When most people think of the Volkswagen Beetle, they think of the late ’60s, and the hippies with their hand-painted flower-covered cars. But the Beetle traces its roots back to 1938, and had been in continuous production since 1945. It had begun to take off in America in the late ’50s, leaving Detroit to reckon with the “Import Problem.” By the 1970s, Detroit had a slew of compact cars — The Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega, AMC Gremlin, Dodge Dart — and the little models coming from Japan were starting to catch on with buyers from coast to coast. So even then, the Beetle was was old.
It wasn’t faring much better in the Old World either. The hatchback was revolutionizing small cars with their use of space, with the Renaults 4 and 5 in France, Fiat 124 in Italy, and Austin Maxi in England. The Beetle just couldn’t compete, and with virtually all of Volkswagen’s lineup dependent on the car’s rear-engined, air-cooled chassis, the company was facing a day of reckoning, and its survival depended on updating with the times.
The company had made several key moves in the late ’60s to stay contemporary. In 1965, it revived the Audi brand with the front-engined, front-wheel drive, water-cooled 72 and 80 models, and in 1969, bought the forward-thinking NSU brand. By the early ’70s, Volkswagen was working with Porsche on a family car, the EA266, and the smaller EA400. EA266 was further along in development, but the mid-engined, air-cooled project was axed after 50 prototypes had been built, pinning Volkswagen’s future on the success of EA400. By 1971, designer Giorgetto Giugiaro had completed a design for the car, and it would arrive in summer 1974 as the Golf — named for the gulf stream, not the sport.
Almost overnight, Volkswagen had another major hit on its hands. There had been hatchbacks before the Golf — even front-wheel drive ones — but it didn’t matter, the Golf was the right car for the time. Available as a three-door and five-door, the Golf came as a 52-horsepower 1.1-liter four, or a larger 1.3-liter, good for 59 horsepower. It wasn’t much, but with front disc brakes, an independent front suspension, and semi-independent rear, it was far more fun to drive than many of its contemporaries. By 1976, a diesel version would be added to the lineup. By ’77, Volkswagen would sell its millionth Golf.
In 1975, the Golf came to America, albeit as the Rabbit, a perfect partner for the aging Beetle. The American version was powered by the 1.4-liter four good for 70 horsepower, which was quickly replaced by a 1.6 liter for ’76, a fuel-injected 78-horsepower version, and finally a 1.4-liter 71-horsepower mill from ’78 on. The car didn’t catch on like it did in Europe, but it was popular enough to give it an important foothold in America, and to give it an advantage over every other import.
Chrysler began work on a plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania in 1968, but never moved in. In 1978, Volkswagen bought and completed the plant, becoming the first foreign automaker to have a North American plant since Rolls-Royce’s brief tenure in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1921 to 1931. At first, the plant built nothing but Rabbits, but it was soon joined by the Rabbit Pickup in ’79, then the U.S. Spec GTI from 1983 to 1988. While Westmoreland was instrumental in establishing the Golf/Rabbit in America, supply problems, labor conflict, and poor communication eventually doomed the plant, and Volkswagen closed it amid weak sales in 1988.
Even before the Golf was launched, engineers were beginning to float the idea of a sport model to compete with the Ford Lotus Cortina and Mini Cooper. On September 11, 1975, they got their wish when the Golf GTI made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show. While Volkswagen initially hesitated to green-light it for production, public response overwhelmed the company. It predicted to sell 5,000 units per year; by 1979, it had already sold 60,000 of them. Thanks to its tuned 1.5-liter four, revised suspension, and wider wheels, the GTI could keep pace with the contemporary Porsche 924 and Datsun 280ZX, with a zero to 60 time of around nine seconds, and top out at 113 miles per hour. After nearly a decade of hearing tales of conquest over in Europe, Volkswagen of America launched a Rabbit GTI for 1983, cementing the car’s reputation as a global performance powerhouse.
(Editor’s note: We’ll have a more comprehensive history on the GTI in coming months, we promise.)
But by ’83, the rest of the world caught up with Volkswagen. Imitators like the Chevy Chevette and Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon were good enough for most car buyers, and the Honda Civic was becoming one of the most enticing small cars in the world. In 1984, the Golf Mk2 appeared, and it would pick up right where the first-generation car left off. Today, after over 30 million Golfs have been sold over seven generations, it’s become one of the most beloved cars ever made. Some have even argued that it’s the most versatile car in the world.
But the original Golf’s story doesn’t end in 1984. The open-topped Cabrio model debuted in 1980, and carried on in the U.S. and Europe until 1993. In 1984, Volkswagen of South Africa was in dire need of an entry-level model, so Wolfsburg sent the Mk1 tooling down, where it debuted as an ’84 model as the Citi Golf. Astonishingly, the car proved to be such a success that production ran until 2009, with an additional 377,000 cars being sold.
Today, Volkswagen’s lineup is largely front-wheel drive, and its days of air-cooled, rear-engined offerings are over. That wouldn’t have happened without the Golf. It would be hard to imagine a world without the ubiquitous Golf (though an alternate universe with EA266 seeing production would be plenty interesting), and it remains a popular car even while Volkswagen struggles in the wake of Dieselgate. It may have grown, and added body styles may have changed over the past 42 years, but the Golf has remained true to its basic principles. As long as it does, it’ll continue to be an icon.