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::: Chapter Three :::

The new Golf ‘GTI’

The first of the new Giugiaro designed Volkswagens to be introduced was the Scirocco, which was launched at the 1974 Geneva Motorshow. To avoid jeopardising the ‘brand-loyalty’ Volkswagen had been so careful to augment over previous decades, it was important to ensure the new range of cars were defect free. Karmann, to whom production of the Scirocco was to be entrusted were to introduce the lower volume Golf derivative first in ‘small numbers’. This was a circumspect strategy, that enabled the elimination of teething troubles, and which allowed dealers to build up service experience of the design before full-volume production commenced. Whilst the Scirocco was fundamentally a ‘marketplace guinea-pig’ for the Golf (Blunsden 1992 p13), it was also a very attractive car in its own right. Market reaction was favourable, and both the Scirocco and the Golf launched three months later received praise for their style, reliability and quality.

The ‘Beetle’s popularity was doubtless due chiefly to the manner in which it performed ‘utilitarian’ tasks. At the time of the Golf’s launch it is clear that Volkswagen’s sales and marketing departments were preoccupied with the task of selling the public economical ‘mainstream’ models that were to be produced at a rate of thousands per day.

The most powerful way of attracting consumers away from a rival has often been to appeal to the ‘performance enthusiast’. This philosophy was perhaps best demonstrated by Ford in the Sixties, who used successful participation in various forms of ‘motorsport’ with two of their high performance Cortina derivatives, the GT and the Lotus, to drastically shift both their image and their position within the market. It is important to note at this juncture, that in such an enormous organisation, it took a small team of development engineers to recognise what a great opportunity was being missed. Realising how sensible it would be to impart the highest profile on the saloon, the development team ignored the Scirocco, and began work as described earlier, on the ‘Sport Golf’.

At this point, Volkswagen had been producing cars for thirty years. From uncertain beginnings a large and capable manufacturing plant had emerged at Wolfsburg. Capitalising on post-war car supply difficulties, Volkswagen built a large, regimented dealer network both in Germany and the rest of the world. From these dealers they sold a few basic and largely unchanging vehicles, which were reliable and built to an exacting standard. Nordhoff defined his goal, Volkswagen’s philosophy in 1961, when he said that Volkswagen had dedicated themselves to ‘the attainment of the highest quality, and aimed to destroy the notion that such high quality could only be attained at high prices’ (Nelson 1967 p134). By observing these fundamentals Volkswagen built an enviable customer allegiance, whom they indulged with a series of mould breaking ‘creative’ advertising campaigns. To offset the inevitable drop in Beetle sales Volkswagen commissioned the independent car designer Giorgio Giugiaro to produce studies for a pair of saloons and a coupe. With these designs for Volkswagen, Giugiaro would firmly establish his legendary ‘folded-paper’ philosophies, and create a car that has since sold 14’800’000 units (Observer Jan 12 1998).

As we have seen, Volkswagen were concentrating their efforts elsewhere, and as such, the ‘Sport Golf’ project had no backing. The development work that went into perfecting the car was very much ‘extra curricular’. Upon approval by the board, the sales department gave hesitant support to a limited run of only 5000 cars, which it has since been suggested was a sufficiently small number to disperse thinly throughout the dealer network!. The appendage ‘Sport’ was dropped however, lest the car fail to live up to its expectations. The letters GTI were chosen instead, and these three legendary letters have since become synonymous with performance appeal.

As to how Volkswagen initially missed the idea of a GTI is unclear, but it is safe to say that their business approach was unimpulsive. The early seventies were a period of terrorism, widespread strikes and a major oil crisis. Nordhoff had passed away and it seems, taken with him the spirit of calculated risk-taking. Volkswagen it has become apparent used the end of Beetle production to comprehensively rationalise their production techniques. During this time of rationalisation it is clear they grasped the need for style and quality, but they probably incorrectly, could not see a place for speed and status. Things had come full circle, and it oncemore took the efforts of a few dedicated engineers to put the floundering company back on track.

The first Golf GTI’s arriving in dealers showrooms were greeted with interest if not with excitement. The cars were restrained and understated, and their outward appearance did little to reveal their true nature. Once seated behind the wheel, customer’s curiosity soon became euphoria. This was a distinctly hot ‘Hatch’, the first of an influential new breed. The engineered components that differentiated the GTI from lesser models were comparatively few, whilst the base car’s rigidity and light weight ensured building the ‘GTI’ presented no serious manufacturing difficulties.

The plan to only produce 5000 units was, needless to say, quickly abandoned as orders for the new GTI flooded into showrooms across Germany. Before long GTI’s were being produced at a rate of over 5000 a month. The hesitant reluctance of the sales experts was soon replaced by fervent enthusiasm. Consumers were buying the GTI, and those who weren’t, were buying less powerful but visually similar models, happy it seems to bask in the GTI’s reflected glory. This, it must be noted, appears to be a critical factor in the success of Volkswagen’s sportiest models. Whilst always boasting peerless build quality, fine handling, and remarkable speed, the cars have remained perpetually discrete.

