Despite being around for 40 years in 2014, one of the most iconic cars in automotive history, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, never originally figured in the company’s plans.
When the Golf was introduced in 1974 to replace the Beetle, which by that time had been in production for almost 35 years, VW never sought to make a ‘hot’ version of its Giugaro designed hatchback. It was intended to be a small, comfortable family hatchback that sipped fuel; a response to the increasingly fuel thirsty and impractical Beetle and a world reeling from the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Fortunately, two members of the Volkswagen family in Wolfsburg – a young engineer named Alfons Lowenberg and the company’s then PR director Anton Konrad – saw the potential for something greater in the standard car; something faster, something more fun, yet still comfortable; a performance version of VW’s hatchback which was fast becoming a global success was seen as necessary.
The GTI was born from the vision of these two men, but its conception was far from easy, and could easily – and justifiably so – be described as ‘accidental’.
In 1974, Lowenberg pitched the idea for a more performance orientated Golf to VW’s senior management, and it was immediately rebuffed.
“[At that time], Volkswagen was fully occupied with the roll-out of its new model line-up,” says Konrad. “At that time, very few were receptive to a special project of this kind.”
Nevertheless, the two men still believed in the necessity for a quick Golf and secretly worked on the project, then dubbed the ‘Sport Golf’.
The initial prototype for what to was become the GTI was the product of a raid on the VW parts bin and a fanatical belief in the cause of speed; it featured a 1.6 engine with two Weber carburetors bolted on top, a platform from the VW Scirocco and a race-car stiff suspension. Little wonder then, that when the car was wheeled out at the company’s Ehra-Lessien test facility in front of senior management, it was initially met with results that can only be described as ‘shaky’.
The prototype was deemed ‘undriveable’ and it seemed the project would be confined to the history books. However, the pair’s enthusiasm for a performance model remained and the fever had by now spread to other VW employees and the team was pushed even further underground to work on the car.
In an act of defiance and with a gritty determination that comes from stories of true heroism, the ‘Sport Golf’ team pushed on and employed a massive – and clandestine – recruitment drive from within. In addition to Konrad and Lowenberg, the following were now part of the project: Development and Golf Project Leader Hermann Hablitzel, Jürgen Adler (Department Head – Interior Engineering), Herbert Schuster (Head of Passenger Car Testing) and Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky (Marketing). Speaking on the 35th anniversary of the GTI in 2011, Konrad admitted that the team needed to work away from the prying eyes of management and the project became the biggest homework task the world had ever seen.
A meeting to thrash out the finer details of the project was called and he tells a story that today would seem unbelievable.
“It was actually over coffee, and my wife baked a cake” he says and corrects the legend that the most iconic hot-hatch in the world was conceived over beers and sandwiches.
During the coffee and cake session, the Wolfsburg team decided that the car should be based on the two-door Golf in order to keep true to the project’s sporting aspirations, but its mechanical underpinnings should be modified to cope with the extra power, and the spine shattering suspension should be lowered by a more modest 20mm springs to improve handling inkeeping true with the standard Golf’s level of comfort.
It was also paramount that the Sport Golf remained cost effective, so the steering wheel was lifted from the Scirocco, the Ferdinand Piech developed 1.6 engine from the Audi 80 GT and the seats from Recaro.
By late 1974, the project had become an open secret in the corridors of Wolfsburg, which was now controlled by Toni Schmucker. For the Sport Golf team, just two final pieces of the plan remained to be fulfilled; how the car should look, and what it should be called.
The 1975 Frankfurt motorshow answered these questions, and the car – which was originally supposed to be 5,000 units – was finally shown to the world was shown to the public, after having finally been met with approval from senior management after some major reworking by Konrad, Lowenberg and their team.
The GTI was powered by a 1,588 cc four cylinder engine with K-Jetronic fuel injection it developed 110 PS at 6,100 rpm and 103 lbs ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. This allowed the GTI, which weighed 810 kg unladen, to hit 60 mph from standstill in nine-seconds before reaching a top speed of 110 mph.
In order to differentiate it from the standard Golf, the car featured a chin spoiler, as well as black plastic wheel arches, black side stripes and a thin red stripe than ran around the grill. According to one of the team-members, the black and red colour combination was seen as ‘very sporty’ for the mid-1970s. The theme continued inside, with red, black and grey tartan Recaro seats, and the iconic golf ball gear knob that – in addition to the red stripe around the grill – still remains on GTI models to this day.
The team also changed the ‘Sport Golf’ moniker to GTI, with ‘GT’ meaning gran turismo and ‘I’ – in reference to the Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injector that was fitted to the car’s Audi engine – meaning injection. Further additional mechanical alterations included larger inlet valves and a higher rate of compression, which boosted the power plant’s 100bhp to 108 at 6100 rpm and 100lb ft at 5000 rpm. With it’s weight of just over 800kg, the new Golf GTI had a maximum speed of 108 mph that at the time, made it ‘the fastest Volkswagen in the world.’
After a story of defiance, a healthy dose of belief and a clear vision, a legend had been born and the first Golf GTI went on sale in its native Germany in June 1976. The following year, it arrived on British shores, but it was not until 1979 that it first became available in right hand drive.
Contrary to popular belief the Golf GTI was not the original hot-hatch; an achievement which Renault can claim with its Renault 5 Alpine (or Gordini in the UK) that predated the Golf’s launch slightly in 1976. Despite the GTI having a price tag of £3,707, by the end of its first year of production, it had recorded sales figures of over 1500 as the concept of every day performance, relative affordability and practicality appealed to buyers and made it an instant classic.
In 1984 the Mk II GTI was launched and picked up where the Mk I left off. A new chassis structure, a 1,781 cc engine developing 112 PS and 114 lbs ft of torque and new styling evolved the GTI and saw it appeal to a new generation of fans. Sales of the Mk II GTI surpassed those of the Mk I, peaking at 17,193 vehicles in 1989. In Germany a supercharged G60 version developing 160 PS was sold, an output that wouldn’t be bettered in a GTI until 2002.
Three years later the Mk III GTI was launched, bringing with it a new 2.0-litre eight-valve engine and improved aerodynamics over the previous Mk I and Mk II models. In 1993 the GTI fitted was with a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine, raising the power output from 115 PS in the eight-valve model up to a more substantial 150 PS and 133 lbs ft of torque to drop the 0-60 mph time to 8.3 seconds and raise the top speed to 133 mph.
The introduction of the Mk IV GTI in 1998 saw significant changes to the line-up with the first diesel-engined GTI introduced along with two petrol engines in a total of four different states of tune. The Mk IV GTI made significant gains in refinement and safety – in 2002 the fastest accelerating and most powerful GTI produced up until that point was released in the form of the 180 PS GTI 25th Anniversary Edition. It was the success of this more powerful vehicle that inspired the introductionof the Mk V GTI.
Production of the Mk V Golf ceased in August 2008 with a total of 17,630 examples sold in the UK alone. In total over 1,700,000 examples of the GTI have been sold worldwide since the vehicle went on sale in 1976.
By George East
VW Golf GTi Statistics: