The Volkswagen Golf has become almost as iconic as the Beetle and T2. It’s a beloved and trusted companion to many a modern motorist, and since the MkV version it’s become the benchmark for all modern hatchbacks.
But the basis for its current success is, of course, the Mk1 and Mk2 Golf – but which version suits you?
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s sharply suited, minimalist-looking Golf appeared on the scene in 1974, with 1.1-litre and 1.5-litre engines on offer. A year later us Brits could get our hands on one, though only in five-door form. It made a good impact straight from the off, with Autocar praising its handling. The 1.5-litre car raced to 60mph in 12.5 seconds and could crack 100mph, which was impressive in 1975. Three years later the birth of the popular hatchback diesel – which came to dominate the car market in the Nineties and Noughties – came with the Golf.
However, the most well-loved of all Golf variants, the GTI, appeared at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show. It used a fuel-injected 1.6-litre engine sourced from the Audi 80 and produced 110bhp, more than twice that of normal Golfs. That meant electrifying performance – 0-60mph in nine seconds and a top whack ofa thoroughly pleasing 113mph. But it wasn’t just about the numbers – the GTI had stiffer dampers, shorter springs and a wider track. This all added up to a car that won plaudits for its immersive handling and revvy performance. It was more than a mere hatchback, a car for everyday transport. It could do that fine, but take the long way home via the back roads and the car came alive in your fingertips.
And when you weren’t hooning it you could take in the novel – but tasteful – interior. With its tartan seats and golf ball gearknob it was an intriguing place to be, and one that found much favour among motoring journalists of the time.
The first GTIs hit UK streets in 1979, but it wasn’t long until the entire Golf range was facelifted.
The 1980 facelift saw the 1.5-litre engine replaced by a 1.3 due to demand from other cars in the VW range. The Golf diesel grew in size to 1.6, based on the similarly sized petrol unit. 1980 also saw the GTI gain an extra cog, aided flexibility.
In 1982 a turbo-diesel engine joined the Golf ranks, which offered 96mph top speed, 0-60mph in just over 13 seconds and more than 42mpg. But if you’re not a lover of diesels, 1982 was all about the bigger-engined GTI. The extra 2bhp this garnered wasn’t exactly big news but the benefits in terms of driveability and economy were.
The original Golf Cabriolet was launched in 1979, and was available with the 1.5-litre 70bhp and 110bhp 1.6 engine. They were built by Karmann until 1993, growing increasingly extravagant bodykits along the way. They were profitable, popular and launched just a few years before the Mk2, so it was allowed to live on – it proved immensely popular, despite it being somewhat uncouth in comparison to newer, refined rivals towards the end.
The Mk1 Golf lived on beyond the Mk2 as the CitiGolf. It was still being built in South Africa until as recently a 2009.
A version to look out for is the French market-only 16S, which had 16 valves, 136bhp and the potential to hit 121mph. Entitled the Oettinger conversion, it’s very rare, with little more than 1200 built.
1983 saw the release of the second Golf, which was nearly 3cm longer, 6cm wider and 5cm taller. It was now a much more practical car, with room and space for similarly longer, wider and taller families. Engines ranged from the sluggish 1.0-litre through to the 1.8-litre from the previous car. Diesels were still available turbocharged and unturbocharged form. UK cars only became available in late 1984, and it was praised for its handling, ride and general refinement.
The GTI was launched in 1984. Compared to normal GTIs it had shorter and stiffer suspension and a much more flexible engine. It initially struggled to sell as it was deemed to be a bit vanilla, but some minor cosmetic tweaks and the option of five doors helped to stir enthusiasm. It wasn’t amazingly fast, though a 0-60mph time of just over eight seconds and a 112mph top speed aren’t to be sniffed at. Handling was deemed to be a little heavier, but it did weigh a fair bit more than the Mk1. The cost of refinement, perhaps?
In the face of growing turbocharger usage among the GTI’s peers, the firm needed to keep up in the horsepower wars. Thus a 16 valve version was released in 1986, with 139bhp and a 0-60mph dash of around seven-and-a-half seconds. It even managed to crack 120mph. To compensate, the suspension was dropped another 10mm and stiffened further, and the brakes were upgraded too. Power steering was now an option.
