40 years of the Volkswagen Golf GTI in pictures

01_40_Years_Golf_GTIThe Volkswagen Golf GTI may not have been the first sporty version of a regular small hatchback, but it was the first hot hatch.

Until the arrival of the Mk1 Golf GTI in 1976, the term ‘hot hatch’ simply didn’t exist. Over seven generations and 40 years, the Golf GTI has cemented its reputation as the definitive car of the breed.

We take a brief look at the past four decades, in 40 pictures.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf

Flying in the face of convention, the Mk1 Golf was launched after the Mk1 Scirocco, with Volkswagen keen to iron-out any potential issues before unleashing its car to conquer the world. It arrived in 1974 and would go on to become one of, if not the greatest, car of the 1970s. It also spawned a proper game-changer…

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Creating a high-performance version of an otherwise humdrum vehicle was nothing new. Witness the likes of the Ford Lotus Cortina and hot versions of the Mk1 Escort. But in the mid-1970s, the hatchback was still a relatively new development, with motorists clinging on to their more conservative saloons and estate cars. What the hatchback needed was a halo product – something like the Mk1 Golf GTI…

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

It arrived in 1976, but its appearance wasn’t guaranteed. Volkswagen wasn’t planning a performance car and, even if it had, you’d have thought the achingly-beautiful Scirocco would have been the low-hanging fruit. So it was left to a small team of engineers to develop a ‘Sport Golf’ in their spare time.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Once the concept was presented to the Volkswagen Board, common sense prevailed and the ‘Sport Golf’ was given the go-ahead, with production limited to 5,000 units. The Sport name was dropped, in case the ‘hot’ Golf was a flop, which would have left Volkswagen with egg on its face. Instead, the GTI badge was adopted and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Volkswagen dealers were inundated with orders and requests for test drives, meaning the plan to build a mere 5,000 units was quickly forgotten. Indeed, VW was soon receiving around 5,000 orders… a month! Volkswagen used an off-the-shelf 1.6-litre engine with Bosch fuel injection (the ‘I’ in ‘GTI’). The car was basic, but it was fun. And it also helped that the Mk1 Golf was such a well-engineered car.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

A legend was born. The rise of the hot hatch, with the Mk1 Golf GTI as its ringleader, led to the death of cars such as the MGB and Triumph Spitfire, eventually seeing off the likes of the Ford Capri and Opel Manta. It became the original classless car – as at home on the King’s Road as it was on a B-road.

Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Production continued until 1983, by which time the 1.6-litre engine had been replaced by a marginally more powerful 1.8-litre unit, with the new car marked out by its quad headlights. Amazing to think that Britain’s motorists had to wait until 1979 to get their hands on a right-hand drive Golf GTI. Naturally, it was worth the wait.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Talk about a tough act to follow. The original Mk1 Golf GTI had caught the world off-guard, meaning the industry was still playing catch-up by the time the Mk2 Golf GTI arrived in 1983. This was an softer approach, but the Mk2 benefited from improved engineering and a more grown-up feel.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Mk2 Golf was heavier than the Mk1, with the three-door GTI tipping the scales at 920kg, compared to the 840kg of the original. But it was bigger inside and therefore more practical, helping it to win over a legion of new fans. British motorists in particular took the second coming of the Golf GTI to their hearts, which at one point accounted for around 25% of all Golf sales.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v

But not everybody welcomed the new, softer, larger Golf GTI. Some felt it had lost some of its focus, some of the unhinged madness of the Mk1. Many of these criticisms were answered in 1986, when Volkswagen launched the Golf GTI 16v. With a huge increase in power, the Golf felt more alive, especially at the higher reaches of the rev counter.

Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI 8v or 16v?

That said, some Golf GTI owners claimed the 16v lacked the mid-range pull and ride comfort of the 8v, leading to many healthy debates at the trendy wine bars of 80s Britain. Not that any of this mattered, because the Golf GTI was the car of choice for the Yuppies and stockbrokers of London. It was the car to be seen in.

Acceptable in the 80s?

