Still Burning for This Hot Hatch
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Volkswagen Golf GTI in the United States. While the first generation GTI (known in North America as the Rabbit) was in the U.S. for only two years, the Golf itself has been around in one iteration or another for nearly 40 years. While the GTI may not have been the first “hot hatch”, it certainly popularized the term as well as the genre in general. Over the years, though, the GTI has become more expensive, bloated, and less of a visceral driving experience. To most accurately discuss the Golf GTI, it is essential to start back at its beginning: 1974.
By the mid-1970s, the Volkswagens which had been hot sellers since the ’50s—Beetles, Buses, Karmann Ghias, etc.—were becoming a little long in the tooth, and global sales had begun to slow due, in part, to increased competition from Japanese automakers. This relative staleness of VW’s model line combined with the oil crisis and a declining popularity of air–cooled engines led VW to take a new approach to car: the water-cooled engine. Additionally, VW’s acquisition of Audi, a company which had extensive experience with water-cooled engines and front-wheel drive cars, made the transition a little easier.
The fact that water-cooled engines couldn’t easily be mounted in the rear of a vehicle, meant that the design style of VW needed to change drastically from what the world was accustomed to seeing from the German company. Volkswagen launched a series of new vehicles in global markets, introducing the world to the Passat, the Scirroco, and the Golf/Rabbit. Though not intended to replace their air-cooled vehicles, the water-cooled line from VW would eventually take over in popularity.
The Golf, penned by the famous Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro (designer of the BMW M1, DeLorean DMC-12, Alfa Giulia Sprint GT/GTV, and more), was launched in Europe in 1974. After initial success in its first year, VW debuted a Golf in sportier trim in 1975 at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Known as the Golf GTI, the car was powered by a 110 hp 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine, which was borrowed from the Audi 80. Weighing just over 1800 pounds, the GTI could scoot up to 60 in only nine seconds, and could reach a top speed of 100 mph. It was also given a unique suspension set up, an upgraded interior, a 5-speed gearbox, and even a tachometer.
At the time, the GTI was as far away from the Beetle’s “The People’s Car” moniker as you could get, and it quickly became popular among a decidedly more bourgeois social set: one would never see a bud vase on the dash of this VW. Sales of the model were solid, though it took some time for the GTI to make it into markets outside of Central Europe. The UK and Canada didn’t get their first GTI’s until 1979, and the United States didn’t see one until 1983 despite having other models of the Golf since 1978.
When released in the U.S., due to more stringent emissions regulations, the GTI only had 90 hp under the hood rather than the 110hp available in the European models. Despite the slow transition to markets outside of Europe, the car quickly caught on, and dealers had a hard time keeping them in stock. In fact, in the U.S., the GTI was the best–selling variant of the Rabbit during the two years that it was available in the market, with dealers easily getting the $8,500 MSRP (and more) out of eager buyers. (For comparison, the BMW 320i was selling for just over $13,000 at the time.)
The public’s excitement for these little hatches was matched by auto magazines which gushed about the car. Car and Driver awarded the car to its 10-Best List in 1983 stating, “This product should be a cause for rejoicing among all those people who ever owned a Beetle or treasured the high-protein goodness of a BMW 2002, because this car marks a return to the fundamental German verities….” (Source)
In Road & Track’s review of the car they said, “Its road manners are so damned impressive that we just couldn’t drive the car enough—any excuse to jump in it and hit the pavement and we took it.” (Source)
The two GTIs featured come to us courtesy of Simon Lockie from New Zealand, a 1982 GTI and a 1988 GTI Cabriolet Quartett. Simon drives the ’82 several times a week and is slowly restoring the car. The ’88 is driven by Simon’s wife and is a special edition car that was released only specific markets. Simon notes that, “We are not precious about these cars, we have them because we love to drive them, and we use both the Golfs just as everyday classics; they’re always fun and rewarding to drive.”
If you want to find a GTI for yourself, it is becoming more difficult to do so, though not impossible. Finding a low-mileage, unmolested model can be tough (without paying a premium), but higher mileage drivers are still trading hands on many of the enthusiast forums. But if you are able to find a car that strikes the right balance of originality, presentability, and price, and you’ll have a little pocket rocket that will happily zip you through the twisties for years to come.