The Golf Syncro of 1988 brought four-wheel drive to the Golf. It was hardly the fastest Golf ever. However, a performance version soon appeared – the supercharged Rallye Golf G60 offered 160bhp from its 8-valve GTI-derived engine. Just 80 were made for the UK and all were left-hand drive. The extra weight of the four-wheel drive system meant 0-60mph was a hardly epoch-shifting eight seconds, but it’s more memorable for its slab-sided, brutalist bodykit. It would, however, be the most potent Golf to reach British shores.
Germany, however, would receive the G60 Limited in 1989. This handbuilt car combined the 1.8-litre 16v GTI engine with Syncro running gear and a supercharger. It also had natty blue piping around the grille, but the more striking news were the performance figures – 210bhp meant 140mph at the top end. Sadly, just 71 were built.
The G60 story would continue, however, with the GTI G60. This also didn’t come over to the UK for technical reasons, but it was capable of 134mph and an 8.3-second 0-60mph time. It had traction control and some countries got a four-wheel drive system with it.
The UK did, however, get the big bumper update in 1989, and later all Golfs got twin headlights.
Nowadays a Golf represents an excellent starter and everyday classic, while the GTIs have risen in price to coveted classic status. There’s a thriving ‘Dub’ scene with a rather questionable taste in suspension geometry and body adornments, so finding an original, unmolested car can be tricky. Finding and then driving one is immensely rewarding, especially in Mk1 GTI-spec.
It’s the car that made hatchbacks aspirational thanks to well-made Eighties advertising and solid residuals. But more than that, it’s a car that would easily fit in whether in Sloane Square or Red Square. Check one out today.
Golf GTI Mk1 Buying Guide
BODYWORK Mk1s were never galvanised from new, so key areas to examine include the bottom of the A-pillar below the front windscreen and under windscreen rubbers. Rust here is bad news, as it’s usually structural and very difficult to repair to a decent standard. Sunroof cars need checking extra carefully, as rust there is tricky to fix.
Wheelarches are another problem area, particularly on GTI models – they are often hiding rust beneath their plastic arch spats.
If rear arches are rusty then check if the crustiness has spread underneath the car, as it could affect the suspension mountings – another nasty job to rectify. Front arches are part of the wings and an easier fix however. The fuel filler pipe can also rot, so if the pipe itself is rusty, then walk away. When rust finds it way into the tank and on through the fuel lines then real problems occur, particularly on GTis, as the sensitive Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system will be irrevocably damaged by any debris that finds it way inside.
ENGINE & GEARBOX Engines are generally tough, but most Mk1s will have done well over 100,000 miles now, so tired units are common. The engine block is rarely a problem, with the exception of the piston rings – any serious wear is most likely to be in the head itself. If there is a puff of smoke on start up, then the valve stem oil seals most
likely need replacing, smoke on the overrun is symptomatic of worn valve guides, while a plume of smoke under acceleration indicates worn piston rings. The camshaft belt needs replacing every 70,000 miles. Check the belt’s idler pulley at the same time, as worn idlers can seize.
Worn second gear synchromesh is a common weak point with gearboxes, revealing itself as a ‘crunch’ when changing up quickly from first to second, particularly when starting from cold. Sometimes first gear – plus fifth on five-speeders – can become difficult to engage. This is due to the alignment having shifted rather than the gearbox itself. A simple adjustment will often make a big difference. A sloppy gearshift can usually be revived with new bushes. Tired and worn engine mounts are common on these cars, so listen for any clunks when taking up drive.
Suspension & Brakes Mk1 brakes are notoriously unimpressive, but replacing the original solid discs with grooved items will help improve matters. The automatic adjusters on rear drums are close to useless and are best attended to by turning the mechanism via a wheel stud hole. Front suspension is adjustable for camber, so if the tyres are unevenly worn, then something could be amiss there. Tired dampers are best replaced with gas items, while new front strut top mounts are best sourced from VW themselves.
INTERIOR AND ELECTRICS Upholstery and trim can be tricky to get hold of, so buy the best car you can in that regard. Many interior parts are no longer available from Volkswagen, so if you’re looking at a car that has issues interior-wise then you must factor this into your thinking.
Golf GTI Mk2 Buying Guide
Although the world-beating Beetle was still a strong seller for Volkswagen in the early 1970s, the German giants knew that wouldn’t be the case forever. A fresh, completely new offering was required, and the Golf was just that. The Mk1 GTI was like nothing that had come before it – it benefitted from light weight and direct steering, combined with innovative suspension treatment (featuring MacPherson struts and offset coil springs) that resulted in masses of driving enjoyment. Introduced in 1984, the Mk2 GTI had one hell of an act to follow but turned out to be every bit as good to drive as its predecessor, better packaged, just as quick and with far more reassuring brakes. If you want practicality, performance and strength in one affordable package, few cars can deliver like the Mk2 GTI. It is also less prone to rust than its predecessor, while the choice of both 8V and 16V engines means there is a model to cater for just about every taste.
