Max Schröder profile picture Max Schröder 6 years ago

Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend

All GTI-Generations in the "Autostadt"-Museum in Wolfsburg (Germany) a few years ago.
All GTI-Generations in the "Autostadt"-Museum in Wolfsburg (Germany) a few years ago.

Nowadays the “hot hatches” are pretty common, with over half a dozen companies offering their take on “take a small hatchback and drop a rather powerful engine in it”.
When comparing the hot hatches the Volkswagen Golf GTI is usually seen as the benchmark, the car all others are compared to.
That is because the Golf 1 GTI, the ancestor of the Golf 7 GTI currently on sale, is generally assumed to be the very first hatchback.
And without it, or rather, without two men who had the idea to make it, we may not have the hot hatches today.

From "Sport Golf" to "GTI" - The difficult way to the first GTI

Anton Konrad alongside his "automotive child" a few years ago.
Anton Konrad alongside his "automotive child" a few years ago.
Alfons Löwenberg posing for an official photograph regarding the release of his biography.
Alfons Löwenberg posing for an official photograph regarding the release of his biography.

Way back in the early 1970s there was a clear hierarchy on the German Autobahn.
Porsches drove on the left, getting from point A to point B at high speeds, while Volkswagens (and the occasional Ford or Opel) crawled along in the right lane, taking a lot longer for the same distance.
If you wanted a powerful Volkswagen Golf you were shown the Golf 1.5, equipped with a 1.471ccm SOHC inline-four engine, using fuel and air delivered through a Solex downdraft-carburetor to deliver 51kw.
At the time Volkswagen had just made it through the “Beetle-Crisis” (dealing with drastically falling sales of the Volkswagen Beetle) and was still feeling the consequences of the oil-crisis.
There had also been a lot of bad feedback from a special edition of the Beetle called the “Yellow-Black-Racer” that had had 37kw and been called everything negative from “needlessly powerful” to “outright suicidal to drive”.
Just at that time two employees of Volkswagen, Anton Konrad (who had just become the head of Volkswagen’s press-department) and Alfons Löwenberg (an engineer who came to Volkswagen after developing the Rally-Kadett for Opel).
Both men liked to spend their free time with race-driving, so it’s not like they just had the idea for a “Sport Golf” (the original name of the concept) that could mess with the Porsches out of the blue one day.
They both knew that asking the bosses at Volkswagen for permission to start working on a super-sporty Golf was hopeless, so in the fall of 1974 Löwenberg, Konrad and a few trusted “Co-conspirators” met in Konrad’s bungalow in Wolfsburg-Detmerode, pretty precisely opposite to the Volkswagen-factory, but all the way across the city.
The plan was to develop a production-ready “Sport Golf” to present to the bosses, while sneaking a few questions into customer-surveys and parts into the normal pre-production testing.
Löwenberg had assembled his idea of a “Sport Golf” pretty quickly, a Golf that had a tuned-to-the-limit engine, practically no ground-clearance, a shouting exhaust with the diameter of a man’s arm, and a racing clutch.
Pretty obviously not something they could present to a company that had regretted a 37kw Beetle.
The decision to rely on as many mass-production parts off Volkswagen’s shelves was made pretty quickly, with the main problem being the right balance between something you can drive comparatively fast on the weekends and still easily drive to work and back during the week.
And all that in a Golf, and without too much money being needed.
Over time the group grew to eight people, consisting (apart from Konrad und Löwenberg) of:
-Gunter Kühl: From the press-department, who looked for motorsport-events a Sport Golf could participate in.
-Herbert Schuster: A suspension-expert, famous for detecting faults with a setup “through his butt” (focussing on what he felt when sitting in the car for a few kilometers).
-Hermann Hablitzel: Chef of everything regarding the “normal” Golf, he knew the car inside out and managed to smuggle Sport Golf’s parts into the general tests of Volkswagen.
-Jürgen Adler: A personal friend of Konrad who worked in the interior-development. He made countless calculations regarding the chassis, leading to the GTI receiving reinforcements in a few spots for improved stiffness.
-Horst-Dieter Schwittlinsky: Working for Volkswagen’s marketing-department, he got the “Sport Golf” into a few customer surveys to prove that there was a market. He is also the one who invented the name “Golf GTI” (Golf “Grand Tourer Injection”, a sportive car that has an engine with fuel-injection).
-Franz Hauk: He wasn’t directly involved with the group, but still played a very important role. He had developed the engine “EA 827” (mainly used in the Audi 80 GTE), which was the engine the GTI was eventually equipped with.
The group presented the car (which at that point had been re-named the Golf GTI) to Volkswagen’s bosses early in 1975, and got green-lit on the 28th of May 1975.
At that point, it was assumed that no more than 5.000 would be made.
Around that time another problem became clear.
No matter how fast the Golf GTI would be, no-one was going to move over to let a Golf pass, so some visual changes had been done.
There is no precise list of what was planned, only that flared fenders (made of black plastic) made it into production, while different headlights didn’t.
They wouldn’t be introduced to the Golf until the “Rally Golf” (based off the Golf Mk. 2) was unveiled in 1989.
Another thing that made it into production was a red frame for the grille, to have at least some difference in the front.
Shortly after the GTI got the “go-ahead” from Volkswagen’s bosses another person was brought in, the only woman to work on the project in a 9-person-team.
Gunhild Liljequist had started working for Volkswagen’s design-department in 1962, being the only woman to work in that department.
She was tasked with inventing a few design-features that would set the GTI’s interior apart from the normal Golf.
She claims that, during a number of trips to London’s Carnaby Street, she fell in love with a “Scottish” tartan-pattern, a muted version of which she’d already used on the Westfalia-Campers.
She chose to use the same fabric for the GTI, just in a more “vivid” colour-combination.
Thanks to her the GTI also got the golf ball style gear-stick (according to her nothing but a simple play on the name of the car) and she’s also credited by some for the GTI’s sport steering wheel.
It should be noted that her name rarely shows up in the files, with most of her ideas having originally been credited to her boss.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk I - A Legend is Born

