Like many good ideas, it all started over a beer. In 1973, five conspirators huddled around the living room table of Volkswagen test engineer, Alfons Löwenberg, to discuss a secret project that had been flatly rejected by the company. The concept was tastier than the cake Mrs Löwenberg had baked especially for the clandestine encounter.
The Golf MK1 – codenamed EA 337 - an ambitious Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed, front-engined and front-wheel drive replacement for the antique Beetle, hadn't even launched yet but Löwenberg had already penned an internal memo in March that year to a few colleagues in Research and Development. His proposal was to turn the Golf into the fastest car the company had ever produced.
The high development costs for the Golf, due to be launched in 1974, had already drained company coffers and VW was not keen to spend more, so it was decided the project be done in spare time and in secret. Even the memo’s recipients were skeptical at first, with only chassis specialist, Herbert Horntrich, and development chief, Hermann Hablitzel, committed to Löwenberg’s idea. They were present at the meeting along with like-minded colleagues, marketing expert Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky and Anton Konrad, the then-head of Volkswagen PR. Before the benzine-grade schnapps was opened the project was agreed.
After developing a Scirocco-based hack with a rock-hard chassis and a 1.5-liter engine boosted to 100 PS by a two-stage carburetor and drainpipe exhaust, the "roaring monster" was scrapped for a more livable version. When the "Sportgolf" concept was presented to the management at the Volkswagen test center in Ehra-Lessien in Spring 1975, they loved it.
The 1.6-liter fuel-injected 110 PS motor was used, along with anti-roll bars for the front and rear axles, a spring/damper configuration balancing sportiness and comfort, and wider wheels. Inside the car gained a golf ball gearknob, checkered seat covers made from Rod Stewart’s boxer shorts, and externally a matt black window frame, plastic arch extensions and a thin red stripe around the radiator grille. The Golf GTI was born.
While 5,000 were planned, shortly after the mid-1976 launch dealers were taking orders for 10 times that amount. Two-seater cars like the TR7 and MGB were easy pickings for the MK1 GTI, which could hit 60mph in nine seconds and a top speed of 110mph. It was refined, lightweight, capable and subtlety stylish, cocking a rear wheel as it ran rings around the competition and ushering a new era away from traditional macho chest-wig sports cars. Young people looking for a fast set of wheels were now choosing Kraftwerk over Saturday Night Fever.
Fast forward 40 years and the GTI is a very different beast – almost twice the weight and twice the power – but the cult remains just as magnetic for the VW fanboys. Where the Golf GTI carved out its niche almost every other car brand followed, with Peugeot’s 205 GTI, the Renault 5 Turbo, Ford’s XR2, Opel's Astra GSI, to name but a few, all fighting for the hot hatch crown. The face of cheap, fast motoring had been changed forever.
In recent years the Golf GTI has become the unofficial mascot of skate brand Palace, featuring on clothing and in person in the campaign for the Ralph Lauren collab. Founded by Arthur Kar, Parisian brand L'art de L'automobile has been notably championing the GTI, using the iconic car on T-shirt graphics and accessories. Kar tells Highsnobiety his love affair goes back to his childhood, noting "I grew up with the GTI. I've always liked it because it's the people's car, you can drive it no matter who you are or what your style is. It's the perfect match for a basic white T-shirt." Secondhand prices of Mk1s and Mk2s are rocketing, with examples changing hands for $20,000 and upwards. What exactly is in the GTI DNA that unabatedly captures the imagination of people across the world?
To start to understand the appeal of a car like the Golf GTI is to first ask what makes an icon. Dave Birss is a marketing thought-leader and co-author of the new book Fast Forward Files. "Being iconic takes three things: being meaningfully distinctive, remaining relevant over time and putting your brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible. In Iconic Advantage, we call these steps Noticing Power, Staying Power and Scaling Power. And the Golf GTI has got them in spades."
Ever since the first Beetle advertisements in the '50s, Volkswagen ads have been head and shoulders over the competition. Through a blend of charming wit, non-patronizing slogans and an attempt to just let a good product do the selling – the classic "Das Auto" campaign slogan a case in point – the German auto manufacturer helped change the face of advertising away from smugness and emotion.
"Every other car brand tends to show the same, predictable shot of a car racing down a winding mountain road while a voiceover brags about the engine size, ABS brakes, parking sensors and other tedious features," argues Birss. "On the other hand, Volkswagen ads show people, a bit of attitude and a witty scenario. They start with the person and then show how the car is an extension of what makes them interesting. And the more they’ve stuck with their approach, the more iconic they’ve become."
Examine a new Golf GTI side-by-side with the first and VW clearly understands its heritage. All the visual clues are there, the golf ball gear knob, the red accents, the tartan seats, but not much else apparently. The boxy design has made way for a rakish, slippery modern shape – take off the badges and it would be hard to know they have the same name.
But under the skin the same thinking remains. The GTI is like an upmarket amp, a functional box whose quality is only apparent on closer examination, rather than a wireless Bluetooth speaker that looks like a giant sex toy. It ages well because it doesn’t try to be too futuristic, rather doing the job well. If muscle cars say something about your nether regions the GTI says something about your brain and this is a much better organ to flaunt.
"Automotive marketing is all about heritage and legacy, which works best when tied to innovation and quality," explains Luke Smith, co-Founder and CEO of global digital marketing agency Croud. "Think of the Porsche 911, the Audi Quattro or the Aston Martin DB5, all of them have really evocative brand associations. Anyone who has owned a GTI will close their eyes and reminisce – that’s not just down to marketing, it’s also down to the quality of the product."
Elliott Roberts is the editor of Performance VW. For him the GTI was an effective tool that grew into an emotive brand that then became part of his life. Growing up on a diet of MK2 Ford Escorts he had his first taste of the fast VW when his friend bought a GTI in the '80s.
He recalls: "I remember the first time he took me out in the black, 1.8-liter 8v GTI and thinking, 'how can we legally be allowed to drive this car?'… it felt so fast and nimble."
"The performance and build quality was in a different league to the my previous Escorts. It was far superior and I just loved the understated, sleeper styling. My first GTI was a Mars red late Mk1 GTI, and it wasn't long till I swapped out the 8v engine for the 16v GTI engine."
"Initially I was drawn to the VW brand and the Golf model in particular because of the car itself, then I realized how much I had in common with the other owners, from the music they listen to, the way the dress, and their general outlook on life and other interests. Traveling around the world attending shows and going on car launches I can vouch that this sense of being part of one big family is the same whichever country you visit."
Next year sees a brand new Mk8 Golf GTI arriving, mooted to combine a 48v mild electric hybrid motor with the familiar 2.0-liter four pot, promising outputs of well over 300hp. Despite this obvious step in technology the car will retain class-leading build quality, space and a chassis tuned to both excite and cosset the driver. Like the iPhone, the GTI has ever keener competitors in the form of cars like the Hyundai i30 N but many fans will buy it regardless.
Cliff Leppke, an American automotive writer, scholar, VW enthusiast, and author of the "Driver’s Seat" column for VW Autoist, the official publication of the Volkswagen Club of America, argues that unless VW change the blend, the car’s iconic status is secure.
"VW’s GTI endures because the recipe is sound: a tidy, practical sanitary hatchback body atop a chassis that delivers uncommonly good motoring thrills. If it were published, it would be the Esquire of compact cars. It’s subtle but very sexy. It’s never gaudy; it behaves politely as a transport pod but knows how to dance on the racetrack. In sum, a GTI delivers nearly everything one expects from an automobile with driver-focused flair. It’s part station wagon, part economy car and a whole lot of fun."