Mk2 Golf GTIs have been long renowned for their sharp handling and superb agility out on the road. The powerplant fitted will certainly have an impact on out-and-out performance however. The 16V GTI was long seen as the one to go for – and in terms of outright horsepower it’s certainly the market leader – but don’t discount the eight-valver out of hand; it has more low-down torque and as such will likely be easier to drive on a day-to-day basis. The 16-valve car, on the other hand, only fully unleashes its full 139bhp when you’re screaming at over 6000rpm. Of course, which one you go for depends on your personal driving style and what sort of driving characteristics you’re looking for from your Golf. Bear in mind, though, that being a simpler engine, the eight-valve GTI is inherently more reliable and is more than capable of covering at least 200,000 miles between re-builds; by comparison, the 16V will need a refresh after just 150,000 miles – although this is still hardly a shabby performance.
1 Mk2 GTI models came with a fuel-injected, 1781cc engine, in either 8V or 16V flavours. These engines are known for being generally tough, but most will have done well over 100,000 miles now, so tired units are not unusual, with all the attendant issues. The engine block is rarely a problem, with the exception of the piston rings – any serious wear is most likely to be in the head itself. If there is a puff of smoke on start up then the valve stem oil seals most likely need replacing, smoke on the overrun is symptomatic of worn valve guides, while a plume of smoke under acceleration indicates worn piston rings. On 8V cars, the oil pump needs replacing every 100,000 miles as a precaution. If it goes, the engine will be trashed. This doesn’t apply to the 16V version, as this has a much tougher pump.
2 The camshaft belt on both the 8-valve and 16-valve models needs replacing every 25,000 miles. Check the belt’s idler pulley at the same time, as worn idlers can seize and cause untold trouble. Here are two fuel pumps, both of which can give trouble. The lift pump inside the fuel tank is prone to failure, causing fuel starvation and subsequent rough running. Brimming the tank can mask the problem, so be suspicious if the fuel gauge shows a full tank on a test drive. The main fuel pump is just ahead of the offside rear wheel. It can be noisy even when working perfectly, so you needn’t worry unduly. Of more concern is a leaking 16V pump – the parts to fix it are expensive and the retaining bolts often seize up, making the replacement job long-winded, and therefore potentially expensive.
3 Gearboxes are generally strong, with the synchromesh on second gear being the most common weak point – this shows itself as a ‘crunch’ when changing up quickly from first to second, most prominent when the engine is cold. It’s not necessarily a cause for alarm however, as these units are capable of soldiering on for many miles without any other problems. Renewing the gearbox oil with fresh, high quality replacement fluid will help though.
4 Sometimes first and fifth gears can become difficult to engage, though this is due to the alignment having shifted rather than the gearbox itself; a simple adjustment will often make a difference. More than 4mm play in the gear lever can be revived with new bushes, or even a short-shift kit, which reduces the throw and comes with new bushes as a matter of course.
5 The GTI’s front suspension is adjustable for camber, so if the tyres are unevenly worn, then something could be amiss there. Tired dampers are best replaced with gas replacements, while new front strut top mounts are best sourced from Volkswagen itself – although you will pay handsomely for the privilege. If for any reason you need to remove the rear axle, then be extremely careful not to shear the captive studs, as they will take days to repair if damaged.
6 When checking a Mk2’s metalwork, the key areas to cast your eyes over include the bottom of the A-pillar below the front windscreen. Rust here is bad news, as it’s usually structural and very difficult to repair to a decent standard. Rust can hide under the windscreen rubber too. Cars fitted with a sunroof need checking carefully; rust here is very tricky to fix and best avoided if at all possible.
The MK2 Golf GTI still makes a more than attractive proposition today. It will be more than capable of taking on daily driver duties and general domestic errands, but will still provide lashings of fun when the working day is done. Bag a good one, and you certainly won’t regret it. The trick is getting hold of one that hasn’t either rusted away completely, or been modified to within an inch of its life. If you can achieve this, then we’d urge you to go for it. The Volkswagen scene is one of the most all-embracing out there too, so whatever model you choose, be assured that there are like-minded people out there on the same wavelength as you.