By the end of the 1980s, the Golf GTI had been joined by an increasing number of rivals, most notably the Peugeot 205 GTI, Ford Escort XR3i and Vauxhall Astra GTE. The Golf may not have been the best or the fastest, but it remained the most sought-after. Available in three- or five-door guise, it was the ultimate classless car.

Joyriding and car crime

But by the early 90s, the GTI badge had lost some of its lustre. Faced with joyriding, car crime and spiralling insurance costs, the GTI name was being dropped by carmakers, but Volkswagen stood firm. Indeed, it was one of just a handful of GTIs able to ride the storm.

Volkswagen Golf G60

In Germany, Volkswagen launched a supercharged G60 version, developing 160hp. This output wouldn’t be bettered in a Golf GTI until 2002. Whilst not officially available in the UK, we were able to get our hands on a limited number of Golf Rallyes. This supercharged and wide-arch special was built for homologation purposes.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Bigger, safer, slower, more? No, not the debut album of 4 Non Blondes, but an adequate description of the Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Introduced in 1992 – a year after the standard Mk3 Golf – the third generation GTI was powered by a new 2.0-litre 8v engine. But 115hp was nowhere near enough to deliver the performance demanded by the fabled Golf GTI badge…

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Part of the problem was that the Mk3 Golf was developing a bit of a weight problem. Faced with ever-stringent crash test and emissions legislation, the Golf GTI had piled on the pounds during middle age. The Mk3 Golf GTI 8v is considered to be the least exciting Golf GTi, almost unfit to wear the badge.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v

The Golf GTI 16v of 1993 improved matters, with power increased to 150hp and torque at a more substantial 133lb ft. The 0-60mph time dropped to 8.3 seconds, while top speed rose to a more autobahn friendly 133mph.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf VR6

But this wasn’t the best Mk3 Golf, because this accolade was reserved for the Golf VR6. Oh sure, the VR6 was far removed from the Golf GTI recipe, majoring on luxury and lazy performance, rather than B-road thrills, but it was able to take the fight to BMW and more upmarket rivals.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf VR6

This flagship Golf was a rare beacon of light at the top of a range that had received its fair share of criticism. Powered by a silky-smooth 2.8-litre V6 engine, the Golf VR6 featured electric windows, sunroof, leather-trimmed steering wheel and rode on 15-inch BBS alloy wheels. It also sat 20mm lower than the standard Golf, with leather and air conditioning available as options.

Mk3 Volkswagen Golf GTI Anniversary

Perhaps the greatest Mk3 Golf GTI is the Anniversary model, of which 1,000 units were built. Produced to mark 20 years of the Golf GTI, the Anniversary featured chequered Recaro seats, red seatbelts, half-chrome/half-leather gearknob and red-stitching for the steering wheel and gear gaiter. The exterior was enhanced by red stripes and red brake calipers.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf

The Mk4 Volkswagen Golf was the result of Ferdinand Piëch’s desire the push the family hatchback further upmarket. Launched in 1997, we already had some idea what the new Golf would be like, because its platform had premiered in the Audi A3 of 1996. Indeed, the Golf was living in different times, with the Skoda Octavia and SEAT Leon set to ‘borrow’ the Golf’s platform.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI

This was the first Golf GTI to be turbocharged, powered, as it was, by Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 1.8T engine. But thanks to changing market forces, the Golf GTI now faced an enemy from within, in the form of the first diesel-engined GTI.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI 25th Anniversary

The most desirable Mk4 Golf GTI is arguably the 25th Anniversary edition, available in Reflex Silver. Features included BBS RC alloy wheels, red and black Recaro seats, factory body kit, larger brakes and lowered suspension. At the time, this 180hp Golf GTI was the most powerful and fast accelerating GTI produced to date.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32

But in common with the Mk3 Golf, the most desirable Mk4 Golf didn’t wear a GTI badge. The R32 was the first Golf to wear the R badge and it was first seen at the 2001 Essen Motor Show. Volkswagen had planned to use the RSI badge for its high performance models, but stuck with the ‘R plus engine capacity’ formula. Hence, the Golf R32.

