Golf: Simplicity in Design

Cars People

It’s 1973, you’ve just turned 30 and you’ve been tasked with saving one of the world’s biggest motor manufacturers from ruin. 

To pull this off your new design company, built on sports car success, is being asked to find a replacement for the VW beetle – a design classic that has sold Millions worldwide.
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This is the position in which Giorgetto Giugiaro (above) and his fledgling company Italdesign found themselves around 40 years ago. It was a moment that would define Giugiaro’s career and make motoring history. He sums it up in his typically cool Italian fashion:

“I contributed to making the long, low, sleek car fashionable and now it’s time to change. I have to eat you know.”

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He wasn’t exaggerating. By the early 1970s, in a short but busy career, Giugiaro had been an important aesthetic influence at Fiat’s Special Cars Styling Department, helped style the Ferrari 250GT at Bertone and had briefly held a senior position at Ghia before starting up Italdesign in 1967.

His new outfit soon made its mark for Alfa Romeo with the Alfasud in 1971, showing that they could design cars of great beauty that were also mass market sellers. This was followed by the Lotus Esprit in ’72 before the VW brief – project EA 337.

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VW needed a successor to its super successful Beetle, and after a couple of market failures and culling sprees of certain senior executives, things were looking desperate.

The story goes that senior engineering staff were called in to ‘Valhalla’ (VW’s top secret convening room) where Dr. Hans Georg Wenderoth unveiled Italdesign’s creation (project EA 337), announcing with typical German pragmatism:

“It will be the future of Volkswagen. We have no choice. If this car fails, then we fail.”

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Clearly hindsight has allowed us to relieve Dr. Hans of his anxiety and to prove him right. The car didn’t fail and it certainly went on to be (and in all likelihood, still is) the future of Volkswagen.

Certainly the Golf design has undergone changes in the last 40 years but they all pay homage to its origin penned by the hand of Giugiaro in Italdesign’s studios.

Faced as he was with replacing the Baroque curves of the Beetle the young designer went for clean lines and simplicity. Commenting that the “…unique two-box shape was stylish and practical, but it looked nothing like a station wagon.”

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With the advent of the Golf, VW not only benefited from the design talent of Giorgetto Giugiaro, but also from the skills of his business partner at Italdesign. Aldo Martorani was a highly experienced body engineer with 19 years experience at Fiat.

This partnership meant Italdesign could offer a one-stop shop for an integrated styling and engineering package that even specified tooling design and delivered production schedules to a manufacturer – something VW took full advantage of with the Golf.

When asked many years later what he though the secret of the design was Giugiaro replied:

“I think the dimensions and proportions are perfect…”

Some at the time differed in opinion. The voice from Detroit, GM’s Bill Mitchell said of that early Golf that it looked like:

“A bullfrog that swallowed a box”

Well Bill, maybe what the motoring world really needed in the early 70’s was box-swallowing bullfrogs, because this one has sold over 30 million and still counting.

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