It doesn’t matter how you slice and dice fact, opinion and fake news, the Mk1 Golf GTI is a classic car with a cult following. For many car enthusiasts, this undeniable performance icon is where it all started. Fun to drive, affordable AND genuinely practical, the original Golf GTI was a breakthrough not just for Volkswagen, but for the small car market.
The Mk1 Golf can be held responsible for paving the way for every mainstream “hot hatch” that has followed since. Even if you’re not a VW fanboy, it shouldn’t be easy to dislike a Mk1 for all that it’s given the automotive industry.
Long Live the VW Beetle.
Launched in May 1974, the Mk1 Golf went on to become something of a revelation for Volkswagen. The first-generation Golf was Volkswagen’s first proper foray into small front wheel drive cars.
Following the long-running Type 1 Beetle and Type 2 Bus/Camper, which both featured the traditional Volkswagen formula of an air-cooled engine rear mounted and driven by the rear wheels, Volkswagen moved into brave new territory with the front engine/front wheel drive Golf.
The Beetle had become something of a stalwart in the small car marketplace since its release in 1938, but the 1970s buyer demanded more than the ageing Beetle could provide, so VW decided a complete change of direction was required so that its replacement could beat the competition.
Truth be told, Volkswagen had a lot resting on the success of this little car, because falling sales of the Beetle had left VW in a sticky predicament. Volkswagen finances in the 1970s made for pretty bleak reading and something had to be done.
The Mk1 Golf had to sell well. Designed by ItalDesign Giugiaro, this boxy little car was debuted in 1974 at the Frankfurt motor show and drew widespread praise from all corners of the motoring press.
The first models of Golf were single carburettor engined cars and whilst only providing modest levels of performance, the Mk1 chassis was very well balanced and handled well, so the potential was there from day one.
The story behind the Golf GTI is a very cool one, simply because this was not a car Volkswagen even wanted to build in the first place.
The concept of an affordable performance VW was effectively shelved in 1973 due to a widespread negative reaction to the release of the hot Beetle "GSR", which meant brainstorming a performance Golf would have to come from a very much “unofficial” source; a VW skunkworks team.
It was down to then VW Press Department head Anton Konrad and Engineer Alfons Löwenberg to develop their idea in secret because VW had very little inclination to produce a faster version of the Golf.
The “Sport Golf” concept could only move forwards in this way because it was not an official factory supported program. With all hands on deck, they enlisted the help of Gunter Kühl from the VW Press department and suspension experts Herbert Schuster, Hermann Hablitzel and Jürgen Adler, this unofficial team was able to develop a prototype for testing, which actually used the Mk1 Scirocco as a test mule, later being translated over to the Golf.
However, this initial GTI setup was deemed “undriveable” when tested by Volkswagen Chief of Research, Ernst Fiala, due to it’s harsh suspension and “excessive intake noise” from the twin-carburettors, so the team further improved their “Sport Golf” idea by adding Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection from the Audi 80 and made some further suspension tweaks.
This new K-Jet version proved to be both powerful and refined, which was coined “GTI” by Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky (head of the VW marketing department) and Franz Hauk (engine developer).
Standing for “Grand Tourer Injection” or “Gran Turismo Iniezione” (in Italian), a star was born when the Golf GTI was finally presented to the Volkswagen management team in early 1975 and following a few months of meetings, the GTI received official sign-off from the powers that be at VW.
The skunkworks team was grown by one with the inclusion of Gunhild Liljequist, who, under the guidance of Chief Designer Herbert Schäfer, was tasked with creating a set of features to set the GTI variant apart from the other Golf models, which included the red-stripe grille, arch extensions, plaid upholstery and dimpled golf ball gear knob.
The GTI model was formally introduced to the world at the 1975 Frankfurt Motorshow and received universal praise from the motoring press. Volkswagen had anticipated selling just 5000 GTIs but such was its success that 462,000 GTIs were produced before production ceased in 1983.
Mk1 Golf GTI "Pirelli" Edition.
Included in the production total were a number of limited run models, one of which was the “Pirelli” edition, which much like the UK “Campaign” model, was launched as a special edition by Volkswagen. Available in 1983 only to the German domestic market, the Pirelli Golf GTI could be ordered in three colours; Helios Blue Metallic, Mars Red and Lhasa Metallic with contrasting interior trims.
The Most Frequently Modified Car Ever?
Is the Mk1 Golf the most frequently modified car ever? We’re not sure on the exact numbers, but it must be somewhere near the top of that list, given how many generations of modified culture it has thrived under.
We’re huge fans of the Mk1 Golf here at RollHard, which is why it was about time we featured a modified example, which brings us nicely onto Carsten Fischer's amazing Mk1...
Carsten’s Golf is an aforementioned 1983 "Pirelli" special edition and is an original Helios Blue car, which was thankfully completely stock when he found it for sale. The interior was exactly as it left the Wolfsburg factory and Carsten knew he'd be able to retain all of the 80s charm with this car, keeping everything mostly as n intended both inside and out.
That said, being the big fan of modified Volkswagens that Carsten is, he knew this car wouldn't stay completely stock, which is why this is a resto-mod build from the ground up. This car is modified Golf royalty.
Under the bonnet, the original 1.8 8 valve “DX” powerplant was relieved of its tenure, making way for a tuned 1.8 16 valve “KR” unit from the later Mk2 Golf GTI. A common engine conversion for the Mk1, many owners opt for the 16-valve engine to add more power to the mix.
In standard form, the transplant 16V KR produced 139bhp, but this one has been heavily breathed-on in the performance stakes, which is as you would expect from a show car.
A pair of twin 45 Weber Carbs, 276 degree camshafts with vernier pulley, ported and polished cylinder-head along with a Supersprint performance exhaust and manifold help produce around 180bhp, which is potent in a car with a kerb weight of around 850kg. Compared to the Mk1 GTI’s original 110bhp engine, this new setup takes power up by 63%, a pretty substantial increase by anyone’s standards.
Aside from the performance gains, engine bay aesthetics are on-point thanks to some very choice mirror polishing and carbon detailing. The polished look might not be to everyone’s tastes, but there is no denying that nothing less than absolute dedication is required to keep it looking this way. The engine bay of Carsten’s Mk1 is nothing short of show-car presentation, which is why this car always draws the crowds and rightly so.
Regular readers of these pages will know that we at RollHard love low cars. Carsten is no different and his Pirelli edition Golf was always destined to be lowered on “static” coilover suspension, which is why his car now wears a H&R 80mm kit.
Carsten’s car is well-known for those wheels, which are a truly unique setup. A potentially marmite addition, these are original (and very rare) Ronal Racing centres which “poke” an outrageous 60mm. They were built up with zero-lip 27 bolt motorsport dishes and barrels to result in this extreme 6.5”x17” setup.
Carsten's Ronal wheels tend to polarise opinion simply because not many people would be brave enough to run them quite like this, let’s be honest.
Whilst zero-lip has been popular for a long time now, most wheel centres are between 0.5” and 1” thick and therefore provide only modest poke when built in zero-lip form, but Carten’s Ronal centres are on another level with nearly 3”, which is why these wheels are often a big talking point.
Carsten's wheels take center-stage among any company because they’re not reproductions. These are legit original Ronal Racing, which makes them an ultra rare piece of motorsport history.
Carsten's Mk1 Golf is proof that you can improve on an original. But let's face it, car modifications will always be subjective which is why it's important that owners like Carsten do their own thing and build their cars for themselves. It's 2019 and it's nice to see that individuality isn't dead. We fully support that.