Why is it that seeing a beat-up Peugeot 205 GTI parked on a Parisian side street melted my brain into goop and nearly pulled my heart out of my chest?
It takes a little while to explain what's so wonderful about the 205 GTI, and why it rips the brains of American car nuts in half.
[Welcome to the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, where I present you with the greatest, rarest, most desirable cars ever made and you decide if they should sit in our own collective collection. This is the return of this series after a six-year hiatus. You can see all the cars currently in the JFG at the bottom of this article. New entries in addition to the old will be voted on every week!]
The starting point is that the 205 GTI is generally considered the best hot hatch ever made. Many hot hatches have followed it (the 106 Rallye, the the MkIV GTI, the Renaultsport Megane 26.r, and the Pulsar GTI-R spring to mind) and a number preceded it (the Talbot Sunbeam, the Omni GLH-S, and the original Golf GTI are just a few). Still, none of them seem as eager, as balanced, as charming as the Peugeot 205 GTI.
Part of that charm comes down to the car's history.
You could call the Peugeot 205 the car that saved Peugeot. Through the '70s the company had bought up then-bankrupt Citroen and also near-to-the-grave Chrysler Europe. After taking up all their debt, Peugeot found itself struggling. It was losing billions of Francs a year, laying off workers by the tens of thousands and facing strikes in its factories across Europe. The result? Strikes and riots, particularly with North African immigrant workers, who got less pay and particularly poor conditions, as Victoria Marklew writes in Cash, Crisis, and Corporate Governance.
It was, as the New York Times put it, "an industry in distress." Peugeot's lineup of dull, large family car was exactly the opposite of what the company needed.
Backing from the government helped keep Peugeot afloat (as did import restrictions on Japanese cars), but they might never have made it if it weren't for how much people wanted their brand new car, the 205.
It looked good, it rode well, drove well, came with fully independent suspension, plenty of room for its size, good equipment, and even offered diesel engines good enough to bring the fuel into the mainstream, a huge turning point for the European car industry.
What's more, the car became a kind of folk hero in competition, as well.
The 205 came out in 1983, just as Group B rallying was getting into full swing.
In the history of car racing, there have only been a few modern series that have been basically anything-goes with the rules, and Group B was one of them. All an automaker had to do was build two hundred road-legal cars and they could run virtually unrestricted on narrow, treacherous forest and mountain roads.
The series got filled up with unbelievably advanced cars with an unprecedented amount of power for rallying. The cars from Audi and Lancia were fire-breathing beasts, and huge crowds and TV coverage followed suit.
Peugeot got into Group B with their diminutive 205, and handily whupped the competition. Today we continue to idolize the legendary Audi Quattro, but it got thrashed by the little "205 GTI Turbo 16." You can watch right here a little video interview that Juha Kankkunen gave where talks about how sweet the Peugeot handled, much more so than its competition.
It was more like a go-kart, a very easy car to drive.
The Peugeot, you could even throw it a little bit sideways, and play more with the car.
It was very, very easy. The smaller road you had, the faster the Peugeot was.
It's kind of a surprising bit of praise, since the 205 Turbo 16 shouldn't really be a good car to drive. The engine was moved to the middle, where the rear seats should be. The car's short 95-inch wheelbase should have made it twitchy and uncontrollable (as was the case with its rival, the Audi Quattro S1), but the Peugeot just soaked up its hundreds of horsepower and rocketed to two world championship titles. It even raced with ground effects technology like the turbo F1 cars of the day, but that was banned almost before a single event was over.
It had tech that was too crazy for Group B. Think about that for a minute.
The car became a bit of a folk hero, a giant slayer in possibly the toughest major motorsport of the '80s.
Group B ended up getting canned in '86 after it proved itself too fast, too dangerous to exist. A number of drivers died including one of rally's rising stars and another that was broadcast on TV, many more spectators died, including three in one crash alone.
There's something particularly alluring about rallying that can make a hold hero out of a car - that the 205 Turbo 16 racecar was and looked so similar to what was in Peugeot showrooms across Europe, and that it competed on real roads. The speed and the drama of the 205 certainly played a part, as well. Watch one sideways on ultra-skinny studded tires in Sweden to see what I mean.
And there was the danger. Group B was a crucible, and the 205 emerged as the folk hero of the series.
Peugeot even had to sell road-going versions of the midengined rally car to the public. It was possible to see one of these things puttering through your town square, air scoops and all.
In truth, only a few hundred people will ever own a 205 Turbo 16. That car's glow, however, shone onto its little brother, the 205 GTI.
While the Turbo 16 got a custom midengine/4WD setup, the GTI remained front engined and front-drive. Not that it lost any of its beauty behind the wheel.
In '85 CAR Magazine called it "the finest-handling front-drive sports hatchback we have ever driven." They found it was as fast or faster on track than not only all the cars in its class, but those a size larger.
The Peugeot raced nonchalantly and effortlessly around the circuit , executing four-wheel drifts at speeds that would send most front-driven fast hatchbacks understeering off ignominiously.
It didn't have heaps of power, so it had to be driven hard. The steering never seemed to lighten up, so it always needed to be muscled at speed. It might have felt a bit like a man's car, but excellent damping gave it a good ride even for rough British backroads, and it came with all of the space and ease of any other hatchback.
The only way to think to improve the car would be to give it a bit more power, and that's exactly what the car got in '87. The 1.6 engine switched out some internals for those in the optional 1.9. The revvy smaller engine rose from 104 to 115 horsepower. The bigger, slightly lazier 1.9 threw around 126 horsepower, or 120 with a catalytic converter.
It was the best car in its class, but it wasn't the most expensive. High rates of car theft in the UK in the late '80s and '90s made all hot hatches very difficult to insure, but the 205 GTI remained about as affordable as it could be. Peugeot sold tons of them, and if you happen to find yourself wandering the streets of any major European city, you'll probably see one or two driving around.
And that's where I was, in Paris, when I saw it. The VW-aping red trim caught my eye a block away. Grime on the windows, sizable dents all around the back, the rear badge half broken off.
I knew that in America this car would be cherished and pampered. I dreamed of polishing the car before touring through the choppy pavement of upstate New York. Perfectly adjusted valves singing off to the 6,500 rpm redline, 185-section tires barely squealing over a rock-lined rise.
But on its home soil, the 205 GTI remains a beacon of practical, affordable, even disposable speed. That's a kind of car that I want to exist for people. A car that opens the world up, not one that closes it off with serious springs or tiny trunks or anti-social cramped cabins. The 205 GTI is a car that you and the whole world enjoys.
That's why I think that even though it's so attainable, it still deserves a spot in the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage. What do you think?
Photo Credits: Peugeot