PH Heroes: VW Golf GTI

Mark II version was bigger and faster
Mark II version was bigger and faster
In 1977 a film called Star Wars hit our screens that became more than just a movie, it was something iconic that would define an era. That same year in Britain a small car was also released and in some ways it went on to achieve the very same thing. It was boxy, rather conservative and the motoring world was never going to be the same again. It was called the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Legend has it this car was a result of hours of work by Wolfsburg engineers after their daily shifts had ended. It had a 1.6 litre, 110 bhp engine, a 0-60 time of 9.1 seconds, and handling to see off far more exotic machinery, but with five-up and a decent boot. It was a huge hit.

Original was so light it actually floated
Original was so light it actually floated
That was the Mark I but in same ways when we think about the GTI, we think Eighties. In 1984 the Mark II was launched and by this point everyone knew the GTI. Other manufacturers were falling over themselves to come up with their own GTI and VW's second attempt was about to raise the stakes. It had a 1.8 litre, 112 bhp motor, but a lot more room, better brakes and more refinement. Top speed was almost 120mph and the 0-62mph time was around 8.5 seconds. The car was far more modern to look at and a nice example still looks good today. A five-door was also launched that brought the GTI to an even wider market.

In many ways the 8V MK II was the pinnacle of the brand. Sales figures had grown, VW had got it just right and everyone wanted one. Some people were even happy to settle for just the silver badge that sat on the nose. The adverts for the MK II were even iconic and if my memory serves me correctly they had a strong jewelry theme. One featured a woman chucking hers away and the earrings in another were so squeaky they should have been.

The 16V was launched in 1986 and had 139 bhp and while many people would argue it was the better car, in my opinion it is the 8V that is the hero. It was the more popular, less elitist model that most people would have at some point driven or had a ride in. It is the Golf GTI's finest hour. In some ways it was what the new Mini is today - it was attainable to the average Joe on the street but you could still cruise through Chelsea and get admiring glances. The GTI was classless and ultra desirable. Even the name has been stuck on almost everything. Some were hopeless, others did the name justice.

Big bumper the best looking?
Big bumper the best looking?
The Mark II Golf was also incredibly well made. That's why there are still so many around today. Think of the number of Ford Escorts XR3i's or Vauxhall Astra GTE's of that time you still see around today. In my mind the best-looking Golf is the later 'big bumper' Mk II, which was an attempt by VW to freshen up the ageing design before the MK III was launched. Oak Green 16v models with tinted rear lights looked the best and are still one of the most desirable models.

Sitting inside a MK II is still a nice place to be. Yes the dash looks dated, but it looks chunky and well made. Everything is nicely placed near the driver and of course there is the quirky golf ball gear knob. Fire it up and there is a purposeful burble from the exhaust and it is clear the same efforts to refine the whole package were not deemed as necessary as on one of today's watered-down hot hatches. Rev the engine and the car rocks slightly and it seems to have far more power than the modest figures suggest.

Later derivatives included the G60
Later derivatives included the G60
By today's standards the GTI won't seem as quick and grippy as it once did but the emphasis here is on fun. Nail the throttle and the car still feels fast and because there is a distinct lack of driver aids and sophistication you find yourself not wanting for more. Throw the car into a bend and it will adopt the classic tripod stance of the early GTI, all the time feeling controlled and stable. The example I drove could possible have done with better tyres, the whole thing become a bit hot-rod with power easily getting the better of grip, but the experience just put a huge grin on my face.

On the motorway the car will (theoretically) cruise at speeds that would give Gordon Brown nightmares without any fuss. The MK II is solid, roomy, refined and fast, and at the same time fun. It is difficult to wonder what more you could want from a car, even despite its age. After the MK II, it all went a bit wrong for the Golf GTI. The MK III was slow, stodgy, soft and not very well made. And just like George Lucas did with the Star Wars franchise, for the next decade and a half VW was forced to pursue something that would never be the same as when it all started.

