Here it is everybody, the big one, the daddy, the car that demonstrated that we no longer had to suffer the pains of unreliable, impractical, complex, temperamental and cumbersome sports cars like the MG B or Triumph Spitfire. The Volkswagen Golf GTi, while not the world’s first hot hatchback, showed us all what we were missing in terms of mixing a practical design with an engine that could bend time. The GTi’s perfect blend of speed, reliability, performance and everyday utilitarianism meant that the sports cars of yesteryear, these carryovers of the 1950’s and 60’s, could be cast aside. The Volkswagen Golf GTi truly did rewrite the rule book when it came to selling cars for a profit and thus it was time for survival of the fittest as manufacturers scrambled to create their own hot hatchbacks to combat it; for good or for ill.
The Volkswagen Golf was originally envisaged as the replacement for the legendary Beetle, a compact design that was right for the 1970’s. By mixing sturdy build quality, a useful hatch and oodles of interior space, the car is truly a testament to automotive design. The Golf also demonstrated Volkswagen’s move from rear-wheel drive and rear-mounted air-cooled engines to front-wheel drive with front-mounted, water-cooled engines that were often transversely-mounted; hence the implementing of a rear hatch.
The Golf GTi, despite becoming the ultimate speed icon of the 70’s, was an afterthought by Volkswagen during its early years. The launch of 1973’s Volkswagen Beetle “Gelb-Schwarzer Renner” (“GSR”, or “Yellow-Black Racer”) was met with negative press and thus VW had very little incentive to create a new sports version of their family cars. The initial prototype Golf GTi bore a greater resemblance to the upmarket Scirocco, but test driving revealed incredible road noise, and such poor handling that the car was described as “undriveable”. Eventually, VW settled on taking the regular Golf body and presenting it with Grand Tourer Injection (GTi). GTi, derived from the Italian Gran Turismo Iniezione, was not a new invention; a highly efficient fuel injection system which replaced conventional carburettors while upping the reliability ten-fold. It first made its debut on the Maserati 3500 GTI of 1961.
Volkswagen took one look at the GTI system and chose to incorporate it into the VW Golf. Hopes for the project were mediocre at best, with VW expecting a sales run of only 5,000 units before being removed from production after only a few years. However, upon its launch in 1975, the Golf GTi took the world by storm and caught VW napping. The car’s sublime mixture of power, practicality and performance meant it was nimble and gripped like sandpaper on all surfaces, but could also be used for everyday tasks. During the week it could be used for the workplace commute and on the weekend it could set lap records at a track day; it was truly unbeatable!
VW struggled to meet demand, eventually allowing the car to be sold to foreign markets, including the UK. However, in their haste to get the cars built, VW had not the time to convert them to Right-Hand Drive; thus early Golf GTi’s came to the UK only in Left-Hand Drive. The car even made it big in the United States, where it entered sales under the interesting title of the Volkswagen Rabbit GTi, though this was quite late on in the Mk1 Golf’s production life.
However, the Golf GTi’s ability to provide reliability, performance and practicality had wider ranging effects than one might imagine. The car essentially killed the traditional sports cars of yesteryear when the buying public finally realised that these archaic carryovers from the 1930’s and 40’s, machines which hadn’t evolved substantially for the best part of 50 years, were not good investments. The latest crop of sports cars, either surviving relics like the MGB and the Triumph Spitfire, as well as ‘brand-new’ cars like the Triumph TR7, were clear demonstrations of all that was wrong with the sports car at the time. These cramped, slow, impractical, rust-prone, unreliable, ugly, sluggish and unsafe machines were no longer the height of motoring technology, but it only took the likes of the Golf GTi to make car builders realise how out of tune their models actually were.
Most manufacturers were prompt to cease building their archaic sports cars, instead opting to build competing hot hatchbacks which they hoped would recapture the lightning struck by the Golf GTi. The Talbot Sunbeam, the Vauxhall Chevette, the Citroën Visa GTI, and the Fiat Strada Abarth all took otherwise bland family cars and stuffed them with enough spice to make them jump to hyperspace, but none were enough to truly compete with the Golf GTi. It was only until Peugeot in 1984 launched their 205 GTi that the Golf faced a worthy opponent. War was once again declared between France and Germany, the battle being taken to the Group B rally stage upon which they would duke it out for domination until the bitter end.
