The mid-1970s was a heady era for Volkswagen. The company was flourishing after the runaway success of both the Scirocco and the Golf. In fact VW had sought to copy Ford’s marketing strategy of boosting economy model sales by association with the sporty character of a close automotive relative, and chosen the Scirocco for the job. It was some time before anyone realized VW had missed a trick: nobody thought of the Scirocco as a ‘sporty Golf’ any more — it was out there pursuing its own destiny.
There was room for a new, high-performance model derived from and named specifically after the Golf, even if VW’s top brass couldn’t see it, and reluctantly agreed only to keep their eager (and brilliant) engineering team happy. The production run was to be confined to 5000, and the car’s name was not to mention ‘sport’ in any way, in case it was a disappointment. Call it serendipity. The letters `GTI’ were chosen before the Golf’s traditional carburettor was ditched in favour of the Bosch K-Jetronic Fuel Injection system to which VW gained access when the company absorbed Audi and NSU.
People would believe what they wanted to believe, especially once they sat in the car and discovered how smoothly it started, and felt the instantaneous throttle response. But there were dozens of other engineering modifications besides fuel injection that contributed to the 57% increase in power over the standard 1600 Golf; and dozens more suggestions (like spoilers, airdams and ailerons) that were rejected for fear of detracting from the Golf GTI’s subtle good looks. Word-of-mouth marvelled at the GTI’s discreetly contained oomph, and swiftly outran all of VW’s frantic post-launch PR and advertising. Production was quickly reassessed at 5000 per month. The Golf GTI heralded the ‘hot-hatch’ revolution and spawned a host of imitators
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Germany
FIRST MANUFACTURED: 1976 (until 1983)
ENGINE: 1,588 cc Volkswagen Straight Four
PERFORMANCE: Top speed of 112 mph (180 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 8.7 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW: As it had done so often before, VW tested its forthcoming technology in public, but without telling the public: so you can find late Mark I Golf GTIs fitted with the 1800 cc engine planned for the GTI Mark II. The difference in performance at lower engine speeds did a lot to raise the ‘Golf GTI hype’ to fever pitch.