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Whether you love or hate the Volkswagen Golf, it would be hard to not see it as massively significant in the car world as a whole. The company itself had been trying and failing for years to come up with a replacement for the Beetle which was dwindling in sales and this would make the company the global powerhouse it is today. So let’s watch our posture, take the swing and land on the green. Oops, wrong Golf, not important.
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Volkswagen had already been selling the Beetle for 20 years in the mid 50’s when they started looking at expanding their range and replacing the aging Beetle as they knew sooner or later sales of the incredibly successful little bug would drop off. They began building a line of prototype vehicles all beginning with “EA” which stood for Entwicklungsauftrag, the German for development assignment.
One such example which was build in 1955 was the EA47, which was one of 11 designs for a new car that Volkswagen had built with the famed design house Pininfarina. Porsche even got involved building prototypes of potential replacements, along with Ghia and although these never ended up replacing the Beetle, they did end up becoming the basis for the VW 1600 (Type 3) and another design by Ghia became the basis for the VW Basilla, sold only in Brazil, both of which can be seen below.
These prototypes continued along with the EA235 to EA276 which moved towards front-wheel drive, front-mounted, water cooled configurations but none of these would replace the lineup. Instead this would all aid in VW expanding their lineup from just selling the Beetle, which was a good first step and let the company to instead of killing the Beetle, simply expanding the lineup and becoming less reliant on it as their sole cash cow.
This turned out to be a very smart move as between 1969 and 1971, the company went from 300,000,000 DM in profits, to only 12,000,000, a massive drop by any measure. A new car which would be as popular as the Beetle was needed, and fast. In 1971, Rudolf Leiding took over the reigns at VW and said “The global situation for VW was more critical than we had once thought – to put it simply, we were dealing with the survival of a giant group, which employed more than 220,000 people worldwide.” He didn’t beat around the bush and two weeks after taking control, he ordered that all work on the new Porsche Beetle replacement prototype (EA266) be cancelled and that all but 2 of the 50 prototypes be destroyed.
He was putting all of his efforts behind what would become one of the most iconic cars in the world which was at that stage known as prototype EA337.
Although today it probably doesn’t look much, but that is because every other hatchback basically copied from it going forward but in its day, this was a very stylish car indeed. In 1969 some big wigs from VW decided to travel to the Turin Auto Show, of their six favourite cars, they found out that four of them were designed by legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro who at the time was running Italdesign.View gallery image
This prompted them to ask him to work on what would become EA337 and later the Golf. The design brief stated they wanted a “C-segment car with a two-box body in three- and five-door versions.” It also provided the basic dimensions and engine configurations they wanted to add. What Giugiaro designed became what he called “the most important design of my career.” He used the folded paper (origami) styling that he was famous for, stark corners and flat edges would be the style of choice for the design.
By the time it went into production, he had added round headlights and a narrow tail light configuration which would balance the stark lines of the car along with curving off the edges along the hood (bonnet). Although this design was finished first, Giugiaro’s other designs for the first generation Sirocco and Passat actually hit the market before the Golf.
Originally the car was going to be called the “Blizzard” or the “Caribe” before the company settled on the Golf, which is either short for “Gulf Stream” which in German is “Golfstrom” or the car is named after a horse, I guess we’ll probably never know at this stage what the real roots are. Some say it’s named after the game Golf, which would make sense as it is a game for wealthy and intelligent people. I don’t play.
In the United States it was sold as the “Rabbit”, that’s a bit of a hop from Golf, get it?
The first cars were available with a 1.1 liter or a 1.5 liter four cylinder engine from sister company Audi which were solid and reliable, unlike the cars of VW past that this car was originally intended to replace, they were front mounted (transversely) and front wheel drive. Also water cooled which was a big departure for VW from the Beetle.
These engines were solid and economical, producing 50 and 70 hp respectively, not exactly enough to worry Johnny Law. The 1.5 model, with the 4 speed manual transmission, could reach a top speed of 95 mph but would take a massive 15 seconds to get to 60.
This would all change then in 1976, with the most famous VW Golf of them all, the Golf GTI. Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky in the companies marketing department gets credits for coining the acronym GTI for this car and it was a great name, for this beast of a car. The car was lightened and the engine from a much larger Audi 80 was taken to VW and tuned.
The original GTI had a 1.6 liter engine, outputting 110 bhp and would get the car to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, before reaching its top speed of 113 mph. These figures seem low today, but for a hatch back in 1976, this was the stuff of dreams.
This car was a massive success for Volkswagen and became their most recognisable car allowing them to slowly remove their reliance on the Beetle. They sold a tonne of these things, it had nearly sold 10 million units by the time it was replaced in 1985 and 462,000 GTI models alone were sold. Interestingly this car was sold in South Africa for 25 years with almost 500,000 units produced in that country alone.
What do you think of the Mark 1? Let me know, below in the comments, and thanks for reading.