The Beetle was a tough act to follow, but when Volkswagen launched the Golf in 1974, boy did they get it right.
It couldn’t have been more different to its antiquated predecessor – front-engined, front-wheel drive, and a hatchback, ‘folded paper’ design penned by Giorgetto Guigiaro.
But it was the arrival of the GTi in June 1976 that turned this small, fuel-efficient family runabout into the car that invented an entire genre, the “hot hatch”.
We look back at the birth of a legend, the mark I Golf GTi.
It was the car that started an automotive revolution.
The right car at the right time, the VW Golf promised frugal family motoring in an attractive, practical package in the aftermath of the early 1970s fuel crisis.
Volkswagen had badly needed the Golf to be a success, with sales of Beetles declining year-on-year in the early 1970s and the company in some degree of financial stress.
That it was a hit owed much to the water-cooled, front-wheel drive technology developed by Auto Union’s Audi, by then under VW ownership, as well as its modern, hatchback design.
Back in 1974, hatchbacks were still a rarity. Even the dumpy Austin Allegro had a separate boot as Leyland bosses were keen for the hatchback Maxi to keep hold of its “unique selling point”.
So when the Golf landed in the UK, the home team competition was caught squarely on the hop; the Allegro, Hillman Avenger, Vauxhall Viva and first generation Ford Escort all looked hideously dated by comparison in October 1974.
That the front-wheel drive Golf, designed by Giugiaro, of Lotus Esprit and Alfasud fame, also had superior handling and road-holding, saw it take an early lead in a new niche it would dominate for decades to come.
It may not have been the very first hot hatch – that accolade belongs to the tiny Autobianchi A112 Abarth – but it was the first to get it right, and the first to truly catch the public’s imagination.
Genesis of the GTi
The Golf was never meant to be a performance car.
It arrived with a choice of 1093cc and 1471cc four-cylinder engines, producing 50 and 75bhp respectively, perfect for family motoring, commuting, shopping and the school run (though most kids probably still walked to school back then…).
However, back in Germany, a group of enthusiastic engineers led by Alfons Löwenberg, with support from PR director Anton Konrad, saw the potential in the little hatchback and started work on a “Sport Golf” project.
Löwenberg sounded out VW bosses but, as Konrad said years later, there was little appetite from above.
“It was clear to see that Volkswagen was fully occupied with the roll-out of its new model line-up,” he said. “At that time, very few were receptive to a special project of this kind.”
That could have been that, but Löwenberg and a small group of colleagues continued to work on a test car in secret in their spare time.
An initial prototype based on a Scirocco platform with a tuned version of that car’s 1.5-litre engine hit the buffers, largely because the barely silenced exhaust and ultra-firm suspension rendered the car “undriveable”, according to VW’s head of research Ernst Fiala.
Löwenberg went back to work and, according to Konrad, the proposed sporty Golf was discussed over “coffee and cake” with VW bosses at a meeting in the PR man’s living room.
They agreed that a sporty, comfortable car with everyday practicality should be the goal, rather than a fully-fledged race car, using the two-door base model with modified running gear to cope with the extra power as a basis for the GTi.
An anti-roll bar, larger brake calipers and vented disc brakes were to be used, with the ride height slightly lowered and the interior fitted with tartan Recaro seats, the now-famous golf ball gear knob, and a sports steering wheel from the Scirocco TS.
The Audi 80 GTE’s 1588cc, 110bhp four-cylinder engine, fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, was turned through 90 degrees to fit the Golf’s transverse layout,and the project was finally ready to be presented to management as a potential production model.
VW’s top brass loved it, and six prototypes were created ahead of the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1975.
The finer styling details were agreed upon, including the front chin spoiler, modest plastic wheel well extensions, red pinstripe on the radiator grille, black rear screen surround, and that iconic GTi badge.
Launch and reaction
The once-secret project was finally thrust into the public eye at Frankfurt on September 11, 1975, a red Golf GTi “concept car” announced as “the fastest Volkswagen ever”.
That was no marketing exaggeration, as the GTi could accelerate from 0-60mph in nine seconds and hit a top speed of 110mph – rapid indeed for the time.
Performance was aided by larger inlet valves and a higher compression ratio than the standard 1.6-litre engine, helping to produce 108bhp at 6,100rpm and 103lb/ft at 5,000rpm.
Kerb weight of just 810kg, more than 300kg lighter than the three-door current GTi, also helped to produce a real pocket rocket.
