Type 17, Golf, Mk I, Rabbit, whatever you choose to call it, you will be excused for not recognising it only if you time travelled to 2015 without stopping anywhere since 1974. The Type 17 as was the VW internal model designation came to be in the early 1970’s, gestated out of a dire need to replace the world conquering Beetle.
The Beetle was originally designed as the “people’s car” by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche with a design brief for the Beetle to carry two adults and three children at 60mph and at 33mpg. Even Hitler who demanded this specification had his own idea how it might look.
But having read Henry Ford’s biography in the 1920’s, Hitler decreed that it had to be mass produced and infeasibly cheap to buy and thus accessible to all. Porsche’s previous work in the German auto industry pointed him towards a lightweight and simple air cooled motor, rear mounted with rear drive and to be fair, the success of the Beetle and a myriad of Porsche models since then actually supports his design philosophy.
That was the 1930’s however but heading into the 1970’s the writing was on the wall for VW. Global sales, particularly in the more developed European and North American markets were less buoyant. The technology underpinning the Beetle’s construction was old by any yardstick and then there was Japan and Japan with JIT and kanban techniques had learned how to make cars and cheaply too. Small, lightweight family cars were coming from makers like Honda sharing new design ideas such as front wheel drive already found on Fiats or transverse engine layout as found on the BMC Mini.
Like a fashion VW was going to follow the lead of some of these trend-setting brands or find itself very much out of vogue. A programme leaning heavily on the in-house expertise of Auto Union, a subsidiary of VW saw the front wheel drive concept evolved, lightened, improved and really cast the mould for what we have enjoyed right up to the most current double clutch transmissions of today. Similarly the chassis of the car would need to be fresh and innovative in every respect and so it was. The body shell of the new model would be light, stiff and strong and would use nimble and effective macpherson strut suspension. A semi-independent torsion bar rear beam axle mounted to the rear struts was very effective and even a little bit sporty.
VW knew it needed something with iconic styling so retained Giugiaro from the famous ItalDesign organisation to sculpt the shape of the new car. It was a two-box shoe-box, very functional three door hatch wrapped over the modern chassis, engine and transmission but doing what designers do best,Giugiaro just aced it. Whether it is the iconic two round headlights integrated into the grille, the straight edge of the bonnet line or the child like curve of the front wings and valance is hard to say. Perhaps it is the concave rear hatch frame which serves no function save for superb aesthetic? In any case the car was compact yet roomy, had a thoroughly modern feel to its interior but best of all it was dynamic to drive.
It was 1974 and the world had flared trousers, a Swedish Eurovision foursome called ABBA and a VW compact called the Golf. Like many VW’s of the time it was named after a wind, in this case the Gulf Stream unless of course you were from USA or Canada. For the North American market which so loved the “VW Bug” this new model became the “VW Rabbit”. It was accepted in the USA but not until the energy crisis at the end of the 1970’s did the sales of the model boom. It was assembled in Pennsylvania for the North American market from 1978 until the Mk II as we know it was introduced, bringing with it the Golf name.
Something magical however happened along the way when VW brought a little poket-rocket of a Golf to the Frankfurt motor show in 1975. The motor had morphed into a 1600cc sporting Bosch K-Jetronic multi point fuel injection which boasted a chunky 110PS at a high tech 6,100rpm. Sure racing cars were more high tech and more powerful but this was the replacement for the VW Beetle and it was still 1975! This was a car that allowed the sharp dressed gentleman to drop his wife to the hairdresser and then cock a rear wheel at the roundabout exiting the shopping centre in the general direction of a mountain road. It was called the Gti and it was stunning!
The Golf Gti was widely acclaimed as the first “Hot Hatch” though there had been others including Italian Abarth machines which preceded it. What it did however was as revolutionary as carbon fibre as a material. The car was a composite. It took all that was good about the new VW Golf, the light weight, the stiff chassis and most of all the mass produced low price. VW engineers injected power, actually just some torque to be honest, some handling tweeks and the result was, well not alarmingly fast! The Triumph Dolomite Sprint, Lotus Cortina, BMW 2002tii and even the 2002turbo preceded the Golf GTi and these cars were fast but none came close for driving pleasure. The Golf was like a sports car you could wear and was really light nimble, sure-footed and quick as distinct from being fast. It was the first of a whole new species which to this day still thrives although today’s hot hatches would out run a Mk 1 Gti in only a couple of gears. That said they owe their origin to the humble little Type 17, a modern motoring Icon by any standard.