Imagine a world without Volkswagen. Almost impossible, but that spine-chilling scenario might have come to pass had it not been for the Golf.
The company responsible for the “People’s Car” was still making and selling Beetles into the early 1970s, but not in great numbers. It was staring down the barrel of imminent bankruptcy when VW Director-General Rudolf Leiding, who ascended to the post in 1971, noted “the Beetle’s day had passed and its production was becoming a liability. The global situation for VW was more critical than we once thought... We were dealing with the survival of a giant group.”
There was a plan afoot to replace the rear-drive/rear-engined Bug with a mid-engined hatchback, still with an air-cooled engine. It was developed by a young engineer called Ferdinand Piëch, who would eventually become chairman of the VW Group and was named Car Executive of the Century in 1999. But Leiding had other ideas.
He opted for the front-drive/front-engined route and made the switch to a water-cooled engine. This was still outside VW’s corporate comfort zone at the time but the K70 midsize sedan (built from 1970-74) had the same layout. Unfortunately, the K70 was seriously flawed, so Leiding decided to put his faith in a hatchback based on the compact architecture of the Audi 80.
Legendary designer Giorgetto Guigiaro developed the styling: simple and functional, yet still pleasing to the eye.
The very first Golf rolled off Wolfsburg’s assembly line in 1974. It was comparatively spacious and the handling was surprisingly good. It ushered the birth of a new People’s Car, as well as the arrival of the hatchback as we know it.
By all accounts, Leiding wasn’t a people person, but he knew about production. Although he retired months after the Golf’s introduction, the model’s success (and the company as a whole) owes a great deal to this man and his ability to increase efficiency. Within two years, VW had reclaimed its top-seller spot in Germany from rivals Opel.
With the Golf on its way to domestic domination, the Scirocco coupe (another Giugiaro creation) shared the same platform. The four-door Jetta would also be spawned by the hatchback.
It’s common knowledge that the Golf wasn’t named after the popular sport. Like the Scirocco and the Passat, the Golf got its
name from a wind. In this case, it was the Gulf Stream, but the Germans have a slightly different spelling. However, the round, dimpled gear shift knob and Caddy pickup version certainly muddied these waters somewhat when it came to the name’s origins.
The Golf arrived in the United States as the Rabbit, a unique name for these shores and one that was revived for the US-spec fifth generation, but not something that caught on in other markets.
As another hypothetical, would the Golf have become an icon if the GTI never existed? As the original hot hatch, it created a new niche in Europe and was perhaps the original “halo car”. It certainly adds lustre to the Golf range and has been a top seller for many years.
The GTI wasn’t the result of the product planning department. It was a “skunk works” project, developed on evenings and weekends by a group of VW engineers who wanted a more entertaining Golf. They knew the platform was lightweight and blessed with a good chassis, so they simply gave it more power.
Initially referred to as Sport Golf, it received a thumbs-up when placed in front of VW management in 1976. They originally decided to make just 5000 examples, and once Bosch direct injection was added the name was changed to GTI.
Because it was intended to be a limited run, Volkswagen never even obtained a trademark for the three letters. But nor did the company stop at 5000.
Over four decades and more than 29 million Golfs later (it’s one of the all-time best-selling cars), we’ve enjoyed 16-valve engines, superchargers and turbos, VR6, four-wheel-drive and R models. There have been diesel-powered models, a double-clutch semi-automatic, an off-road variant, pickup, van derivative and many more.
With the seventh generation hitting the headlines, the Golf has grown in dimension and stature. Sufficiently trim for city driving, comfortable enough for a road trip; refined enough to feel luxurious, but always entertaining to drive, the VW Golf is the total package. And the GTI is the ideal Golf.