Such was the enthusiasm of show visitors, VW announced plans to put 5,000 special edition cars into production, but only in left hand drive for the company’s home market.
Positive reviews in the German media saw sales wildly exceed expectations when it hit showrooms in June 1976, with auto motor und sport saying: “Climbing an Alpine pass in the GTI…is one of the most exciting driving tasks that a car enthusiast can have.”
Meanwhile, drivers in the UK were casting envious glances at their German counterparts and, while a few managed to get hold of special order left-hand drive imports in 1977, we had to wait until another two years for a right-hand drive version.
Motor Sport magazine got hold of a left hooker in March 1977, and wasn’t disappointed, comparing the new car favourably with the 2-litre Escort RS2000, Dolomite Sprint and the Opel Kadett GT/E.
The magazine lauded the Germans’ concept of producing “smooth punch from smaller power units”, with the “additional sophistication” of fuel injection.
“I cannot recall a British manufacturer (or any other nationality of manufacturer on the British market) who offers this feature on smaller engines, which is a shame for the Germans have built up a store of knowledge that has left the latest Bosch jetronic-induced BMW, VW and Opel engines with power to spare and perfect manners,” it said.
After running through the GTi’s technical specification, it said the upgrades “hardly prepare you for the well-mannered flyer that the Golf GTI character is actually about”.
“The stats had prepared me for a real boy racer’s delight, but the car actually combines fun and efficiency in almost frightening effectiveness within a small car.
“With string back gloves whirling and teeth bared you can hurl the thing along greasy roads at simply incredible speeds on Pirelli CN36 SM radials. While the passenger flinches at the first corner, especially as he/she is on the ‘wrong’ side, they soon share the driver’s confidence in a vehicle that simply corners, stops and accelerates in a well-judged harmony of components that are properly matched to each other.”
Motor Sport’s tester said the Golf provides “the kind of performance found in 3-litre BMW saloons”. “However, you have no extra size to carry around, those excellently matched brakes and sheer agility of a 110 horsepower flea on your side! This of course leads to some disgruntlement on behalf of those who have paid large sums of money for their lame cars, so it pays to demonstrate such abilities with restraint, though it is hard to stop laughing on some occasions.
“Overall, a very impressive VW ‘hot-rod’ that probably has a brighter future as a road than competition car.”
Whether a 3-litre BMW of the time was indeed “lame” is open to question, but the GTi had clearly set the cat amongst the pigeons even before it had truly arrived in the UK.
Arrival in the UK
By the time CAR magazine tested a 1979 right-hand drive car, British motorists had built up a store of pent-up demand.
Highlighting the car’s adaptability, the magazine praised “truly excellent performance from a 1.6 litre saloon, which can be driven to the shops and back by someone who need not use more than 3,500rpm”.
With sharp and decisive handling, CAR said the Golf “has a sort of lofty assurance through the most difficult of bends”.
“It is stable, smooth, resists roll and holds on with rare tenacity in bitumen bends. It needs to be driven with considerable precision though, because throwing it into bends makes it look and feel rather ruffled and untidy, though of course it copes perfectly well.
“The Golf is an extremely precise car, which gives of its best when driven with concentration by drivers of coolness and measured precision. Jumped-up enthusiasm doesn’t seem to suit and it is because of this some drivers call the GTi characterless – a motoring system rather than a charismatic car.”
Such accusations have been levelled at every incarnation of the Golf GTi – that maybe it’s just too good to be a true enthusiast’s car.
Indeed, in this test against a Renault 5 Gordini, a “sunny, friendly little ally of a car”, three out of five in the CAR office plumped for the French supermini, largely thanks to its £500 lower asking price.
Given that the mark 1 is now regarded by some as the ultimate lightweight Golf GTi, the purest of the breed, it’s fascinating to note that CAR described it as a “cold, introverted car”.
Why? Because it was so much better put together and engineered than, for example, a Renault 5.
“It is a fine car to drive: it reeks of precision, its driving position, seats and visibility are of 1980s standard,” added the magazine. “Its gearchange is satisfyingly light, quick smooth and precise and it is built by a firm who are probably the world’s most skilled at cheap cars.”
Modern drivers would find the original GTi anything but clinical, a point emphasised by Andrew Frankel when he set out to find the best of all seven models in the summer of 2017.
He found that the car loses composure when driven hard, with “as many shades of understeer as you can count”.
In his view, the mark 2 was such an improvement over its predecessor it was dull by comparison.