In 1979, the frustrated UK market were finally able to buy a ‘Right Hand Drive’ (RHD) Golf GTI. The cause of the delay remains unclear, but the wait fuelled anticipation, and as has transpired habitually throughout Volkswagen’s career, orders were taken in earnest. In keeping with tradition, Volkswagen were keen to address the car’s shortcomings. To this end, a five-speed gearbox was introduced to the car, lowering the final drive ratio to make motorway cruising quieter and more economical. Likewise, with an eye, it can be assumed even further to the future, work began on a larger engine. For 1982 the GTI was fitted with Volkswagen’s newly developed 1800cc engine. The bored out engine had been significantly lightened, featured an evolved piston design, and sported a mild ‘compression increase’. These changes helped preserve the free revving nature of the engine whilst increasing torque lower in the rev range.

On the road, the changes endowed the car brisker acceleration (8.1 seconds to 60mph), with a slight increase in top speed (118mph). Their most tangible effect however was notably increased ‘driveability’ at lower engine speeds. Already six years old at the introduction of the new engine, the design as might be expected from Volkswagen was relatively unchanged. The tartan upholstery had been toned down somewhat and the car featured a new, more modern dashboard design.

With the introduction of the 1800 engine came additional gauges, and more significantly, a highly advanced ‘Multi Function’ (MFA) trip-computer. The eighties of course were the start of the computer revolution. January 1980 saw the launch of the world’s smallest and cheapest home computer, the Sinclair ZX80, followed a year later by the ZX81. The introduction of the 1983 1.8 GTI coincided fortuitously with the launch of Sir Clive Sinclair’s multi million selling ZX Spectrum, and the decision to build in an advanced ‘MFA’, taken doubtless years earlier proved to be shrewd.

That the Golf GTI had become a ‘cult’, by 1983 was no longer in doubt (Watson 1983 p 51). It is important to question though, how much of its success by this juncture had been directly governed by Volkswagen and how much was circumstantial coincidence. Conceived at the very start of the seventies the Golf’s sharp-edged styling was refreshingly radical. Auspiciously for Volkswagen the style was unveiled first however on Giugiaro’s high performance 1972 Lotus Esprit and the exotic connotations thereafter gave the ‘style’ considerable prestige. A lucky foresight by engineers at Volkswagen had defined the ‘GTI’ concept, which was characteristically well executed. A decision taken late in the ‘Sport Golf’ design to switch from carburettor to fuel injection, was timely, both anticipating and pre-dating the hype that would soon surround specifying injection for power and economy.

The GTI was launched to a generation with two mutually inconclusive concerns, high speed and fuel economy. 1977, the second year of GTI sales, saw a renewal of widespread public absorption in space travel. Nasa’s reusable space shuttle concept made its maiden voyage, ‘Star Wars’ took three million dollars within a week, and Concorde made its first transatlantic supersonic flight. Renault introduced Formula One’s first turbocharged engine, whilst fellow German car manufacturer Porsche’s 928 was heralded ‘Car of the year’ (Taylor 1995 p307). In short, going fast was suddenly on the mind of the consumer. That this absorption with speed was unforeseen is demonstrated by the uncertainty with which Volkswagen’s hitherto unequalled marketing department’s greeted the GTI. In 1977 Volkswagen had the right car and they were selling it at the right time.

By 1979, the Golf GTI had arrived in the UK and sales of RHD models took off. The model continued virtually unchanged, save the aforementioned upholstery revision and five-speed gearbox in 1980, and for the 1982 season, the introduction of wider tail-light clusters and standard alloy wheels. It was later revealed that running prototypes of the MK2 Golf GTI were already being tested by 1981. The 1800cc engine destined for use in the MK2 was complete and Volkswagen cleverly chose to fit the engine to the outgoing MK1. In so doing they created a cult car, a car that leapt further ahead of the competition, that heightened hype, and that gave consumers a clear glimpse of what was to come. Again however the success was augmented by outside occurrences, and when the home computer revolution broke shortly after, people looked to the Golf GTI and found once more that Volkswagen were producing the ideal car supplemented with the latest gadget.

