How Volk­swa­gen got the GTI down to a tee

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Auction News - WORDS Nathan Chad­wick PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Magic Car Pics

Thank the 1973 oil cri­sis. At a time when petrol was short, and when au­to­bahns were closed on Sun­days, big thirsty sports cars weren’t ex­actly in de­mand from the Ger­man pub­lic.

This came as a dis­ap­point­ment for two Volk­swa­gen staffers who had mo­tor­sport cours­ing through their veins. A new ap­proach to sporty cars was needed, so de­vel­op­ment en­gi­neer Al­fons Lowen­berg and PR di­rec­tor An­ton Kon­rad nursed their dream of an FIA Group 1-com­pat­i­ble car past an ini­tially scep­ti­cal se­nior man­age­ment.

They worked on the idea in their spare time, build­ing pro­to­types with­out of­fi­fi­cial back­ing. That would only come two years later, in 1975 – but the po­ten­tial was there to be seen.

The Golf GTI made its de­but at the Frank­furt Mo­tor Show in Septem­ber 1975 and the re­sponse was elec­tric. Here was a small car that could blast past 60mph in about nine sec­onds and keep the nee­dle ris­ing un­til 115mph. This put what was es­sen­tially a main­stream, fam­ily car on the same per­for­mance pedestal as such lu­mi­nar­ies as the Ford Es­cort RS1800, Tri­umph Dolomite Sprint and, tellingly, the mod­ern busi­ness­man’s sa­loons – the BMW 5-se­ries and Mercedes-Benz W123.

But it was more than just the out­right per­for­mance fi­fig­ures – it had style, too. The Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro-penned lines were de­void of passé chrome, and the shape was fan­tas­ti­cally fu­tur­is­tic as any supercar of the era. In­side, the VW trim and colour de­signer Gun­hild Lil­jeq­uist’s touch could be seen on the tar­tan-cov­ered Re­caro bucket seats and golf ball gear­knob. This all cre­ated a car that was ef­fort­lessly cool. Ev­ery­thing about it just feels right – it didn’t seem to be just a car, it was a state­ment of qual­ity. That es­sen­tial right­ness could be felt in the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – there’s much more on that on page 26.

But it is that com­par­i­son with the BMW 5-se­ries and the Mercedes-Benz W123 that re­ally helped the Golf GTI be­come the as­pi­ra­tional set of wheels it still is to­day. It was as fast and re­fined as its larger ri­vals, yet al­to­gether much more ex­cit­ing – the Golf is sig­nifi­f­i­cantly lighter, af­ter all. But it was a small car that didn’t look out of place at a busi­ness meet­ing. It was an ap­peal­ing for­mula – de­spite pro­ject­ing just 5000 sales of the MkI, VW even­tu­ally sold 450,000 GTIs be­fore it was re­placed in 1983.

Her­bert Schafer’s de­sign for the MkII was big­ger and roomier, but it wasn’t uni­ver­sally adored when it was re­leased. Some crit­ics said the new Golf’s styling lacked a cer­tain panache, but that didn’t put off pun­ters, and suc­cess was as­sured. Those devo­tees got a much more us­able car, too. While hardcore driv­ers and jour­nal­ists gave it a luke­warm re­cep­tion, the en­gine had more torque than the orig­i­nal 1600, mean­ing the GTI MkII was as happy to cruise as it was to be thrashed. It wasn’t out­ra­geously fast – 60mph came up in just over eight sec­onds, and it topped out at around 115mph. The pub­lic, how­ever, loved it, and it be­came a Yup­pie favourite.

Should you take it out of the city to visit the coun­try, the GTI was an en­thu­si­as­tic steer on B-roads too. Few cars looked just as good there or re­flected in the win­dows of Kens­ing­ton High Street. It wasn’t just a car, it was a life­style ac­ces­sory.

At the time, VW sold most of its GTIs to men, but the David Bai­ley-di­rected TV ad­verts of 1987 made the Golf a must-have for women too. In it, model Paula Hamil­ton ditches her hus­band, jew­elry and fur coat, but keeps her Golf’s car keys. ‘If only ev­ery­thing in life was as re­li­able as a Volk­swa­gen’ was the tagline, and it summed up the ap­peal – stylish, un­der­stated and re­li­able.

In 1986 the Golf MkII fi­nally got the en­gine it de­served, a 16-valve, 1.8-litre unit that meant more than 120mph at the top end and a scorch­ing 0-60mph of 7.5 sec­onds. To put that into con­text, a 1988 Porsche 911 Car­rera 3.2 can do it in seven sec­onds. Thus the Golf wasn’t just the bud­get al­ter­na­tive to that be­winged Stuttgart cre­ation. In the eyes of the up­wardly mo­bile, it was an equal.

The Euro­pean-mar­ket GTI G60 was even faster, us­ing a 1.8-litre en­gine from the Cor­rado. It de­liv­ered a healthy 160bhp thanks to the ad­di­tion of a su­per­charger, but dif­fi­cul­ties adapt­ing the gear­box to a right-hand drive lay­out meant it never of­fi­cially came to the UK.

