In June 1976, Volkswagen launched the Golf GTI in Europe-the very first hot hatch. We could wrap up this feature with just that statement. The car hardly needs to prove itself after that. But it would be doing the GTI a grave disservice not to look at how it has evolved over the past three decades. So we've paired a Mk I with the latest Mk V, which Volkswagen is touting as the model that best interprets what the original was all about. But first, a little history.
VW launched a sporty version of the evergreen Beetle, the 'Yellow and Black Racer' in 1973. As the name suggests, its yellow paintwork was offset with a black hood and rear engine lid, slightly wider than normal tires, sports seats and a leather steering wheel. Apart from that, it was all standard Beetle fare. Exciting stuff, eh? Some people seemed to think so. It caused quite a stir, with every model being sold, much to the incredulity of the company that built it.
However, the seeds of an idea had been sown and a new small car waiting in the wings would benefit from a similar treatment. It seems so poignantly familiar now, but the early 1970s saw a worldwide energy crisis. Suddenly, there was a big demand for small cars that drank less. There was an obvious market for a new, cleaner, more useable Beetle. Enter the Golf (aka the Rabbit in the USA).
Contrary to what people might think, the Golf isn't named after a game played by management types committing crimes against fashion. It's from the German for 'gulf' and, like other VW cars of the time, it was named after a wind-in this case, the Gulf Stream.
When the Golf was nearing its final development stages (which coincided with the appearance of that boy-racer Beetle), VW's test engineer, Alfons Lwenberg, wrote an internal memo to a few colleagues in the R&D department, suggesting the company should build a proper sports car. The Golf's gestation had emptied VW's coffers, so this idea fell largely on deaf ears, but a small number of enthusiastic colleagues saw the potential. They met at Herr Lwenberg's home after hours for beer, sandwiches and brainstorming sessions on what they secretly dubbed der Sportgolf.
They took a Scirocco prototype and lowered its suspension. With an already rock-hard chassis, a tuned engine giving a 15-hp increase over standard and a huge exhaust pipe, it was described by the team as 'a roaring monster.' Something a little subtler was called for, so a tamer version was developed. It took a long time for the top brass at VW to come round to the idea of a sporting Golf, but it happened eventually. This glorious little hatchback made its debut in '76.
The Brits took to the Golf GTI like no other nation. And it remains the model's biggest marketplace to this day. It's easy to see why the Limeys fell for its charms. Subtle body modifications gave the diminutive Golf added presence. As for those three little letters-wasn't that the masterstroke?