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

The first completed GTI made its debut on the IAA in Frankfurt (Germany) in September 1975, just over three months after the bosses allowed for the project to become reality.
That super-short time had a few side effects, such as that (according to Konrad in an interview in mid-2016), while the presented GTI had an engine, it most likely wasn’t connected to anything.
Another year passed after the original presentation until the GTI was released.
At that point it was a slightly reinforced Golf 1 equipped with the EA 827-engine (re-coded as the “EG” for the GTI) from the Audi 80 GTE.
That was a naturally aspirated SOHC 8-valve inline-4 engine with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and 1.588ccm of displacement producing 81kw at 6.100 rpm and 137nm of torque at 5.000.
The engine was mounted to a 4-speed manual (upgraded to a 5-speed in 1979), allowing the 840kg light GTI to reach 100kph in just 10 seconds and run a top speed of 183kph, easily enough to go on the Autobahn and mess with some Porsches (which kind of was the original reason for developing the car).
Deceleration was taken care of by 239mm disc-brakes at the front and drums at the rear, with servo-support as standard.
There’s only one thing the bosses at Volkswagen did wrong, and that was trying to estimate how many they would sell.
Because in the 6 years it was on sale Volkswagen didn’t sell 5.000 Golf 1 GTI.
They sold 461.690 Golf 1 GTI before production stopped in 1983.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk II - The Story continues

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

The GTI-version of the Golf 2 was offered starting in 1984, offering the “full” GTI as well as a slightly “tamed” version with a catalytic converter.
The Mark 2 GTI kept the red frame at the front and the black flares, additionally being equipped with a larger front lip and a small rear spoiler.
It was equipped with a fuel-injected (Bosch K-Jetronic) 1781ccm 8-valve inline-4 SOHC-engine (coded “EV”), which delivered 82kw at 5.500rpm and 155nm of torque at 3.100rpm to a 5-speed manual driving the front wheels.
That power was enough to accelerate the car in 10 seconds from a standstill to 100kph, not any faster than the Mark 1 but not any slower either despite the new car weighting at least 1.020kg.
The GTI’s top-speed had grown to 191kph, while the brakes were now discs all around (239mm at the front, 226mm in the rear).
Furthermore, customers could now order the car with optional power steering.

The GTI was updated in 1986 (starting delivery in ’87) with the new engine (new code “KR”) being a 1.781ccm inline-four DOHC-engine with 4 valves per cylinder (officially renaming the car “Golf GTI 16V”), being supplied with fuel through an electrical fuel injection system (Bosch KE-Jetronic) with hydraulic tappets making sure that the valves no longer needed to be manually adjusted every now and then.
The new engine delivered 95kw at 5.800rpm and 168nm at 4.250rpm to the same 5-speed gearbox, enough to raise the top speed to 208kph and to cut 1,1 seconds off the sprint from a standstill to 100kph.
The brakes remained the same, but now came with an ABS-system as standard.
The Mark 2 GTI was made until 1991, finishing production one year before the last Mark 2 Golf was made.

