The other day I spoke to my not-very-car-interested neighbour about a car he had seen illegally parked in our street (this is Switzerland remember, so these are the kinds of things you discuss with your neighbours). When asking him what kind of car it was, he said “it was one of those Jeeps”, which of course doesn’t mean it was a GM Jeep at all, but rather some kind of SUV. Jeep is thereby an example of a quite rare phenomenon, namely when a brand name becomes representative of a whole segment. I’m sure that’s great for Jeep somehow, but let’s assume I had instead asked the neighbour what he thought about when I said “GTI”. I’m quite sure the answer would have been “Golf”, not only from him, but basically from every single person born in the 70’s and 80’s (and perhaps some others as well). Three letters, meaning nothing more than Grand Turismo Injection, have become synonymous not only with all Golf GTI’s built in different versions since the mid-70’s, but with the whole hot hatch segment that followed. That’s beats Jeep by a mile, and today we’ll look at the first generation Golf GTI!
The sun was shining on our summer house outside of Stockholm in the summer in 1976 or 1977 when the father in the neighbouring family arrived in his new Golf GTI. You’ll forgive me for not knowing the date exactly but I was five or six then so this is one of my very early memories, but I do remember how extremely cool the car was and how great it sounded! The neighbours had two sons roughly my age, and I would enjoy many rides to the beach in that Golf together with them in the following years. I especially remember the younger one loving to stand between the front chairs and play air guitar during the drives – yeah, these were slightly different times…
That Golf GTI was of course a representative of the Golf family, one of the biggest car successes of all times and born out of VW’s inability in the late 60’s and early 70’s to develop a desirable replacement to the ageing Beetle, a pre-WW2 construction. Finally Giurgietto Guigiaro took the pen and drew what became the Golf, introduced in 1974. The self-supporting body of the new car showed very good rigidity, and thus a group of engineers came up with the idea to build a more sporty version. They managed to convince VW’s management and “the fastest VW of all time” would be introduced in 1976, with as engine the 1.6 litre four-pot from the Audi 80 GTE, developing 110 hp. Not a lot, but remember this was in a car weighing in at around 800 kg, and also at a time where there was some kind of inofficial consensus that a front-wheel drive car couldn’t handle more than 100 hp. VW’s management may have been convinced to go ahead with the GTI but didn’t have very high hopes for its potential success, estimating the total demand at 5.000 cars. That was of course just slightly off the mark.
The GTI became an immediate success. Some optical touches consisting of a different front spoiler and the famous, red-framed front grill but also black window frames and plastic wheelhouse arches for the slightly larger wheels all helped differentiate it on the outside from regular Golfs. The optical “tuning” with limited means continued on the inside with the famous tartan textile on the seats and the even more famous golfball-styled shifting knob. The Golf GTI had stiffer suspension than regular Golfs and was fun to drive. Given the low weight, its sub-10 seconds to 100 km/h meant it was quicker than many of the popular coupés at the time, such as the Manta we looked at a couple of weeks ago or indeed VW’s own Scirocco. Not only was it faster/better to drive, it remained as practical as any Golf, built like a box and easily fitting both more people and luggage than a coupé. Its pricing was competitive and the 5.000 cars VW had imagined rapidly became much more, eating into a lot of those coupé sales.
Based very much on the idea of never changing a winning concept, there weren’t many modifications to the Mk1 GTI until its production end in 1984. Some of the most important include the five-speed gearbox that came in 1979 and wasn’t to everyone’s liking, and what can be referred to as a face lift in 1981 including larger tail lights and a re-designed interior with notably a new dashboard but also new textiles – and a new gear shifter. In the final year of production the GTI would receive a larger engine at 1.8 litres, primarily with better torque, that would later be used in the MK2 GTI. The purists weren’t more convinced by the new engine than by the five-speed gearbox, as the larger engine to them didn’t feel as “pointy” as the old one. This is of course reminiscent of the same discussion around the 1.6 vs the 1.9 litre in the Peugeot 205 GTI, the hot hatch that is almost as legendary as the Golf GTI and which would make life hard for the Mk2 GTI from the mid-80’s and onwards.
When the lights went out on the first series GTI, a total of just over 460.000 cars had been built. By now this is over a million across all eight series of the GTI, and even though there have certainly been later models that are great to drive, the purity of the original concept has vanished over the years, with the GTI becoming much more of a conventional, and not-very-hot hatch. The no-frills approach of the first series is what made its success, together with the fact that it remained as practical and solid as any conventional Golf, and it’s what still makes it great today. If you can find one, that is.
Given the production numbers you’d perhaps expect that there are still plenty of cars to be had. Unfortunately, the reality is rather that many cars have been crashed, thrashed or tuned to death, or quite simply rusted away, since VW’s rust protection at the time wasn’t great. The Golf is of course not a 12-cylinder Italian full blood and it won’t ruin you even if it’s not perfect but still, for the EUR 20-25′ where the fun starts today (by the way more or less what the GTI cost when it was launched in today’s money), make sure you find the right car. If you do, the grand daddy of the whole hot hatch segment still reamains one of its best representatives. These days however, I’d recommend enjoying it without air guitar playing between the front seats!