In the latest in a series of articles, we're shining the spotlight on some of the most iconic classic cars of all time, tracing their history and exploring what makes them so legendary.
In this edition, we're looking at just why the Volkswagen Golf is among the very best of all time. If you are in the market for one yourself, check out our cars for sale.
An icon to replace and icon
When you’ve produced a car like the VW Beetle, what do you do next? Simple: if you’re Volkswagen, you come up with a car that proved to be just as revolutionary and long-lived.
The Golf first went on sale in 1974 to replace the Beetle. And it was the opposite – a front-wheel-drive, front-engined replacement for the air-cooled, rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive Beetle. It might have seemed innocuous at the time – it was basically a small family car – but it turned out to be revolutionary and it became VW’s best-selling car worldwide.
VW presented the Golf to the world in 1974 and it wasn’t long before it became very popular. The performance-orientated GTI – more on that later – followed in 1976 and a diesel came in the same year.
A saloon – the Jetta – arrived in 1979 and a cabriolet a year after that. There was even a pickup, the Caddy. It sold worldwide, named the Rabbit in the USA and Canada and the Caribe in Mexico. And the MK1 car last a long time – it was sold until 2009 in South Africa as the Citi Golf.
The first generation car lasted a decade before it was replaced for 1984. It got a bit bigger and a bit rounder and, while it’s not quite as sought after as the MK1, the Mk2 is rapidly growing in popularity among collectors.
The third-gen car arrived in late 1991 and again got a bit bigger. The headlines included the first turbo diesel engine to be fitted in a Golf, as well as the super-hot 2.8L VR6 petrol coming along.
For fans of performance, the Mk4 car, which was launched in late 1997, saw the arrival of the mighty 3.2L VR6, four-wheel-drive, R32 in 2002 – a GTI on steroids. Real technological advances were seen in the Mk5, which started life in 2003, with the 1.4 TSI turbo petrol making its debut.
This continued through the sixth gen, from 2008, before the current car arrived in 2014.
The GTI – a legendary performance car
If a landmark family car was born in 1974, a year later a seminal version was conceived. It was the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show that saw the unveiling of the Golf GTI – a car that was the spawn a whole new segment; the hot hatch.
It was a simple enough premise – a basic economy car beefed up with a performance engine, making it one of the first cars that you could have fun with and go shopping in. It was also one of the first small cars to use fuel injection. The original GTI made 60mph in nine seconds – pretty rapid for the mid-1970s.
And, as the generation went on, it just got quicker. The Mk2 had a fuel-injected 1.8 from the off before it was given a 16V lump that upped power to a tidy 137bhp. The third-gen saw the GTI’s 20th anniversary marked with a special edition, while the Mk4 saw 25 years pass.
By the Mk5 power was up to 197bhp and the Mk6 car had 208. The current model has 217 and continues to be an absolute cracker of a car.
Innovation and the future
Throughout its life the Golf has been an innovator – by definition for a car that essentially started a new sector. Every generation has seen new engines, better economy and better performance. And there have been electric versions, too – the e-Golf, while not given huge amounts of publicity, has sold nearly 20,000 units worldwide.
In conventional form the ‘standard’ car today can hit mind-boggling fuel consumption figures in its most economical guise – or give supercars a run for their money in performance form. After 42 years the Golf shows no sign of being anywhere other than the top of its game.