All cars are a compromise. Some favour performance, some economy, some practicality, some looks, some reliability, some comfort and some fail to achieve any of the above, but in reality all give concessions somewhere along the line. The Golf1 GTI is perhaps unique in neatly balancing all of these qualities. Out of necessity, this article concentrates on the GTI at the expense of the many other lesser (and indeed greater) versions of the Golf. It also focuses largely on the older models, as it is these that are gradually achieving classichood.
People's Car #2
Back in the 1970s during the fuel crisis, small, fuel-efficient cars were becoming popular. The lack of space afforded by these cars compared to the more traditional saloon (sedan) was mitigated by the addition of the tailgate from an estate (station wagon); these cars became known as hatchbacks. Round about the same time, Volkswagen had churned out over 15 million Beetles and were starting to get bored. It was time for a new people's car.
Market forces dictated that it would be a small, economical and practical hatchback. The result was the Golf2, unveiled alongside the Scirocco Mk I3 at the Geneva Motor Show in 1974. The original Mk1 LS had a 1500cc, 70bhp engine and a wheelbase of 7'11".
As legend goes, a bunch of engineers at VW decided to soup up one of the prototype Golfs of their own volition, completely unbeknown to VW management. Instead of just sacking them, management reluctantly gave the go-ahead for production, although initially for only 5,000 cars4 to achieve homologation for racing. Crucially, however, they insisted that the hatchback's practicality, economy and long (for the time) 10,000-mile service interval were to be unaffected.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in motoring world, faced with the apparently contradictory goals of increased fuel efficiency and increased power, manufacturers were turning to fuel injection in place of carburettors on their top of the range models. This was marketed as a 'sporty' thing. As everyone jumped on the bandwagon, scores of models sprung up with 'i', or 'injection' on the back. Some Fords even had the word 'injection' in huge tacky plastic letters all the way down the side of the car.
The Mk I - Something Worthwhile from the 1970s
VWs of course were rather more understated. The 'i' was combined with the age-old 'GT' ('sporty', in effect), to create the GTI. The moniker was first applied to Golf Mk I at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1975. Other than the badge and a front spoiler5, there were few external clues as to the 'sportiness' of this car. The standard Golf LS's 1500cc engine was replaced by a 1600cc 110bhp fuel-injected engine borrowed from the Audi 80. The suspension, brakes and wheels were up-rated, and that was about it. However, the torquey engine and low weight (780Kg) enabled it to reach 60mph in 9.0 seconds; not much, but enough. It was received with critical acclaim from all corners of the community as both practical and fun to drive.
The most obvious niggles were ironed out in 1979, when VW fitted a five-speed gearbox and produced a right-hand-drive version for the UK market. It was improved still further in 1982, when a 1800cc, 112bhp engine was introduced. Despite the modest power increase, 0-60 was reduced to 8.2 seconds (the new engine was lighter and torquier) and fuel consumption was reduced.
The final Mk I GTI, released in 1983 and widely regarded as the best, was a special edition now known as the 'campaign' model. It could be differentiated by green-tinted windows, Pirelli 'P' 14" alloy wheels and, for the first time as standard, the twin-headlamp grille. The cabriolet ought to be mentioned here too. The first appeared in 1979 and a GTI version in 1985. It was based on the Mk I but modified by Karmann, and was so popular that when the time came to produce a Mk II cabriolet, VW didn't bother and kept producing Mk Is until 1991.
The MK II - An Improvement!
Slightly bigger than the Mk I (wheelbase 8'2"), and slightly heavier (5-dr 942Kg), the Mk II, launched in 1983, had the torquey 1800cc engine from the start. The car was blessed with a suspension and steering set-up that gave better feedback than sports cars costing four times as much. Perhaps surprisingly, given the shape, a lot of effort was put into improving aerodynamics; the resulting drag coefficient of 0.34 was identical to the jellymould Ford Sierra. Despite the increased weight, this resulted in a 6mph improvement in top speed, a 2.1mpg improvement in fuel consumption and only a 0.1 second drop (to 8.3s) in 0-60 time over the outgoing Mk I.
In 1985, a 139bhp 16-valve version was introduced with a 0-60 time of 7.9s, and the range was given a facelift (known as the big-bumper model) in 1990. VW also toyed with various supercharged and 4x4 versions.
This was the hey day of GTI ownership6, when jilted or otherwise melancholic Golf owners could legitimately seek solace from driving off to the sound of Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good'. In the early to mid-1980s, even yuppies (who couldn't yet afford Porsche 911s) adopted the GTI. Nevertheless, the image of an overly wealthy 20-something driving a mint GTI through London at 3mph did nothing to damage the car's reputation - after all, these people had money and were still driving them.
It did, however, give the marketeers at VW some disturbing ideas. During Mk II production, it was given power-steering, electric windows and all the other gadgets that conspire to increase weight and complexity and reduce reliability and driving enjoyment, as standard. This was probably essential, and thus almost forgivable, on the grounds of market competition, but the purists will tell you that things started going downhill from here.
The Mk III - Still Not Bad
The Mk III GTI debuted in August 1991 with a new 2.0l 115bhp engine. It was bigger (although wheelbase remained at 8'2") and heavier again (1,030kg), due in part to the increased size but mainly to the strengthening needed to meet new crash-safety legislation. Despite the bigger engine, the car's 0-60 time of 10.3s left it trailing in average-family-saloon territory. Worse still, the handling was way soggier than the superlative standard set by the first two models. People started to grumble that perhaps the GTI badge was undeserved.
