The Volkswagen Golf is often credited as the one car that defined hatchbacks, the originator for the genre. Except that it isn’t true, the Golf was not the first hatchback. Nearly ten years before the Golf Mk 1 was launched, Renault was already enjoying good success with the Renault 16, which also came with four doors and an opening rear hatch. What the Golf did however was making hatchbacks popular. In some countries, C-segment hatchbacks are simply described as the ‘Golf class.’
Renault 16 offered four doors and a rear hatch in 1965
Hatchbacks offer a disproportionately large aperture for a small car. Legally, the opening rear hatch is defined as a door, since it provides direct access to the cabin. Thus vehicle homologation documents often mention hatchbacks as either three- or five-door cars, much to the confusion of the general public. The large opening allows for easy loading of large cargo while maintain the economy and easy of driving of a small car.
The 1 millionth Golf rolled out off Volkswagen’s plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, just 31 months after it was launched in 1974, achieving that milestone in nearly three times less years than the Renault.
The Golf’s combination of robust mechanics and spacious interior made it a hit among consumers but it was Volkswagen’s consistency of retaining the Golf nameplate and the familiar styling elements for every new model generation that made it the world’s most recognized hatchback.
Apart from a Porsche 911 and a MINI, the Golf is one of the few cars that has remained consistent in its styling direction generation after generation.
In the early ‘70s, the Mk 1 Golf was briefly assembled in Malaysia at the Assembly Services Sdn. Bhd. plant in Shah Alam, which is now owned by UMW Toyota Motor. However by then, local consumers were already gravitating towards Japanese sedans, which were perceived to be more reliable and the sedan bodystyle of a Nissan Sunny and Toyota Corolla was better suited for our needs.
Finding a Malaysia-assembled Golf Mk 1 today is extremely difficult and even in Europe, a Mk 1 Golf is getting quite rare. Thus we were very pleased to come across this particular Miami Blue example at Volkswagen’s AutoStadt Museum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg.
The Golf was aptly parked next to a prototype Volkswagen V30, also in blue, just like Volkswagen’s logo. It’s one of the 30 prototypes built to develop a car that history would later know as the Volkswagen Beetle. Both blue cars laid the foundations of Volkswagen.
The Golf came about at a time when a wave of Italianization in car design was sweeping across the industry. Italians might come up short against their Japanese and German peers when it comes to putting together a car properly, but nobody doubted their abilities in styling.
When the then-Chairman of Volkswagen AG Mr. Kurt Lotz was struggling to come out with a product that could repeat the success of the air-cooled Beetle, he turned to Italy for assistance.
While visiting the 1969 Turin Motor Show, Lotz asked his Italian importer Gerhard R. Guempert and a group of journalists for suggestions on who was the best car designer.
A young Giorgetto Giugiaro
They toured the motor show and shortlisted six good designs, before finding out that four of them were done by the same young man from Italdesign - a 31-year old that went by the name Giorgetto Giugiaro. Lotz reportedly offered Giugiaro the contract to revamp Volkswagen’s products on the spot at Italdesign’s show stand with the message “Do what you want, but do it fast.”
He was even given access to Volkswagen’s private jet to cut down travel time between his office in Turin and Volkswagen’s headquarters in Wolfsburg.
Volkswagen Passat B1 - oddly enough, it wasn't available as a sedan
The first Giugiaro-designed Volkswagen was the 1973 Passat but the Italian-German partnership only flourished one year later with the smaller Golf, named after the German spelling for Gulf Stream, the ocean current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic.
When the Golf was launched in 1974, the market was populated with cars like the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Renault 5, Austin Allegro, and even the Honda Civic. Compared to them, the boxy looking Golf was, for some people, one step too radical. However it didn’t take long before the positive attributes of its boxy styling and mechanical package won it a legion of fans.
There was a logical reason behind the unorthodox styling. Volkswagen had asked Giugiaro to make a design that was cheap to manufacture because Volkswagen was in a very precarious financial position. The company didn’t seem to be able to progress beyond air-cooled Beetles and the NSU-developed K70, Volkswagen’s first water-cooled product that was supposed to succeed the Beetle, was a commercial flop.
