Retro review: 1983 Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1

Rory White

25 Jun 2021

1/7
It wasn't quite the first hot hatch, but it's certainly the one everybody assumes was. How does the iconic original VW Golf GTI feel in the context of today's hot hatches?

The hot hatch. What a thing, eh? A vehicle capable of carrying a decent amount of people and things, but also turn heads and raise the hairs on the nape while costing a sensible amount of money to buy and run.


The first? Oh that's the 1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI, right? Well, not really. There was this thing called the Simca 110Ti launched in 1973 which sort of did it first, plus the Renault 5 Gordini which arrived a matter of months before the GTI.


However, it's the 1976 Golf GTI that people remember most, perhaps because it fulfilled the above brief most comprehensively. It certainly struck a chord with buyers – VW planned to sell 5000 initially, but in fact, sold getting on for half a million.



Design


So, what was all the fuss about? Well, the Mk1 Golf had already proven itself as a spacious and high-quality car for the masses. It was turning heads too, with the styling handled by none other than Giugiaro.


But when a group of VW PR people and engineers stayed behind after worked, ordered sauerkraut on whatever the equivalent of Deliveroo was in the mid-1970s and turned out the GTI, people were even more excited.


It actually took those VW employees a while to convince VW's big bean counters that it should even go ahead, hence the modest initial sales estimates. But the GTI's red grille border stripe, GTI badging, flared arches and optional alloy wheels gave it a sterner look that made it far more popular than first thought. So too did the fact it squatted 20mm closer to the ground than the standard Golf.


The car we drove (and you can see in these pictures) is a later special edition Campaign model from 1983, given away by its silver paint, four headlights, unique Pirelli alloy wheels, sunroof and black A-pillar trim.



Interior


The GTI's interior doesn't deviate too far from the standard Mk1 Golf's, aside from some now-iconic touches.


Sadly, you can't see them in these images due to the Campaign Edition getting a different set of striped seats, but the Mk1 GTI's standard sports seats featured a lovely tartan pattern, called 'Clark Plaid' at the time.


This was twinned with a golfball-style gear knob (present and correct here), both of which still feature on GTI's today in its eighth generation. A lady called Gunhild Liljequist came late to the original GTI project and suggested both to set the GTI apart from rival hatches. We'd say she played a blinder.


Aside from some black headlining and a sports steering wheel with GTI badging, the cabin was the same thin-pillared, logically laid out, high-quality-for-the-time interior as the standard Mk1 Golf. In the context of today's multiple-widescreen, ambient-lit, quilted-leather tech-fests, it's a real breath of fresh non-four zone climate-controlled air.



On the road


So VW had the GTI's look sorted out, but what about the engine? Well, initially it got a fuel-injected 1.6-litre four-cylinder that produced 110hp and cracked 0-62mph in 9.2 seconds, sending its power to the front wheels. However, later on in 1982 that was swapped for a larger 1.8-litre making 112hp and more torque, allowing a quicker sprint of 8.2 seconds.


As mentioned, the GTI had been lowered but was also given anti-roll bars at the front back plus upgraded front brakes that now featured ventilated discs. And, with a kerb weight of less than 900kg, it was ready for the corners.


Of course, our later car was fitted with the 1.8, which is simply a joy to drive. Instant throttle response, a rorty engine noise and a mechanical-feeling gearbox combine to remind you what driving used to be about. That gearbox, by the way, had four speeds upon launch but was given five by 1979 for greater comfort on the motorway.



On an event that also included VW's latest Mk8 45th Anniversary Clubsport GTI, the contrast between the two driving experiences was unbelievable.


On approach to corners in the Mk1 you're thinking about the brakes a couple of hundred metres earlier, considering your choice of gear more readily, its unassisted steering requires far more concentration, you're closely monitoring its pronounced vertical movement over humps and all the while bearing in mind that its tyres will wave a white flag much sooner.


There's a lot more going on for the driver, and a glance at the speedo reveals you're often doing literally half the speed of the supercar-like Mk8. But you know what? Keen drivers are having more fun in the Mk1. Genuinely.



Verdict


Yep, if you're the sort of person who likes to own the latest and greatest model and boasts about 0-60mph figures in the pub, a Mk1 Golf will be of no interest. In 2021 it is slow, noisy and not particularly agile.


However, if you're more interested in the sensation driving an analogue car down a country road brings, there are few hot hatches that do it better. You can go faster, lap quicker and stop shorter, but will you smile more?


Maybe it was because the sun was out and the roads were glorious. Maybe it was the fact that our drive was one of our first post-lockdown. More likely it's because the driving experiences we're becoming accustomed to these days are ever more polished.


Whatever the reason, pedalling an 800kg, 112hp, five-speed manual hatchback across the countryside has never felt so good.



Facts and figures


Model tested: 1983 Volkswagen Golf GTI Campaign

Price new in 1983: £7,156.07

Price today after inflation: £23,522

Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol

Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Power/Torque: 112hp/148Nm

0-62mph: 8.2 seconds

Top speed: 114mph


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