There was a time when Citroen dealerships were awash with more sweaty teenagers than usual, thanks to a new car deal that was more attractive than Lynx Voodoo deodorant.
Impossible-to-insure youngsters, like me, were swept up in the Citroen excitement that promised free insurance to buyers of the sporty VTR and flocked to showrooms to ogle the sporty little French hatchbacks.
Back then, free insurance on a car with the merest whiff of performance was like catnip for testosterone-fuelled boys. I was one of them.
Queues formed outside Citroen dealers like on those days Burger King did Whoppers for 99p. They were very good days.
I remember staring through the window of a local Citroen dealer, too afraid to go in, wishing I could afford a VTR.
The sportier VTS, though, was the holy grail.
If I remember rightly, it was excluded from the free insurance deal, and as such only one in 10 of the sporty Saxos sold was a VTS.
In 2001 (a rather worrying 20 years ago), I got my first job as a news and sports reporter on the Dorking Advertiser – mostly writing about angry parish councillors and hedges – but with the first month’s worth of my heady £11,516 wages burning a hole in my usually-empty bank account, I decided it was time to shell out on a VTR.
Wilsons of Epsom was my local dealer and back then was offering parallel import Saxo VTRs for quite a bit less than you could get them for at main dealers.
By this point the free insurance deal had disappeared – probably something to do with the fact so many of them ended up in hedges – so I thought saving a few quid on the parallel import route was worth it.
For those of you that don’t remember, parallel imports were cars ordered in Europe to UK specifications, brought to these shores outside of the official franchise dealer network by some enterprising independents.
Wilsons back then was one of them. My Saxo conformed to all the relevant standards, but it was just a lot cheaper than buying one from a main dealer – and back then that mattered.
“People like me were hated by the franchised dealers”
I paid around £8,500 for my VTR, far less than they were going for in franchised showrooms and was very happy indeed racking up several speeding tickets.
People like me were hated by the franchised dealers. I remember calling one up for some advice after I encountered a little electrical gremlin on the Saxo (yes, a shock, I know) and they couldn’t have been quicker to get me off the phone.
I kept that Saxo for 10 years. Friends famously joked it was the most expensive Citroen in the world, such was my propensity to wrap the finance up into yet another ‘affordable monthly payment’ to buy something else.
I think over the years it was refinanced via various different loans and banks no less than three times to help me pay for a Suzuki GSX-R600 and latterly a Ducati 996. I hate to think what that Saxo ended up costing…
[Here’s a young Richard Hammond driving some Saxos]
Still, I loved that VTR. The biggest problem was whenever I saw a VTS flash past with the enviable 16v badge on the rear three quarters and the instantly recognisable yellow ‘S’ on the door flanks I always had a pang of jealousy.
You see the VTR was good – but the VTS was better. Both models had 1.6-litre engines, but the VTS trumped the VTR’s 8v unit with 16 valves.
That meant the sub-1,000kg car made 26bhp more than its little brother at 120bhp. That was good for 60mph in 7.6 seconds, which still feels quick today.
I eventually sold the VTR to a friend and moved on with my car ownership life, but since the day I sold it until just over a year ago I had an eBay alert set up for ‘Citroen Saxo VTS’.
Occasionally a good one would pop up, but as the fragile French cars got weaker, the auctions became rarer.
Today, the website HowManyLeft.com estimates there’s under 300 on UK roads. And when I checked earlier this week there were none for sale on Auto Trader.
That makes the VTS a classic worth keeping in my book.
When the one you see here came up for sale, I was clearing out my lock-up at work.
The damp hanger of a garage is where my old Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9 and Ford Fiesta XR2 hide away and a friend and I were getting rid of the mountains of rubbish (some of which can be seen below) that only accumulates in a space more people have access to than should have.
We’d spent the last hour talking about how I should get rid of the hot hatches as they just sit around doing very little other than gather dust.
After a long monologue on why I needed to sell them all, I popped to the office to pick up some tools, a short walk away, and returned five minutes later the proud owner of another French hot hatch.
Yet another VTS auction I’d been watching had ended, but this time the car hadn’t sold at £1,995, so I made the seller a cheeky £1,750 offer and within seconds he accepted it.
A few weeks later it turned up at the office (remember those?). The 2002 model has 131k miles on it, which I admit is a bit leggy, but for a near-20-year old car it looked pretty good.
Bought from a part time car dealer it arrived with a fresh MOT, but quite how it got that is beyond me. I’d later find out it, NX02 YOA needed ‘a bit’ of welding that may have been glossed over by the previous tester.
But I didn’t care much about that. I jumped in, floored it and headed for nostalgia (Burger King).
The first drive revealed it needed a bit more than just welding – while it was quick, it was occasionally running on only three cylinders and when I left it for more than a day the tyres went flat.
Still, I was happy. This was ‘an investment’, not a daily driver, so I packed it off to my mechanic and promptly forgot I owned it.
Fast forward through Covid and back in October I was reminded it existed by a mechanic who needed the space back in his workshop.
Yeomans chairman James Smith kindly offered his Citroen team’s expertise to help fix it up – two of his mechanics used to PDI Saxos, so were perfectly placed to give it the once over.
I told Smith’s team to look at it only when they could fit it in, so it was a few months – and two more lockdowns – before I picked it up.
The team solved the running issues by replacing the MAF and coolant sensors and reset the ECU. Four new tyres were fitted, the engine harness and cooling hoses re-secured and the alternator belt, that snapped on a test drive, was renewed.
New oil, an ABS sensor and some new wipers for luck meant she was ready to roll. My wallet was £800 lighter, and that was at a preferential rate too, hence the need to write about it here…
The rough running hasn’t been solved completely. Yeomans thinks it’s probably got a racing cam fitted as it ‘pulls like a train’ at higher revs and this is likely to be the reason for the lumpiness low down.
It’s also got a performance air box that doesn’t help. If you can find an original one please let me know…
Apart from that, yes it’s a bit rough around the edges, with a few stone chips here and there, but after a good wash and interior spruce up with the help of my daughter, who was rather disgusted at the mouldy interior, it’s not looking too bad.
So does it live up to expectations? In a word: Hell yes. It’s an absolute hoot to drive, despite the fact the steering is so light it feels unconnected, the gearbox so soggy changing gear is more a matter of luck than accuracy, and it rattles over big bumps.
But my word does it move. You can’t beat the thrill of a hot hatch and, without wanting to sound like my dad, they don’t make them like they used to.
And in many respects that’s a good thing. Panels are certainly less likely to resemble emmental cheese these days and most sporty cars feel rather more solid.
But I love old, small cars like this because – just like we do – each generation gets a little bit tubbier. That size creep is hard to notice until you transport yourself back 20 years and remember just how small, small cars were.
As hot hatches go, the Saxo VTS is one of the greats. I would say that, though, mostly because I’ve been hunting for one for a decade. All I need now is for those 99p Whoppers to make a return and 2021 will be rather good year indeed.
Accounts: Have I written enough to justify the expenses? If not please let me know.