I’m well aware of what a MkI VW Golf GTI looks like, but when presented with one IRL, I stop in my tracks and stare, mouth agape. They’re a rare sight these days, which is a shame, as in the metal the hot hatch originator comes close to visual automotive perfection.
It’s compact, boxy, cute, yet sporty and purposeful-looking. It does just enough to let you know it isn’t an ordinary Golf, with some red lipstick for that flat, slatted grille, some small plastic wheel arch extensions and a surprisingly chunky front splitter.
Inside, the Clark ‘tartan’ plaid seats and the golf ball-like gear knob subtly make you aware of the car’s intentions, rather than shout at you. This is the recipe VW has stuck with right up until today with the seventh-generation car, and, we sincerely hope, the eighth-gen. A Golf GTI is not and should not be brash.
The quiet brilliance continues when you start to drive one quickly. Progress may not seem all that dramatic compared to the new 286bhp GTI TCR, but the 110bhp MkI is happy to move on at a swift pace, its unremarkable 1.6-litre inline-four letting out a pleasantly raspy tune from the tailpipe in the process. The rev limiter cuts in around 6000rpm, requiring a quick shift from the four-speed manual-box, which demands some effort and care to get right. Not that I mind - you actually feel some sort of mechanical connection with what’s going on underneath, unlike modern GTI manuals.
The true fun begins as you tackle anything remotely resembling a bend, or perhaps a roundabout. There’s a real fluidity to the body, which just seems to want to playfully move around all the time. The front wheels give up fairly easily, but just as they do so, a throttle lift sees the back end start to swing forward in a way that’s never, ever unpredictable. Body roll is at times considerable, but given the relatively low speeds you’ll be doing, that’s not really an issue.
It’s good, clean, simple fun, and although VW seems to be claiming it’s recaptured this magic with the new Up GTI, I’m just not sure this is the case. I’ve certainly never gotten out of an Up GTI wanting one as much as I now want a MkI GTI, which is a problem - you’re looking at around £10,000 for a good one these days, with some lower-mileage examples even going for over £20,000. Damn.
With an equally mint Mk2 sitting just next to the MkI’s parking spot upon my return, it seemed rude not to continue my journey through the GTI back-catalogue. And my word, what a leap forward it is. I was expecting only incremental changes, but the reality is very different.
The MkII feels so much more tied down. Grip and traction at the front end increase exponentially, and body roll is far more contained.
It’s more serious. More capable. And yet, it still knows how to have fun - it’ll still happily cock a rear wheel and indulge some lift-off oversteer. It may be over 30 years old, but in a lot of ways, it feels a lot like a modern hot hatchback, the only true giveaway being the steering - like the MkI’s, it’s reasonably sluggish.
The big surprise, however, is the engine. I thought this car was going to be all about the chassis, but the 16-valve 1.8-litre N/A inline-four is a rev-hungry hero. It’ll keep going to 7000rpm, letting out a glorious induction bark during the final 1000rpm before the redline. It reminds me of the four-pot in the Mercedes 190E 2.3 16, which remains just about the best-sounding inline-four-powered road car I’ve ever heard. 139bhp may not seem like much, but don’t forget, although weight did increase quite a bit over its 810kg predecessor, this is still a light car. And unlike the MkI, the II does actually feel quick.
As an object of desire the more handsome, neater-looking MkI has it comprehensively beaten, but when it comes to the driving experience, the MkII eclipses its predecessor to a much greater extent than I’d anticipated.
Considering what was achieved all the way back in the 1980s, the MkIII really should have been epic, but as I found out via a drive in one just after my MkII encounter, this is where VW seemed to really lose its way with the GTI.
It’d take them until 2005 and the arrival of the MkV to make a car that truly deserved those three letters on the grille, having made a step in the right direction with some versions of the MkIV.
The Mk1 is rightfully revered not just as the machine that kicked off VW’s GTI dynasty, but also a machine that spawned a whole genre of affordable performance cars. But it’s not the starting point that wins my heart - nope, it’s the car that refined the recipe to perfection. It’s the MkII.