Top 10: Learner cars of the 1980s and 1990s


We’ve all been there, nervously awaiting our driving test after countless weeks (maybe months) of lessons with a professional driving instructor. It’s a nerve-wracking time for even the most confident of learners. But spare a thought too, for the cars we had our lessons in – and the abuse that they took.

If you learned to drive in the ’80s or ’90s and you had professional lessons, there’s every chance you were behind the wheel of one of the cars featured here. These were the models that proved popular with driving schools of the time – and to which we owe a debt of gratitude. So… which one did YOU learn in? 

Nissan Micra ‘K10’

Before the original ‘K10’ Micra arrived in 1983, most independent driving schools still ran British cars. It had been the way of things for many years, with those who’d relied on Minis in the 1970s graduating to Metros by the start of the ’80s. And then along came a small hatchback from Nissan that had two major advantages: not only was it light and easy to drive, it could also take a thrashing. It rose to the challenge of multi-driver use like a pro, never objecting and never breaking down (unless the clutch finally admitted defeat). Driving instructors loved it… and with good reason.

Austin Metro

Anyone who was around in 1980 will remember the launch of the Metro, the make-or-break new supermini from BL. It was huge news at the time, given the fact that tens of thousands of jobs – and the entire future of its maker – were at stake. Happily, the Metro went on to be a big seller, as well as a popular choice with driving schools – including the British School of Motoring, which became one of the biggest Metro buyers during the car’s early years. In fact, anyone who learned to drive with BSM back then almost certainly passed their test in a Metro, such was the plucky little Brit’s ubiquity.

Vauxhall Nova

Thanks to the wonders of General Motors’ badge-engineering, what the rest of Europe knew as the first-gen Opel Corsa was sold in Britain as the Vauxhall Nova. The 1983-93 Spanish-built Nova proved to be a hit for Vauxhall, trailing the Metro and Fiesta in the sales charts but still proving popular throughout its long career – particularly amongst the driving school fraternity, which appreciated the Nova’s impressive reliability and economy. With three- and five-door hatchbacks and (unusual for this class) two- and four-door saloons available over the years, there was a Nova to suit every driving instructor’s requirements, with many tempted by the later 1.5D diesel versions. 

Ford Fiesta MkII

The first-gen Fiesta made inroads into the UK’s driving school market of the late ’70s, and its successor of 1983 continued that trend. The MkII Fiesta was a big hit with independent instructors in particular, thanks to its competitive pricing, easy driving style, low running costs (aided by cheap parts prices) and decent reliability. Okay, so the MkII Fiesta was little more than a heavily revised MkI (featuring a rounded front, a redesigned tailgate and a new dashboard), but instructors and pupils alike seemed to love it – despite the spartan trim level of the Popular and Popular Plus models of the time.

Peugeot 205

From its launch in 1983, Peugeot’s highly capable new supermini proved to be an ideal driving school choice. Not every French car of the ’80s was famed for its reliability, but the 205 managed to change perceptions by being robust and dependable even with high-mileage use. Most driving schools opted for 954cc and 1124cc versions thanks to their low fuel consumption; but Peugeot also offered an array of diesel models throughout the 205’s long career, combining real robustness with class-leading frugality. Few other small diesels provided the same levels of power, refinement and economy as the good old 205, making this a firm favourite among Britain’s driving instructors.

Volkswagen Polo MkIII

The second-generation Polo proved reasonably popular as a driving school car in the ’80s, but it was with the arrival of the MkIII range that Volkswagen’s supermini really established itself with learner drivers. Launched in 1994 and enjoying a nine-year career, the latest Polo’s bigger dimensions made for a comfier experience for instructor and pupil alike, while the car’s overall feeling of solidity provided some welcome reassurance safety-wise. Instructors seeking the best economy opted for either the 45bhp Polo 1.0 or the 64bhp 1.9D diesel, both of which provided fairly pedestrian performance; but that didn’t matter, as the Polo excelled in areas of more importance than sheer speed…

Toyota Starlet

Some British driving schools made the switch to Japanese cars as early as the 1970s, proving to be pioneers by choosing the ultra-reliable Datsun Cherry or original Toyota Starlet. But it was with the third- and fourth-generation Starlet (of 1984 and 1989 respectively) that Toyota got more of a grip on the learner market, as increasing numbers of driving instructors began to appreciate just how durable these Japanese superminis were. The Starlet MkIII finally made the switch to front-wheel drive, yet it lost none of its traditional dependability; and while Toyota insisted on offering us Brits just one version, it was the perfect spec for any instructor. 

Fiat Uno

Arguably something of a left-field choice among driving instructors, the Uno nevertheless managed to carve its own niche in the market. It arrived in the UK in the summer of 1983 and remained on sale for almost twelve years, aided by its keen pricing and high equipment levels. It was also longer and taller than many of its supermini rivals, making the Uno one of the most spacious models in its sector; and with great visibility, impressive comfort and competitive fuel economy, the whole package made plenty of sense. By the time Fiat offered us the even more competitive 1.7-litre diesel, the Uno’s driving school credentials were complete.

Citroen AX

Launched in 1986 as a replacement for the LNA and Visa, the AX was a crucial new model for Citroen, catapulting this most individual of French car makers into the heart of the supermini market. Its predecessors had achieved only marginal success in the UK, which meant the AX needed to be vastly more popular. And it was. This compact, lightweight hatchback proved to be brilliantly entertaining, even in entry-level 954cc guise – and, of course, it was also exceptionally economical. Those driving instructors tempted to ‘go Citroen’ often opted for the 1360cc diesel, a 53bhp model offering a similar (50-plus) figure for its overall fuel consumption.

Proton 1.3 / 1.5

Alright, we admit it was never a mainstream choice for driving instructors in the ’90s; but in some parts of the country (those ‘lucky’ enough to have a Proton dealer nearby), this Malaysian offering was a minor hit with independent instructors looking for affordability and reliability in a package that was bigger (and more spacious) than a supermini. A Proton 1.3 (available in four-door saloon and five-door Aeroback guises) might not have been as economical as a similarly-priced smaller model, but it was a lot of car for the money. And with it being essentially ex-Mitsubishi and therefore blessed with Japanese-style reliability, it was a canny purchase for many a driving school.

Source: HonestJohn

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