Classic four-seater drop-tops tend to come with big price tags, but there’s a none-too-obvious alternative that criminally underpriced. For now...
Nowadays, many small hatches are engineered from the outset to be built in convertible form. But it wasn’t always like that; instead, car makers used to commission a coachbuilder to engineer a drop-top variant, and usually to build it too. So it was with the Volkswagon Golf Mk1, which was developed and produced by Karmann, but sold through Volkswagen dealers.
The Golf convertible debuted at the 1979 Geneva motor show, in GL form only. There was a 70bhp 1.6-litre engine and four-speed manual gearbox; UK deliveries started in April 1980, with this model known as the GLi. By September 1981 there was a new entry-level model, the Golf GL, with a 1457cc engine – two years later the standard car got a 75bhp 1.6-litre engine and a five-speed gearbox, with a three-speed auto optional.
Things got interesting in January 1984, with the arrival of the GTi convertible, powered by a 112bhp 1.8-litre engine. Alloy wheels and a five-speed gearbox were standard fare. From September 1986 the Cabriolet replaced the GL, with standard alloy wheels and tinted glass plus a wider choice of interior and exterior colours.
By March 1987 the Cabriolet was dead, replaced by the Clipper Convertible with a 90bhp 1.8-litre engine. At the same time the GTi got wider wheelarches and a revised body kit.
Bearing in mind the Golf Mk1 hatch had been replaced by the Mk2 edition as far back as 1983, by the time the GTi convertible was upgraded to Sportline spec in April 1991, it was pretty ancient. This poshed-up convertible featured red or black paint, BBS alloy wheels and Recaro front seats. Alongside were the GTi Rivage and Rivage Leather, both with 112bhp 1.8-litre injected engines.
By January 1993 the writing was on the wall and the GTi Rivage was dropped, leaving the Rivage Leather to soldier on until that too was canned in July 1993. Six months later there was an all-new Golf convertible, based on the Mk3 as there was never a drop-top Golf Mk2.
Golf GTi convertible
Power (bhp@rpm) 112@5800
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 109@3500
Top speed 116mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Look for corrosion in the sills, wheelarches (check beneath any plastic protective mouldings as best you can), valances, inner wings (including the front suspension strut towers), door bottoms and in the various seams – particularly those for the rear panel and between the tail lights. Also check the boot lid, headlamp surrounds, seatbelt mountings, battery tray and the rear light clusters with their surrounds. Water gets into the boot and if left, the spare wheel well seams can rust through. Also common is rot at the base of the A-posts, leading to play in the doors; repairs here can be a nightmare.
Other common rot spots include the lower corners of the windscreen (very tricky to repair), the front crossmember and slam panel. Very problematic are rotten rear axle mounts. Also check the bulkhead, which tears where the clutch cable passes through; repairs are often bodged here. The steel fuel filler neck corrodes, along with the tank itself. Both are available, but replacing the latter means removing the rear axle. Hidden behind the off-side wing, the pipe gets covered with mud then corrodes unseen; the first you know of it is when fuel starts leaking. Rust particles then get into the fuel system, wreaking havoc.
The GTi got a power-operated roof from September 1989. By June 1990 an electric roof was optional on the Clipper, then all cars got one as standard from April 1991. The five-layer hood is a work of art, but it can wear and replacement is costly, so look for signs of holes or fraying, as well as damage to the frame. All parts are available, but some are costly and labour bills can soon add up if major repairs are needed. Replacing a hood costs £240 for the roof itself, plus fittings and labour. The window frames often rust too, so all-in expect to spend about £500-600 getting everything done.
Just one engine was fitted to the Golf convertible, in 1588cc and 1781cc forms. A top-end rebuild will be needed after 100,000 miles; it’s cheap and straightforward. It has been known for a 1.8 GTi to have a 1.6-litre engine fitted; the water take-off is the give away. On a 1.6 it’s above the alternator, while on the 1.8 it’s closer to the nearside of the engine bay. Whatever is fitted there’ll be a cam belt that needs to be replaced every four years or 25,000 miles. It’s a two-hour DIY job, with a complete kit just £20 or so.
Gearboxes are tough, but second-gear synchro wears out eventually; rebuilt gearboxes are £600. Well before this is due you can expect a vague gear change caused by a worn linkage; repairs are fiddly and the only proper repair involves replacing it completely. The parts are just a tenner, but it takes ages to fit them, as access is poor.
The rack-and-pinion steering is reliable as there was no power assistance option. On high-mileage cars the CV joints may be worn, but a full kit costs just £40 per side, with repairs straightforward. The brakes are OK, but lack feel because of the conversion to right-hand drive; the linkage isn’t very direct. There are plenty of upgrades available, from harder pads and bigger callipers to bigger, cross-drilled discs.
The standard cloth trim is hard-wearing, but it can get damaged; Newton Commercial offers most things on a repro basis. The electrics are a weak spot, as the fuse box, under the dashboard on the nearside, gets wet when the windscreen leaks. From late 1982 blade fuses replaced the earlier bullet type; these later electrics are more reliable, but still problematic. Check that the rear demister (all convertibles got a glass rear window, but not necessarily heated), heater fan and wipers all work. The same goes for the GTi’s trip computer, parts for which are now scarce. Slow wipers are another common issue; greasing the wiper spindles can help, or swapping the motor for a Golf Mk2 item.
The Golf convertible is a world away from the rear-wheel drive roadsters that dominate the classic car scene, and it’s all the more interesting for it. Values are relatively low but there are some excellent examples available, and with modern levels of usability the Golf convertible still makes great everyday transport.