The Volkswagen Golf at 45: Building the Legend.

The Volkswagen Golf turned 45 recently, and its importance in the automotive landscape is impossible to ignore. It saved Volkswagen from ruin, popularized the front-wheel drive hatchback layout, created the GTI and set the standard of quality customers expect from a mass market brand. It has become an icon that has been able to evolve over the decades while still remaining true to its core value of conservative consistency.

There is so much to say about this car that I have decided to give it two blogs. This blog will explore how Volkswagen evolved the Golf carefully over the years, culminating in the current model. Next month I will speculate how the Golf will evolve into its eighth generation in 2020 and beyond.

GOLF MK1: 1974-1983

The Golf’s story begins as far back as the mid-1950s. Volkswagen had built the company on its much-loved Beetle. This was a pre-war, air-cooled, rear-wheel drive car. It was old fashioned even when new and Volkswagen were presented with the mammoth task of replacing it. It took years and many failed attempts before the Giorgetto Giugiaro designed “Golf” was presented to the press in 1974. On the surface, the car was nothing special. The Mini had pioneered front-wheel drive along with a transverse engine layout years beforehand. The French had also beaten the Germans to the post with their own hatchback designed cars. What the Golf represented for Volkswagen was a breath of fresh air. In one step, they had moved away from the archaic Beetle and into the modern age.

But you can’t talk about the Mk1 Golf and not mention the GTI or “Grand Touring Injection”. Again, the Golf wasn’t the first hot hatch but it quickly became THE hot hatch. The GTI began as an after-hours special designed by Volkswagens Press and Engineering departments. After presenting the car to management in 1975, it was approved for a projected 5,000 sales run. The rest is history. The GTI defined the formula. A powerful fuel-injected engine, trim changes on the outside of the car, most notably the front grill with red outline and legendary GTI badge sitting proud. On the inside, there was a dimpled golf ball gear knob and tartan cloth seats. Nothing dramatically different from the standard car, but enough to be something special and within reach of the average car buyer.

GOLF MK2: 1983-1919

 The second-generation Golf will always be associated with the 1980s. To say it was more of the same could seem unfair. However, that is essentially what it was. The MK2 was larger, heavier (120kg) and a little rounder than before. Its contribution to the legacy was to cement the Golf’s reputation for quality and built on the original GTI formula by offering two engine types; the 8 valve and 16 valve respectively. This was in response to French rivals like the Peugeot 205 GTI, which was a lighter, sharper car. The comparison was slightly unfair as the 205 came from the class below. In 1989, the “Big Bumper” facelift gave the Golf a chunkier look and Volkswagen began to tinker with more powerful versions, such as the four-wheel drive Golf Rallye and the supercharged G60. They were very much niche products but began to point the direction the Golf would go in the future.

GOLF MK3: 1991-1997

The third-generation Golf gets very little love. In fact, it is usually criticized for poor quality, lazy styling and killing the GTI. This evolution did see a further growth in both size and weight, and there was some legitimate concern around the build quality. This was the early 1990s and other car makers were also floundering. BMW with their E36 met with very similar complaints. This Golf had to begin to address emission concerns, safety and manufacturing costs. All MK3 Golfs had fuel injection and catalysts as standard. ABS and airbags found their way onto the options list too. This was a rounder, friendlier Golf. The GTI was saddled with the same engines as before and was heavier and slower compared to the previous generations. The magic appeared to have gone. In defence of Volkswagen, this could have been an attempt to move away from the bad reputation hot hatchbacks were developing among governments and thieves alike. Additionally, raw, slightly unhinged cars like the Peugeot 205 GTI and later 306 GTI went against what the Golf as a brand stood for.

What most people forget about the MK3 generation is that we got the Golf VR6. This was another experiment to move the Golf further upmarket and to create a kind of “Super” Golf that was fast, refined and safe. The VR6 had a narrow angle V6 engine that was compact enough to fit into the Golf’s engine bay. Commercially, this was something no other rival in the segment was offering.

GOLF MK4: 1997-2003

It was the attention to detail that elevated the fourth-generation Golf above other hatchbacks. On the outside, it was a gentle evolution of the MK3 shape. The car became less blobby, with tighter panel gaps and sharper edges. Colour-coded bumpers and wing mirrors gave it a more premium appearance. It was the little things though that really made the difference. The “jewel-effect” front headlights, the gas struts to hold up the bonnet, the blue instrument backlighting and most of all, the famous damped interior grab handles all became quality benchmarks for rivals to copy. The overall package of the MK4 was about refinement. The interior was a huge step up in quality, even if mechanically the car didn’t move the game along. The GTI continued its drift into being nothing more than a trim option, losing everything that made it special bar a few (optional) badges. The PQ34 platform on which the car was based still used a torsion bar suspension set up and couldn’t get near the rivalling Ford Focus which drove rings around it. The VR6 evolved into the R32, which again used a narrow-angle V6 expanded to 3.2 litres. This car also brought 4MOTION (four-wheel drive) and the DSG (Dual clutch gearbox) to the Golf for the first time. The R32 was fast and secure, if a little one-dimensional. The MK4 was a huge sales success for Volkswagen but enthusiasts were left wanted. Enter the MK5.

