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

  • tps23 12 Dec 2007

    Mark 2 was good but i still preferred the Pug

  • danrc 12 Dec 2007

    Basic cars with lots of go.

    i have a MK1 tucked away and when it was on the road used to handle like a go kart - was great fun!

    My Dad has owned lots of MK2's and they are a great car with plenty of power and decent handling. Its getting quite hard now to find an unmolested one in decent knick!

    Good write up!

  • Dracoro 12 Dec 2007

    I used to have a 1990(G) BB Mk2 16v. Great car. Had a Corrado VR6 after which was even better. Both are icons. VW have not made cars as good since.

  • disco1 12 Dec 2007

    I wanted a Golf GTI for years and years and when I finally got one (1990 Mk2, 8v) I was a bit gutted in all honesty, not very fast, rubbish brakes, jelly around corners, unreliable. funny thing is my mates also got themselves the same cars and all thought the same about them.

    I then got a Mk3 VR6, again not that fast, rubbish around corners...blah..blah..blah

    As they say..never meet your boyhood heroes, you'll only be disappointed

  • mattiselvis 12 Dec 2007

    8/10 seems a bit strong to me as they don't get much of a look in when the "best hot hatch EVER" discussions kick off. 6 or 7 feels fairer - an icon but not quite the hero.

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