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Retro Road Test: MK1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Retro Road Test: MK1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

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The first-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI kicked off a range which would last decades. We get up close with it.

What is it?

The VW Golf has been around since 1974, but it wasn’t until 1976 that Volkswagen pulled its finger out and got cracking on a performance version.

The legend goes that some dedicated engineers created the GTI as an after-hours project, then presented it to bosses, who gave it the nod. And the resulting GTI lasted until 1983. By that time, more than 450,000 had been produced.

But what made it such a success? Well, that’s down to Volkswagen perfecting the hot hatch recipe right from the very start. The Golf GTI was compact, it was practical, it was cheap to buy and run, and above all, it was a hoot to drive.

Volkswagen Golf GTI MK1 parked front view

You can spot GTIs by a few details – red pinstriping around the front grille, a chin spoiler and fantastic tartan upholstery are the main visual changes. They’ve all become icons in their own right, and almost every GTI since has come with the option of these visual tweaks to mark them out as serious kit.

Early Mk1 GTIs command a pretty premium today, and you’ll have quite the job finding one that hasn’t been ragged to within an inch of its life. But if you can get your hands on one, keep hold of it – it’s still one of my favourite cars to drive and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.


What’s it powered by?

By modern standards, the Mk1 GTI isn’t exactly over-endowed with power. The rorty little 1.6-litre motor pushed out just 108bhp and was married to a four-speed manual ’box to begin with.

A five-speeder was introduced in 1979 and in 1982 the engine’s size was increased to 1.8 litres. That means if you want a really early four-speeder, you’ll have to opt for left- hand drive – RHD examples didn’t appear until 1979.

VW Golf MK1 GTI Driving by trees

Regardless of which size of engine it’s fitted with though, the GTI can pull up its skirt and get going. It’ll easily keep up with modern traffic, but you’ll have a lot more fun reaching your top speed than any of that sorry lot around you in their Vauxhall Astras.

At 840kg, the Mk1 GTI is lighter than even the most featherweight VW now – the up! – and that pays dividends for performance. With a 0-60mph sprint of around nine seconds and a top speed of 110mph, it’s no pocket rocket by today’s standards, but preserving momentum in the corners is half the fun. And it handles like a dream.


How are values today?

Plenty of Mk1 GTIs sold, but like many ’80s cars, cheap construction and poor rustproofing were their biggest enemies and fewer than 500 remain in roadworthy condition today. As such, you’ll need to shell out a fair amount for a decent one.

Expect to pay around £10,000 for a tidy GTI and upwards of £5,000 for a project. Anything cheaper than that is likely to either be a wreck or a shell – or both. Hard-tops tend to command higher prices than the Karmann convertibles.

man driving VW Golf MK1 GTI

The most desirable? That’s those built between ’79 and ’82 – models with the five-speed gearbox but still with the 1.6-litre engine. They’re as rare as hens’ teeth, though, so prepare yourself for a long old search. Make sure you’re buying a genuine GTI too – those shady auction sites are full of pseudo-GTIs built on the shells of standard Golfs.


What were its rivals?

The German VW’s main rivals were the cars our dads absolutely craved – namely, the Ford Escort XR3 and Vauxhall Astra GTE. They were both desirable things, but neither could match the GTI – they were heavier, with a worse power-to-weight ratio, cost more and arguably weren’t as much fun as the VW.

Volkswagen badge

These were the days when German cars were built properly, too, and a well-looked-after Golf today feels more solid than any Ford or Vauxhall of the same era. It’s remarkable, considering both of these cars were launched a generation after the Mk1 Golf. If you’re buying today, you’ll probably be cross- shopping the VW with another hot hatch icon – the Peugeot 205 GTI. This came along later and was more advanced than the Golf, while its brilliant handling is totally legendary. It’s a tough choice between the two, that’s for sure.


Anything to look out for?

Shelling out the cash for a tidy GTI might work out cheaper in the long run than buying a rotter and fixing it up. Luckily, the mechanicals are as simple as they come, and parts are easily available and well priced. As with anything ’80s, rust is your biggest enemy.

Body panels are easily replaced but it’s not as easy for structural panels such as the roof, the rear pillars or the bottom of the windscreen surround. Check carefully!

VW GOLF MK1 GTI Interior

As for the engine, it should have had its oil and filter changed at least every 5,000 miles or risk wearing out the valves. Fuel-injected models are pretty robust but check that they tick over nicely from cold.

The biggest difficulty is finding interior trim for these early cars. If you want a car with a gorgeous, factory-spec interior you’d better buy one from the off – retrimming a tired interior can cost a fortune.

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