Scarcely believable as it is, the Volkswagen Golf turned 40 this year. That makes it as old as 'Blazing Saddles', 'Tiger Feet', and that bloke in the office with the snap-back cap who swears blind he’s 29.
It’s a perennial big seller, and if you don’t own one, you almost certainly know someone who does. It’s an all-pervading entity, and has been for generations.
So where did it come from, and why is it so popular?
Mk1 (1974-83, 1993 for cabriolets)
When the covers were pulled back to reveal the Golf in 1974, people were shocked. And understandably so. With its crisp, Giugiaro-penned lines, front-mounted, water-cooled engine, front-wheel drive and practical hatchback layout, it couldn’t have been more of a radical departure from the Beetle it replaced.
The following year, the GTI appeared at the Frankfurt motor show. It wasn’t the first hot hatch per se, but the first to have true mass-market success. Its combination of silliness and sensibility made for an alluring combo.
There was a cabriolet version of the Mk1 too, which was so popular that it remained in production right up to 1993.
“Very rarely do car companies tear up the rulebook and start something new,” says John-Joe Vollans, editor of Retro Cars magazine. “But that’s exactly what VW did with the Golf GTI. The concept was nothing new - sporting hatches had existed before - but none offered the level of refinement, comfort, practicality, reliability and grin-factor all in one package as the original GTI.”
Club racing success followed, and it wasn’t long before the pet project of a few forward-thinking engineers at Wolfsburg became a global motoring phenomenon…
The second-generation Golf built on the success of the Mk1, and expanded it. In fact, this generation is often heralded by enthusiasts as the Golf’s pinnacle.
The sensible 1.3-litre petrol and diesel versions were massive sellers, and the cooking five-door hatch became a common sight on the world’s roads. But VW was also keenly aware of the value of sporting variants. The GTI endured, evolving from 8v to a raucous 16v. The G60 added a supercharger, while the Rallye mated the G60 engine to a four-wheel-drive chassis.
“The Mk2 is a jack-of-all-trades,” says multiple Golf owner Garry Hobson of Big Hairpin Photography. “Big enough for the family, yet small enough to feel like a go-kart. The Mk2 and Mk3 were the last of the 'pure' Golfs - not much in the way of electronics, just mechanicals. Plus they just last and last. How many Astras or 205s do you see on a daily basis run by ‘non-car’ people?”
Mk3 (1993- 97, 2002 for cabriolets)
The Mk2 was always going to be a tough act to follow. And the Mk3 didn’t quite live up to its predecessor. It got a bit fat, and the GTI version was a horrible letdown.
That said, it still sold 4.8 million units during its four-year lifespan. Most of those were sensible, family cars, including the newly introduced estate version.
This era of Golf also saw the dawn of the VR6.
Music fans may also recall the ‘European Tour’ editions, wearing Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd or Bon Jovi graphics. Bit odd, but there we are.
The Mk4 aimed to take the Golf upmarket, with Audi-esque fit and finish. And while those headlights look humdrum today, they were revolutionary in ’97 and won various design awards.
The TDI proved to be a bomb-proof family-lugger that’d happily eat 300,000 miles or more, while the V5 offered something super-posh for people who wanted GTI power with soft leather-and-wood trim.
But GTI fans were to be disappointed again. The 2.0 GTI had 115bhp, which is about the same as a hand-blender. But VW was all ears to the criticisms, and built a 150bhp GTI with a far better 1.8 turbo engine.
Then, they went a bit bonkers and developed the 237bhp R32, which had a 3.2-litre VR6, four-wheel drive a dual-clutch gearbox - the first ever production car to do so.
That was one in the eye for anyone who thought the Mk4 was a bit of a wet blanket…
Of course, the R32 didn’t wear a GTI badge, and those letters carry a lot of weight at VW. The Mk5 is the model that really rekindled the GTI mojo.
“For me the Mk5 is the best iteration of Golf since the Mk2,” says Performance VW magazine’s Simon Jackson. “In GTI trim it’s certainly responsible for making the badge relevant again. The Mk5 GTI offered performance, handling and a level of practicality few could rival when it was launched back in 2004, which is why it kept on winning mainstream group tests. That subtle-yet-head-turning styling has stood the test of time, too - the iconic 18-inch Monza rims and stunning tartan trim manage to evoke a sense of heritage without ever seeming passe.”
And, yes, there was a MkV R32 as well. A 155mph Golf. Mad.
We’re really just talking about the performance models now, aren’t we? That’s ok, you’re aware of the school-run-spec grocery-getters.
The GTI continued into the Mk6 era, and VW went a step further by introducing the Golf R, which had 267bhp and could hit 62mph in 5.5 seconds.
The Mk7 brings us up to date. But whereas the Mk6 was a thorough revamp of the Mk5, the Mk7 represents something altogether more advanced. It uses VW’s new MQB platform that will ultimately underpin at least 11 different cars in the Volkswagen-Audi group.
The GTI is complemented by the plug-in hybrid GTE as well as the torquey GTD diesel. The lesser engines in the range all feature Bluemotion tech to keep the trees happy.
After four decades of being a half-sensible tearaway, the little Golf is all grown up. It revolutionised the family car segment in the '70s, then taught the world what a hot hatch was for. It’s passed through evolution, decline, rebirth, and is now forging into the future
It’s incredibly popular with modifiers and collectors in its various forms, as well as proving as versatile as ever as a practical, everyday workhorse. Looks like those ‘like a Golf’ adverts were bang on the money after all…