GOLF MK5: 2003-2008

The Ford Focus raised the bar for ride and handling characteristics. This was mainly due to its “Control Blade” independent rear suspension design. The Focus was fun and safe and proved a massive hit for Ford. The media raved about this car’s handling. Here was a family hatchback that could handle without trying to kill you by throwing you off the road. The Focus had controversial styling and a rather poor interior but Ford’s challenge had to be answered. The fifth-generation Golf was Volkswagen’s response. This Golf sat on the PQ35 platform, which featured independent rear suspension suspiciously similar to the Fords. It was an expensive piece of hardware and other areas of the car suffered. The interior, so praised in the Mk4, was less well received in the new car. Crucially though, the MK5 was a return to form for the GTI and Volkswagen was committed. This new GTI had a 2-litre turbo charged four-cylinder engine pumping out 197bhp. The exterior was an evolution of the MK1 and MK2 models with a black honeycomb grill, flanked by a red stripe. The side sills gave the body more shape and the “phone-dial” wheels distinguished this GTI for a new generation. The interior saw the return of the golf ball gear knob and the tartan seats. A six-speed manual was standard along with an optional six-speed DSG gearbox. This new GTI meant business and was a huge success. Even in 2019 it is modern enough to still be a daily driver, while being appealingly analogue in its driving characteristics. A future classic.

All that being said, the MK5 did have one major issue. It was time consuming to build. Volkswagen was losing money and this resulted in possibly the laziest Golf evolution; the MK6.

GOLF MK6: 2008-2013

The MK6 was a re-engineered MK5. It sat on the same PQ35 platform and was easier to build, roughly 20% more efficient compared to the MK5. The styling was a gentle evolution, with sharper headlights and rear lights. The biggest change was to the interior. The MK6’s cabin was indeed a nicer place to be and the ergonomics were updated. If the Mk5 was all about the GTI, then the MK6 saw the transformation of the R32 into the Golf R. The R32 had survived with its V6 into the fifth-generation but efficiency was now the name of the game. The V6 was out, replaced by a high-powered turbo four-cylinder engine based on the GTI's. Granted it had a reinforced block, a larger turbo and retained the R32’s four-wheel drive. The MK6 was a stop-gap generation that did enough to keep the competition at bay. Volkswagen had already begun to work on its new MQB platform, which would underpin the MK7 Golf.

GOLF MK7: 2012-2020

The MK7 Golf brings us up to the present day. It represents the culmination of almost forty years of automotive evolution. This Golf sits on the Volkswagens ubiquitous MQB (Modularer Querbankasten or Modular Transverse Toolkit) platform. This platform, or toolkit, is lighter and stronger than the PQ35 that proceeded it and has allowed Volkswagen to further rationalize manufacturing while providing its cars with the latest safety and autonomous driving technology.

The Mk7 encapsulates what the Golf has become over the seven generations. The styling is safe and reassuring. The interior is cosseting and secure. The inherent quality justifies its continual appeal. Both the GTI and R models have now found their sweet spots within the hierarchy, offering both performance and comfort. At the other end of the range, there are efficient Golfs and even the electric e-Golf. The classless appeal of the Golf, like the Beetle, is something to be envied. Unlike the bug however, the Golf has managed to evolve with the times and that leads us to the next car, the soon-to-be-launched Mk8.

Looking ahead to the Golf MK8

As a result of 45 years of careful evolution and a clear ideology, the Golf has been at the core of the Volkswagen brand. Its success has arguably allowed them to survive the Dieselgate scandal, a debacle that would have destroyed lesser car companies. Looking to the future and the Golf Mk8 is less clear cut. The automotive world is in a state of transition and Volkswagen is openly promoting its new range of electric cars as their future. Is there a place for the Golf in this future? That is the loaded question I will address next month.

Images sourced are as follows:

Golf Mk 1 & Mk6 from EVO magazine (https://www.evo.co.uk)

Golf Mk2 from AutoClassics (https://www.autoclassics.com)

Golf Mk 3,4,5 from RAC (https://www.rac.co.uk)

Golf Mk 7 from CAR Magazine (https://www.carmagazine.co.uk)