Tuesday March 27, 2018
When admiring Lancaster’s Golf, it is difficult to remember that only a decade before the first RHD GTis hit the British market, the idea of a front wheel drive VW was unknown. 1970 saw the launch of the K70, an NSU design that became the first FWD and water-cooled Volkswagen, followed by the B1-series Passat in 1973 and the Scirocco in 1974. The Golf made its bow later in that same year and it is even more difficult to believe that the Mk. I is now 44 years old. That famous coachwork, courtesy of Giorgetto Giugiaro, appears almost timeless in comparison with certain of its contemporaries that seem locked in the 1970s.
As all enthusiasts know, it began as the “Sport Golf” project that was developed by the engineer Alfons Löwenberg and Anton Konrad, who was then in charge of VW’s press department. Their idea was to present Volkswagen’s management with a viable, high-performance hatchback that would appeal to would-be Porsche 911 drivers with a more limited income.
The initial prototype was based on the Scirocco (which shared its floor pan with the Golf) and boasted the Audi 80GT’s 1.6-litre engine in 100 bhp tune. However, as tempting as such a car appeared, it looked too radical for the directors of Volkswagen. The design made somewhat more refined and to keep costs and potential maintenance issues to a minimum, the Sport used as many standard parts as possible. By 1975 VW marketer Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky devised a new name – the GTi.
In the event, the GTi was formally approved for production on the 28th May, and it made its first public appearance at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show. As befitting a car that was utterly confident about its 110 mph top speed, its exterior was definitely not aimed at the medallion man driver. The grille’s red pinstripe was undeniably smart, the front spoiler remained ‘subtle’ rather than ‘suburban drag-racer’, and the golf-ball style gear knob was a clever touch. Naturally, the real interest lay under the bonnet, with a 1,588cc engine fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection that had a maximum torque of 103 lbs ft. @ 5,000 rpm.
German sales commenced in mid-1976 and at that year’s London Motor Show, many a visitor craved a GTi finished in Mars Red, Diamond Metallic Silver or Schwartz Black. At that time VW stated that technical reasons ruled out a RHD model and when the first imports arrived in the UK, costing £3,372, they were in LHD form. The brochures suggested ‘nine seconds to get to know it’, and in March 1977 Motor Sport advised owners to demonstrate the GTi’s abilities ‘with restraint’ when in the company of those who had paid larger sums for tamer cars. They also observed that ‘it is hard to stop laughing on some occasions’. Meanwhile, John Bolster stated in Autosport that ‘the new GTi Volkswagens are such outstanding cars that for once I am at a loss to find anything serious to criticise’.
It would not be until July 1979 that Volkswagen would offer British motorists a right-hand-drive version. At that time, anyone considering a Golf GTi might have also looked at the Renault 5 Gordini while its major UK-market rivals – the Ford Escort RS2000 Mk. II, the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, the Vauxhall Chevette 2300HS and the Triumph Dolomite Sprint were all rear wheel drive. BL never developed a genuinely sporting version of the Austin Allegro while the XR3 would not make its debut until late 1980. The Volkswagen was not a cheap car at £4,705 but then to quote Autocar, it scored ‘in exuberance and urgency’. And to think that VW originally planned to build a limited run of just 5,000 GTI’s…