1979 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI MK1
words & PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF SAMUEL CUTHBERT FOR THE WHOLE CAR
I find the history of the automobile to be a fascinating thing. Consider just how far the idea of a car has evolved from being purely a mode of transport, into something that we would buy simply because it gives us great pleasure to use. Engineers and designers have gone on to create categories and niches where there were none before, as people dreamt up ideas for their specific vision of what a car could be. Then as time progresses, other manufacturers swoop in, taking that original idea and competing with each other to manufacture the best-regarded offering in each sector of the market. This competition has generated billions of words in car forums online, as fans of particular cars argue the merits of their favorites against anyone willing to engage them. There are certain cars though that were the first of their kind, and if they somehow got just about everything right on their first attempt, that car could go on to become an icon. They would eventually spawn competitors of course, and the online arguments would then resume over this new category, but the first of its kind will always be revered as something very special – and that is the case with the Mk1 GTI.
Around 1970, Volkswagen decided that after 35 years, their ageing Beetle needed a new car to replace it. Values had changed, and people were looking for small, efficient vehicles that were still spacious and practical enough to be used as a family car. Automotive design legend Giorgetto Giugiaro was given the freedom to create something entirely new, and he seized that opportunity with both hands. Front-engined this time, with either a 1.1-liter or 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and 50 or 75hp sent through the front wheels, it sported Giugiaro’s trademark “folded paper” design on the bodywork, with sharp edges drawing the now familiar boxy shape. The bosses at VW fell in love and approved the project immediately, and the first Golf was released to the public in 1974.
There are always people who can see potential where others cannot. VW engineer Alfons Löwenberg is one of those people. The fact that the Golf was already revolutionary in design (as the hatchback itself was in its infancy, with only the Renault 4 and 16, and the Austin Maxi around at the time) did not deter him; he had a very clear vision. Alfons gathered some colleagues in Wolfsburg and pitched the idea of a Sport Golf – the other engineers nodded in agreement, knowing the chassis could handle more power, they were excited enough to work on the project in their spare time. Prototypes were presented, revised, tested, and revised again. Finally, the Sport Golf, or what we now know as the GTI, was born.
The GTI used the 1.6-liter from the Audi 80 GT, revised to use Bosch fuel injection rather than the Audi’s carburetor, indicated in the GTI badge itself – roughly translated as Gran Turismo Injection. With larger inlet valves and higher compression, the GTI now had 108hp on tap – more than enough to make this 810kg featherweight into a proper enthusiasts machine. Combine that performance with the dramatic chin spoiler, stripes along the profile, red pinstriping at the front, and the tartan-covered sports seats inside, and you had a totally new machine that seemed far greater than the sum of its parts. It all came together beautifully, and the car went on sale in Germany in 1976 to a wildly positive reception.
Shooting this incredible example in Italy was a real pleasure. The owner retains a impressive collection of valuable classic cars, but it was clear that he was particularly fond of the GTI. I was reminded of just how small the original car was, and how that large greenhouse and thin pillars gave you such an incredible sense of visibility on the road. The golf ball gear knob felt tactile and grippy in my hands, and the seats held me perfectly. Light and agile on the road, it is far removed from the calm, refined, modern hatchbacks; it was as if I had been playing a game of Chinese whispers regarding “hot hatches” all this time, and only just found out what the original message was. I’ll share it with you. A hot hatch doesn’t need 300hp to be a great car – instead it should be small, light, and nimble, with a quick and precise manual gearbox and a charming personality. Leave the luxury and all the weight it brings to a car to other sectors, keep hot hatches stripped out and as basic as possible, because cars like the GTI got it right the first time, and we would do well to remember that.