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The VW Golf mk1 Story

Mar 29, 2024
Volkswagen revamped its entire range in the early 1970s, but the most important of these cars must have been the replacement for the venerable Beetle: the Volkswagen Golf. The Beetle was such an important part of VW's hi


(for a long time it was the only vehicle they offered), so it would be a difficult milestone to follow. However, the replacement thrived, selling over 37 million cars in 8 generations and counting. This compares to 21 million Beetles over a longer period. So, sit back, grab your favorite beverage, and join me as we learn the hi


of the first-generation Volkswagen Golf. In the 1960s, Volkswagen was slowly gaining financial strength, selling a surprisingly large number of cars, given that they had only produced four different vehicles, each using variations of the same rear-mounted air-cooled engine.
the vw golf mk1 story
But Volkswagen's secret weapon was its reliability. The Beetle started out with many problems, but Volkswagen found and systematically fixed almost all of them. It's not that Volkswagen hadn't thought about replacing the Beetle; I have a whole video talking about their failed attempts to replace it. By the late 1960s, the Beetle, like the Mini in the 1990s, had gone from seriously unfashionable to back in fashion, but nostalgia only gets you so far, and to thrive , Volkswagen needed a modern replacement. Porsche had done VW's engineering work for many years, while Volkswagen ran its development team on a shoestring budget.
the vw golf mk1 story

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the vw golf mk1 story...

The company behind the 911 began working on a small car in 1966, but soon offered it to Volkswagen as a possible replacement for the Beetle. VW agreed and made it clear that they wanted it to be agile, comfortable, safe to drive, spacious and compact. The designer was Ferdinand Piëch and a few decades later he would go on to direct Volkswagen. He, perhaps naturally, designed something with strong Porsche influences. The car was mid-engined, with the big 1.6L power unit hidden under the rear seats. This would probably have produced a high rear seat like the Volvo 300 series that placed the transmission and fuel tank in the same location.
the vw golf mk1 story
It probably would have also been quite noisy and that engine would have produced a warm back seat that wouldn't have been very comfortable in the summer. To be fair, if you ask Porsche to design a car, they won't put the engine in the front! The weight balance would be completely wrong! But although the engine location may seem strange today, it would not be out of the ordinary for the VW range: all of their cars had a rear engine and a boot in the front. At the same time, Volkswagen was working on its own replacement for the Beetle.
the vw golf mk1 story
It used the old Beetle engine, but VW was moving with the times. The engine was located in the front, with front-wheel drive and a rear hatchback. The 1.6-liter fuel-injected engine offered by Porsche would make it one of the first “hot hatches”: it would reach 187 km/h (116 mph). The Volkswagen version of the car used the decidedly more pedestrian 44 hp (33 kW) Beetle's engine and gearbox, with an equally pedestrian look that was never going to excite the buying public. But the goal here was to save development costs and maintain reliability by using existing parts, and Volkswagen was astute enough to realize that customers in the 1970s wanted a small, practical hatchback with plenty of interior space.
It would be natural to think that VW was competing with hatchbacks like the Fiat 127 or Renault 5, but these cars had not yet been launched on the market. Volkswagen's sights were aimed squarely at Fiat's largest 128 and they had taken apart one of its components to see how it worked. Both projects had been started by former VW boss Heinrich Nordhoff, but his untimely death in 1968 led to a new boss: Kurt Lotz. NSU was in financial chaos due to the Wankel rotary engine failing to live up to expectations and taking over the company. NSU knew about rotary engines, but they were also experts in front-engine, front-wheel drive cars, something Volkswagen had almost no experience with.
They also had a design department that would flesh out Volkswagen's small operation. The internal Beetle replacement project was transformed into a new project: EA337. The big change for this new project would be the engine. The Beetle's air-cooled four-cylinder engine was fine for the 1930s, but times had changed. NSU had been developing a new supermini which would be launched as the Audi 50. Its modern engine would be ideal for the new car and keep development costs down, and the larger 1.5 L engine from the Audi 80 would complete the range. But who should design this car? Kurt Lotz visited the Turin Motor Show and discovered that some of his favorite designs were by Giorgetto Giugiaro.
Going with what you like and not what your target market likes can be a recipe for disaster, but in this case it turned out to be an inspired decision. Giugiaro was tasked with designing VW's Beetle replacement, and the improvement over his original design showed what happens when you put a great stylist to the job. Volkswagen liked his ideas so much that they decided to use him to design the replacement for their new large car, the Passat, and the replacement for the Karmann Ghia, the Scirocco. Giugiaro's “folded paper” design would become Volkswagen's new family style, curiously with a BMW-like Hofmeister touch.