Extracts from road tests printed at the time prove informative:

The biggest inside difference is the incorporation of a very neat and easily understood trip computer…. an unusual and most interesting variable in this sort of car (Scarlett 1982 p34)

With a class clobbering power to weight ratio and a perfect sprinting set of ratios in its favour, the GTI accelerates as rapidly as anything you’ll find. (Motor 1982 p42)

The purpose of this investigation of course is not merely to praise the car, but to establish the factors which perpetuated its success. Within a year, Volkswagen were to launch the replacement Golf range. Autocar had hailed Giugiaro ‘the stylist of our times’ (Chapman 1995 p299) for his work on the MK1 Golf, and any changes to the MK2 had to be carefully executed for definite reasons

When Giugiaro penned the first Golf, he had created something that was ‘as understated as a Gucci Loafer, yet every bit as timeless and essential’ (Futrell 1996 p57). The task facing Volkswagen’s design staff in producing a successor for this Golf, was fundamentally different to the process that had occurred a decade earlier when conceiving its concept.

The colossal success of the MK1 meant an entirely new concept was not required. The task facing the engineers was to build on successful elements of the original, to eliminate its shortcomings whilst retaining ‘brand loyalty’. The new Golf had to offer clearly measurable progress in the parameters of performance and packaging, whilst retaining the visual identity of a ‘Golf’. Whilst the styling was this time undertaken ‘in-house’, care was taken to retain the original Giugiaro designed car’s most distinguishing feature, its broad rear C-panel. This meant of course that a source of criticism of the older model, poor rear three quarter vision remained, but of any styling feature, the pillar alone ensured the strongest visual continuance - the successor was without doubt a ‘Golf’.

To maintain the car’s market share, the design team had to address the comfort requirements of a population, in times of escalating prosperity whose proportions were increasing. Accordingly, the wheelbase was increased seven centimetres, the overall length was extended by seventeen centimetres and the width expanded by five centimetres. Inevitably the Mark Two (MK2) was some 100 kilos heavier. The methodical elimination of external protrusions in the quest for improved aerodynamic efficiency offset the weight gain by improving the new car’s drag coefficient by nineteen percent (Blunsden 1992 p 51). The MK2’s top speed with the same engine was now fractionally faster at 119 mph, whilst acceleration was somewhat lower at 8.3 seconds. The increased dimensions brought considerable accommodation benefits, including a thirty percent increase in luggage space. By replacing the MK1’s metal fuel-tank with a new intricately blow-moulded plastic equivalent, the capacity was increased by fifteen litres, giving the new car an exceptional range (436miles - Motor road test 1984 p 59).

As mentioned, running prototypes were in action as early as 1981 and in the two years that preceded the launch, the MK2 covered an incredible ‘four million test track miles’ (Blunsden 1992 p53), many months of which were spent testing how the design performed under extremes of temperature in the Arctic and the Tropics. The benefit of this work was a much improved heating system which responded more quickly to changes in settings, and was less dependant on road speed. At the launch of the new car, Volkswagen claimed the development had involved an investment of almost £500 million. The excellence of the build quality of the later MK1 Golfs had been a major factor in their success. Volkswagen gave this particular consideration special attention and devised what was at the time the world’s most advanced robotic manufacturing process to ensure consistent and exacting standards throughout the range. Without doubt the new bodyshell lacked the crispness and some would say the impact of the old car. There were suggestions at the time that the car had gone soft (Ibid. p63), and that the GTI would soon be overtaken by the more visually arresting competition. However sales in the years ahead would soon dispel this notion – the car had become even more understated, even more ‘Teutonic’. The new GTI (Fig 3.1) was launched in the UK in March 1984 ‘its less compromised proportions and more aggressive body extensions winning it a huge following’ (What Car? 1996 p7). Low speed flexibility had been refined and the all round disc braking system was a great improvement on the much maligned disc-drum system employed on the MK1.

At this juncture Volkswagens age size and reputation alone were not sufficient guarantees of success, intelligent redesign, increased driveability, improved suspension and better brakes acknowledged and resolved the old car’s limitations. U.K. sales figures taken in the first full year of MK2 GTI sales compare favourably with those taken in the last full year for the MK1, at 5972 and 6161 respectively. Assessment of world-wide sales figures for the same period of 77,778 and 107,377 respectively, show a drop in sales however. Whether this drop worried Volkswagen is unclear, but 1986 was to see two important steps in the evolution of the car, the introduction of the wild sixteen-valve version (16v), and a series of award winning adverts…

Fig 3.1: The 1983 MK2 Golf GTI (Source: Frankel 1996 p4)

Chapter Four: Cult Credentials


 1 » Introduction: Can lessons be learnt from the Golf GTI?
2 » Chapter One: Giorgio Giugiaro and the ‘Sport Golf’
3 » Chapter Two: Volkswagen’s uncertain beginnings
4 » Volkswagen’s development in the United States
5 » Chapter Three: The new Golf ‘GTI’
6 » Chapter Four: Cult Credentials
7 » Chapter Five: Steps to success
8 » Volkswagen’s constitution
9 » The Eighties environment
10 » The high volume Golf
11 » Bibliography
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