“Whatever the figures might have said at the time, the Mk 2 is slower than its parent, and with barely any extra power but a slug more weight,” he said.
“It’s far neater up to a higher limit in the corners, and its sheer unflappability won it praise in the day, but simply being more capable and competent merely makes it a better-handling car, not necessarily a more entertaining one.”
So there you go, the mark 1 was entertaining after all.
By the end of 1979, dealers had shifted more than 1,500 cars, priced at £4,705 (£770 more than the five-door GLS), and a host of imitators were hot on the trail from Ford, Renault, Peugeot and Vauxhall.
But VW was ready to respond.
With the success of the Golf GTi, everyone else wanted a slice of the new hot hatch pie.
The XR3 was now the XR3i, Vauxhall was about to launch the Astra GTE and the Peugeot 205 GTi was just around the corner.
So VW needed to stay one step ahead of the game, and did just that with the introduction in 1982 of a 1781cc power unit, now producing 112bhp and increased torque of 109lb/ft.
Where the GTi could previously reach 60mph in nine seconds, now it could do it in just 8.3 seconds, quicker than a Renault 5 Gordini Turbo and a BMW 316.
The question was, how much difference did the larger engine make on the road in real-world conditions? And had VW made the class-leading Golf even better?
Autocar was one of the first off the blocks to give its opinion in December, 1982, and gave it a resounding thumbs up.
“It is nearer the perfect in its class than ever before – and it was pretty satisfactory in the first place,” it said, describing a “zestful and flexible” engine with higher gearing than the outgoing model.
It had “a sporting thrum to match the performance”.
Inside and out, the car looked essentially the same, but included what the magazine called a “sophisticated” new trip computer displaying journey time, distance, average speed, average fuel consumption, oil temperature and outside temperature operated by pressing a button on the end of the right-hand stalk.
Their only complaint? The “minor bore of having to press six times to ‘go back’ to, say, time of day when previously set to journey time”. Pretty sure that’s still the case nearly 40 years later!
By 1983, some 10,000 right-hand drive Golf GTi’s had been sold in Britain since its introduction in 1979, and the 1.8-litre car was like “gilding refined gold”, according to Motor Sport magazine.
With maximum power and torque achieved at significantly lower revs, “this better spread of power and torque that has truly put the latest 1.8-litre Golf GTI in a class of its own”, said the magazine in March, 1983.
The result of changes to a bigger cylinder bore, bigger valves, lighter pistons, a new crankshaft and a higher final drive had resulted in “a captivating little car, of very significant performance”.
“It retains the former five-speed gearbox and otherwise is much the same as the Golf 1600 – until you drive it!
“It really is a remarkably smooth power-unit and quiet with it, at fast cruising speeds, and can be revved safely to 6,300 rpm.
“As for performance, so smoothly and eagerly delivered, what can I say? On acceleration, here was a very compact 1.8-litre car that would outpace many far bigger ones. Marvellous!
“It is this splendid, effortless performance that makes this THE outstanding small-car, for it goes like a little racer yet has little of the punchy, detuned rally-car aspects that might have gone with it.
“The Bosch fuel-injection ensured a prompt hot or cold start, and there is almost nothing to fault. VW have, with this newest Golf, showed, once again, how best to play the small-car game.”
Amongst the new-fangled computer gizmos was a “tiny light that came on if it thought you were being unsparing of petrol” which could “curb the delights of extending to the full this very lively 1800 Golf”.
This early “eco” measure also included a needle that swept back and forth across a dial calibrated from 25mpg to 55mpg, which the tester “also ignored”.
Of course, it was easier to ignore when petrol cost £1.64 a gallon, itself more than double it had been four years earlier but a fraction of today’s £5.50.
Motor was next up, pitting the GTi against a Alfasud Cloverleaf, XR3i and Astra GTE in June, 1983.
The magazine asked: “How can VW improve on a car as fundamentally right as the GTi?”
It was a good question, and with the XR3 now with added “i” there was a feeling the Ford could be ready to dethrone the king of the hot hatches after its carbureted challenger ended up with a “bloody nose” two years earlier.
Dismissing the underpowered Alfa as out of its depth, it was the Astra rather than the Escort that came out as the biggest challenger to the Golf.
The Vauxhall was rated the “most accomplished all-rounder”, but it fell down compared to the Golf as a “rather bland, colourless car; strong on technique but short on soul”.