The Passat would be the first car designed and launched and would be followed by the Scirocco. Surprisingly, the Porsche project had not yet been cancelled. Maybe Kurt Lotz was hedging his bets on which project would be the right way to go. Although we will never know which one he would have chosen. Lotz managed to upset union bosses and important partner Porsche, and Volkswagen's cash flow went into crisis. To his many detractors, Kurt Lotz was known as "Trouble Lotz." He was forced to resign in 1971 to be replaced by Rudolph Leiding, who was not a fan of Giugiaro's car: he thought he was ugly.
Giugiaro was soon sidelined and only designed two other Volkswagen cars: the Jetta, a booted Golf, and the W12 concept in 1997, many years after Rudolph Leiding retired. The VW boss would like to cancel these projects, but at this point the Passat and Scirocco were too far along and the Beetle replacement shared many of their components. He made the decision to can the Porsche small car project: it was too expensive to produce and it would be much more difficult to convert this rear-engined car into a saloon, estate or station wagon. Thus, the new replacement for the Beetle would be the EA337.
If they could bring it to market, that is. Volkswagen was in financial trouble after sales plummeted and the Type 4 failed, so it had to turn to the German government for money to finance the development of the Golf. This Beetle replacement was truly a breakthrough car. Fortunately, Giugiaro knew how to create great style on a limited budget: he understood the impact of his shape on the production process. This new car would be much cheaper to produce than the outgoing Beetle. But they soon discovered that it had to be modified to comply with new US accident laws, so the angle of the windshield was increased and 2 inches (6 cm) were added to the length of the hood.
When the car was launched in the US, it acquired ugly oversized bumpers for the same reason. The goal was to use rectangular headlights to reflect the rear light cluster, but this proved too expensive and did not comply with US legislation. No matter, friendly round headlights were used, providing a subtle nod to the Beetle. Giugiaro was never happy with these changes which, in his opinion, detracted from the original design. Golf, as we all know, is named after this sport. Like the Polo, right? Except there are those who say it's named after the trade winds: Golf for Gulf Stream, Passat apparently means "trade wind", Scirocco is also a wind, Polo means polar winds, well, at least according to Road & Track.
I've never found a Volkswagen source that definitively states what the car is named after, and at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. It's a short, quick word that's easy to say and hard to get wrong. The Volkswagen Golf was launched on the market in 1974 and immediately received praise from the automotive press. It was a spacious and practical car inside. And it was launched just when everyone was thinking about fuel economy, just after the fuel crisis of 1973. Volkswagen hit the nail on the head with a pair of frugal but lively engines mated to a manual or automatic gearbox.
You could have your cake and eat it too in a range of original colors that were more interesting than today's black, white, silver and gray. However, the Golf was not a great success with the public from the beginning. It was outsold by Opel's new rear-wheel drive Kadett. And there was always a concern that customers would equate a hatchback with a utilitarian estate car, a vehicle without much style. But the sloping hatchback had more of a coupe feel while being practical, and this new shape became popular. Sales grew as people began to drive it and recommend the car as a good all-terrain vehicle with space for five people and their luggage.
My parents bought a Golf in 1980 after owning a Polo and it was a fantastic car. I got my own first-generation Golf in the late 80s. It was a 1.3 LS in a color I could only describe as “snot green.” I loved how it drove though. My friend Russ is a true motor enthusiast. It must be: he has an Alfa Romeo! He also owned a first-generation Golf and agreed to talk a little about the experience of driving one: Thanks Andy, I'm privileged to be a special guest on Big Car! Of course, I'm mainly here with the vague promise of keeping this Big Car t-shirt.
When you said you were doing an episode about the Volkswagen Golf mk1, well, my heart melted into a puddle of sentimental goo and very black oil. And that's because my first car, bought with my hard-earned money, was a Volkswagen Golf mk1. A bright yellow 1974 Golf, 4-door, 1.1 L, 50 HP (37 kW). It doesn't matter, I waited 13 years to buy that particular car. It was my used joy, used and what I was going to discover, without maintenance for a few years. I could say I even named her – Daisy – but that would be embarrassing, so we'll skip it. So let me summarize a little bit of my experience with Daisy… I mean my Golf mk1.
