Golf Mk1: The birth of an icon
In 1974, Volkswagen launched its daring replacement for the much-loved Beetle. The Golf was a revolutionary car for a revolutionary time, but would the world be ready for it?
The Golf Mark 1 emerged onto the world stage during a decade of immense change. Protestors marched for equal rights and peace, geopolitical upheaval led to acute shortages of oil, and the Cold War raged from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
1974 – the year the first Golfs arrived in the UK – was no exception, with not one, but two British general elections, a football World Cup (which Germany won, of course), Muhammed Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle, Abba clinching Eurovision with the single ‘Waterloo’ and the whole nation dining in on that pinnacle of Seventies haut cuisine – the cheese fondue.
The Golf was a big moment for Volkswagen. The venerable and much-loved Beetle needed replacing and the job of designing its replacement was handed to legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.
Giugiaro looked towards minimalism, a style that had risen to prominence in the early Seventies. Its influence was evident in the Golf’s disciplined, scalpel-sharp lines that simultaneously maximised interior space and announced that this would be a very different car to the famously curvaceous Beetle.
Another revolution in the Golf was the decision to switch from the air-cooled, rear-mounted engines of early Volkswagens to a water-cooled, front-mounted engine, an adaptation that offered improved performance and lower emissions.
It must have been a tense moment for Volkswagen as it unveiled its revolutionary second generation vehicle. But any lingering fears about how the Golf would be received were quickly put to rest. Just a year after its launch, the Golf Mk1 was firmly established as one of the most popular cars in the UK – a position it has held ever since.
Then in 1977, two unapologetically modern icons erupted into the mainstream. The first was punk, a snarling, explosive contrast to the glitter and glamour of disco. The second was the Golf GTI.
Like punk, which was created in bedrooms and bedsits across the country, the GTI was the product of an unofficial, after-hours project by Volkswagen engineers. They shared an unlikely (and almost certainly unintentional) vision with punk too - to create something aggressive and fast and uncompromising.
The Golf GTI even had tartan seats, an echo of the celebrated tartan trousers designed by Vivienne Westwood and worn by the likes of the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten.
Initially limited to a run of 5,000, the GTI defied all expectations, quickly building a fanatical fan base. For two years it was only available in the UK as the left-hand drive German variant. The first purpose-made right-hand drive models arrived in the UK in 1979 as GTI took its place at the heart of the Volkswagen range.
As the Eighties arrived, change was in the air again.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister on a radically different platform of individualism and free-market economics. New Wave bands like Blondie, The Jam and The Pretenders began to dominate the charts. And Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer - who was frequently snapped with her sporty light blue Golf - got engaged.
Change was also coming to the Golf. The Mk 1 had sold an astonishing 7 million vehicles around the world, forever establishing it as of the defining models of the decade. But Volkswagen wasn’t resting on its laurels and, even on the back of the Mk 1’s runaway success, saw room for improvement. The Golf Mk 2 was on the horizon.