VW Golf MK1 1975

In a previous article, we told you about one of the key milestones in the automotive industry of the mid-20th century – the introduction of the first people’s car by Volkswagen. And although we slightly overlooked the full history of that model, reserving it for another time, today we will discuss the second attempt to create the most affordable and high-quality car. An undoubtedly successful attempt, as it gave rise to a whole class of vehicles – the golf-class.

In the late 1960s, Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff was still at the helm of the company, responsible for the creation of the Beetle and the development of the brand almost from scratch. Heinz was a staunch supporter of the ideology of rear-wheel-drive cars and air-cooled engines. Furthermore, he was known for his strict adherence to the concept of continuously improving the same car, as evident with the Type 1 (also known as the Beetle). However, as the years went by, it became apparent that change was necessary. Firstly, the unwavering leader of the company was preparing to pass on the reins, and secondly, the world demanded different technologies and a new concept of the car. In 1968, Nordhoff, unable to retire, passed away, leaving his successor, Kurt Lotz, to take charge in such difficult circumstances. At that time, VW was facing a crisis due to low sales: the Beetles were no longer valued in Europe and the market was thirsty for something new. The W411 had just been released and it already seemed morally outdated due to the rear-wheel-drive configuration. In that same year, at the Tuvin Motor Show, a fateful meeting took place: the newly appointed head of the company met Giorgio Giugiaro – at that time, a not-so-famous car designer from ItalDesign, who was destined to do a lot for the future people’s car.

In 1970, the company made its first attempt to join the technological front-wheel-drive party, where Fiat, Peugeot and Simca were already entrenched, by releasing the K70 model. The car gained some popularity but wasn’t a VW development – the authorship of this automobile belonged to NSU, which the concern had acquired a year earlier. However, Lotz smelled blood and realized that he was on the right track. To create a better car, even before selling the K70, he gathered the best engineers from all Volkswagen-controlled brands. The acquisition of Auto Union in 1964 played a significant role in this, as it came with motor engineers ready to offer powertrain solutions. The mentioned Giugiaro served as the car’s designer and engineer of some components.

The project team had to evaluate the EA266 project – this prototype emerged as a development of the Beetle, featuring a mid-engine layout (the engine was placed under the rear seat) and even a liquid-cooled engine. There was little to be taken from it, as it didn’t meet the main requirement of front-wheel drive and an engine in the front. The brave Germans took on the challenge, and by the end of 1969, the first prototype – EA276 – was born. The car had front-wheel drive and an air-cooled engine. It indeed bore a strong resemblance to its famous descendant, but had a slightly disproportionately long hood, a lower arch line, and a completely different rear design. It seemed like this concept was discarded and the development shifted towards the Golf, but things were not that simple: eventually, a liquid-cooled engine was installed in it, and it was launched as a budget model in Brazil under the name Gol!

Another team continued making changes to the EA276. The design was refined to a form that we are all familiar with and colleagues from Audi proposed a conceptually correct solution – to use engines from the Audi 50 (1.1-liter, 50 hp) and Audi 80 (1.5-liters, 70 hp). In 1974, the world saw the final version of the first-generation Golf.
Named after a warm ocean current, it immediately gained widespread popularity. The compact-sized car, with minimal front and rear overhangs, had a good-sized trunk of 350 liters. It could be a 3 or 5-door with a large rear door, which facilitated the loading of bulky cargo. The fuel crisis that broke out in 1973 also played a part and the car, which could truly consume just 6 liters of fuel, was just what was needed. Additionally, even the model with a 1.1-liter engine was considered quite nimble – at that time, heavy rear-wheel-drive behemoths still dominated the roads, and it wasn’t easy for them to catch up with the light (from 790 to 930 kg depending on the configuration) hatchback.

Externally, the car followed the fashion of the time – angular, modest in size, with relatively large windows. The shape of the rear door changed compared to the concept, becoming flatter and resembling modern hatchbacks. Otherwise, the car tried to be as budget-friendly as possible for its future owner, although the list of features grew alongside its popularity.

The interior was also straightforward. In these photos, you can see the seats from the Golf GTI, while the standard version had ordinary seats for those years. The dashboard didn’t evoke many emotions, but it was practical and hassle-free. There was more than enough space inside since there was no need to place the engine behind the passengers or even under their seats.

The new car almost immediately set off for export to various countries. One of the first countries to receive it was Japan and our sample today comes from there! Who better than the Japanese can appreciate the advantages of a compact-sized car with a small engine? The Japanese. In Japan, legislation has long been structured in a way that charging higher taxes for larger cars and their engines. Additionally, they appreciated the equipment of the car, as even in 1975, it had air conditioning and an automatic transmission was available from the first years of production! In the Land of the Rising Sun, the model was produced under its own name, while in the US and Canada, it was known as the Rabbit. In Latin America, it was called the Caribe, and in South Africa, it was called the CitiGolf. If you think that the Golf Mk.1 was a long time ago and they no longer make them, you are not wrong. But it only lasted for 10 years: in 2009, the last Golf Mk.1 rolled off the South African assembly line. Throughout these years, the model underwent improvements but couldn’t leave production due to high demand. Of course, this demand was driven by its low price.

There was also a Golf Cabriolet, which was produced from 1980 to 1993. The Mk.2 in the convertible body style did not emerge due to its limited appeal, so the original Golf had to soldier on until the Golf Mk.3 arrived. As the model evolved, new engines were introduced (by the end of production, there were 11 different engines installed at various times) as well as different body versions. For example, in 1976, the legendary GTI was introduced – a car that spawned a whole culture of “hot hatchbacks.” However, we hope to have another opportunity to talk about it separately. Additionally, based on the Golf platform, the tiny pickup truck Caddy was created, which continued its life in South Africa until 2007. By the early 1980s, the long-awaited 1.5-liter diesel engine arrived, achieving a fuel consumption of 5 liters per 100 km, though it was quite noisy.

The first Golf became one of the most mass-produced vehicles for the brand. It featured the beloved “million-kilometer” engines, simplicity in design and an affordable price. The only thing that hindered its popularity worldwide was that VW had no intention of stopping at just one generation. In the early 1980s, they introduced the Golf Mk.2, which was destined to solidify the company’s position and firmly establish the “golf-class.” But that’s a whole different story…

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