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Origins of the VW Golf: The saviour of the ‘people’s car!’

21 August 2023

How Italian styling, NSU’s engineering expertise and Audi’s engines made VW one of the world’s largest car makers.

The enormous Volkswagen Group now encompasses some of the great marques of motoring history including, Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, Ducati, Seat, Skoda and Audi. In recent years it has vied with Toyota for the honour of being the world’s largest car manufacturer.

It’s easy to assume that VW’s success was built on the back of the Beetle a car that, in these days of rapid model range renewal, will probably always be the most numerous single-design vehicle ever produced as 21,529,464 rolled off the production lines before the last example was produced in Mexico on 30th July 2003.

It wasn’t, however, because while the existence of the Nazi government’s ‘Strength Through Joy’ people’s car project effectively brought the Volkswagen company into existence, and allowed it to flourish in the immediate aftermath of world war two, once the bombed-out factory had been rebuilt under the leadership of a British Army officer, Major Ivan Hirst, by the early 1960s that very reliance on the Beetle’s unusual engineering philosophy had taken Volkswagen into dire straits. It’s no exaggeration to say that the radical (for VW) front-wheel-drive, water-cooled Golf saved the company when launched in 1974 because its immediate sales success created the financial stability VW needed to expand its range and to ultimately acquire the brands that are now such an important part of the firm’s business portfolio. It only just arrived in time but was an instant hit because it was a beautifully built, crisp, modern, desirable and reliable machine. It became the default car of its class, eclipsing rivals such as the Ford Escort and GM Kadett/Chevette to become the clear class leader, dynamically, socially and economically. Crucially it did this while selling at a profit and in doing so saved VW just as surely as the Beetle had created the commercial company in 1946.

 

VW Beetle

Post-war VW had expanded rapidly by producing that fundamentally outdated car to a very high standard of quality and by managing to communicate that quality in the USA (then the world’s biggest and most profitable car market) with a TV and print marketing campaign, masterminded by Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), that revolutionised the world of advertising and included such gems as ‘Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplough drives to the snow plough?’. The remarkable ingenuity of this long-running and very successful campaign is still studied by business students today.

By the early 1960s, however, the Beetle was outclassed in terms of economy, dynamics, interior packaging and comfort but continued to sell on charm and reliability. This led to VW getting stuck in a creative vacuum, hidebound by the technical dead end of the rear-engined, air-cooled cars they developed to replace the Beetle which were reliable and well-built but lacked the Beetle’s charm. VW’s blinkers had brought them to the edge of bankruptcy, profits dropped by 42% between 1969 and 1970 plus the company had to recall 200,000 of the new 1302 Super Beetles to correct a wiring fault.

This was happening shortly after a new management structure had been put in place because the inspirational Heinrich ‘Heinz’ Nordoff, who had taken the reins at VW in 1948 and steered them to remarkable success, retired in 1968 and passed away shortly after. Having publicly talked about the Beetle needing to be replaced by a more innovative car in 1967 one of his final acts was to create a planning group within VW which would be overseen by a new company head, Dr Kurt Lotz.

VW had acquired 50% of Auto Union GmbH (which became Audi) from Daimler-Benz in 1965 and took full control in 1968; yes VW bought what became Audi from Mercedes, just as the Quandt family effectively bought BMW from Mercedes in 1959; you have to wonder what the German car industry would have looked like had Mercedes kept both companies… VW initially used Audi’s plant in Ingolstadt as an extra manufacturing plant for Beetles (building 300 a day) and decreed Audi was not to develop any new cars. Luckily Audi ignored this and initially developed the first 100 saloon in secret. It was launched in 1969 and Audi’s now officially recognised development programme would eventually produce the range of engines VW would use in the Golf. In the short term however, Audi’s profits propped up VW as the Beetle-based policy faltered, and the very expensive and frankly eccentric Porsche-designed mid-engine EA 266 hatchback programme was delayed and then eventually scrapped in September 1971.

VW also acquired the NSU company in 1969, after it had been brought to its knees by the beautiful and amazingly innovative Ro80. While the Ro80 was as far ahead of the whole motor industry as any car ever has been, its one Achilles heel was its free-spinning Wankel rotary engine, which was both unreliable and far too thirsty in an age when petrol prices were rising. VW merged NSU with Audi into a separate division and put the newly developed NSU K70 into production as the VW K70. The K70 became the first Volkswagen with a front-mounted engine, water cooling and front-wheel drive. This meant that for 1970 the new VW Group were offering the most bizarre disparate group of cars, from the flawed futuristic genius of the Ro80 to the archaic Beetle and its siblings, the new K70, an air-cooled mid-engine sports car (the 914), the Audi 100 and NSU’s small rear-engined air-cooled Prinz family. It looked and was chaotic, but behind the scenes, Lotz and his team had finally created a direction which, if the cash flow held out, would soon have them producing a cohesive range of profitable modern cars.

On May 13th, 1969, VW assembled all their disparate prototype programmes and reviewed their plans. They decided to continue with the unique EA 266 program, for the moment at least, but switch to front-wheel-drive and water cooling for the rest of the range. Soon after Lotz turned to styling genius Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had recently set up Ital Design, and commissioned him to create the styling and basic packaging of what became the Golf, Scirocco and Passat. In March 1970, project EA 337 came into being and on 12th August the first styling model by Ital Design was unveiled to VW engineers. The Golf story had begun.

 

As well as styling the Golf, Ital Design did the conceptual packaging and positioned the engine and gearbox just ahead of the centreline of the wheels, freeing up the most space for the cabin. A subtle but clever development of the FWD theme then swept through the car design world ten years after the Mini and exemplified by cars such as the Fiat 127. Issigonis’ wheel at each corner approach to the interior packaging can clearly be seen on the Golf Mk1, however. The original proposal featured large rectangular headlamps which were too expensive to make but by Autumn 1970 the production engineering of Giugiaro’s shape had begun, more or less unchanged, save for those lights.

This was a whole new world for VW who ploughed resources into the project. It cost DM 1.2 million (a lot in 1970) featured 5,200 new parts and there were 1,400 technicians on prototype and development work; far more than was normal at that time but VW needed to do this right. The Chief Engineer was Hans-Georg Wenderoth, who had come to VW when they bought NSU in 1969.

The first Golf was produced on March 29, 1974, but it was officially launched in Munich two months later. European production of the Golf Mk1 ended in October 1983, after 6.72 million units had been produced. VW had successfully replaced the Beetle in some style and created a family of cars that would continue into the 21st century and beyond.

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