The Volkswagen Rally Golf - A spiced up GTI

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

A close relative of the Mark 2 GTI is the Volkswagen Rally Golf, a special edition that was made 5.000 times in between 1989 and 1991 for homologation-purposes.
The car can be easily identified by clearly widened fenders, wider sills, a grille painted in the car’s colour and rectangular headlights, in addition to a redesigned front bumper with additional intakes to get cool air to the front brakes.
The Rally Golf was powered by Volkswagen’s famous G60 engine, an inline-4 8-valve SOHC-engine which had been downsized by 18ccm to 1.763ccm, allowing the rally-car to compete in the 1.700ccm-class.
The engine was still aspirated by the normal “G-Charger”, with a larger intercooler supposed to make up for the reduced displacement, while “Digifant” electrical injection supplied the fuel.
The engine (coded “1H”) delivered 118kw at 5.800rpm and 225nm at 3.800rpm to a reinforced 5-speed manual gearbox, which drove all four wheels, with the wheelbase growing by 4mm.
The brakes grew by 41mm in the front (to 280mm) while the rears remained at 226mm.
The Rally Golf also came standard with power steering, as well as a refined suspension and sports seats.
The 1.250kg-heavy car does the standard sprint in 9,5 seconds, while the top-speed grew to 210kph.
About half of all Rally Golf survived until today, and they’re seen as the most sought-after classic Golf.
Some also see the Rally Golf as the predecessor of the Golf R32/Golf R.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk III - The End of the classic GTI

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

The GTI-label returned with the Golf 3 GTI in 1991.
The GTI could be identified by a horizontal red line in the rear and front bumper, tinted rear lights, a red GTI-badge in the grille and a spoiler-lip.
Upon release the now 1.089kg heavy car was powered by a 1.984ccm inline-4 8-valve SOHC-engine equipped with “Digifant” electrical injection, delivering 85kw at 5.400rpm and 166nm at 3.200rpm through a five-speed manual gearbox to the front wheels.
The GTI would reach 100kph in 10,1 seconds and top out at 198kph, while deceleration was taken care of by disc-brakes all around, with ventilated 256mm discs at the front and 226mm discs at the rear, without ABS.
In 1992 the GTI could also be ordered with an updated version of the same engine.
It had the same displacement, but double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder raising the power-output to 110kw at 6.000rpm and 180nm at 4.800nm.
That increase in power raised the top speed to 215kph and shortened the standard sprint to 8,7 seconds, while the brakes grew to 288mm in the front to keep up with the increased performance, now coming with ABS as standard.
The Mark 3 GTI was made until December 1997, allowing for cars to be on the market that were first registered in 1998, the year after Golf 3 stopped production.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk IV - The Legend becomes an optional Package

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

With orders being taken in 1997 the Mark 4 Golf brought a big change, eliminating the status of the Golf GTI as a unique model.
Instead, “GTI” became more of an equipment-line, just like “Trendline” or “Comfortline”.
The Mark 4 GTI is also the least recognizable GTI, having ditched its predecessors red lines or the badge in the grille.
The GTI can be identified by rolling on 16-inch alloy wheels from BBS, tinted rear lights (having a red-black scheme rather than the normal red-yellow).
The GTI-package also came with birdseye-maple wood-decals in the dashboard and Recaro seats that offered a little more side-support than the stock seats.
Over the 6 years of production the GTI-package was available for 11 engines, including 4 diesel-engines (which would be labelled “GTI TDI”).
The closest thing to a “classic” GTI the Mark 4 offered was the “25th Anniversary Edition”-GTI that was sold in 2001.
It can be identified by a unique styling package (different front- and rear bumpers, sills and a rear spoiler), headlights with part of the inside painted black (which are highly sought after by fans nowadays), a sports exhaust with a 90mm exhaust-tip and 18-inch polished BBS-wheels.
Its interior was upgraded with new improved Recaro seats, a number of red details, drilled aluminium pedals and a golf ball gearstick reminiscent of the Mark 1 GTI.
Also, other than the “regular” GTI of that Generation, the Special Edition only came with one engine, a 1.8 liter 20-valve engine delivering 132kw.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk V - The Return of the classic GTI

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

The Golf GTI went back to a model customers could chose rather than an equipment-line with the Mark 5 Golf GTI that debuted in the fall of 2004.
It can be recognized by a honeycomb-grille, a red frame around the grille, black sills, 17-inch BBS wheels (with an 18-inch version being optional) and silver GTI-badges in the grille and on the tailgate.
The interior got fabric seats with a pattern that strongly resembled the tartan-pattern of the Mark 1 GTI, aluminium inserts in the dashboard and doors and a different speedometer.
The GTI was powered by a turbocharged 1984ccm inline-4 16-valve DOHC-engine that delivered 147kw at 5.100-6.000rpm and 280nm at 1800-5.000rpm to the front wheels, either through a six-speed manual gearbox or an optional 6-speed double-clutch gearbox (DSG-gearbox).
With a manual gearbox the car reached 100kph in 7,2 seconds and ran a top speed of 235kph, while the DSG-gearbox shortened the sprint to 6,9 seconds in exchange for loosing 2kph of top speed.
The GTI was made from September 2005 to June 2008, before being replaced with its successor that started production after an eight months long break in March 2009.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk VI

Note: The car on the photo has the mirrors folded, they're not really that small.
Note: The car on the photo has the mirrors folded, they're not really that small.

