In 1974, Volkswagen introduced the three and five-door hatchback oddly named the Golf as a modern replacement for the already five-decade-old Type 1 Beetle. Now, forty-five years later, we are eagerly awaiting the US-release of the new MK8 that continues the legacy of the staple hot-hatchback. Before the refresh makes it to our shores, though, Volkswagen is paying tribute to the Golf’s birthday with a special-edition 45th-anniversary edition much as they did with the MK4 20th. To celebrate this legendary working-class performance hero, we’re going to take a look back at the Golf/Rabbit/GTI’s history and culminate with a speculative peek into the possible future of this platform.
The story of the GTI starts similarly to other left-field successes: as an act of defiance by someone with a real vision. In the 1970s, America and the world experienced a gas crisis along with struggling economies. That recession caused automakers to ditch big, heavy, gas-guzzling models for smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. VW was no exception, and they gave us the Golf as a result. The little hatchback replaced the Beetle, which was known for its general awfulness and relatively unchanged design for its entire production run. The Beetle was always supposed to be ‘the people’s car.’ The same mindset gave us the original Golf in 1974, but a wild deviation by a few key visionaries at VW would propel what would have otherwise been “the square Beetle” into motorsport history.
Shortly after its release, a VW marketing executive saw immediate potential in the Golf as something more than just an affordable family car. He saw the opportunity to make an affordable performance car, which was unheard of at the time. Performance cars were inconvenient, nearly undrivable on the roads of the day, and financially out of reach for all but the wealthy elite. Volkswagen would soon change that, but not without serious push-back from the folks upstairs at their headquarters in Germany. Naturally, as any good employee does when they are told no, the man behind the GTI vision went ahead with a secret project.
A six-man team secretly worked on what would become the GTI by stuffing a 110HP Audi four-cylinder engine into the Golf. The combination was an instant hit with the previously nay-saying VW executives, and a production run of 5,000 units was approved. The GTI went on to sell 420,000 units. Take that, members of the board! With the launch of the original GTI, performance became affordable to anyone without the need to sacrifice convenience features like a trunk or passenger space. For the first time, a taste of excitement behind the wheel was within reach for the masses. This spurned an automotive movement that has continued to this day known as hot hatchbacks.
The MK1 GTI performed so well that VW decided to bring production to American shores. They opened their first plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania in a factory purchased from Chrysler and became the first foreign auto manufacturer to begin producing vehicles inside the United States. This alone is groundbreaking, as nearly every foreign manufacturer followed suit. We now have production plants for dozens of car makers and the US economy was given a much-needed refresh as a result.
Shortly after the Golf launched in America as the Rabbit and Rabbit GTI, the MK2 began production in America. It was clear the hot hatchback had cemented itself in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts all over the world, as demand for these affordable ‘performance’ cars skyrocketed. Fortunately, the refreshed MK2 delivered, even with a slight drop in power from increasingly stringent emissions equipment. The MK2 received such high praise upon release that it is still considered one of the best cars ever produced and has won almost every award offered by every independent reviewer who has written anything about cars. It even took home the coveted Car and Driver “Car of the Year Award” after its release, which further helped expand the fanbase of the affordable hatchback.
The MK2 saw little change visually or mechanically, but the MK3 gave enthusiasts the ‘modern’ GTI that we know today. The MK3 introduced the 12v narrow-angle VR6, which became a famous engine in its own right during its nearly 10-year run as the peak performance engine for the hatchback. Although it did receive a beefier 24v update that was seen in the MK4 R32 that followed, the VR6 GTI ceased production in 1998. It would seem the ‘big engine in a small car’ concept did not ring true for VW as it did for BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche in some of their similar projects-turned-production cars. What the MK2 and MK3 did do was spark the hot hatchback fire which spread across Europe and into the United States. Without the MK2 and MK3 GTI, cars like the Peugeot 206, Fiat 500 Abarth, Renault Clio, Ford Focus ST, and even the WRX and STi would probably not have existed.
The GTI continued with the MK4, which was a fantastic car that offered a sportier, Haldex-AWD-equipped R32 version. The R32 famously featured a 3.2 liter 24v VR6 and would be the last to do so with a manual transmission option. After the success of the MK4, which held onto the boxy original styling of the MK1, VW decided they had made enough cool cars.
The MK5 was atrocious. It was ugly, only offered its R32 variant with a Dual Clutch Transmission, and the four-cylinder versions were prone to failures. They did offer a Fahrenheit edition, which was orange, and proved that Germans have a terrible sense of humor. “Look, vee made ein car orange und called it Fahrenheit! Vee are so silly!” It offered no benefits besides an even more atrocious paint job that called attention to the already lackluster body of the now egg-shaped hatchback. Nothing more should be said about the MK5.
The MK6 was released as a face-lifted MK5, but several ‘problem’ areas were corrected to make the car more appealing. Aggressive styling, updated interior features, and more contemporary characteristics made the MK6 feel more like the original GTIs that stole our hearts back in the ’70s and ’80s. After the MK6 came the MK7/7.5, and MK8 naturally, since the GTI is still produced.
Finally after a bit of a slump with the MK5 and the upturn that followed with the MK6, VW completely redesigned the look, feel, and even engine platform with the MK7 and facelifted MK7.5. Offering higher performance figures than ever before, a more luxurious interior, and an aggressive exterior design, the MK7 has become a massive success. The MK7 follows the original formula: to provide an affordable, convenient, and fun performance platform that allows enthusiast owners to enjoy a ‘do it all’ daily driver.
Now, we wait for the MK8, which has already been released in Europe. The GTI is celebrating its 45th birthday, which is worthy of praise. Not many vehicles carry the love, enthusiasm, and community that the Golf/GTI does. That community, those of us who drive these cars, modify them, make them our own, we are responsible for the continuation of perhaps one of the most influential platforms of all time.
The MK8 is set to be that platform’s peak, though, as VW embraces the electric future. We’ll still receive the gasoline engines in the MK8, but there are rumors the future of the Golf platform may rest in the hands of the MEB electric platform moving forward. It may not be what many of us want, but it’s certainly worth being excited for. This is the highest point we will likely reach with combustion engine technology, one last hurrah, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of a legendary car and possibly say goodbye to the formula we have known for over four decades. It’s fitting, then, that the MK8 stands to be the best performing of all the generations.
To conclude, the world of motoring was irreversibly affected by the introduction of the GTI in the ’70s as it spurned this love of automotive enthusiasm for the every-man that still holds today. With the almost 180-degree turn from the vibe of the Beetle, the GTI was able to have a successful 45-year run that persists today as a beloved car that ushered in the era of affordable performance. Thanks to the MK1 GTI, the automotive community was forever changed for the better, or so we think. It all could change with the future of automobiles transitioning to new energy vehicles, but we shall see. Regardless, we’re excited about the future and eagerly await the US launch of the MK8 platform.