Modern Classic: The Golf GTi
It is easy to forget just how this little car changed the car world. When it emerged most stuff was rear wheel drive and badly made with overhangs.
I suppose the GTi really has significance for me because the year it finally arrived in UK spec (right hand drive) was the year I was entered this world. 1979.
Little did anyone realise that thirty-odd years later, that humble little boxy Giugiaro design would have such a worldwide wealth of disciples.
Volkswagen’s Golf was not the first hatchbacked car on sale but, when a bunch of VW engineers set out to make a warmed-over version as an after-hours backroom project, the result rebooted the hard drive of every car manufacturer in the industry.
And to think it nearly didn’t happen.
Drive to work now and the subtly tasty hatchback car is a pre-requisite of daily traffic. It is almost certainly the favourite genre of car in the UK, and you don’t need to look far to see why.
The Golf GTI functions as a jack and master of all trades; a venerable family chariot, a sports car and one that feels special, not to mention affordable. A leading motoring journalist once described the mk1 GTi as ‘the sports cars you didn’t have to suffer to own.’
Prior to the Golf GTi’s birth, to reach its calibre of performance you’d need to drive a cramped coupe or a bulky saloon. The GTi didn’t have the temperamental traits of highly-strung Italian machinery, the hit-and-miss quality of British cars or the kitsch of many ‘70s Japanese try-hards.
It killed the kudos of Ford’s Capri and Opel’s Manta in one fell swoop. I know, because as a kid in the mid-eighties I watched how the Golf headed the crusade for credible front-drive frolics.
The hatchback package ticked off practicality, the Golf was ample sized and lightweight, exceptional build quality and with one of the tautest, sweetest chassis tasted to date.
Fitted with an eager fuel injected front-drive four-pot engine the thing just inhaled meandering B-roads and returned decent motorway comfort, together with real-world mpg. You could cruise it, you could gun it, and you could do the school run without it missing a beat or costing a fortune to keep alive.
And, like a decent Sunday Roast, it’s this 35-year old automotive recipe that just keeps delivering satisfaction and credibility.
The GTi Golf kindled the car classlessness of its era. Bankers, race drivers, career mums and anyone in between fell for its modestly displayed sportiness. Who needed a weekend sports car when you could drive a GTi 24/7?
A lot of cars go down in history for their compromises, but the Golf GTi bucks that trend completely. We love it precisely because it doesn’t compromise a damned thing. Never would you see a Golf GTi classified saying ‘baby forces sale’.
There were many who thought the Beetle’s mass appeal and legendary status could never be bettered, but the GTi disproves them instantly and follows in its cult footsteps.
Of course, even champions have wobbly moments. The GTi’s thoroughbred DNA has been diluted a few times, with the lowest point for me being 1992. The mk3 was a bit chubby and, well, not very good, in my opinion.
The MK3 was launched with a 2.0-litre boat anchor that was a mere five horsepower more than the ‘70s original, and managed to be no faster in the sprint to 60mph than a 1.3 Toyota Corolla. Bad times.
VW had turned the GTi into a Vegas Elvis with all the luxury and glitz, together with a good portion of pie-loving and bronchial wheeze. And just like Elvis records, it kept selling.
The Mk3 did bring the VR6 though – the beginnings of the Golf’s relationship with a six-cylinder engine. It sounded great, but it felt too middle-aged tracksuit to be a GTi. It fogged up the original GTi philosophy.
I’ve never really found love with the R32s either, but that’s just me. Once immersed into the forum-filled world of GTis you realise this is a religion divided by the six marks and 35 years of evolution.
You’re either a mk2 3-door man or an R32 lover; a G60 worshipper or a Belgian look Mk4 follower. In addition to the Golf’s multitasking talent of refinement with hooliganism-available-on-tap mentality, it happens to take rather well to modifying.
I’ve had a few GTis and have utmost respect for the genre foundation layer. Sometimes the original gets buried amongst the flood of copycats, but VW has always seemed to keep re-inventing their star pupil. Besides the obvious mk1 (how futuristic must this have looked in 1976?), for me it’s the mk2 and mk5.
The mk2 for its sheer longevity and fact it has aged as well as Jane Seymour. And the mk5 for its exquisite combination of retro tartan and logoed lights.
Long may the icon shine on.
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