How do you replace the most iconic and popular car in the world?
It was a monumental task to achieve a proper replacement for the Volkswagen Type 1 Sedan and Cabriolet. This was a car that was developed before World War II as a dictum by the Nazi regime in Germany. From its unfortunate roots, it became the savior of a nation that was split up by the Allies. The idea of the "people's car" truly took flight from the rubble of the Wolfsburg plant in Lower Saxony after the surrender of the Nazi regime.
Luckily for the most of the victors of the war, Wolfsburg was on the western side of the split. That enabled the rear-engine, air cooled, flat-four-powered Type 1 to take hold in most of the globe. Hence its popularity by export and eventual production in many parts of the world.
By the 1970s, the Type 1 – affectionately known as the Beetle, Bug, Mosca…whatever you call it in your part of the globe – was being carved up by more modern and efficient competitors. The Japanese began to make inroads on the Beetle's sales leadership by producing a front-engine, rear drive conventionally-designed compact. Soon, the Datsun 510/Nissan Bluebird and the Toyota Corona would join the Opel Kadett and Ford Escort in eroding the Beetle's stronghold among buyers in its class.
In the USA, the beloved Beetle faced a harsher future. By 1970, a series of new Federal vehicle standards were taking hold. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency set forth on imposing new standards for emissions control to combat smog conditions across the country. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration also imposed a new bumper standard to form the basis of a campaign to ensure the manufacture of safer cars in the name of crash protection and prevention.
Needless to say that the Type 1/Beetle was not going to meet these standards in order to stay competitive in the USA market.
Volkswagen knew that in order to survive in the modern world, it had to make a modern car. Through the acquisition of Auto Union in the mid-1960s, they took a vehicle built off of a water-cooled, front-engine, front-wheel drive platform to create the first Passat in 1973. The new Passat replaced a series of Beetle-derived car models – the Types 3 and 4 – but was considered too big to replace the Type 1 Beetle.
What the engineers in Wolfsburg did in the onset of the 1970s was not just a masterstroke of vehicular development. It would become a greater global car for Volkswagen. Greater than the Beetle itself.
Inspiration came from another masterstroke in vehicular engineering: Sir Alec Issigonis' Morris Mini. The British car's platform was both compact and efficient. The new Volkswagen compact would be front-wheel drive, with the engine mounted transversely – just like the Mini, the Fiat 128 and the Honda N360. Its proportions would be more accommodating with a larger interior space that offered an expandable cargo hold through a hatchback.
The new car needed a stylish look. Like the first Passat, Volkswagen contracted Giorgetto Giugiaro and ItalDesign for the overall design of the new car. The car was not supposed to look (West) German, but more of a global car worthy of a wider audience. It was also not Italian, which explains what some people would consider a neutral look for the new car.
In 1974, the Volkswagen Golf was born. It arrived at the right time.
It also broke all of the old rules at Volkswagen. With its new platform, Volkswagen can introduce different engines and fuel options for the new Golf. A diesel engine was introduced in 1976, adding the option necessary in the aftermath of the OPEC Oil Crisis for using diesel fuel instead of gasoline. Having the engine up front and transversely mounted meant offering more space to develop new underpinnings, such as a space efficient twist-beam rear suspension. In all, the Golf changed the fortunes at Volkswagen for the second time after World War II by producing a very advanced car for the European market.
The new car's arrival in the USA came a year later. The name Golf was considered the wrong name for the American market. The folks at Volkswagen of America asked their Wolfsburg bosses if they can call it the Rabbit instead. Sure enough, the name stuck on every MkI Golf sold in the USA and Canada. The name itself actually helped its cause.
The Rabbit's arrival in this country also came at a very opportune time. With new Federal regulations causing the demise of the Beetle from the USA, the Rabbit arrived to meet them head on. Not only was the Rabbit cleaner and safer than the Beetle, it was also more efficient. The American car market took a massive hit from the OPEC Oil Crisis that had automotive consumers begging for smaller, more efficient cars.
Volkswagen delivered a winner across all oceans. The USA market had the Rabbit competing against the Honda Civic to turn on customers looking for a front-drive hatchback that offered more efficiency than its rear-drive compact rivals. The Rabbit challenged the Toyota Corolla and Datsun B210 (Nissan Sunny) head on across America. Yet, the Rabbit's appeal was deeper, especially in places where the Beetle was very popular among "foreign" car consumers.
People wanted more from these efficient hatchbacks. They wanted more flair, more power, and more fun. The austerity of the Oil Crisis caused a spark for people wanting more from less. Volkswagen looked at the Golf and wondered if it can provide that added fun in their daily drive.
The answer came in 1975 when Volkswagen took a Golf and added a couple of larger engines – 1.6 and 1.8 liters – with electronic fuel injection. They would clear the 100-horsepower threshold, which would be an equivalent of 200 horsepower today. These new cars were quick – it took 9 seconds to reach 62 MPH. Again, it did not sound like much now, but that was considered very quick for the era.
The Golf GTI arrived in West German Volkswagen showrooms to a stunned customer base. However, it would take a couple more years for it to reach a higher status among enthusiasts. It would be the UK, not West Germany, that would further embrace the GTI and give it is iconic status. American buyers would not get their crack at a GTI until 1982. It was indeed worth the wait.
In the meantime, Volkswagen established its first plant in the USA for the production of the Rabbit. That plant, just south of Pittsburgh, began producing the Rabbit in 1978 and would become the source for them through MkI and MkII models until its shutdown in 1988.
One thing the Golf will be known for is its variants. During the MkI's run, Volkswagen developed a Cabriolet to replace the one built off of the Type 1. They also developed a pickup truck, which was known as the Caddy in some markets. The pickup truck was made for smaller uses for farm work and recreational purposes. The Scirocco coupe would also be built from the MkI Golf platform, with its Karmann body and sporty demeanor.
