VW Golf: an icon celebrates its 50th birthday

On Friday, March 29th, 1974, the first Golf rolled off the line in Volkswagen’s home plant in Wolfsburg. Fifty years later, golf is still being produced, and over 37 million units have already been made. But the icon is not ready to die yet.

Back in 1974, the new Golf was a gamble for Volkswagen. The sales of its successful model Beetle were waning. Still, nobody knew if the complete technical switch, from ‘everything in the back’ ( air-cooled engine longitudinally at the far end back, rear-wheel-drive) to ‘everything in the front’ (transversal, water-cooled inline engine in the front, driving the front wheels) would be accepted by the clientele.

But the automotive world had evolved, and several competitors already offered compact, space-efficient front-wheel drives, the icon of this compactness being the English Mini, which was already 15 years on the market in 1974.


Several design prototypes for the newcomer have been circulating inside Volkswagen for years, but they have not satisfied the board. So, they asked an Italian outsider to design a proposal for their all-important new car, Giorgetto Giugiaro from Italdesign.

In August 1970, he showed his first proposal to the top VW managers: a small hatchback with three or five doors, square and space-efficient but certainly not bland. At 3.71 m in length, 1.61 m in width, and 1.41 m in height, the car was very compact compared to what is now considered the C-segment. It weighed less than 750 kg.

A current Golf has grown over half a meter in length, 20 cm in width, and is some 5 cm taller. More importantly, the weight of an 8th-generation Golf turns around… 1.5 tons. But the proportions may be different. The general look of the car has evolved, but not dramatically. The only car that sold more units worldwide is the Toyota Corolla, which changed several times dramatically during its entire history.

Technical prowess

The first two engines to be installed in the Golf were from Audi. They were two water-cooled four-cylinder inline engines, 1.1 and 1.5 liters in size, developing 50 and 70 hp, respectively. They were matched with a four-gear manual transmission or a three-gear automatic.

The suspension was simple but modern, with McPherson wishbones in front and a torsion beam in the rear. It allowed the Golf to show its typical habit of lifting the inner rear wheel in fast corners.

Those first two gasoline engines were modern for the time but not renewing. But the VW engineers were brooding on something different: in 1976, they put a diesel version of the EA827 gasoline engine family under the hood, a 1.5-liter engine developing 50 hp.

It was not the first diesel in a compact car – the Peugeot 204, for example, already had one – but thanks to its low weight, the car drove vigorously for such a small diesel and was very frugal. It was the beginning of an unknown success story.

GTI and Cabriolet

But the engineers also wanted to please a more sporty clientele. So, they also borrowed the 1.6 injection engine from the Audi 80 GTE, which developed 110 hp and was named GTI (for Gran Turismo Iniezione). Another icon was born, and the GTI name still stands for sportiness and vivacity.

At first, the marketing people said they would already have been happy to sell 5,000 of them (to homologate the car for racing purposes), but from the first Golf GTI (between 1976 and 1983), at least 450,000 units were produced.

In 1980, VW also developed an open version of its bestseller. The first Golf Cabriolet was built from 1980 to 1994 by the German coachbuilder Karmann. Specific features included a hood opening to the rear of the car and a roll-bar behind the front passengers.

There was also a three-box version of the Golf, called Jetta, a car that was never very popular in Europe but did very well in the States, where it is still on sale. In the end, 6.8 million Golfs Mk1 were produced between 1974 and 1983, when the second generation took over. In Mexico, the first Golf was created in 1987, and in South Africa until 2009 (called Citi Golf).

Time- and classless icon

The 8th generation of the VW Golf is on the market, and the car has evolved into a third (most important) icon for the company, after the Beetle and the VW bus. This generation will probably be the last to have internal combustion engines, but that doesn’t mean the disappearance of the name.

In these 50 years, Golf has become timeless but also classless. If one asks a Golf owner what he’s driving in, he will probably never answer he’s driving a Volkswagen, he will always respond he’s in a Golf. And almost no people in the world will be embarrassed to be seen in a Golf, as upper-class as they may be.

The new VW Group CEO, Oliver Blume, made a slip of the tongue by announcing that there will be a ninth generation of the Golf. Initially, Volkswagen had the idea to give its electric line-up other names (or figures) under the sub-brand ID. Now, it’s almost sure that, for example, the ID.3 successor will be called ID.Golf. The icon isn’t dead yet.

The newest version of the Golf, 8th generation, is the GTE, a sign that the PHEV is not dead yet /Volkswagen


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