It was very critical that their second attempt with the Golf succeeded. To keep cost low, flat panels and straight lines were preferred. Normally, this would result in a bland looking car devoid of any character, but Giugiaro’s genius was his ability to turn boring flat panels and straight lines into a design language.
The thick C-pillars are now a signature of the Golf, while the boxy styling conveyed a message of German strength and purposefulness.
The signature circular headlamps set within the rectangular grille nearly didn’t make it because Giugiaro hated it. He had originally wanted to use rectangular headlamps but had to swap them with simpler circular headlamps to keep cost low. It was only in hindsight that this circular headlamp and rectangular grille combination became one of the Golf’s most endearing design element.
The early Golfs were shockingly minimalist. The seats were thin and the interior was basic. The instrument panel was literally a big rectangular hard plastic box housing a single instrument pod. It was devoid of any frivolities but more important than aesthetics was that it was mechanically robust and was spacious enough for an average German family.
Beyond its progressive styling, the Golf maximized the potential of a transverse front engine and front wheel drive layout to maximize interior space, offering far more utility than any of its rivals.
Most hatchbacks of that era were actually sedans, as their boot lids were separated from the rear windscreens. Limitations in ‘70s era manufacturing technology meant that it was difficult to make a rear hatch that was strong enough to hold the rear windscreen and creating a large aperture in the rear resulted in compromises in chassis rigidity, which explains why most hatchbacks in the early ‘70s had only two doors while their four door equivalents usually had boot lids that open in a conventional sedan-style manner.
Sedan for the four-door and hatchback for the two-door
Giugiaro figured that by folding the boot lid’s edges, he was able to make the boot lid stronger. The boxy shape also made it easier for engineers to maintain chassis rigidity. By pairing a full-opening hatch with a four-door body and a spacious cabin, the Golf was an ideal family car for congested European cities.
It was only in the ‘80s that manufacturers improved their four-door hatchbacks with true rear opening hatches. Differences between early and later model Alfasuds and Civics were common examples. Early model four-door variants had sedan-type hinged boot lids while later models received full-opening rear hatches.
After launching the Golf, the new management of Volkswagen decided to bring all design work in-house and discontinued their partnership with Giugiaro.
The car design maestro later accepted a similar design brief from Fiat, culminating in the Fiat Panda. Minimalist elements of the Golf Mk 1, the straight line and boxy shape, were obvious, but unlike the Golf, the Panda didn’t receive the same level of continuous improvement and investment to make it into a global household name.
The Fiat Panda had a lot of similarities with the Golf Mk 1
Before he parted ways with Volkswagen, Giugiaro’s swan song was the Scirocco. As a mass-market family car, the Golf project had a lot of constraints. Giugiaro wasn’t too happy with the Golf’s proportions and convinced Volkswagen’s board to allow him to produce a coupe but to keep cost low, it would share the same components as the Golf.
The Scirocco represented Giugiaro's ideals for a small Volkswagen
His message to the board was the Golf’s radical styling would certainly create complications to Volkswagen’s plant at the early stages. He proposed that the low-volume Scirocco be used to fine-tune the manufacturing process.
Although the Golf was very successful in Europe, it didn’t manage to repeat the Beetle’s success. Competition from the rapidly progressing Japanese meant that Volkswagen had to cede its position in some markets - Asia in particular - where the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic reigned supreme.
Still, neither Japanese marque will disagree that it was the Golf that showed the way for everyone else on how to family hatchbacks should be like.
This Golf belongs to Toyota
At the Toyota Automobile Museum in Aichi, Japan, a Golf Mk 1, also in Miami Blue, carefully restored by Toyota technicians, sits among the museum’s collection. The description plaque honouring the Golf reads, “The Golf proved to be a huge hit around the world and it established the basic style for all of the other small-size, FF (front engine, front wheel drive) hatchback vehicles that followed it.”
Golf GTI Mk 7 and Golf GTI Mk 1
Forty four years and seven and a half generations later, from TSI to GTI to R, the Golf continues to set the tone for all hatchbacks. We can only imagine what the Golf Mk 14 will be like.