To the fans who believed that 'GTI' was synonymous with 'sporty', it was an absurd irony. Why was the world's greatest sporting hatchback being subjugated by its own masters? The answer, as we shall see later, is strange but not incomprehensible.
Besides, all was not doom and gloom; the Mk III it was comfier and more refined than the Mk II and continued to sell well. The critics were answered a year later when a 16-valve, 150bhp version went on sale, and were silenced completely when VW stopped fooling about with superchargers and finally figured out how to cram a big engine into a small car. The result was the 2.8l, 174bhp VR67.
The Mk IV - Can't Complain; No Really, You Can't
September 1998. Bigger (wheelbase 8'3") and nearly half a ton heavier than the Mk I, at 1270Kg (see the pattern?). The initial Mk IV GTI appeared to repeat the mistake made with the Mk III. Two models were available; a 20-valve 1.8l (125bhp) and more respectable 1.8l turbo (150bhp). The lower-spec car could manage 0-60 in 9.9s, but was replaced after only a year by an 8-valve, 2.0l, 115bhp engine that was slower still. At this point, the model range started to get rather silly, presumably due to the fact that Golfs were now selling by the squillion.
During the production run of the Mk IV, there were oodles of GTI variations - 1.8l (125bhp), 2.0l (115bhp), 2.0l (130bhp), 1.8 turbo (150bhp); 1.8 turbo (180bhp). Add to this the diesel TDI variants (150bhp), and the 'others' - 2.3l V5 (150bhp), 2.3l V5 (170bhp), 2.8l V6 4motion (204bhp) and ultimately the 3.2l V6 R32 (240bhp), and suddenly it became impossible to work out how 'sporty' your car actually was. In fact the bog-standard GTI was pretty close to the bottom of the range in terms of speed, being happily outperformed by some of the diesels. Oddly though, it was the GTI that had all the gadgets as standard, now with climate control and even shiny bits of wood in the cabin.
While the Golf itself went on to win awards, the GTI continued to be disparaged by the critics. It was indisputably a good car, but lacked the sharpness and feel of the early models; it just could not compete with the latest hot hatches, particularly on the track. They continued to sell though, so VW were getting something right even if no-one could fathom out what it was.
The Mk V - We Know Where This is Going...
Yes, it is bigger, heavier and more expensive. The Mk V has a wheelbase of 8'6" and at 13'9" nose to tail, it is as long as the original 1973 Passat. (It is worth pointing out that this bloating is not unique to the Golf; the Polo has grown to the extent that it is now heavier than the original Golf, and a new small car (the Lupo) was required to fill the gap.) The GTI version sports a goatee-style grille in common with many of its contemporaries and comes with a vast array of accessories including the obligatory cup holders, electrically-powered everything, automatic wipers and driving lights, ESP, EDL, ABS; the list goes on and on. Due to the increase in size, they've also managed to squeeze an engine in there and the new GTI has 200bhp. It'll probably need it.
After 30 years in production, the GTI no longer feels like a go-kart to drive and costs an arm and a leg, but it is still a very capable and practical machine. Doubtless the new ones are quicker round a track too, even if it doesnít quite feel like they should be. Golf nuts will tell you that itís still possible to detect hints of the original GTI, such as the low gearing, torquey engine and chuckabout feel of the thing, but only just.
The Mk IV and V are no longer simple, fun cars; they are extremely refined and luxurious hatchbacks with a good deal of dynamic ability. Of course, reliability has plummeted in line with increased complexity, it is impossible to change a bulb without going to a dealer, and the dealer's mechanics can't fix a problem their computer doesn't recognise, but this is true of many modern cars.
As for the earlier models, they have an almost paranormal ability to keep going and going even given very little care and attention. This is best illustrated with a little consideration of the GTI's original rivals, as nominated by the motoring press at the time:
Mk1 - Ford Escort RS2000, Talbot Sunbeam Ti, Vauxhall Chevette HS, Triumph Dolomite Sprint
Mk 2 - MG Maestro, Ford Escort XR3i, Vauxhall Astra GTE/SRi.
How many of those do you see on the way to work every day? Perhaps sadly, it is likely that the early GTIs will also outlast many of their descendants.
Epilogue - So Just What Were They Up To?
The reality of course is that VW had not misjudged their market. When it came to cars, they knew their customers better than the customers knew themselves. VW never intended the GTI to be a racing car, rally car or even sports car, which goes some way towards explaining the understated nature of the originals. 'GT' after all means 'Grand Tourer', and few people would deny that the newer models slip cleanly into that category. VW were not phased one iota by the other manufacturers' interpretations of 'GTI' - they had invented the term and could use it as they pleased.
The thinking went something like this. The quality that set the original GTIs apart from the competition wasn't performance - it was, well, quality and the whole package. In any case, the Golf had never been the fastest in its class8. People still bought them in droves; evidently the customers were not too fussed about owning the fastest model. From marketing surveys, it transpired that a typical GTI driver's second choice was not a top-of-the-range pocket rocket from Peugeot, Honda or Ford with lots of stickers and wings, it was a BMW 3-series. Customer loyalty was also a very important consideration for VW - when the Mk IV arrived, original Mk I owners were in their forties, Mk II/III owners in their thirties and so on. The cars had grown up with their owners9, a fact that was cleverly exploited in the ads. To avoid alienating the sports crowd entirely, there were always the high-spec V6 sports models.
So, while the rest of the world churned out hatchbacks with an obligatory sports version at the top of the range, VW quietly persisted with their unique small grand tourer, happy to let the criticism wash over them. Of course, if you really want a light, fun hatchback with razor-sharp handling, there are still plenty of Mk Is and Mk IIs around.