PH Hero rating: 8/10

Comments (185) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Rockstar 20 Jan 2014

    RacingTeatray said:
    Well one would bl00dy well hope that there had been some advances in suspension design between 1984 and 1995! But to claim "nearly everycar [sic] since 95' [sic] goes around corners better is just puerile exaggeration. The E46 3-series and the Ka are renowned for good handling, so it's not exactly like you are claiming the Mk2 GTI gets mauled by dross now are you.

    The Mk2 GTI remains one of the best-handling FWD cars made - yes personally I find my Z1 handles better than my old 16v did but then it's RWD and it pioneered BMW's sophisticated z-axle design so that's no great surprise, but my FWD 156 GTA doesn't outhandle the GTI in my view - it might corner much flatter and have more grip, but ultimately it's not as good or fun.
    The Mk2 GTi's were fantastic cars in their heyday very nimble and chuckable through twisties but to be honest they did not really give the impression that they enjoyed being driven very hard and were only fast in relation to the generally gutless standard hatches of the 80's.

    Your GTA may well have a poorer turn in initially due to the heavy engine but if you are having less fun driving it on a day to day basis than a GTi(up to and including the current GTi) you must have owned a Ferrari or 2 in between and become jaded to the charms of what is surely one of the most charismatic family sedans ever produced(the likes of which we probably won't see again):O

  • thatdude 06 Jan 2014

    My father owned a Mk II for many years (got rid of it last year for a modern civic, he didnt trust it for long trips!)

    He didnt have too many problems with rust, however that doesn mean there wasnt some; he had issues with a leaking sunroof and with a leaking front window seal caused by corrosion.

    All in all though, it was a nice car. Felt really strange with the thin pillars and such, almost no blind spots unlike on modern cars. A good, smooth engine too.

    Older fuel injection system requires extreme cleanliness. A bug-bear he had was cold starting (you could count the cylinders firing into life some days)

  • Madkat 06 Jan 2014

    Sorry to dig up up an old thread. (Coming here from the performance car show thread) makes reading about the MK2 elightening as i'm considering getting one. They seem great to insure on classic policies and i've always liked the MK1/2.

    Should i be more afraid of high Millage or rust?

  • Yann1882 31 Mar 2011

    r5gttgaz said:
    HeavyRightFoot said:
    r5gttgaz said:
    Can't understand the fuss, its one of the slowest "hot hatches" evah!
    The fuss is because the Golf GTi created the hot hatch sector.

    Without the GTi the concept of 'hot hatch' probably wouldn't exist!

    Oh, and they are bloody great fun to drive and as reliable as Christmas!
    Renault would still have brought out their hot hatches regardless of what VW were doing.
    Ive owned both and never go back to owning a Renault they break down every 5 mins and never look as good as the Golfs

  • Volkswagenism 22 Jan 2010

    In this life I've experienced and lived with an array of cars in my time. Some very bespoke and some mass produced tin tops. Now here's the thing. Volkswagen introduced the GTI version of the Golf reluctently. By doing so they created a genre by accident. Taking and world by storm and themselves. Yes, there are faster hot hatches out there now, but back then the GTI and indeed the Golf as a whole was a whole new world. The feel, the legendary build quality, the grin factor, the style and its unique elegance made it stand out from the crowd. If you have a MK1 or MK2 cherish them - there's nothing that comes close to that feeling. Mk1 for its looks and MK2 for its sheer dynamism (KR engine prefably) - but this is just my opinion. You should try them for yourelves. You should also try cars like Astra GTE 16V, Maestro MG Turbo, Escort RS Turbo, Renualt 5 GT Turbo, 205 GTI 1.6 & 1.9, Simca, MG midget, Truimph Spitfire. Only then you'll appreciate the Golf GTI because its a consumate all rounder whereas the cars I've listed are only good specifically in one area. Getting hold of a MK1 or MK2 in decent condition is like the holy grail - but they are out there. Don't buy one that hasn't been looked after - you be disappointed because it won't fulfill its capabilities due to mediocre maintenance.

    Volkswagen Golf GTI - the brand within the Brand - True automotive hero and then some.

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