While the GTi gets all the plaudits, there’s more to the 205 range than that. There’s plenty to like about this French classic
Words: Chris Randall
The traditional supermini sector feels like it’s in decline now, but head back to the early 1980s and it was truly buoyant, with plenty of manufacturers ready to cater to those after an affordable runabout. One such company was Peugeot, and here we focus on a huge-selling model that’s long since become a classic – and one that spawned arguably the greatest hot hatchback of them all.
The 205 was launched in February 1983 to great acclaim, with right-hand drive cars landing on UK shores in September of that year. The styling was both pretty and superbly proportioned, and while often considered a Pininfarina design (they did the Cabriolet that appeared later), it was actually penned in-house under Gerard Welter. It certainly had plenty of rivals, including the likes of the Renault 5, Ford Fiesta and Fiat Uno, but the Peugeot stood out not just for its purity of line but for the way it drove; the skillful blend of ride and handling meant even the lowliest versions were fun to drive, and a good example is just as enjoyable today.
A variety of trim levels catered for most pockets, and while none were lavishly equipped by today’s standards, there was little for buyers to complain about. They would certainly be happy with the range of engines on offer, petrol units spanning capacities of 954cc to 1905cc, with the earlier ‘X’ engines being the Douvrin ‘suitcase’ motor that had seen service in the Peugeot 104. These were later replaced by XU and TU units that combined sprightly performance with fuel-sipping economy. And for those after even greater frugality, there were diesel engines, the XUD7 and XUD9 units being impressively economical.
Of course, we can’t really talk about the 205 without mentioning the 205 GTi, a car that has become a hot-hatch legend and one often voted as the greatest of all time; when it arrived in (105bhp) 1.6-litre form in 1984, those after a pocket rocket couldn’t buy them fast enough. Fizzing performance and lively handling (too much so for some) meant it never failed to raise a grin, and things got even punchier with the addition of the 1.9-litre model. You could even have your 205 in open-top form in the shape of the CJ and CTi.
Replaced by the 206 in 1998, the 205’s looks hardly changed throughout production; but then they didn’t really need to, as almost 5.3 million buyers were seduced by the 205s charms. Almost four decades have passed since it appeared, but it remains as appealing now as it did then.
The 205 made a decent fist of resisting corrosion and being fully galvanised from the latter half of the 1980s certainly helped survival rates. However, no car from this period can be considered immune from the dreaded tinworm, so take plenty of time when it comes to checking the bodywork. A thorough examination of the main panels is needed, with door bottoms, wing edges, sills and wheelarches being the most obvious places, but it’s also advisable to get a prospective purchase on a ramp. That way you can scrutinise the condition of the floorpans and boot floor, the metalwork around the fuel tank, the point at which the floor joins the front bulkhead, and the suspension mountings.
Other potential rot spots include the seams between the front inner wings and wheelarches, the support bars inside the front arches, and the strut top mounts. On two-door cars, check the point where the rear of the sill meets the rear quarter panel. Early examples could also suffer from leaking windscreens allowing water into the footwells; you should also check for water in the boot that gets in via the tailgate. Another thing to watch for is a broken pivot in the bonnet hinges; when, it fails the bonnet hits the base of the A-pillar when opened.
The good news is that finding replacement panels and repair sections isn’t as difficult as you might think, with specialists such as Classic Peugeot Spares being a good port of call. But assuming the car you’re considering is rust-free, then it’s going to be a case of ensuring that panels are free of dents, scrapes and faded paintwork, and checking that exterior trim isn’t missing or damaged. Bumpers and other plastics that have turned grey and blotchy over time are easily rejuvenated.
One further point to mention is the sunroof, which used a clever vacuum system to seal the panel when closed. A vacuum capsule is located beneath the scuttle, and pressure in the seal was released when the handle was operated. Is it still working properly, and is there any evidence of blocked drain holes causing dampness in the cabin?
When it comes to the GTi, the key issue is establishing whether there’s been previous accident damage. A reputation for tricky handling (although this has been a little exaggerated over the years) means some did leave the road backwards, so look for any signs of distortion in areas such as the ‘chassis’ legs, inner wings and boot floor. As prices have rocketed, many GTIs have been restored, so pay particular attention to the quality of any work carried out. The last thing to mention is the Cabriolet; you’ll want to ensure that the hood and frame are in good order, that it operates smoothly (it was electric from 1990), and that water ingress hasn’t damaged the interior trim.
Engine and transmission
Aside from the obvious effects of time and mileage, it’s worth pointing out that the 205’s engines are all quite robust units. There’s not the space here to tackle each one in great depth, but the obvious checks for wear and tear will need to be uppermost in a buyer’s mind when inspecting a potential purchase. Notably noisy valve gear or excessive exhaust smoke (valve stem oil seals that have turned brittle being common culprits) point to an overhaul being required, and while it’s worth quizzing the vendor about the previous maintenance regime, these are very easy cars to service on a DIY basis. The heavily canted X-Series engines with a timing chain need regular changes of oil and filter to stave off wear, and it’s important to ensure that cambelt renewal on more upright TU units hasn’t been skipped.
