But after the 80s came the safety-conscious 1990s and things cooled down considerably with the masses demanding anti-lock brakes, low-pressure turbos, foolproof handling characteristics and more airbags than the House of Commons. Renault's timely riposte comes in the shape of the Renaultsport Clio 172 fitted with a 2.0-litre 16v unit with variable valve timing pushing out a mammoth 172bhp.
With a kerb weight of just 1065kg, Renault's claim that this is the 'most powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatch available' seems a mite conservative - given its nearest rival is the Peugeot 306 GTi-6 which produces 167bhp and this isn't even in the same class. As the name suggests, Renaultsport - the competition division responsible for the F1 and BTCC successes - has been given the task of regenerating Williams No IV.
The basic engine configuration is a familiar one as it sits under the bonnet of the Laguna, Scenic and Espace, but from hereon in the changes made for this particular application are significant. For a start there's an extra 32bhp, but a two-stage valve timing system breathes new life into the engine at high revs and produces a fat torque curve through the middle: peak power arrives at a heady 6,250rpm and 148lb-ft of torque at an equally elevated 5,400rpm, 85% of which is available between 2,500-6,500rpm.
Like the original Williams, the Clio 172 sports a 7mm wider front track and lowered sports suspension squeezed in underneath a pair of reshaped front wings constructed from a dent-resistant lightweight plastic; the bonnet's aluminium to save weight. In tamer Clios, the bulging roof-line and concave rear windscreen takes a long while to get used to, but with the double-optic headlamps, OZ alloy wheels, deep front apron, side sills and rear tailgate spoiler, this incarnation has a much more menacing appearance. Inside, the unique silver exterior body paint has been carried over in a sort of rubberised form on the door pulls and centre console, coupled with Alcantara suede on the sports seats, steering wheel rim and door inserts - plus an aluminium-finished gearknob.
Renault claims a 0-62mph time of just 7.2secs and a top speed of 138mph for the Clio 172, while returning an average fuel economy of 35.8mpg. The underlying reason for such a double personality is that below 5,500rpm the engine returns 'useful' performance, but it's nothing special. Above this, it is simply superb as the engine note changes pitch and the power delivery is silky smooth. With such power running through the front wheels, torque steer is well suppressed and with such phenomenal levels of grip, cornering speed is deceptively high. The brakes and gearchange are positive and consistent too.
But the same can't be said of the steering - and not just because the wheel seems excessively big and unwieldy. Through better communication, the Clio 172 would make an awesomely quick cross-country blast. But I suspect this is a quibble most customers will bear given the price. At £15,995, this is the best news hot hatch lovers are ever likely to get.