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Hot Hatch Genesis: The Golf GTI

29 December 2023

At Peter James Insurance, we love the VW Golf and are the insurance partner to the Mk1 Golf Owners Club.

Our earlier blogs examined how the Golf saved VW from the financial oblivion they had risked by sticking to their traditional Porsche-designed, rear-engine, air-cooled layout for far too long – here

And the rather unusual and little-known story of how the car got its name, from a horse, here

So, in this article, we’ll examine the origins of the car that made the Golf the coolest thing on the planet in 1978, the GTI.

While Chairman of Ford of Britain during the 1970s, Terry Beckett (later Sir), would ask young recruits applying for a job, “What do we make here?“. If they answered ‘cars’ their employment opportunities narrowed because the correct answer, of course, was money.

Sometimes, however, the cars engineers love to develop, the faster, sportier, more responsive machines, beloved by enthusiasts, are also profitable. Ironically the car Beckett is most closely associated with, the Cortina, had an image-enhancing range-topper, the Lotus-Cortina, which won races and plaudits but initially wasn’t anywhere near as profitable as its miniature nemesis on stage and track, the Mini Cooper. BMC is often criticized for losing money on the Mini but as those who were within BMC at the time are always keen to point out, that may have been true on a base model but so few base models were sold it was irrelevant. The Cooper and Cooper S were, actually, very profitable indeed and, like the Lotus-Cortina, benefited from a sprinkling of F1 stardust.

Though they are disparate cars in almost every way possible, the Lotus-Cortina and Mini Cooper were close rivals in the early 1960s, both commercially, and on rally stages or circuits the world over. They remain so in historic motorsport, as this image from a recent Goodwood Revival meeting shows. Their commercial success paved the way for the Golf GTI.

 

In Europe the Mini Cooper and Lotus-Cortina had proven that winning on Sunday meant selling on Monday as the Mustang and other muscle cars had in the USA but in the early 1970s manufacturers did not routinely develop a ‘hot’ version of every new model car an intrinsic part of the range like they have done since the late 1970s. That change in the automotive product planning normalcy happened across the industry, from Rüsselsheim to Cologne, and was brought about by one car, the Golf GTI.

Whether it’s the first hot hatch is a fairly spurious debate that can lead us down blind alleys populated by cars like the curiously named 1.3-litre Simca 1100Ti of 1973, which had 82 whole horsepower, or the diminutive 1971 Autobianchi A112 Abarth.

Simca 1100Ti at speed. Prospective owners had the quality of their sideburns vetted before Simca would sell them a car. Pic: Simca brochure.

The nimble little 1971 Autobianchi A112 Abarth used a breathed-on Fiat engine of 982cc which produced 69bhp and featured a higher lift cam, hi-flow sports-exhaust, and a twin-choke carburettor giving this 700kg baby almost 10bhp per litre… It looked the part as well, with black arches and fashionable alloys. ‘Tepid hatch’ might perhaps have been a better sobriquet but there is no denying it got there first. Pic: Autobianchi

There is even a case for the Aston Martin DB2/4, which was a very fast car when launched in 1953 and does have a hatchback (or rather tailgate as the term hatchback had not yet been invented) but it is not a hot hatch as we understand the term. In Mk III form it was the car James Bond drove in the original Goldfinger book, so it does have its place in automotive folklore.

When is the first hot hatch, not a hot hatch? When it’s the 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4, which was both fast, for its day, and a hatchback…

The reality is that the recipe of small to medium-sized saloon cars, fitted with a larger or tuned more powerful engine, matched with braking and suspension modifications to handle the extra performance, was a well-trodden path from the dawn of the mass-produced car. As car production and ownership increased in the immediate post-war, period saloon car racing and rallying grew in popularity so building cars to compete in these events became an ever-bigger marketing tool. The first real homologation specials were the rally Austin Healey 3000s built by the BMC Competitions Department at Abingdon, but many others followed from the Ford Escort RS1600 to the Hillman Avenger Tiger. In the early seventies, small saloons in this market sphere became hatchbacks simply because that is the most practical shape a car can be and was thus demanded by buyers. This trend popularised by the 1971 Fiat 127 but pioneered by the larger Renault 16 and Austin Maxi, led to Alfa Romeo re-engineering the Sud to become a hatch and Citroën doing the same to the GS, as both had started life as saloons with boots which looked like hatchbacks in profile.

The Citroën GS looked like it should be a hatchback but like the Allegro and many other cars of the era had a bootlid initially.

As did the Alfa Sud.

 

As the hatchback gradually became the default body style for this market segment it was only natural that the wonderfully alliterative phrase, hot hatch, would enter the lexicon and the Golf GTI, even if it wasn’t quite the first, is the big daddy that popularised both the category and the term.