The Golf's platform also spawned a new car for Volkswagen that would serve to fill the gap between it and the larger Passat. It was a car with a trunk – known as the Jetta. While the hatchback ruled the compact car market in the 1970s and 1980s, the Jetta was first seen as an upmarket model. Little did Volkswagen know that the three-box sedan built off of the Golf would become the leading model in North America by the end of the 1980s.
The overall success of the MkI Golf established Volkswagen as a serious player in a modern car market. In the end, 6.8 million units were produced. These numbers proved one thing – the Golf's future was assured. It was very popular, that Volkswagen South Africa continued to produce the MkI Golf until 2009.
By 1983, customers wanted more from their compact cars. They began to want even more styling, more creature comforts, more performance – while being more efficient. Volkswagen responded by introducing the MkII Golf. It would be designed and developed in-house at Volkswagen, although they followed the same formula as in the outgoing model. The shape became softer and more angular than the MkI. The new Golf grew in size and weight – something that would be a progression through every generation afterward.
Yet, the MkII Golf was welcomed with open arms by the general public. Motor Trend gave the MkII GTI its Car of The Year award in 1985. It would also win many other awards throughout its lifespan.
For the MkII Golf, Volkswagen of America dropped the Rabbit name for the more global nomenclature. It seems fitting in a pre-Internet world where information was slowly speeding up that the global name would also take flight in this country. It was also accompanied by a MkII Jetta, which shared a lot more parts – including body panels – with the Golf.
After a huge start, the MkII Golf continued to dominate European sales throughout its lifespan. Globally, 6.3 million units were produced before the MkIII Golf was introduced to the world.
However, sales of the Golf began to slow down in the USA.There were plenty of factors contributing to this. Competitors from Japan and North America were making inroads in the class by producing their own answers to the Golf and the GTI. This is nothing new to the GTI elsewhere, but it certainly was felt in the States. You had worthy competitors, such as the Ford Escort GT, Toyota Corolla FX16 GT-S, Dodge Omni GLH/S and others knocking on the GTI's door.
Another factor was a change in the tastes of American car buyers. No longer was the urgency needed to go small and efficient. The 1980s was all about conspicuous consumption and upward mobility. Golf and GTI consumers found they could spend more for "better" products – such as the BMW 3-Series.
Perhaps the biggest factor was the shift towards sedans to placate American tastes. Volkswagen dealers saw a shift to the MkII Jetta, even though it, too, was being challenged by Japanese and American competitors. The consumer shift to the Jetta would benefit Volkswagen, but it would also provide some concerns for the company.
With every subsequent generation from the MkII generation, the Golf maintained the lofty position as being the benchmark for an entire class of European car. Therefore, the five subsequent generations of the Volkswagen Golf would remain on top of the sales chart across Europe – including newly opened up markets in the former Soviet Bloc.
Back in the USA, the Golf simply bubbled underneath the average consumer's radar. The Jetta continued to sell at a good clip, though it had its share of challenges from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.
If it wasn't the competition that created challenges for Volkswagen, it would be the quality of the products they sold. In 1988, the Puebla, Mexico plant took over production of the Golf and Jetta after the plant in Pennsylvania was closed. By the time Puebla was producing the MkIV Golf, these quality issues came to a head and customers were completely dissatisfied. One solution was to move all Golf production for the Americas to its Curitiba, Brazil plant. This would be followed up with a more drastic move by making all MkV Golfs – rechristened as Rabbits and GTIs – in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Since that time, the Golf returned to its status as a well-built and high-quality compact worthy of its world-leading status. In some markets, the Golf would become a more premium product due to the lineup that Volkswagen sold in more emerging markets. In Brazil, the smaller and more plebian Gol is the leading Volkswagen in that market. The Golf sells at a smaller clip and at a more upmarket price. The base Golf Trendline in Brazil is about US$5,000 more than the base S model here in the USA.
For the past several generations, the Golf had been the one car that cast many other variations within Volkswagen and across a chunk of the Group. For example, the Golf has spawned many different variations – convertibles, station wagons, MPVs, sedans and crossover/SUVs. The Golf's platform was also developed into other vehicles for Audi, SEAT, and Skoda. Today's MkVII Golf lineup includes the hatchback and a wagon, along with the GTI, Golf R and the Alltrack.
From the MkIII to the current MkVII, we saw further development of the Golf itself. It saw the fitting of the VR6 engine for the GTI and the R32. It also saw the installation of the 4Motion all-wheel drive system for a few variants globally. Regardless of what advancements this car made over the years, the Golf remained essentially a hatchback that was designed for everyone looking for a fun small car to drive in.
The Volkswagen Golf remained true to a basic tenet that it sustained throughout its seven generations. By looking at how much of an impact the first two generations made on the global marketplace, it is no wonder why it is highly revered in Europe – more so than the Beetle before it. It is also no wonder why it has become the primary vehicular product and a rallying cause for Volkswagen through both the good times and bad.
Today's Golf is equally as important as the first one back in 1974. Think about how the compact car segment has become – each one trying to search for ways to make driving fun. Perhaps they have gotten better over the course of its competition with the Golf. They matched or exceeded in terms of design, engineering, horsepower, quality and so forth. One would argue – strongly, may I add – that neither of these cars is like the Volkswagen Golf. They are not as fun or offer some of the advantages the Golf offers – going back to 1974. Going back to the first GTI. Going back to the award-winning MkII.
But, seriously, there is nothing like driving a Volkswagen Golf. It is a feeling that not changed in 43 years.