The first thing I liked, even though it was old, was that it looked modern. Crisp lines from any angle, with no sagging or wasted excess. Not only was he an observer, he was also a bit of a manager. In those days I made many trips along the A and B roads of the glorious British countryside. Making it move at any pace made me feel like the Mansell or Senna of that era. You had to keep the revs high and make full use of all 4 gears, but I was able to use full power on those roundabouts for a long, long time.
In fact, up to 100 km/h (60 mph). But the most fun was undoubtedly that driving. Of course, it understeered a little as it was front-wheel drive, but in fast corners in the wet it slid smoothly sideways, evenly and predictably. Of course, it was mainly about tires. You know those little, skinny tires, the emergency ones you put on cars traveling 35 mph (56 km/h) in the slow lane? Well, that was practically the rubber for every corner of the car: only 145 mm (5¾“) wide. So as a result, it was great when it started to rain. What I love about all Golfs is the simplicity and ergonomic layout of the controls.
My mk1 took simplicity to the next level. Remember when cars had a few rows of switches and then a couple of blank spaces? Well, my 1.1 base had a row of blanks and then a couple of switches. One for the heated rear window and another for the hazard lights. But they were nice and tactile as were the steering wheel and gear lever. It was all you needed in those days. Now I have to say that not everything was sweetness and light for traveling. Something was wrong with the acoustic insulation. Either they forgot to install insulation in Wolfsburg or it degraded badly over the years.
I resorted to no less than 2 layers of thick carpet in the floor gaps. It still made a humming noise above 80 km/h, but at least it was possible to converse shouting. The non-original radio and speakers were also pretty bad, so it was best to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Then there was the oil problem. It would leak oil and burn it. I finally managed to fix the leak, after somewhat embarrassing overnight parking in available spots on the street. But what they burned were the piston rings and that was expensive. It only happened when it was hot and starting from a standstill.
So, in a traffic jam there was a long line of cars, then I,then a big gap to another row of cars. Honestly, I'm embarrassed to say that now. I think I caused a quarter of the air pollution in Britain in the late 80s. But I won't end at a depressing pace. Daisy, my Golf mk1 was a fantastic car. My most fun car until owning a Jetta GLI many, many years later. But that's for another episode. Back to you, Andy, and the rest of the mk1 Golf story. Now I'm going to race in my Big Car t-shirt!
Volkswagen expanded its sales to the United Kingdom and then, in 1975, to North America, where the car would receive a new name. Marketers thought the name "Golf" would not be well received. Although the car was named after a wind, or was the game, people there would definitely associate it with the game, which might be good for some, but would be a turn-off for others. Better then choose a name that no one can criticize. So, just as its predecessor had been given the cute name “Beetle” or “Bug,” the new car would be known as the Rabbit. Volkswagen added air conditioning in time for the North American launch, which was helpful in warmer parts of the United States.
The success of the Rabbit's launch meant that Volkswagen soon moved production to the US to reduce its exposure to exchange rate fluctuations, but the factory director, an ex-Chevrolet, decided to Americanize the car by softening the suspension. and increasing the profit margin by using cheaper materials for the interior. Volkswagen management in Germany was not happy when they found out and the second generation of the Golf would be produced the same as those in Europe. The Golf also arrived in Japan, and soon Burt Kwouk deftly avoided falling and reminded British customers that it was Japan's best-selling imported car.Volkswagen.
It's something he couldn't do when recreating the moment in a U2 promo for their album “Achtung Baby,” but then there was more shrapnel to deal with! Audi had launched NSU's small car as the Audi 50 the year the Golf was launched. Volkswagen boss Rudolph Leiding, who had never been a fan of the Golf, had plans to change the name of the small car from Audi to Volkswagen when the Golf failed to excite customers. That hadn't happened: the 1M would be sold within the first two and a half years, but he continued with his plan to change the name of the Audi 50 to Volkswagen.
It would be launched in 1975 as the Polo with a surprisingly common look between the two cars, given that they had been designed by two different people for two different car brands. It would be easy to think the Polo would cannibalize Golf sales, but Volkswagen got lucky. Small hatchbacks were the talk of the town in the 1970s, and Volkswagen had a whole range to choose from. Both cars sold well and both would be in the VW lineup 50 years later. Fast versions of small family cars were not a new concept: the Mini Cooper was already delighting drivers in the 60s.
