The history of the Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI has become one of Volkswagens most popular cars in the range. Its powerful engine and stunning design makes it an icon among the automotive industry. The Golf GTI has grown through many models over the years through to the latest Golf GTI 8.

In May 1974, the Golf Mk 1 was launched as a replacement for the much-loved Beetle. With its front-mounted, water-cooled engine and sharp, disciplined lines, the Golf represented a radical – and risky – new direction for Volkswagen.

And yet the first Mk 1’s wheels hadn’t even touched the tarmac before two motor-racing mad Volkswagen colleagues - Anton Konrad, head of Volkswagen’s press office, and Alfons Löwenberg, a test engineer - came up with an even more radical concept they called the ‘Sport Golf’.

In the autumn of 1974, Konrad invited a small group to meet at his home in Wolfsburg for beer and sandwiches – and to plot the creation of a Golf that would blend the practicality and affordability of a road car with the attitude and performance of a racing thoroughbred.

Their secret group quickly expanded to eight. Members included Hermann Hablitzel, a technologist who probably knew more about the Golf Mk 1 than anyone else at Volkswagen, and Herbert Schuster, a suspension expert who was known for fine-tuning the set-up literally by what he felt in the seat of his pants.

Jürgen Adler brought a specialist knowledge of interiors and was responsible for improving the stiffness of the Sport Golf’s chassis, while engineer Franz Hauk’s legendary EA827 engine would provide the power. Gunter Kühl, who worked in the press office with Konrad, found motorsport events where the prototype Sport Golf could compete.

And finally there was Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky, a marketer who carried out customer research and, crucially, came up with a much better name for the car, christening it the ‘Golf Grand Tourer Injection’ or ‘Golf GTI’ for short.

The Golf GTI Mk 1

By early 1975, the group were ready to reveal their secret project to their Volkswagen colleagues. It was immediately obvious that they were onto something special, and the Golf GTI was officially greenlit on 28 May 1975. With a projected production of just 5,000 models, it was clear that nobody realised quite how special that ‘something’ was going to be.

Work began to convert the prototype into a production model, with the ambition to create a look that was distinctively GTI but also very definitely still a Golf.

Many of the GTI’s best-loved design features were the work of designer Gunhild Liljequist, the first woman to join the team. She was no typical automotive designer, having studied porcelain painting and worked as a chocolate box designer before joining Volkswagen’s design department. She brought a unique vision to the team.

It was on a trip to London that Liljequist fell in love with the tartan patterns that the punk fashion designers of Carnaby Street had swiped from the British upper classes. These patterns would evolve into the GTI’s famous tartan upholstery.

Liljequist is also credited with the trademark GTI golf ball gear knob and the Mk 1’s three-spoke ‘spitoon’ steering wheel, while Volkswagen’s chief designer, Herbert Schäfer, added the red stripe to the radiator grille, plus spoilers and wheel well extensions, to complete a design DNA for the GTI that endures to the present day.

The Golf GTI made its debut at Frankfurt’s International Motor Show in September 1975. It had a four speed gearbox and a fuel-injected, four-cylinder engine that was capable of 0 – 62mph in 10 seconds with a top speed of 113mph. That may not sound much today, but in 1975 it was a sensation.

By the time the Golf GTI Mk 1 ended production in 1983, it had outsold its original run of 5,000 by a whopping 456,690 models. The GTI was a hit.

The Golf GTI Mk 2

When the Golf GTI Mk 2 arrived in 1984, it had a new look, inherited from the bigger, boxier Herbert Schäfer-designed Golf Mk 2. There were also design innovations, like the dual headlights and a rear spoiler, plus a new four-cylinder engine, a five-speed gearbox and optional power steering. And the Mk 2 still managed to offer roughly similar acceleration and top speeds to the smaller Mk 1, despite being at least 180 kgs heavier.

In 1987, the Golf GTI 16V arrived. The new engine cut the GTI’s 0 – 62mph time to 8.9 seconds and increased its top speed to 130 mph, with ABS brakes fitted as standard. Production of the Mk 2 GTI ended in 1991.

The Golf GTI Mk 3

For many fans, the arrival of the GTI Mk 3 marks the end of the ‘classic’ GTIs, with the new model offering less to excite the purists.

First appearing in 1991, it had tinted lights and a red GTI badge in the grille, but it was heavier and featured less dynamic acceleration that its predecessors until an engine upgrade in 1992 improved performance, with a 0 – 62 mph of 8.7 seconds and a top speed of 134mph. Production continued until December 1997.

The Golf GTI Mk 4

By the time the Golf GTI Mk 4 was available for order in late 1997, GTI had been absorbed back into the regular Golf line up, becoming a sporty trim level rather than a separate model. The grille lost the characteristic red stripe and the GTI badge, and became available with a much wider variety of engines, including the diesel powered GTI TDI. While the new Mk 4 won plaudits for its agility and its clean design, it left many enthusiasts yearning for the features that made the classic GTIs so iconic.

In 2001, the Mark 4 ‘25th Anniversary Edition’ went on sale with a powerful 20-valve, four-cylinder engine, a more aggressive body kit, 18 inch BBS alloys, red detailing in the design, and the return of the classic golf ball gear knob - features that many hoped were a herald of the return of the GTI as a separate model.

