It's twenty years since John Simister was captivated by a Peugeot 205 GTI. He embarks on a nostalgic journey

All that is wrong is the greying hair that lies increasingly thinly atop my head. That, and the fact that I own the car I am currently flinging along a Vosges Mountains road between Gérardmer and Cernay, over the Grand Ballon not far from Colmar, rather than borrowing it brand-new from a car manufacturer. The road is snowy at its highest points, twisty and straight in equal Panavision measure and -- best of all as the sun sinks -- it is entirely deserted.

This is one of the drives of my life, aptly enough given the car with which I am sharing it and the slogan of its manufacturer. It is now 2004, but the last two decades might as well have never happened. Icons, after all, tend to be timeless.

This icon is Peugeot's 205 GTI, the friskiest, most-engaging hot hatchback ever made. Few 1980s cars have aged less, few have had such an impact on what followed.

Carmakers had dabbled in sportified versions of little cars before the red-striped, red-carpeted GTI's arrival, but the results were just playing with the possibilities.

Volkswagen's slightly bigger Golf GTI had set the template, shown what was possible. The "I" part was important, signifying the fuel injection that made it seriously fast rather than just lively. So Peugeot applied the same idea to the 205, a car already helped by its just-right, Pininfarina-inspired styling and a suspension system seemingly designed to make driving as much fun as possible.

May 1984 was when the 205 GTI redefined the rules. I entered a Car magazine competition to win one, and was late with my entry; we had to come up with a new title for the magazine's 205 GTI drive story, and the winner won with exactly the same title as I had dreamed up. I was livid with myself.

The GTI kept winning car-press comparison tests for years, and the 1.9-litre version that joined the 1.6 from the end of 1986 cemented the superiority. These were cars that rewarded skillful, intelligent driving, whose characteristics were defined by Peugeot's belief that buyers had to hone their skills accordingly. That could not happen today; people are too litigious.

But other people still love this little car. Many such people are in the Peugeot Sport Club or, to give it its full title, the Peugeot Sport Official Owners' Club (www.psooc.com) which reflects the fact that, although now independent, it was originally set up by the UK importer. Back in May, the club organised a run, a kind of pilgrimage, to Peugeot's eastern-France heartland beyond the Vosges mountains to mark the 20th anniversary of that May 1984 UK on-sale date. And I went along.

I needed a car, though. I have owned a 205 GTI before, a 1.6 from late 1986 bought for a song in 1997 and too-expensively fettled back into fair form. I sold it in 2002 and quickly regretted it. Now, here was the perfect excuse to have another.

This time it would be a 1.9, with its lustier engine, better cruising ability, stronger brakes and hunkier wheels. And so I became an addict of eBay, in my search for the earliest, purest 1.9 I could find. Early examples are often the most appealing, because they are the closest to how their creators envisioned them. The one I found, January 1987 in dark, metallic grey, fitted that bill -- it was registered even before Motor magazine published its first test of a 1.9, which I wrote.

Sound, straight, unmolested and lowish in miles, it was far from perfect, but had the makings of a great car. I set to work in an expensive quest for perfection, with new tyres (handsome, grippy Avon ZV3s), struts and dampers, an airflow meter, much of the exhaust system, the cambelt, a wheel bearing and more. It turned out beautifully, and France beckoned.

Peugeot's heartland has two epicentres. Sochaux houses the headquarters, a factory and a museum full of much beyond cars (pepper and coffee grinders, TVs, tools and guns, to give an idea of Peugeot's diversity). And Mulhouse, right by the Rhine, is where nearly all 205 GTIs were made.

Our hotel was to be between the two, in a part of France intriguingly split between French and German influences. Mulhouse is also home to the French national motor museum, appropriated from the Schlumpf brothers who hot-footed it into Switzerland once the scale of their company-funds misappropriation and their Bugatti collection became clear to their textile-mill workforce a couple of decades back.

With my 205 running well, and showing a pleasing resistance to spontaneous stalling unusual in the breed, we met at Dover with about 15 other examples plus some newer GTIs of the 106, 206 and 306 variety. Some of the 205s were modified, in the best of taste with minimal damage to the pert looks that define this car. There were cars with the 16-valve engine from a Peugeot 405 Mi16, a rally car, a track-day special; but mine was the oldest of all the 205 GTIs.

It seemed I was not alone in my eBay efforts, because club magazine editor Tony Philpott was giving his new, bargain purchase its maiden run. His car was in an ultra-rare pale metallic blue. Smug? He should be.

Our run was mainly autoroute until those mountains, and I swapped cars with Katy Biddiscombe from Peugeot UK from time to time. She had brought along a 206 GTI 180, so we could see what two decades of development had done to Peugeot's notion of what a hot hatchback should be. The comparison was illuminating.

A 205 1.9 has 130bhp. The windows are deep, the roof pillars are thin, the unassisted steering tells you exactly what's happening under the wheels at the expense of heavy parking efforts. Every tiny movement of steering wheel and accelerator triggers an instant but exactly metered reaction; you feel connected with this car in a way few of today's cars can replicate, and so what if it creaks and rattles a bit?

The new car cannot compete with the 205's easy, almost scornful pulling power from low speeds, although its 180bhp overcomes its greater mass to make it ultimately faster. And where is that intimacy? Power-steered, and with a rubbery zone either side of the straight-ahead, the 206 is aloof from the road instead of chemically bonded to it. It handles well enough, but the physical fix is not there. Pity; it would not take much to put this right, but the architect of the 205's ability (a genius called Jean Baudin) has now retired and the culture has withered. Instead we have air-conditioning and massively better crash protection. We have gone soft.

And so we hit that mountain road, and the 205 worked its magic as it jinked left, right, left, flicking from turn-in to apex, hanging its tail out as I eased the power, pulling itself straight to catch the drift as I powered to each bend's exit, surfing along on a surge of easy torque as the engine sang its deep, hollow, metallic note. That is the core appeal of this miraculous giver of pleasure.

The next day, after visiting the two museums and bonding with a bunch of Dutch and Swiss followers of the 205 GTI faith, we did it all again. Then I took mine to the Mulhouse factory where the metal and glass and plastic and rubber were combined into this object with a life all of its own. It seemed rude not to.

Twenty years. Where did they go?

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