According to Motor, the new XR3i had “the best styling, the most showroom appeal, fine economy, space and build…very strong performance and high ultimate cornering power”, but suffered from a noisy, harsh engine and unrefined ride.
So what of the Golf? No longer the out-and-out bargain it once was, the magazine nevertheless said: “None of its rivals here, not even the Astra, offer more pure driving pleasure. It’s the quickest car and the most fun, it’s the car with the equal best handling yet the most comfortable ride
“In short, the Golf is the best driving machine, the Astra the least flawed as an overall package.”
In 1983, the last year of the mark 1, the GTi accounted for more than 25 per cent of total Golf sales, about 7,000 cars.
VW released arguably the most desirable of the mark I bunch in its final year, the 1,000-run limited edition Campaign model, only available with three doors and featuring Pirelli ‘P’ alloy rims, driving lamps enclosed in the grille, a sunroof, lockable fuel cap, tinted glass and golf ball style interior door lock buttons.
By the following year, when the bigger, heavier, and slightly slower, mark 2 arrived in Britain, the Golf GTi had set the benchmark for all other hot hatches to follow.
Even if some cars performed slightly better over the years, it’s always held a lofty position in the hearts and minds of motorists as the true beginning of the hot hatch genre, and consistently the most classy.
The Golf GTi cabriolet
Although the soft-top Golf didn’t gain a GTi badge until after the mark II was introduced, it continued to be based on the mark I right up until the mark III cabriolet was launched in 1993.
The topless Golf, launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1979, initially bore either a GLi badge carrying the 1588cc GTi engine, or a GLS with the 70bhp 1457cc unit.
Named the Golf Cabriolet, it had a reinforced body, transverse roll bar, a high level of trim, and retained the pre-1980 style of rear lamp clusters.
Built of unibody construction, it was assembled entirely by Karmann, with VW just supplying the engine, suspension, interior and trim etc for installation.
When the GTi name was adopted for the 1984 model, with the upgraded 1.8-litre engine, it went head to head with that year’s new Ford Escort 1.6i Cabriolet, also built by Karmann.
When Car? pitted the two against each other in a test in May, 1984, which the Golf won on “technical merit”.
The slightly more powerful Golf was quicker to 70mph, even though the Escort had the edge once above 80mph – which is largely academic!
Whereas the Ford’s engine became “harsh and progressively more raucous” at higher speeds though, the Golf’s remained refined and smooth.
“The masterful VW 1.8-litre is now something of a legend,” the magazine said. “Crisp, eager and smooth – the Golf engine is all these things and more.
“Whether charging hard, cruising gently, or lugging from low down in fifth, the engine is never ruffled. Its steady flow of discreet, usable power is a joy to exploit – and it is quiet too.”
The only area the Escort took top marks was in costs, with a £404 cheaper asking price, better fuel economy and lower servicing costs.
In conclusion, the Escort was a genuine contender, a more “overtly sporting machine and terrific fun”, “but it’s not quite a GTi beater – yet”.
The Golf, meanwhile, was “solidly made, rivettingly fast, and so superbly refined in virtually everything it does”.
“To drive, the car is a gem; inside and out, its standard of finish is exemplary – and the 1.8 engine is almost perfection itself,” reported the magazine.
The only complaints were relatively heavy steering, the lack of the Escort’s “get up and go” character, and an ageing bodyshell. What they didn’t know was that the styling arguably never got any better than the mark I cabriolet.
By 1988, the XR3i convertible had replaced the 1.6i, the Astra GTE had its own topless model, and the exciting Peugeot 205 CTi had thrown down a new challenge to the ageing Golf.
The Golf was now wearing a new “Clipper” bodyshell, with moulded bumpers, integrated front and rear spoilers, plus a side skirt and wheel arch extensions.
All bar the Peugeot could be seen off with ease. In a group test in CAR magazine, the Golf won everywhere apart from in the “fun factor”, with the “lightweight, flimsy quality” of the CTi not enough to prevent it from nabbing top spot.
Never mind the quality, feel the fun.
The mark I cabriolet shape continued for another five years, with an optional power hood introduced in 1990 and a variety of special editions tiding the cabriolet over until the new mark III finally ended the “classic shape” Golf once and for all.
The Golf GTi was an instant hit and a sure-fire future classic when it was launched, and now it’s regarded as a bona-fide legend and one of the best, and most significant, cars ever made.
These days, cars range in price from £3,000 for a runner up to £25,000 for a mint condition car.
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