When launching the GTI, VW initially made the mistake that many manufacturers have made, and sometimes still do, of misjudging the market appeal of a performance version of their bestselling car. In 1961 BMC had initially massively underestimated the appeal of the Mini Cooper, but VW failed to learn from that, although it was well known by then. Indeed, VW managers initially pushed back on the idea of a ‘Sport Golf’ (as it was known when being developed) existing at all but reluctantly agreed to put it into production and reckoned they might just be able to sell the 5,000 examples, worldwide, that was needed for motorsport homologation. The reality proved somewhat different; VW ended up making 450,000 Mk1 GTIs between 1976 and 1983, which amounted to about 8% of first-generation Golf production. The numbers don’t lie and GM, PSA, Ford and many others scrambled to develop hotter versions of their mid-size hatchbacks because it was a genuine profit generator as well as an image booster. The sudden plethora of Golf GTI rivals in the early 1980s, including the Escort XR3i, Astra GTE and 205 GTI, were the result.

That amazing success may never have happened at all, though, because the Golf GTI was originally a kind of off-the-books skunkworks project conducted by VW engineers interested in motorsport who thought the new Golf had the potential for class victories in the under 1600cc category. The project was started before the Golf was launched by development and press fleet engineer Alfons Löwenberg, who had previously worked with motorsport vehicles at Opel, and PR director Anton Konrad. In August 1972, when the Golf was still two years away from being launched, these two enthusiasts started contemplating what VW could gain from motorsport and concluded that supporting drivers in saloon car racing had more PR potential than things like the Formula V single-seater series that had existed for some years using Beetle engines.

Löwenberg and Konrad’s hopes were boosted by the success of the 1303S Beetle dubbed ‘Gelb Schwarzer Renner’ (Yellow and Black Flier), which had no more power than a standard car but looked very much sportier, with a matt black bonnet, sports wheels, spot lamps and other sporty touches. This ignited some enthusiasm among VW’s board for the general concept but also drew criticism within the company and from politicians who felt that VWs were not meant to be driven fast. They later repeated the exercise for the US market though, and it was immediately successful, again.

The very yellow GSR, as it became known.

The 1973 oil crises temporarily dampened this enthusiasm, as did the sheer work rate of VW, a company which, by 1974 had launched the Golf, Passat, Scirocco, Polo/Audi 50 (which were the same car) and Audi 80 in less than 2 years. Löwenberg wouldn’t let it lie though, and in March 1973 sent a memo to six senior managers, including head of development Ernst Fiala, breaking down what could be done to produce what he called a ‘Sport Golf’. Fiala had strong reservations, but the manager of passenger development, Hermann Hablitzel, was enthused and set up an unofficial working group led by Löwenberg. This group often met at Konrad’s house and enthused departments inside VW to make special parts. They managed to acquire a preproduction Golf, which became the prototype and when Fiala examined this car at the Ehra-Lessien test track he was convinced enough to give the project his blessing, partly because VW needed something to announce at the Frankfurt show later that year.

The Sport Golf project officially commenced in May 1975 and six prototypes were created, each with a differing amount of civility, from an outright race car to a comfortable car with a little more power. The team chose to build a car that was comfortable enough to be lived with by a normal driver but responsive enough to excite an enthusiast. Test manager Herbert Schuster (sometimes known as the father of the GTI) developed the suspension setup that bewitched everyone who drove one; something it continues to do forty years later, for a good standard Mk1 GTI is still a great driver’s car.

The final ingredient was the fuel injection, which Audi had been developing along with Bosch to allow the Audi 80 GT to meet American emissions standards. This made the GTI responsive when needed but docile in traffic and came with the added advantage that it was much easier to maintain than the finicky high-performance carburettors seen on tuned cars up until this time. It also had the benefit of improving economy while adding 10bhp, giving the car 110bhp, 57% more power than a Golf 1500.

The last piece of the puzzle was the name. The Audi 80 GTE was being launched at the same show, the E standing for Einspritzung, which is German for injection. The anglicized ‘I’ version of the same idea was chosen merely to differentiate the Golf from the Audi. On such small things do icons depend?

Although the styling changes were subtle, they captured the mood perfectly as did the tartan sports seats, extra instruments, and golf ball gear lever. Some of the press were initially negative saying an 800kg car with 110bhp was potentially dangerous. Then they drove it and promptly changed their opinion! That was some months later however as the car was not available for sale until spring the following year.

VW needed to build 5000 cars to homologate it for Gp’ 1 motorsport and hoped to do that by October 1976 working on a production of 50 GTIs a day. Demand was such that they had to quickly ramp up production to 500 cars a day, despite it costing DM 13,850, which was DM 3,060 more than the next car down in the range, the LS.

The Golf has been the mainstay of VW’s range ever since although when the 8th generation Golf reaches the end of its life cycle, VW has said it won’t be replaced. Without the image-enhancing and profitable GTI, the Golf story may well have been much shorter.

Golf GTI Mk1 to Mk7

Golf GTIs continue to be popular mounts in historic motorsport.

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