The Mark 6 GTI is identified by different bumpers, a larger rear spoiler, two chrome exhaust tips, 17-inch wheels resembling the predecessor’s wheels, two horizontal red lines in the grille (alongside a silver GTI-badge) and a GTI-badge on the rear.
The interior received a sports steering wheel with a “GTI”-label on the vertical spoke and alloy pedals as well as sport seats and red stitching on the cloth below the gearstick of the manual gearbox.
The GTI was powered by a turbocharged 1984ccm engine delivering 155kw at 6.200rpm and 280nm at 1.700 to 5.200rpm mounted to a manual 6-speed gearbox or an optional 6-speed DSG-gearbox (somewhat strangely, since the normal Mark 6 Golf could be ordered with a seven-speed DSG).
The GTI could do the standard sprint in 6,9 seconds and reached a top speed of 240kph.
After three years and 7 months the GTI’ production was stopped, half a year before the Mark 6 Golf ceased production.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk VII - The One that completes 40 Years of GTI

Volkswagen - Volkswagen Golf GTI – History of a Legend - Blog

The GTI-version of the Mark 7 Golf (which started production in March 2013) can be identified by different bumpers with a sharper design and a larger main intake, a horizontal red line in the grille that continues in the headlights, two chrome exhaust tips, LED rear lights, a silver GTI-badge in thef front grille and one on the rear, as well as 17-inch wheels.
The car is powered by a turbocharged 1984ccm inline-4 16-valve engine based off the predecessor’s engine, coded “CHHB”.
The engine produces 162kw at 4.500 to 6.200rpm and 350nm at 1.500 to 4.400rpm.
That made it the most powerful GTI of all times.
The engine is mounted to the same gearboxes the predecessor could be ordered with, though with a slightly changed gearing.
That allows the 1.351kg-heavy GTI to reach 100kph in 6,5 seconds, with the top-speed being 246kph (244 with the DSG-gearbox).
Just like the normal Mark 7 Golf the GTI came standard with a Start-Stopp-System and a brake-energy recovery-system.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk VII Clubsport S - The GTI goes Racecar

A Clubsport S where it drives best: On the Nordschleife.
A Clubsport S where it drives best: On the Nordschleife.

In the fall of 2016 Volkswagen presented the “Volkswagen Golf 7 GTI Clubsport S”, a car that many consider to be the Mark 7’s “final edition”.
The Clubsport S comes on 19-inch “Pretoria”-wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2-tires.
The car can be further identified by “Clubsport S”-decals on the sides and a black roof, as well as more prominent aero-parts.
Inside the car the driver and front passenger sit in Recaro bucket seats, with the rear seats and even the center armrest for the front seats having been removed.
A strut-brace in place of the rear seats provides some extra-stiffness, while reduced insulation and the removed air-condition save weight.
The Clubsport S is powered by a 1.984ccm engine based off the one in the normal GTI (now coded CJXE).
With a changed intake and exhaust and a reprogrammed ECU it now produces 288kw at 5.300-6.600rpm and 380nm at 1.700-5.300rpm, with the power flowing through a 6-speed manual gearbox with a shorter throw that the stock GTI’s gearbox, with no DSG-gearbox being available.
Despite having shed 30kg the car still weights 1.360kg, mainly due to reinforcements and larger brakes.
It also has a modified suspension that lowers the car and increases negative camber at all four wheels to fight understeer, helped by an electronic locking differential in the front.
At last, the driver can select a “Nordschleife Setting” to adapt engine-response, power-steering and the dampers for driving on the legendary racetrack.
The Clubsport S can reach 100kph in 5,8 seconds and runs an unrestricted 265kph.
Shortly after the car was unveiled Volkswagen used a Clubsport S (according to them without any changes from the stock version) to drive a lap of the Nordschleife in 7 minutes and 49,21 seconds, taking the title of the fastest hatchback from the Honda Civic Type R which was 1,42 seconds slower.
The Clubsport S is limited to 400 units (100 of which for Germany), plus a 401st car (numbered 000) remaining with Volkswagen, selling for at least 40.000 Euros.
Despite the high price all 400 were ordered within 24 hours of the presentation.

All data and information researched to the best of my knowledge, if I made a mistake please let me know.