By now, how­ever, the GTI mar­ket was fi­fierce, with no­table chal­lengers from Peu­geot, Re­nault, Ford and Vaux­hall. But all good things have to come to an end, and by the close of the 1980s GTIs had gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion as a mag­net for thieves, with hy­per-in­flated in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums as a re­sult.

So it should come as no sur­prise that the MkIII Golf GTI had markedly toned down per­for­mance. It was a sim­i­lar case with the styling. Gone were the sharp lines and crisp bodywork creases – the 1991 car was rounder and heav­ier. The fi­first GTI from this era had truly asth­matic per­for­mance, its eight-valve en­gine only good for a 10-se­cond 0-60mph time – a lot slower than the MkI.

The 16-valve GTI of 1993 im­proved mat­ters, of­fer­ing around 150bhp. It de­vel­oped a com­mit­ted fol­low­ing, but this is re­ally when the GTI badge started to lose its sport­ing al­lure. But could Volk­swa­gen have done any­thing dif­fer­ent, given the pre­vail­ing wind at the time? Not only did the GTI badge mean enor­mous in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums, but the mid-1990s saw a move away from per­for­mance cars as a pop­u­lar, main­stream life­style ac­ces­sory. But if the MkIII was a dis­ap­point­ment, much worse was to fol­low with later gen­er­a­tions.

The MkIV GTI was an abom­i­na­tion, and just a brand­ing ex­er­cise for the UK – there was no such car in Ger­many. It was faster than the MkIII – 139mph at the top end and an eight-se­cond 0-60mph time from a torquey, tur­bocharged 1.8-litre en­gine but the quest for re­fine­ment and safety, as de­manded by VW chair­man Fer­di­nand Piech, had left the GTI pretty numb to drive.

This was par­tic­u­larly galling for en­thu­si­as­tic driv­ers, as Ford’s Fo­cus was much bet­ter to drive even in base-model spec­i­fi­ca­tion. By the turn of the mil­len­nium the hot hatch­back was back in fash­ion, with chal­lengers from the likes of Ford, Alfa Romeo, Honda, Vaux­hall and Re­nault. VW re­sponded, but with the six-cylin­der, four-wheel drive R32.

The GTI was a mere foot­note in this era, but out of dark­ness comes light.

The MkV Golf had to be good for Volk­swa­gen, as prof­its had plunged just be­fore its re­lease. But the com­pany couldn’t let the much cheaper Ford Fo­cus off for be­ing bet­ter to drive and cheaper to buy. De­spite the huge cost, VW sanc­tioned in­vest­ment in a multi-link rear sus­pen­sion set-up, though plat­form-shar­ing across the Volk­swa­gen Group helped to mit­i­gate the ex­pen­di­ture. Electro­mechan­i­cal power steer­ing was an ad­di­tion that helped sharpen the Golf’s steer­ing.

Then came the GTI in late 2004. It was an­nounced with a mem­o­rable ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign fea­tur­ing a Mint Royale remix of Gene Kelly’s Singing In

The Rain, with the tagline ‘The orig­i­nal, up­dated’. It cer­tainly seemed to live up to that billing, with in­te­rior and ex­te­rior de­tail­ing that harked backed to the MkI. It was sim­i­larly fun to drive, be­cause with 197bhp on tap from a tur­bocharged, 2.0-litre en­gine, 0-60mph was done and dusted within seven sec­onds and you could carry on all the way to 146mph. The MkV Golf GTI won awards across the board for its han­dling, re­fine­ment, com­fort and sheer shove, top­ping the ma­jor­ity of group tests it was en­tered into. It be­came a pop­u­lar car with tuners too, with the tur­bocharged four-pot of­fer­ing al­most lim­it­less op­tions for big horse­power at low cost.

The king of the hot hatches was back, and while the cur­rent hot hatch­back horse­power arms race is fought be­tween Ford, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Volk­swa­gen it­self with the R mod­els, the GTI is still an al­lur­ing draw at a much lower price than those.

Much like the MkI, the MkVII is all the sports car you’ll ever need. Not bad for a car con­ceived as a lim­ited-run spe­cial edi­tion of 5000.

Huge fun and more re­li­able than its 1970s sports car con­tem­po­raries – but it took three years for VW to fi­fi­nally give us the GTI in RHD form.

16 valves gave the MkII the per­for­mance hit hot hatch fans were look­ing for – but it came at the cost of in­flflated in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums.

One of th­ese cars is an im­poster – the MkIV was only ef­fec­tively a trim level in the UK and was never sold in its home­land. The MkV GTI was praised for bring­ing back the orig­i­nal’s sense of fun, de­spite weigh­ing more than half a tonne more than the MkI.

Volk­swa­gen made much of the GTI’s sprightly ac­cel­er­a­tion – and the car’s K-Jetronic fuel

injection sys­tem.

While the GTI was also avail­able as a con­vert­ible you were lim­ited in the 1980s to the MkI gen­er­a­tion, which stayed on in pro­duc­tion even af­ter its hatch­back sib­ling had been re­placed in 1983.

The MkI’s golf ball gear­knob and tar­tan seat stitch­ing is mim­icked by to­day’s Golf GTI mod­els.

The MkIII was heav­ier and softer than its pre­de­ces­sors – but nowhere near the dud the MkIV GTI was.

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