The Golf GTI Mk 5

Fans were not disappointed when the GTI made a triumphant return at Frankfurt’s International Motor Show in September 2003. Fully restored to its status as a separate model, the Mk 5 combined a powerful new 16-valve, four-cylinder engine delivering 0-62 mph in 7.2 secs with a manual gearbox (6.9 secs with dual clutch 6-speed DSG), sharper, more dynamic looks, and handling that helped redefine what a hatchback was capable of.

New design features included futuristic Denver style alloys and a sleek, V-shaped, ‘honeycomb’ radiator grille. The Mk 5 also saw the return of classic elements like the red stripe, GTI badging and tartan upholstery pattern, which was inspired by the tartan in the original Golf GTI Mk 1.

The Mk 5 became an instant icon. In 2006, a ’30 years of GTI’ edition was launched, with an even more powerful engine that generated nearly 230 horsepower. Production of the celebrated Mk 5 ended in mid-2008.

The Golf GTI Mk 6

The sixth generation of the Golf GTI was to owe even more to the model’s motorsport origins, with the addition of racing driver Hans-Joachim Stuck to the development team. His expertise, plus the low power-to-weight ratio and incredible grip offered by the GTI’s new electronic differential lock (XDS) system combined to make the Mk 6 a truly sensational drive.

Capable of 0 – 62 mph in 6.9 secs and a top speed of almost 150 mph, the Mk 6 also sounded incredible, thanks to a new exhaust system that had two tailpipes – one on the left and one on the right – tuned to deliver what Volkswagen called “audible dynamism”.

In 2011, the GTI was made available as a convertible for the first time. Later the same year, the “Golf GTI Edition 35” was launched to celebrate the GTI’s 35th birthday. It’s first outing was at the legendary Nürburgring racetrack in Germany, where it completed a lap in what was, for the time, an impressively quick 8 mins 38 secs. It also clocked a 0-62 mph time of just 6.6 seconds. The Mk 6 ended production in 2012.

The Golf GTI Mk 7

When the Golf GTI Mk 7 started production in the spring of 2013, it was launched with two different engines: the basic GTI, and what was then the most powerful Golf ever produced - the Golf GTI Performance. The Performance was the first GTI to be built on Volkswagen’s new modular transverse matrix (MQB) platform, which was both lighter and stronger, cutting its weight by a massive 42kg. It became the first GTI to surpass 150 mph.

And then came the Golf GTI Clubsport, which further blurred the distinction between the GTI and its motorsport heritage. First seen in action at Portugal’s Portimão race circuit in November 2015, the Clubsport achieved a 0 – 62 mph of just 5.9 seconds. It was just a taste of what was to come.

In spring 2016, Volkswagen debuted an even more ferociously athletic GTI in the form of the Golf GTI Clubsport S. Released to coincide with the GTI’s 40th birthday, it took the power-to-weight ratio to new lows by dispensing with the rear seats altogether and introducing an aluminium subframe. In the hands of Volkswagen works driver Benjamin Leuchter, the Clubsport S demolished the previous record around Germany’s Nürburgring Nordschleife track for front-wheel drive vehicles, with an eye-wateringly fast lap time of 7 mins 49.2 seconds.

The Golf GTI Mk 8

When the Golf GTI Mk 8 opened for order in autumn 2020, it came with new aluminium subframes, stiffer suspension and a Vehicle Dynamics Manager that centrally coordinated all the running gear functions, adjusting them up to 200 times every second to give the new GTI the most responsive and balanced handling yet.

The wider air intakes at the front and striking shoulder line created a very low visual centre of gravity, and gave it a more dynamic profile. A single signature red GTI line sat above the headlights and wrapped across the full face of the car, giving it a more aggressive expression. And for the first time in its history, the GTI was only available as a four-door.

In 2021, the Clubsport also returned, in the form of the GTI Clubsport 45, to celebrate the 45th birthday of the GTI. It featured red-rimmed black alloys, ‘45’ logos in the design, an acoustically rich Akrapovic exhaust system and a setting called ‘Nürburgring mode’, which was configured to deliver driving dynamics suited to the legendary German track where the Clubsport had made its name.

The GTI legacy

Since the original Golf GTI was unveiled in 1976, it has more than doubled in weight, almost trebled in horsepower and nearly halved its time from 0 – 62 mph. It has developed from a four speed manual to seven speed DSG. From a mono radio to a digital cockpit with touchscreens and voice assistant. From fuel injection to turbocharged and dynamically managed, refining your driving experience many hundreds of times a second. From the isolated driver to always-on intelligent networking, constantly communicating with the world around it to keep you moving and keep you safe.

But one thing that has remained the same is its ethos of evolution over revolution – never deviating from its four-cylinder, front-wheel drive heritage – and yet, in the process, continually redefining the meaning of affordable performance, always seeking to find that perfect balance between everyday practicality and driving pleasure.

Perhaps that’s why the GTI, a car born out of obsession, has been owned – and loved – across 45 years and eight generations by drivers of every kind from all around the world.

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