We’d also want to be sure that the all-aluminium engines have been protected with the proper coolant concentration. A thorough check of the cooling system is wise, and do keep an eye out for oil leaks; on the TU engines (available in capacities from 1.1 to 1.4 litres), leaks can occur from the corner of the cylinder head/block join at the cambelt end. Indeed, all engines should be checked for signs of head gasket failure. Poor running could be due to a failed distributor vacuum advance capsule or a carburettor in need of overhauling, while fuel-injected engines can suffer from maladies with the airflow meter (it can be re-sealed to prevent unwanted air leaks) and cold start valve; while jerky low-speed running annoyed plenty of GTI owners, such problems can mostly be ironed-out now. And if you hear an obvious ticking sound, it’s possibly due to a cracked exhaust manifold.
This brings us to the diesels, considered pretty much bulletproof with proper care. Do look for leaks from the diesel injection pump, however, and for perished or split pipework allowing air into the system, plus excessive black exhaust smoke. Diesel specialists can sort any issues – at a cost – but with a range of perky and economical petrol engines to choose from, it’s worth asking yourself whether you really need an oil burner.
As for 205 transmissions, it was a choice of four-or five-speed manuals or a four-speed automatic. The manuals aren’t inherently weak but years of use and abuse will take their toll, so use the test drive to check for whines and crunching synchromesh. The shift itself can get pretty baggy but this can be cured with an overhaul of the linkage. While clutches last well, it’s worth watching for stiff operation; replacing the cable can prove a fiddly task.
And if you do have to replace the clutch, then renew the drive-shaft seals at the same time to prevent future leaks. Earlier GTi models can suffer from differential failure, so be wary of obvious noises, while the outer driveshaft joint can also be a weakness on the 1.6-litre version; lowered suspension places an additional strain on them. As for the automatic transmission, shifts should be smooth so anything else requires investigation, and check that the fluid isn’t blackened or smelling burnt.
Suspension, steering and brakes
The front suspension was a simple arrangement comprising MacPherson struts and lower wishbones, and aside from general tiredness and worn bushes, there’s nothing else of concern. More careful checking is required at the rear, where the 205 used transverse torsion bar springs and telescopic dampers. While a straightforward set-up, the issue is worn roller bearings in the suspension arms that can lead to the axle beam itself becoming damaged. Creaks or noticeable amounts of negative camber on the back wheels are a sign of trouble, and a good few hundred pounds can be spent replacing the axle. It’s best to catch it before any damage is caused, and you can buy a rebuild kit from specialists.
It’s the GTi that’s most likely to have seen suspension modifications, so make sure you’re happy with the standard of any work and that you’re okay with the way it drives. The brakes are a simple affair, though, with little to concern buyers; there’s the potential for corrosion and seized parts on cars that see little use, but parts are easy to source and not expensive, and an overhaul is straightforward for anyone competent with the spanners. The only fly in the ointment concerns the optional ABS available on post-1990 Phase 2 models – repairs can be costly, so ensure it’s working as it should.
All 205s should boast sharp and accurate steering, so vagueness or noticeable play points to wear in the rack or ball joints; if it feels notably heavy on non-assisted models, it’s likely to be failed universal joints. Check for fluid leaks on cars with power assistance, too.
Interior and electrics
Although things improved for the Phase 2 models, the 205’s interior plastics were always on the flimsy side, so be on the look-out for damage to the dashboard moulding and other trim pieces. Finding a replacement dashboard for an early car may prove tricky, and they can be pricey if you do manage to track one down. Interior fabrics could well be stained and damaged, and you might struggle to source good replacement seats; it’s likely to be a case of getting the originals re-trimmed. Look for worn and damaged bolsters on GTi seats in particular, and bear in mind that it will be easier to get leather ones restored than trying to obtain the original cloth trim. Gear knobs often break too, and replacement is better than trying to glue one back together.
With regard to the electrics, there’s nothing complex here but it’s worth spending time ensuring that everything works. Niggling faults with column stalks, switches and instruments are the likeliest issues you’ll come across, but remember to check the window and locking mechanisms as well, particularly on plusher models where they’re electrically operated. Failure could just be down to corroded contacts, but a previous owner may have just learned to live with it when they broke. Lastly, water ingress causes the heater fan to fail and access is awkward if replacement is needed.
Peugeot 205: our verdict
Fun to drive regardless of engine or trim, refreshingly light and simple, practical and tidily styled: there’s so much to like about the Peugeot 205. Buying a solid example with as little rust as possible is key; from here, you should have a solid base to work from should the generally solid mechanicals need attention. Market attention may be focused on the most desirable GTi but we reckon a standard 205 can be just as fun – everyone on the Classics World team was a fan of our diesel example for this very reason.
If you’re not looking for a GTI, then less than £1000 will still get you a usable 205 that could perhaps benefit from a bit of tidying. Much smarter examples, some of which have been restored, can command £2000-£4000, but anything above that would need to be exceptional. There’s also a smattering of Cabriolets in the classifieds, with a tidy 1.4 CJ starting at £2000.
As for the GTi, you’ll struggle to find much below £4500, although less than half that sum will bag one in need of restoration. There are a good number of 1.6 and 1.9 versions in the £8000-£10,000 bracket, these being decent examples that you could titivate as you go along, but once you head into the mid-teens the overall condition should be very good indeed. And despite some notably high prices being achieved at auction in the last year or two, the very best cars seem to have settled at around £27,000-£30,000. Ultimately, you shouldn’t struggle to find a 205 that suits your needs and budget.