Mk4 Volkswagen Golf R32

It was powered by a 3.2-litre version of the narrow angle V6 engine, used in the Phaeton and Touareg. Thanks to Volkswagen’s 4Motion four-wheel drive system, the R32 was kept on the straight and narrow, with a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds and top speed of 153mph amongst the headlines. All well and good, but was the GTI badge being put out to pasture?

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf

Not a bit of it. The Mk5 Volkswagen Golf of 2003 represented a return to form, not just for the GTI, but for the Golf overall. Volkswagen was keen to inject some renewed driving satisfaction into the new Golf, a direct response to the cheaper and more rewarding Ford Focus.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Launched at the 2004 Paris Motor Show, the Mk5 Golf GTI was extremely well received, with many lauding it as the greatest Golf GTI since the Mk1. Its new 2.0-litre TFSI engine developed 200hp, making it the most powerful Golf GTI to date. Crucially, it was also a dynamic gem.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

The engine was mated to a six-speed gearbox and standard ESP, which were linked to a chassis equipped with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link configuration (a la Ford Focus) at the rear. It also sat 15mm lower than the standard Golf, with new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. This was the real deal.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Paying homage to the original Golf GTI, the Mk5 heralded the return of the tartan interior and red surround to the grille. Even the GTI typeface echoed that of the original. It was as though Volkswagen acknowledged it had dropped the ball. Tipping the hat in such a way could have been seen as mere window dressing, had the Golf GTI failed to deliver. Fortunately, it did anything but fail.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI Pirelli and Edition 30

Special editions soon followed, including the Pirelli and Edition 30 (pictured), both of which were powered by the 2.0-litre TFSI engine, but this time developing 230hp.

Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI W12-650

But the wildest Golf GTI has to be 2007’s GTI W12-650, which featured a mid-mounted 6.0-litre engine developing 650hp It could accelerate to 62mph in 3.7 seconds, before going on to a theoretical top speed of 201mph.

Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI

By the time the Mk5 Golf GTI made way for the MK6 in 2009, the hot hatch sector had evolved into a formidable playground. While the Golf GTI was still the best all-rounder, the likes of the Focus RS, Civic Type R and Megane R26.R had left it in the shade. Time for a change?

Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Perhaps not. For Volkswagen, being the best all-round hot hatch is where it’s at. A GTI for all people, all scenarios, for all seasons. So the Mk6 was little more than a refresh – a new lick of paint here, some extra horses there. It also benefited from a new XDS electronic diff and nicer interior. Evolution, not revolution.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI

And so to the present day, and the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Whilst looking remarkably similar to the Mk6, the MK7 is based on the new MQB platform, making it an all-new Golf GTI. It’s also larger, with yet more power squeezed from its 2.0-litre TFSI engine. You can also specify an optional performance pack.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Edition 40

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Golf GTI, Volkswagen has launched a new Clubsport special edition. Boasting 265hp as standard, the Clubsport features an overboost function, which ups the power to 290hp during hard acceleration in third gear and above.

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Edition 40

But unlike the 300hp Golf R, the Clubsport’s power is channelled through the front wheels. Prices start from £30,875 for the three-door version, increasing to £32,290 when fitted with the DSG automatic transmission. Is this the ultimate Golf GTI?

Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R

Or, in common with the Mk3 and Mk4, does the ultimate Mk7 Golf even wear a GTI badge? Many would point to the 300hp Golf R as the ultimate incarnation, the pinnacle of a new breed of mega-horsepower hot hatches. One thing’s for sure, the hot hatch has come a long way in 40 years.

The greatest hot hatch?

Earlier in 2016, the Peugeot 205 GTI was crowned the greatest hot hatch of all time at the Performance Car Show. But the Golf needn’t be too disappointed, because the Mk1 and Mk2 GTI finished fourth and seventh respectively.

Happy 40th anniversary…

They say life begins at 40, so enjoy the rest of your life, Volkswagen Golf GTI. Who knows how it will develop from the Mk8 Golf and beyond?

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