Friday May 19, 2017
1977 was the year that the Medallion Man roamed Britain’s highways, quite often at the wheel of a Ford Capri 1300L decorated to look resemble a 3000S. His sartorial role model was Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, his jewellery was real imitation gold – and his confusion on seeing the first imports of the Volkswagen Golf GTi was immense. Where were the dramatic rear spoilers or the vinyl roof? Worse still, the bodywork was decidedly understated and the engine drove the front wheels. And so, Medallion Man accelerated away in bemusement, only to be overtaken by a Morris 1100, a Citroen 2CV and an OAP on Raleigh upright.
Meanwhile, many a sporting driver made an appointment at their local VW dealer, as they had been waiting for two years for the ‘special order’ models to arrive in the UK. The VW Golf GTi had been launched at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show because the engineer Alfons Löwenberg and some fellow company employees worked in secret. In March 1973, a year before the Golf was launched, Löwenberg wrote to Volkswagen’s Research and Development office about the possibility of the company building a true high-performance model. He worked with a team on a private project known as the ‘Sports Golf’. The initial prototype was based on a Scirocco – these used the same floorpan as the Golf – and powered by a modified version of the 1,588cc engine from the B1-series Audi 80 GT, and uprated suspension.
At that time, there was some controversy within VW about building as a performance car but when the top management saw the Sport Golf they were almost instantly enthused. The GTi was given the green light although this was to be an exclusive product with a limited run of 5.000 models at a high price. The former Volkswagen Communications Director, Anton Konrad once recalled that there was concern that if such a fast car was available at too low a price ‘the hooligans would come and bring the whole brand into disrepute!’. He also reflected that this was intended to be ‘a sports car with understatement'. In UK terms, this meant that the Golf GTi would not appeal to a driver who thought ‘performance driving’ meant attempting a handbrake turn in Fareham railway station car park while at the wheel of a 1969 Hillman Hunter.
42 years ago, British motorists could only read about this incredible Volkswagen, for British sales would not commence until 1977, dreaming of the days when the GTi’s 110+ mph top speed and 0- 60 mph. in less than 9 seconds would be theirs. It would be inaccurate to say that the Golf was the first ‘hot hatchback’ – Fiat devotees could point to the 128 3P and there was the underrated Simca 1204/1100 Special to name but two but neither truly captured the public imagination. The VW had a Bosch jetronic-induced engine and in terms of looks, it gave the impression of being almost as exclusive as a Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. A Motor Sport review only further whetted appetites.
"With string back gloves whirling and teeth bared you can hurtle the thing along greasy roads at simply incredible speeds on Pirelli CN36 SM radials. While the passenger flinches at the first corner, especially as he/she is on the "wrong" side, they soon share the driver's confidence in a vehicle that simply corners, stops and accelerates in a well-judged harmony of components that are properly matched to each other."
When sales of right-hand drive models commenced in July 1979, it appealed to middle-aged former Mini Cooper S owners, younger drivers trading up from their Fiesta 1300S or indeed anyone who simply recognised a great car. Of its local rivals, the Ford Escort RS2000 Mk. II had firmly established ever since its debut in January 1976 while those who wanted a three-door body might opt for the Vauxhall Chevette 2300HS or the Talbot Sunbeam Ti or the new Sunbeam Lotus. These highly entertaining machines were, of course, all RWD while the Austin Allegro Equipe may have been front wheel drive but, with the best will in the world, it was not quite a Golf GTi competitor. The VW’s low-key looks and price of £4,705 were enough to deter all Medallion Men, for this was a vehicle that was designed by engineers rather than marketing types. It was a Volkswagen Golf GTi, and for generations of enthusiasts, that says it all.