We sample a Nova GTE which has survived both the joy riders and the Max Power years and come away impressed

Words: Paul Wager    With thanks to: Brightwells

The recipe of big engine and small car has long been a simple way of creating a performance model by judicious picking from the parts bins, notable examples from history being the Escort RS2000 and of course the Golf GTI, popularly regarded as the original hot hatch and shortly to celebrate its half-century.

In reality though, the Golf wasn’t the first hot hatch and GM’s European Vauxhall-Opel division got there the year before with the homologation special Chevette HS.

When the fuel injected age arrived, GM was still very much in the game and happily applied its GTE branding to both the Astra – which eclipsed the VW in performance terms – and then the smallest car in its line-up, the Nova.

Launched in 1983 amid a wave of industrial relations controversy thanks to being manufactured in GM’s Spanish Zaragoza plant, the front-drive Nova was as modern as the Chevette had been traditional. With its chisel-fronted appearance and carefully honed aerodynamics, the Nova was neat and inoffensive in four-door form, but in three-door guise brought an inspired touch to the party in the shape of blistered box arches which looked as if they’d come straight from the forest stages.

The car was launched with the usual 1.0, 1.2 and 1.3 engines and in 1984 the warmer SR was added to the range but road testers always reckoned it was crying out for a proper performance model. “From the outset, the Nova has always been a classy chassis in search of an engine,” pronounced Autocar and in 1987 that arrived courtesy of the GTE badge and an injected 1.6-litre engine rated at 100bhp. With the Nova weighing in at a slender 876kg, this translated into sparkling pace, while 35 per cent stiffer springs over the SR, larger anti-roll bars and 5×14 wheels with 50-profile rubber gave it handling to match.

Road testers and the public of all ages loved the Nova, but sadly the underworld loved it too. This was the era before electronic immobilisers and the Vauxhall GTEs were some of the most-stolen cars of the ’80s, ultimately contributing to spiralling insurance premiums as the decade wore on. In later life, GM’s no-nonsense engineering approach also meant even larger engines could be dropped in with minimal effort, the 2-litre 16-valve ‘red top’ being a favourite. The result was that in your shiny new BMW 325i you challenged a rorty Nova from the lights at your peril but it also meant that very few – especially the GTE – survived the years to emerge as unmodified classics.

Which explains why a recent auction preview at Brightwells saw us sidetracked by the sight of the car in our photos, a restored but otherwise entirely standard example which has escaped both the Max Power brigade and the joy riders.

First impressions of the Nova are just how small it is, the slender pillars and low roof height markedly different from say a MINI or even a Picanto. On the inside though, it feels so much more spacious than many a modern car, thanks to the generous glass area, simple fittings and generous elbow room, with the doors lacking airbags, electronics and other modern safety kit.

Firing it up involves first searching for the correct key, no doubt a legacy of attempted break-ins over the last 35 years, although impressively this GTE still boasts an original Philips 552 radio-cassette.

Multi-point Bosch injection means it fires immediately and this being a pre-catalyst car it sounds great, with that cheeky trademark rasp which identified a GTE from several streets away.

Road testers back in the day remarked on the offset steering column with its non-adjustable wheel and true enough, as I manoeuvred the car out of the showroom I could feel the joint at the base of the column rubbing my left foot – a reminder of the car’s origins as primarily a left-hand drive European model, developed in Germany.

Still, that’s a curiosity of the nit-picking kind and the GTE feels very much of the modern era, far easier to drive than something of the MGB generation. Perhaps the first surprise is that even without power steering the car is easy to handle at parking speeds, something which will surprise those who have driven the non-PAS 205 GTI and Escort XR3i. The modest – by modern standards – 175-section tyres help of course, as does that slender kerb weight and with 3.8 turns from lock to lock the GTE requires no more effort to drive than the most basic 1.0 Nova.

Out in the open and with an empty stretch of tarmac at my disposal, I give the little Vauxhall a tentative prod and suddenly I’m 19 again, the free-revving 1600 and rorty exhaust note transporting me back to the tail-end of the ’80s when the automotive world was full of optimism.

In this job, I’ve experienced so many ‘never meet your heroes’ moments, from the Lotus Esprit Turbo the Aston Martin DB7 but the Nova GTE really doesn’t disappoint: it’s still genuinely fun.

It’s quick, too. Back in 1988, Autocar’s testers sidestepped the clutch and smoked the Pirellis to 60mph in 9.1 seconds which puts it broadly on a par with the 16-valve Golf GTI of the day, which was no mean feat.

On the road today you won’t want to drive a survivor car like this as hard as those shell-suited ’80s testers pedalled their press loan E-platers but it still feels eager and engaging in a way you just can’t buy any more. The GTE is a capable handler, too: the relatively low-geared steering might mean it lacks the ultimate precision of turn-in offered by a 205 GTI but the trade-off is a car which feels stable at speed and as the contemporary road tests report, it’s well balanced at the limit without the Peugeot’s snappy rear end.

It says a lot about the appeal of the Nova GTE that ‘just a few action photos’ translated into someone being despatched to find a fuel can, such is its timewarp appeal which saw us lose track of time. It’s also interesting to note that our own opinions mirrored the conclusion of a 36-year old magazine group test. The Nova GTE outlcassed the rough-and-ready Fiesta XR2 back then and to my mind it still does.

The Nova GTE pictured is lot 449 in the May 2024 sale at Brightwells, with bidding ending from 2pm on Thursday, May 9.

The restored 1989 car is estimated at £13,000-£14,000 and you’ll find more details here.