If you’re a motoring enthusiast, live somewhere in Europe and are old enough to recall how sardonic KITT was, then you’ll probably have been lucky enough to have experienced – or owned – some of the greatest hot hatches ever made.
From the original Golf GTi to the iconic Peugeot 205 GTi and its 306-based descendants; from the Renault 5 Turbo up to the Clio Williams and its subsequent Renaultsport successors; and even from imported fare like the Japanese market Civic SiR up to the hardcore Mugen Civic Type R examples, there has been something out there to satisfy everyone.
Perfection is an impossible dream though, and even the most lauded of hot hatches from yesteryear were open to criticism. . . . . . . . . . . . . or in this case, modification.
For those owners who found their hunger for performance not satiated by the abilities of the standard car, there was a seemingly obvious solution: an engine swap. Spoilt as we are are in 2016 by ECU remaps which give us 25% more power and which can be carried out whilst we have a cuppa and/or a snooze, an engine swap may seem like an extreme solution – but in the 80s, 90s and early 00s, free of the myriad of sensors, wiring and technical systems of modern performance cars, it was sometimes a viable answer to that critically important question asked by every performance car fan : “How do I make it go faster?”
There were considerations of course. Many considerations. What donor engine would be used? Would it physically fit in the bay? Could it mate to the existing gearbox or need a replacement one? Were the other engine ancillaries compatible? Did it offer enough of a power hike over the existing engine or possibly too much, bearing in mind traction and the car’s capabilities? Were there off-the-shelf engine mounts available or would custom items need made? Would the brakes need upgraded to cope with the increase in power? Would the suspension need overhauled? Would you need an advanced driving course to handle the torque steer in a FWD car? Would the engine be from the same manufacturer and retain a degree of authenticity, or something completely left-field? Were you mechanically equipped to do it yourself or would it have to be outsourced to a decent mechanic? And many hundreds more.
Once you had gone through the painstaking process of answering these questions (usually via a deft combination of man-maths and man-logic) you’d then have to find an engine and get it fitted. Which many, many car enthusiasts did. So now, with the benefit of retrospection, access to an embarrassingly large collection of old Max Power magazines and the collective knowledge & experience of online car enthusiasts worldwide, we look back at a few of the most popular hot hatch engine conversions carried out – the ones which made us wonder why the manufacturer didn’t just build like them that from day one . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
PEUGEOT 205 GTi Mi16 CONVERSION
Your iconic 205 GTi 1.6 8v not fast enough for you? Not a problem. Peugeot were kind enough to release a revised 1.6 GTi which lifted power up from the original’s 105bhp to 115bhp. If that wasn’t enough, you could even think about switching to the more manic 1.9 8v version with 126bhp, though this lost a few ponies when the dreaded catalytic converter came into effect later in its life. That still wasn’t enough for some though, who saw the obvious solution: utilise the 160bhp 1.9 16v fitted to the 205’s bigger brother, the 405, and also to its Gallic brethren in the form of the Citroen BX 16v. With a power upgrade, more tuning capability and strong internals, this engine transformed the already hugely capable 205 into a true flyer.
VAUXHALL NOVA GTE/GTi C20XE ‘Red-Top’ CONVERSION
Released in 1983 and on the market for 10 years, it was hard to turn a corner in the UK without seeing a Vauxhall Nova somewhere. Hugely popular amongst younger buyers, the little Nova was never the epitome of speed or handling finesse, but nevertheless became known for being reliable, affordable and likeable. Speed freaks were limited to the top of the range 1.6 8v GTE with around 100bhp (later known as the GSi), but those looking for even bigger kicks soon found a solution: the 2.0 16v C20XE as used in the Astra GTE, GSi and many other subsequent models. With a leap in power to 150bhp and an equally impressive torque boost, the red-top conversion became so popular it even carried on being applied to the Nova’s mechanically similar replacement, the Corsa. Those addicts looking for even bigger kicks found it in the form of the technically similar C20LET, which was basically a turbo version of the C20XE with some slight changes.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTi 1.8T CONVERSION
Widely known as the first popular hot hatch, the Golf GTi has gone through many revisions, evolutions and editions over the course of it’s 7-generation lifespan. The original Mk1 GTi (1.6 8v) produced 108bhp, but this later rose to 112bhp with a switch to a larger 1.8 engine. The Mk2 and MK3 models later progressed onto 1.8 8v, 2.0 8v and 2.0 16v variants, and a 2.8 V6 even made an appearance in the Mk3. With the release of the MK4 though, VW opted to go with a 1.8 20v Turbo engine and this opened the door much wider for tuning capabilities. Since then, the 1.8T has become a hugely popular conversion for MK1 and MK2 Golfs. Physically neat, tuneable and well researched given the huge number of OEM vehicles within the VAG group it has been applied to, the 1.8T’s 150bhp (as standard) and 155lb/ft transform the comparatively light Mk1 and MK2 Golfs into fast and torquey road cars – and that’s before anyone starts talking about increasing boost.
HONDA CIVIC B18C CONVERSION
Take one 92-95 Civic VTi (known as the SiR in foreign markets). Already a screamer with the 1.6 16v 160bhp B16a engine which revs to 8200rpm. Rip it out and replace it with the B18C from the Integra Type R; 190bhp, 1.8 16v, revs to 8900rpm. The engines even look nigh on identical from the outside given that they both originate from the same b-series family, and are also very similar internally. This very popular conversion first took root amongst USA Honda fanatics, but is now equally popular amongst UK tuners. The Civic EG’s successor (the 96-00 Civic EK) carried on using the b16 engine so the conversion has similarly carried on in popularity in that model also, and some more ambitious fans have even opted to use the more powerful (albeit heavier) 2.2 H22A engine from the Prelude and Accord.
This is, of course, a far from exhaustive list. What impressive engine swaps have you encountered or carried out – and do you think that the complexity of modern vehicles means the practice of swapping engines will die out completely?