The year was 1968. The Volkswagen Beetle had been in production for 23 years already but despite its age, sales weren’t slowing down at all. In fact, production numbers for the Beetle would continue to increase, peaking in 1971 with 1,291,612 units made in various factories around the world - Malaysia included.
But, as the saying goes, you can't have too much of a good thing. Volkswagen was heavily reliant on a single model line that, while popular, wasn't something to be proud of when rivals were moving ahead with more sophisticated products.
For the progressive ones, Volkswagen’s inability to move beyond the Beetle was a reflection of its inability to innovate beyond simple air-cooled engines. The company’s financial standings were also becoming very precarious; when Chairman Kurt Lotz assumed his position in October of 1961, he warned his employees “Volkswagen’s only chance of survival is with a new car.”
It wasn’t that Volkswagen didn’t try to break out of the Beetle-only company stereotype. In 1969, Volkswagen took over NSU, another German car maker at the time. If you haven't heard of NSU, it's because it was eventually merged with Auto Union to form the Audi brand that we know as today.
Upon taking control of NSU, Volkswagen quickly re-designated the K70 sedan that NSU was developing, making it a Volkswagen product. The K70 was a modern-looking front-wheel drive sedan with a water-cooled engine, offering ample space for a family of five. Despite being better in every way than the aging Beetle, the K70 didn't sell well - further confirming critics' opinions that Volkswagen couldn't progress beyond the Beetle. People who could afford better cars than the Beetle simply weren't considering a Volkswagen.
While the K70 didn’t quite deliver the expected numbers, it pointed the way forward for a post-Beetle era Volkswagen. What Volkswagen needed was someone to refine the K70’s concept further and Chairman Lotz already had an idea of who to contact.
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.
They toured the show floor and shortlisted six good designs, and found that four of them were done by a young man from Italdesign - a 31-year old that went by the name Giorgetto Giugiaro.
Details of the discussion were lost in history but in what must have been one of the few rare moments of brazenness by conservative German management standards, 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.”
Lotz’s maverick moment ruffled quite a few hairs at Volkswagen’s board, which was made up of elderly German gentlemen who had for decades worked under the philosophy that one shouldn’t build a new model for the sake of having a new model, which explained why the Beetle remained unchanged for decades.
The fact that Giugiaro was an independent outsider, an Italian who also styled cars for Alfa Romeo, made matters worse.
A young Giugiaro and his then controversial looking Mk1 Golf.
Lotz didn’t stay long in his job. Two years later, he was replaced by Rudolf Leiding, who quickly terminated all projects commissioned to Giugiaro - all except for three cars that were already too far into the development process: the Golf and its Scirocco coupe twin, and the Passat which sat one segment higher. All three would go on to become some of Volkswagen's most important models.
When the Golf was launched in 1974, its ruler straight lines and sharp angles shocked the world. It looked like nothing else on the market but its radical styling also made everyone uncomfortable. A chief designer at a rival company even derided the Golf’s straight lines for looking too much like a folded origami car.
Even Ferdinand Piech, whose grandfather Ferdinand Porsche designed the original Beetle, had dismissed the Golf. Piech had already made his name as a master engineer credited for the race track dominating Porsche 917.
In 1972, Piech took a break from his job at Porsche to take up an intern position at Italdesign to learn about automotive design from Giugiaro. When the design maestro asked Piech what he thought of the Golf, Piech said “I really like the Scirocco -- that will be successful, but not the Golf. That car will be a failure.” It was friendly banter as both Piech and Giugiaro are good friends to this day. The master engineer and master designer share a lot of mutual respect.
A young Ferdinand Piech. The scion of the Volkswagen empire would later go on to head the Volkswagen Group, buying over his good friend Giugiaro's Italdesign in 2010.
But the Golf’s controversial styling (by the standards of 1970s) was exactly what Volkswagen needed. It was a total opposite of the Beetle’s curves and radii. Giugiaro had intentionally kept the Golf’s panels flat for manufacturing simplicity but far from being crude looking, it made the Golf's lines simple, giving it an impression of timeless appeal and clarity of purpose.
Designers often say that the best designs are those that can be traced with just one or two continuous lines - one that has not just a clear identity but is also elastic enough to evolve over time. A Porsche 911’s iconic lines is one such design.
At the mass market end, no car has succeeded in replicating such a continuity in its design, decade after decade on a family car, save for the Volkswagen Golf. In fact, one can focus on the C-pillar alone or the slit-like front-end, and sketch out nearly every generation of Golf.
Another small design detail was the folded edges of the Golf’s hatchback boot lid, which extended to the sides. It might not look like much for today’s casual observer but back in 1974, this small detail made the Golf’s boot lid’s operation sturdier and contributed to the Golf’s purposeful silhouette.
Giugiaro's combination of straight lines, flat panels, chunky C-pillar and folded edges of the boot lid was too unconventional for 1974, with rival designers deriding his work as a folded origami car. It went on to become one of the most important designs of the 20th century while the Golf is now one of the world's most recognised nameplate.
This design detail, along with the Golf’s signature chunky C-pillars, have been copied many times over by its rivals, but none could replicate the Golf's consistency in design identity, generation after generation.
Giugiaro’s work not only saved Volkswagen’s fortunes, but went on to redefine the small/C-segment hatchback class. It took Volkswagen quite a while to get there, and some outside help, but the company not only proved that it could break out of the Beetle mould, but also created a benchmark that would dominate the segment for the next 40 years.
Millions of Golfs sold later, Giugiaro would ask Piech again about his earlier predictions of the Golf’s failure, to which Piech replied, “I felt it was too advanced for its time.” Interestingly, both Giugiaro and Piech retired in 2015, but under very different circumstances. Giugiaro felt that it was time to go as he had achieved enough in his lifetime (and who could argue against that) while Piech stepped down from Volkswagen's supervisory board after a protracted disagreement over management matters.
Today, Italdesign – the company that Giorgetto Giugiaro founded in 1968 – is part of the Volkswagen Group, and is responsible for not just design but also highly specialized prototyping as well as construction of ultra-limited series vehicles under the Automobili Speciali brand.
The former outsider is now very much central to the Volkswagen Group’s operations. Over 40 years later, the Golf’s design identity that Giugiaro created has now evolved into its seventh iteration. It is still the benchmark hatchback for nearly every car maker. In 2013, when the current Mk7 generation Golf was launched, the Golf became the first non-Japanese car to win the Japan Car of the Year award, an impressive feat considering Japan's highly competitive car market.
The Golf is due for a mid-life cycle update and Malaysians can expect to see the new Golf, loosely dubbed as the Mk 7.5 Golf, on our local roads soon.
Like the Golf Mk1, the new Golf continues to be the trendsetter for its class. The familiar styling is now improved further thanks to a redesigned front bumper, while the grille has been updated to better match the new headlamps. Snazzy looking LED lighting is now adopted throughout the car.
Details on the Malaysian market Golf are still scarce but judging by Volkswagen Passenger Car Malaysia’s recent offerings like the Passat and Tiguan, both of which have been very well received by the market, we have little reason to believe that the new Golf will be anything less than the new benchmark for its class.
Topping off the refreshed Golf family will be the new hot hatch Golf GTI and the all-wheel drive mega hatch Golf R, both will be launched simultaneously alongside the Golf TSI R-Line.
Often imitated but never equalled, we look forward to the arrival of the new Golf. Not bad for a car that was predicted by many to fail.
To be among the first to know about the forthcoming new Volkswagen Golf, sign up here.