It’s incredible to believe, but 2015 marks the Volkswagen Polo’s 40th birthday. One of the early ‘premium’ superminis and the last member of Volkswagen’s first-generation water-cooled family of cars to arrive in the early 1970s to shake off the shackles of the company’s dated air-cooled range, the Polo has been a staple of the German company’s range ever since.
Introduced into the UK during the record-breaking hot summer of 1976, its fifth-generation successor was the second best-selling Volkswagen in the UK last year. However, it was the pretty Mk 1 car which got the Volkswagen small car ball rolling. The bright Miami Blue car pictured here is owned by Volkswagen Classic, the German company’s heritage arm. It services a fleet of vehicles from the marque’s history and regularly displays the retro treasures at classic car events around the world.
What are its rivals?
Although the Polo was a relatively early entrant into the 1970s ‘mini car’ market, established competition included the Fiat 127, the first-generation Honda Civic and the Renault 5. The Polo’s arch nemesis, the Ford Fiesta, arrived one year after the small VW and the pair have been supermini sparring partners ever since. Other notable rivals included the Citroën Visa, Peugeot 104, Talbot Samba as well as British competition, the Austin Metro and Vauxhall Chevette.
What engine does it use?
Most Polos were sold with a carburettor-fed 895cc engine, producing 40hp at 5,900rpm. Most modern superminis produce at least double that, but increased safety kit and dimensions inevitably mean more weight. A 1970s Polo typically tipped the scales at around 700kg, so the small power outputs were more than capable of moving the little car along. Later and plusher examples enjoyed a heady 50hp by way of a 1,093cc engine borrowed from the Golf. An elegantly-styled saloon version called the Derby had an extra 10hp still.
What’s it like to drive?
Its light weight pays dividends in the way the Polo drives. It feels very light on its 145 SR 13 tyres and 4.5-inch wide rims and responds well to changes of direction. Of course, with no power assistance, the steering can be on the heavy side at times and you have to feed the thin skinny wheel rim through your hands carefully due to its large size.
Just as with the steering, the brakes lack power assistance (a servo didn’t arrive on right-hand drive Polos until 1990), so the middle pedal needs a good shove to get anything remotely happening at the wheels. On occasion, you still think nothing is actually clamping the steel rims, but the car does stop. Eventually.
The long, plain-looking and untrimmed gearstick (there are no appearance fripperies here) is connected to a long-throw ‘box but the four-speeds shift positively enough. Thanks to the delicately slim pillars and large glass area shared with many 1970s cars, visibility out of the Polo is first class.
Reliability and running costs
The Polo has long suffered under the shadow of its more famous Golf big brother, but in recent years it has emerged from the darkness, particularly in Volkswagen club scene circles. An increasing number of parts and replacement body panels are now available from specialists and a similarly-growing online community will no doubt be able to answer any technical questions you may have. Fuel economy should be around the 38-45mpg mark.
Could I drive it every day?
While the Polo’s small dimensions and light controls make seemingly make it ideal for everyday use, some may find the car’s lack of power steering and low gearbox ratios a little tiresome to drive as well as noisy. However, despite its limited power, the engine is quite torquey. The little hatchback feels quite brisk and the Polo keeps up with modern traffic flow quite well. To the uninitiated, those dead-feeling brakes may annoy, though. And although not standard when new, most Mk 1 Polos will now have radios of some description, which may relieve the stress a little.
How much should I pay?
As with a few other classic cars, you’ll find that early Polo prices can vary a great deal. Low-mileage (under 100,000 miles) pristine examples have been advertised for £4,500, while less tidy cars can be picked up from just a couple of hundred pounds. Earlier 1975-1979 cars with small metal bumpers tend to be more sought after than later cars fitted with heavier-looking plastic bumpers as well as a revised front grille and dashboard.
What should I look out for?
The small-block engines are simple and well-trusted, especially as the technology was also used in the second-generation Polo, too. Rust is a major enemy to all first-generation water-cooled Volkswagens, and the Polo is no exception. You need to pay special attention to the front wings, bonnet and rear wheel arches, as well as the sills and floor. Mk 1 Polos panels aren’t too expensive, though: rear wheel arch outer panels start from £22.95 from VW Heritage, with sills around the same price.
Other things to look out for are corroded fuel filler necks and leaky oil pumps. Rear light lenses and seals can also leak. Of course, being a workaday machine, some cars may not have too much of a service history after the first decade or so of service, but that shouldn’t bother you too much. ’N’ basic-spec cars can be quite, well, basic, but higher trim Polo L/LS/GLS models come with such luxuries as carpets as well as chrome exterior trim and bumpers.
Should I buy one?
Should you be in the market for a small 1970s hatch as a starter classic and don’t want the default Golf, the Polo makes a sensible choice. Pretty looks, economical engines, bright colours and thorough engineering all make the Mk 1 Polo an enticing prospect. More plentiful in numbers than some of its rivals and remarkably solidly built despite its light weight, the Mk 1 Polo is supported by a keen bunch of enthusiasts who will cater for your technical (as well as social) needs.
The Polo first appeared in 1974 as the Audi 50, a new size of car for the premium brand. Originally conceived as a smaller three-box saloon to fit in with the rest of the 1970s Audi range to slot in under the 80, the initial design went on to become the Volkswagen Derby in 1977. The hatchback-ed production 50 was built on the same production line as the Polo at Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg factory and was discontinued in 1978 after 180,828 examples had been built. The less expensive Polo had simply proved more popular.