In the US, AMC gave its Gremlin a 5.0 L V8 engine for giggles and giggles, meaning it could outperform many Ford Mustangs of the era with a 0-60 time of 7.7s. In Europe, Simca produced the 1100Ti with 82 hp (61 kW) and Alfa tried it with its Alfasud. Volkswagen tried it themselves, producing a crazy fast-closing Beetle special, but 1973 was probably the worst time to do it, as fuel prices quadrupled. That experience singed Volkswagen's wings, so the idea of ​​making a sexy Golf, or something like a Scirocco, seemed like a bad idea. But the desire for speed is strong, and Volkswagen engineers initiated a secret “hot hatch” project.
New parts were sent for testing under the guise of parts for the regular car. His first test car was not based on the Golf but on the Scirocco, since deep down they were very similar. It used two carburetors and did not inspire. The eureka moment came when the team transplanted the Bosch fuel-injected engine from the Audi 80 GTE and the GTI, or “Grand Tourer Injection,” was born. It was revealed to management in 1975, who agreed to a limited production run of 5,000 cars, enough to recoup the development cost. The 110 hp (82 kW) Golf GTI was launched in 1976 and had a top speed of 113 mph (182 km/h).
A 9-second 0-60 might seem vulgar today, but at the time it was something special. Inside were fun touches, like a


ball gear shift knob, which settled the argument once and for all: the name Golf is named after the sport! If you were cruel, you'd say the tartan seats were influenced by the gaudy trousers of


ers, but it came from interior designer Gunhild Liljequist's love of British fabrics, in a way celebrating British sportsmanship. The public loved it, especially because it wasn't as thirsty compared to a normal 1.5 liter Golf. The initial run of 5,000 units was sold out and by 1977 20,000 cars had been sold.
The first British models would only have left-hand drive, but in 1979 the first right-hand drive models were available. Volkswagen would sell almost half a million first-generation GTIs. The GTI has become so popular in the intervening years that when Volkswagen decided to stop selling the Golf in the US due to lack of demand, they continued selling the GTI and I was a happy owner of one of them. Not bad for a Skunkworks project that management didn't consider important. More frugal customers had the option of a diesel engine, something new for Volkswagen. It was based on the gasoline engine and allowed the company to offer it in the Passat and eventually the Audi 80.
The 1.5 L engine produced the same power and similar performance as the 1.1 L gasoline engine , but it was much more economical, if you could withstand the loud diesel rattle it produced. The relationship between East and West Germany was not the best during the 1970s, but in 1977 there was an agreement to exchange 10,000 Volkswagen Golfs for some machine tools and a projector for the planetarium in VW's home town of Wolfsburg. The result was that most cars ended up on the roads of East Berlin and became commonplace before the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s. The Golf was renamed in the United States and when it was launched on the south of the border received another name: Caribbean.
No matter what it was called, Mexicans liked it like others. It was produced in Puebla, Mexico, where Volkswagen continued to produce the Beetle. One thing we know about North America is that they love trucks. With the Rabbits multiplying there, it made sense to see what else could be done with the platform. Volkswagen of America launched the Rabbit Pickup in 1978 with 1.6 diesel and 1.7L gasoline engines. Three years later it was introduced in Europe as the Volkswagen Caddy, where it was used with a cover as a light van, and even used as a new VW camper van! But in Europe customers were much more interested in saloons and Volkswagen accepted with the Jetta.
Given the theory that Volkswagens of this period were named after winds, it is assumed that this is related to the jet stream, although Volkswagen has never officially announced what the name refers to. The Jetta got the rectangular headlights that Giorgetto Giugiaro had wanted for the Golf and they helped differentiate it from its sibling. Another differentiation was a more exclusive interior equipment level. Burt Kwouk returned with more cars next to him. This series of ads was a very effective way to defend against the threat of reliable Japanese cars, arguing that German cars were equally reliable. Volkswagen and Burt were also keen to tell customers that the Golf was still the number one imported car in Japan, even though Burt was of Chinese descent.
Americans were not averse to a saloon or sedan as they like to say, and the Jetta would become Volkswagen's best-selling car in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Karmann had a close relationship with Volkswagen, manufacturing the Karmann Ghia in the 1950s and assembling the Volkswagen Scirocco. They presented a Golf cabriolet to Volkswagen management in 1976, but it had to wait until 1979 until the car was available for sale, replacing the Beetle Cabriolet. You could get a GTI cabriolet, but it was called the GLI for reasons Volkswagen knows best. The car was produced entirely at the Karmann factory and would continue until the 1980s, after the launch of the second generation of the Golf.
