Car review: VW Golf GTI MK1: 1975-1983

Carlton Boyce / 27 September 2016

First unveiled to the public in 1974, the Volkswagen Golf has always had praise.



The Volkswagen Golf range was first unveiled to the public in 1974. Its specification was, on paper at least, a tiny bit underwhelming but VW had engineered and assembled it with such care that the result was far more than the sum of its parts.

The combination of a light, stiff bodyshell, lively engine and faithful handling wowed everyone who drove one; never before had such a humble mechanical specification been praised so highly. The public lapped it up.

Project Sport Golf

Which got the engineers thinking: if a relatively slow and uninteresting car was gathering such high levels of praise, how many could Volkswagen sell if it offered something that no other car ever had?

So they stuffed a larger engine under the bonnet, stiffened and lowered the suspension, and dropped in some sportier seats. Of course, the work necessary to turn a shopping car into a racing car for the road was a bit more complicated than that, but not much; the basic car was so well engineered that only mild fettling was enough to transform the Golf from worthy but a bit dull into something that most definitely wasn’t.

The original plan was to try and sell a total of 5,000 cars, which many felt was overly ambitious. This turned out to be one of the few miscalculations the team made. At the height of its success, VW sold 5,000 Golf GTIs per month.

The ‘I’ in GTI

Fuel injection might have been well-proven technology in 1975 but it tended to be fitted to big, expensive cars rather than small, cheap ones, so VW was genuinely breaking a lot of industry taboos by fitting it to the Golf, especially because extra power wasn’t the reason it did so.

Yes, that’s right. In an admirably rare case of self-restraint, VW chose to fit what was still a relatively complex and expensive piece of engineering in order to give the Golf GTI more flexibility, better reliability, easy starting, and superior fuel economy rather than more power. That the Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system added about 10bhp to the Audi 80 engine they used was a handy bonus rather than the primary objective. 

Of course, the German speakers among you will know that the German for ‘injection’ is Einspritzung, so it should really have been called the Golf GTE…

A car for the everyman (and woman)

The Golf GTI of 1975 started a tsunami of desire that is still crashing against our shores forty years later. Here was a car that was cheap to buy, even cheaper to run, utterly classless and yet offered more fun than cars costing ten times as much. Driving one pegged you as a driver, not a motorist, which was an important distinction to a public that was enthusiastically emerging from the heady 1960s with the knowledge that the world didn’t have to be dull and monochromatic, even for the dutiful middle-classes.

By the standards of today the Golf’s tyres were skinny and unimpressive but the chassis was designed to trade grip for predictability in the understanding that the GTI would be aimed at the sort of driver who was secure enough to trade hard-to-gauge ultimate limits for more usable and accessible performance. Some of its rivals might have been faster but none were as rounded or as easy to drive very, very fast.

The Golf GTI might have pegged you as someone that enjoyed driving but it gave no other clues as to your status or proclivities. In that respect it was as classless as the original Mini or Range Rover.

The same, but different

Of course, engineers being engineers, the temptation to tweak the Golf GTI proved irresistible. In time it gained a slightly bigger engine although the 200cc gain in capacity was (again) there to improve drivability rather than top-end performance.

The four-speed gearbox transformed into a five-speed and the interior became slightly more upmarket (although modern drivers would recoil at its hard plastic surfaces and the lack of toys to play with…) but that was about it. The basic formula remained almost the same throughout the car’s eight-year lifecycle.

Driving

The early Golf GTIs fairly fly along thanks to an absence of mass – a kerbweight of 840kgs was astonishingly low, even then – and an engine that loved to rev.

Modern drivers might find it a bit noisy - NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) is certainly much higher than we’d tolerate now - but the car feels alive in a way that few modern cars do. (The Suzuki Swift Sport is probably the nearest thing to an early Golf GTI you can buy new these days.)

The trick was that the VW Golf GTI did everything very well; contemporaries like the Peugeot 205 GTI might have been a bit sharper in their handling and the Renault 5 GT turbo might have been faster, but the Golf’s sheer breadth of competence ensured it sold well right up to its death in 1983. In fact, by that time, a quarter of all Golfs sold in the UK were the top-of-the-range GTI.

Buying one now

The first thing to appreciate is that even the latest cars are now 33 years old, so rust is going to be your biggest concern. So you need to take a long, hard look for any sign of rot and if you find any it’s fair to assume that what you can see is just the tip of the iceberg. Rust is almost impossible to eradicate and trying to do so is expensive, so a solid, rust-free bodyshell is far more important than worrying about a car’s tired mechanical components.

However, rust is closely followed by ill-advised performance modifications as the most significant factor as to whether or not to buy a specific car. Many of the cars on sale today will have been ‘improved’, which is car enthusiast-speak for ‘messed around with’. The Golf GTI is such a finely balanced car that altering one aspect – whether that’s performance, handling, or appearance – tends to diminish its competence overall.  

However, there are still plenty of cars out there that are rust-free or fully restored, a distinction that might make a significant difference to the car’s value. The market much prefers original, unrestored, unmolested cars to those that have seen the attentions of a restorer, no matter how well it has been done.

Without trying too hard I found a low-mileage, Mars Red car in largely original condition that needed only minor attention for £2,500. It showed fewer than 90,000 miles, which wouldn’t put me off but if you prefer something with an even lower mileage then a sub-50,000 mile car with a full-service history and in immaculate condition could be yours for around £10,000. Even the very best cars struggle to breach the £15,000 barrier.

Of course, that’s an awful lot of money but when you compare it to the sort of figures we’re now seeing for pretty unremarkable Porsche 911s and almost every pre-1995 fast Ford it doesn’t look unreasonable. Predicting the market is a fool’s game, but if I were to stick my neck out I’d suggest that it won’t be long before we look back at these prices with the same incredulity we now do with Escort Cosworths.

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