In the end, the Golf GTi was truly the victor as even 43 years on the car is still being built in its droves. The 205GTi on the other hand drifted quietly out of production in 1994, replaced by a few notable successors like the 106GTi before the French builder settled instead on building cheap, nasty rubbish.
I would explain why the Volkswagen Golf GTi and its descendants are worthy of your purchase, but I feel the car’s reputation precedes it. While the Mk1 has largely disappeared from the roads of Europe, the Mk2 of 1983 is still hugely popular; with thousands of examples still roaming the open road. The Mk2 basically evolved the precedent set by the Mk1, improving on perfection to create a sleeker and larger car but with all the same reliability and power you’d expect from this Teutonic giant.
However, the Mk2 Golf GTi has, in recent years, become a victim of its own success, which is of special significance to potential buyers of this classic machine. Perhaps the most glaring issue with the Mk2 Golf GTi is trying to find a stock version, one which hasn’t been modified (ruined) by gangs of youths who see them as cheap bird-pullers. On the market today you’ll find nearly all Mk2’s for sale have either been lowered, given fat tyres, crudely tuned, or adorned in a garish paintjob that makes it look like something even Liberace would consider too much!
Most of these modifications weren’t done by trained mechanics or by chain dealerships, but instead by pretentious teenagers who wouldn’t know the front of a spanner from the back. As such, in most instances you’ll find the car has been essentially written-off and is only days, even hours, away from either a major structural failure or catastrophic breakdown. While some owners attempt to raise their potential resale value by taking away the external modifications to make the car look stock, they’re usually easy cats to spot.
However, if you do happen across a stock version of the Mk2 Golf GTi, the only real mechanical infidelity endemic to the car you may encounter are related to the cambelt; which needs to be changed every four years or 40,000 miles (whichever comes first). The tensioner also needs changing every 80,000 miles.
Rust on the Golf has never been an issue as Volkswagen cleverly chose to glue rather than weld seams. However, rust can appear on the sills, rear discs and parts of the engine if not maintained properly. As is the case with so many classics on this list, a large number of Mk2 GTi’s have been flogged to death by their owners, with some having travelled the distance from here to the moon during their laborious lives. Worn out examples are especially prone to rust, only able to keep going thanks to the innate longevity of both the car and its parts. Be sure to give them a good once over and don’t be fooled by a fresh coat of paint; the devil is certainly in the details.
Other than that, the Volkswagen Golf GTi is truly the perfect classic car that you can buy cheaply, maintain with ease and operate everyday. The car came to dominate the world of motoring for a good reason, it was the first to marry reliability to practicality and speed, the likes of which had never been seen before. It is the closest thing you’ll get to a timeless classic and truly is a thing of understated beauty.
It’s a small dog with a big bite, and a true monarch of the open road! 😀
- Comfort – 8/10 – Generally alright, though sports suspension isn’t a friend on rough roads
- Practicality – 10/10 – The car that wrote the book on automotive practicality
- Reliability – 10/10 – It also wrote the book on automotive reliability
- Speed – 10/10 – Will easily whip the pants off a comparative sports car of its time
- Handling – 10/10 – Can be thrown into corners with the reckless abandon of someone who’s just been granted eternal life!
- Looks – 10/10 – Bold, chisel-jawed Teutonic glory!
- Equipment – 7/10 – A little under equipped by today’s standards, but you only really want a car like this for its fine mix of practicality and performance
- Price – 8/10 – Depends on the version. Mk1’s are sought after classics while MkII’s are numerous and easy to find
- Value – 8/10 – The VW Golf GTi matures like a fine wine, with prices gradually increasing as the appreciation for these magnificent cars and what they did for the motor industry becomes greater
- Total – 81/90 – Often considered the greatest car ever built!