In fact, the first-generation Golf Cabriolet would continue to be sold until 1993, when a new convertible was produced based on the third-generation car. Over time, the flagship Golf underwent some updates to keep it fresh. In 1978 it improved its rust protection and sported plastic bumpers. In 1979 there was the option of a 5-speed manual transmission which helped the GTI's performance and also fuel economy on long highway trips. Larger Giorgetto Giugiaro taillight clusters appeared, and American Rabbits also gained rectangular headlights. The dashboard has been updated with a modern instrument panel with LED warning lights. With another fuel scare in 1979, the Polo and Golf got a special "Formel E" version in 1981 that had a long top gear to help save fuel.
It featured an “econometer” that helped drivers learn to do hypermiles and an annoying light that bothered you when changing gears. The GTI got a larger 1.8L engine in 1982, but it had essentially the same speed as the original 1.6L car after emissions rules had robbed it of some of its speed. But if you wanted some fuel economy in your hot hatch, then Volkswagen had the perfect car for you: the GTD which was launched in 1982. The 1.6L turbodiesel wasn't as peppy, hitting 60 in 14 seconds, but of course It got much better fuel economy, better even than the entry-level 1.1L car.
Volkswagen learned to make a better diesel car: the loud rattle was dampened, making it a little better to live with. But all good things must come to an end, and in 1983 the second generation of the Golf was launched. Almost 7 million first generation cars would be produced. I say “would be”: the first generation continued to be produced in Yugoslavia and Mexico. The Mexican Caribbean would receive an updated dashboard in 1983, and in 1984 the Mexicans would get their own GTI: the Caribe GT. There's no "I" in the name because the car still used carburetors, but the 85 hp (63 kW) engine was still a lot of fun.
They would get the second generation of the Golf in 1987, and this time it would be called the Golf. It was also renamed in North America: the Rabbit name was retired. Well, almost retired: it made a brief return in 2006 before Volkswagen realized everything was broken and renamed it the Golf in 2010. The Golf had been produced in South Africa since 1978 and, like the rest of the world, was replaced for the second generation model in the early 1980s. But the new car did not sell well. Volkswagen of South Africa did something it rarely does: it reintroduced the cheapest first-generation car.
But what to call it? The first idea was “EconoGolf”, but they decided, perhaps not wisely, at Citi Golf: “Welcome to City Wok. Would you like to try City Chicken today? The Citi Golf would receive a minor facelift on the exterior and more major updates on the interior, especially in 2004 when it received a new Škoda Fabia dashboard. The GTI was reintroduced rather cleverly in 1990 as the Citi Golf CTi. There would be a saloon sold as a Fox, as well as a Caddy. The Citi Golf would continue to be produced in South Africa until 2009, 35 years after the Golf was launched.
However, Volkswagen didn't learn its lesson with the name: the Citi Golf name would be used in China in 1995 and in Canada in 2007. You'll be pleased to know that a City Jetta also existed. Perhaps realizing its misstep, Canada's City Golf was renamed Golf City in 2009. VW boss Heinrich Nordhoff is viewed very fondly. He turned a battered company with literal holes in the roof into a successful automaker. He slept on the factory floor in the early days when he had no place to live. But his premature death meant that he did not recognize the mistakes he had made in the 1960s.
The Type 3 and Type 4 did not sell well. It hung on to air-cooled engines that drove the rear wheels for too long, and when the economic storm clouds rolled in in the late 1960s, Volkswagen found itself wanting. Kurt Lotz might have annoyed almost everyone important around him, but he did one thing right: he bought NSU for a discount and gained experience in instantly developing front-wheel drive cars with excellent four-cylinder engines. . And he chose a great stylist at the peak of his career. This prepared Volkswagen for a phoenix-like revival in the early 1970s, but not under his watch.
The Golf was the greatest achievement of that transformation. More than 6 million cars were produced in 9 years and surpassed its iconic predecessor, the Beetle, in 2002,after only 28 years. It was a collision of the right parts at the right time that created something truly special. As Hanibal Smith once said, "I love it when a plan comes together." If you want to know the history of the Scirocco, there is a video on the right, and if I make a video about the second generation Golf, I will also leave you a link. And a special thanks to Russ for his thoughts on Golf.
Thanks for watching and see you in the next video!

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