The first generation Volkswagen Mk1 Golf was a monumental achievement in car design and a model that blazed a path for the hatchback vehicle typology in Europe and beyond. Niels van Roij revisits the story of the original Giugiaro-designed car.
By the early 1970s, Volkswagen had fallen into financial difficulties with declining Beetle sales. Replacing the car that sold over 20 million units was of paramount importance for the company’s survival.
Fueled by the oil crisis, front-engined small cars became increasingly popular. Some important European examples include the Citroën GS, Fiat 128 and Renault 6; all were front-wheel-drive, and the latter two water-cooled. The Ford Escort was also popular, though it was rear-wheel-drive.
Of these front-engined, front-wheel-drive small cars, only the Renault had a conventional hatchback. There was a lot of ‘white space’.
In 1969, before the significant changes brought on by the 1973 oil embargo, Volkswagen management visited the Turin Auto Salon together with the company’s Italian importer. The delegation looked carefully at what was shown and then selected six vehicles they liked most; Italdesign penned four of those six cars. The Italian importer invited Giorgetto Giugiaro (founder of the then year-old company) to Wolfsburg in January 1970 and work on what would become a family of Volkswagens — including one of the most iconic C-segment cars ever — began shortly thereafter.
Volkswagen didn’t give Italdesign a blank sheet of paper. All essentials where specified. The brief was for a two-box design on a defined length, width, height and wheelbase. Even the interior dimensions and engines had been decided. The demand for both a three- and five-door body type was also clear from the beginning. Giugiaro himself has always liked the five-door most, as it “simply has the stronger Golf characteristics”. It introduced the strong C-pillar to the Golf, which to this day is still a very important piece of the Golf DNA.
The Mk1 Golf Giugiaro designed to be the successor to Volkswagen’s historic Beetle, which had been around for over 35 years, was a stark contrast — on all levels — to its successful predecessor. The square silhouette created by Italdesign was a paradigm shift, and it featured a transversely mounted water-cooled engine mounted at the front and front-wheel-drive. It was technology borrowed from VW’s then newly acquired Auto Union subdivision.
After the initial design work was done, many small changes had to be made for legislative and cost-cutting reasons. Giugiaro had originally designed the Golf with square headlights, mirroring those at the rear, but his design was changed because round lamps were considerably cheaper to produce at the time.
The radical new ‘folded paper’ styling Giugiaro’s Italdesign applied to the globally marketed Mk1 Golf proved to be a hit. Flowing, rounded curves of previous times were gone, replaced by clean, modern and flat surfaces and precise razor-sharp edges. The Golf took the angular philosophy out of the realm of supercars and into everyday cars.
Using a similar design language, Italdesign created cars like the Lotus Esprit, Maserati Quattroporte, BMW M1 and DeLorean DMC-12. Giugiaro also introduced different interpretations of the ‘folded paper’ styling to the Volkswagen family in the 1970s with the Passat and Scirocco.
Sold as the Rabbit in North America, as the Caribe in Mexico, and as the Citi Golf in South Africa, the Mk1 Golf was — like the Beetle before it — very influential. The Mk1 Golf was the first internationally successful front-wheel-drive hatchback: it was the Rabbit, along with the Honda Civic, that sparked American interest in front-wheel-drive compacts, and from 1974 to 1983 it sold over six million units.
After the Mk1 Golf success story, Volkswagen designed most of its cars in-house. Many decades later, the Italian carrozzeria again worked on the German carmaker’s W12 Roadster and W12 Syncro concept cars and, in the 2000s, the Tarek Paris-Dakar rally car and Tex A-segment concepts. But no Volkswagen-branded design conceived by Italdesign ever achieved the same level of notoriety as the fabled Mk1 Golf.
In 2010 Volkswagen acquired 90.1% of Italdesign shares and the remaining shares were sold to Audi in June of 2015, with Giorgetto Giugiaro resigning at the same time.
Volkswagen gave Giugiaro a Golf GTI, the only car he ever got from a manufacturer. It was a five-door GTI, which did not exist at the time. Giugiaro stated he intended to use it as a family car, so Volkswagen built him one by hand. Giugiaro still owns his black GTI, with aluminum deep-dish rims, a special interior and US bumpers.
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