Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (2024)

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (1)

We said on Tuesday that the automotive anniversaries of 2024 may well be a little more poignant than usual; here we are, just a couple of days later, with VW marking a momentous 50 years of the iconic Golf. At exactly the point where it faces perhaps the most significant upheaval of its entire half century: an imminent Mk8 update must address some notable flaws to make it the best hatch out there again, and then we’re into the world of all electric Golfs…

VW’s announcement today is modest, though more fitting celebrations will follow. At the end of this month, there will be a display of Golfs at the Retromobile show in Paris, an event that’s worth visiting every single year regardless. Following that, the Bremen Classic motor show will host both a Mk1 Golf and the 1969 EA276 concept car that previewed a front-engined Beetle successor (it’s the funny red car here that looks a bit like a Skoda Estelle from the front; thank goodness Giugiaro got involved). No doubt there will be some big events for UK-based Golf enthusiasts as well.

Before we get into the abridged history (and some gems from the classifieds), it’s worth mentioning what VW is promising for the Mk8 Golf facelift as well. Because it’s fair to say that car wasn’t received terribly well. Ready to make its debut in a few weeks, the Mk8.5 (we’ll call it that for now) is set to be an ‘evolutionary development’ that ‘will impress with visually refined features, new assist systems and powertrains, and also next-generation infotainment systems and software.’ Let’s all hope the next generation is more user friendly and responsive than what came before. It’s really not far off, either, with orders set to open in the spring. One to keep an eye out for.

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (2)

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (3)

Right now, however, we’ll take a brief look back, because there really aren’t many cars out there with a legacy like the Golf’s. It’s up there with the Mustang and the 911 as an idea that’s really stood the test of time, popular for decades and with all manner of customers. Obviously a Mk8 is a very different proposition to a Mk1, but at its core it remains a smart, stylish, front-drive family hatch with a fairly small transversely mounted engine in it. New tech has come along the way - VW points to how the Golf ‘democratised’ cruise control, the monitored catalytic converter, airbags and ABS - but the concept can very easily be traced back to the 70s. Across hatches, cabrios, estates, Rs, GTIs and VR6s, VW has delivered an astonishing 37 million Golfs.

For many the Mk1 remains the legend, and with good reason: there was the GTI, of course, but even ordinary models were stylish, sturdy and desirable in a way that family hatches just weren’t back then. Two million had been sold by June 1978; that number was three million in September ‘79. The Mk1 would of course also be notable for all the firsts it could introduce to the Golf: the GTI in ‘76, the cabrio in ‘79, diesel in 1982 and so on. That it lived such a long life (the drop top surviving here until the 1990s, and the hatch surviving as the Citi Golf in South Africa until 2009) will only have further affection for the Mk1. Which, as we all know now, means they cost a pretty penny: this 1.8 Campaign looks glorious, though it is £25k.

The Mk2 Golf arrived in 1983 and - spoiler alert - was a monstrous success: VW delivered 6.3m in just a decade. For many the most desirable hot hatch of the 1980s, the Mk2 GTI arrived just a year after the standard car - then the 16-valver not long after that. Remember, too, this was the time of crazy Golfs like the Country and the Rallye G60, but it’s again those GTIs that surely remain most revered; whether big bumper or small, three-door or five, there’s not much to get a hot hatch fan going like a Mk2 Golf GTI. This one’s a lorra lorra money but is magazine featured, low mileage and comes from long term ownership.

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (4)

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (5)

Many would probably prefer us skip over the Mk3, though it was an important part of the Golf story (even if the GTIs weren’t loved). It arguably created the first premium hot hatch that’s now so popular with the VR6, for example; the estate came in with the Mk3, as did a new cabrio and the turbodiesel engine. Furthermore, as a less desirable variant in the eyes of purists, it’s possible to get a retro VW experience for a lot less money: this GTI had one owner from 1994 until the 2020s, occurring just 50k in that time, and it’s now for sale at £9,950.

The Mk4 perhaps didn’t do much for the GTI’s rep, either, but it cemented the Golf’s place as the best built, most desirable small hatch around. It was a class act, and became quite fondly thought of in certain guises. Have you seen how much an R32 costs these days? Or how many miles most PD TDIs are on? As with the third, the fourth Golf brought in some interesting features, including the V5 engine, optional ESP and 4Motion. For something a little different that shows off so much of what made the Golf Mk4 great (while going quite slowly), this Match 1.4 still looks remarkably good.

The Mk5, as is well known now, was probably the Golf at its 21st century best, classy and cool like the Mk4 but better to drive as well. The GTI rediscovered its mojo, the R32 remained charming, and the diesels were more potent than ever. The DSG transmission revolutionised automatics, too. The Mk5 was such a big deal, in fact, that the Mk6 didn’t seek to change much at all: it was inevitably safer, more efficient and better equipped, though the GTI only gained another 10hp. The V6 was gone forever, replaced by a 2.0-litre turbo. For the best of the Golf in the mid-2000s, you won’t do much better than a Mk5 GTI - this Edition 30 ought to do nicely.

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (6)

Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (7)

By June 2013, just a few months after the arrival of the Mk7, 30 million Golfs had been delivered. With the introduction of the MQB architecture that reduced weight and increased rigidity, the 7 was a noticeable step on from the 6. Looked better inside and out, too. The good news for the enthusiast continued with a pair of great performance models, both GTI and R nailing their required briefs. Subsequent Clubsports were fantastic, and this was another Golf with a seriously diverse line up, from Alltrack to Electric. Another Golf that set the standard - and made a little bit of Nurburgring history…

For the moment, it would be fair to say that the Mk8 hasn’t done quite the same thing for the Golf, a bit like the Mk6 following up Mk5. But we do have Drift Mode now, and that’s fun. Plus this facelift that promises a decent amount. VW hasn't got to this many cars after so much time making Golfs people don’t want, after all. Expect to hear more on the update very soon - and for values of the classics in this anniversary year, sadly, to stay very strong indeed.

  • VW Golf GTI Mk4 | PH Used Review
  • VW Golf GTI (Mk7) | PH Heroes

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Happy 50th birthday VW Golf (2024)


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