn’t. Those Recaros, free from heavy wear despite more than 71,000 miles, still grip in the right places. The controls are light, with the exception of the unassisted steering, that’s nowhere near as weighty or tiresome as some reviewers would bang on about.

The 5-speed gearbox is vague, plasticky almost, and it’s easy to have a beginner’s ‘lost in the box moment’ that’ll take you back to your first days of driving. The simple instrument cluster sandwiches the car’s oil pressure, water temperature, fuel level and voltmeter either side of its tachometer and speedometer, the former displaying a redline at over 6,500 rpm – higher than I was expecting.

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It’s a hint at an engine that truly loves to rev, and rather surprisingly, seems to do most of its work over 4,000 rpm. Tough induction sounds are overpowered by a perky rasp at the single exhaust pipe. Chase the redline and you’ll get through the first three gears in an almost comical yet totally addictive fashion. The 8.5 second 0-60 time sure feels believable, and it’s properly fun to try and get there. The steering is as talkative as you’d expect for a car from this era yet seems impressively isolated from the torque kicked out under the bonnet.

Less impressive is the GTE’s middle pedal, which honestly feels like pushing at a damp towel. Being low on braking power was to be expected but it’s the lack of feel that’s truly nasty, something explained by the remote brake servo. We’ve come a long way.

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In all honesty, ripping through the outskirts of Luton wasn’t the perfect place to explore the handling of this car, and I certainly didn’t want to be the first to find out the excess on the fleet’s insurance policy, but I was able to give enough beans to get what this car was all about – like its peers from the era, the GTE offers a true level of driving involvement and enjoyment that won’t risk your license. I’ve still yet to find that in a car from this decade.

Huge thanks to the folk at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre for giving me the opportunity to drive this car.