Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 Review
If not technically the first hot-hatch, the Golf GTI is arguably the car that set the mould…
What Is It?
While the Simica 1100ti, Mini Cooper and various others may beg to differ on ‘hot-hatch originator’ status the Golf GTI probably counts as the first mainstream, modern example and still the blueprint to this day.
VW’s origin story of an idea cooked up by a small team of enthusiasts and waved through by sympathetic senior management has a romantic ring to it as well, more so for the fact the sales team apparently reckoned they’d be lucky to sell 500 of the projected initial run of 5,000. The rest is history, the combination of a revvy, 110PS (81kW) fuel-injected engine, 810kg kerb weight and some well-judged stylistic flourishes like the golf-ball gear selector and checked cloth upholstery creating an instant hit.
First seen at the 1975 Frankfurt show, right-hand drive versions arrived here in 1979, the GTI switching to a torquier 1.8-litre engine towards the end of its life, the Mk1 eventually selling just over 460,000 examples and creating a legend.
Inner front wings
A-pillars and windscreen surround
Spare wheel well
- Early Mk1 GTIs had four-speed gearboxes but most will have the later five-speed; these are considered generally tough but look out for a crunching synchro from first to second, especially when cold
- UK sales started with a trickle of left-hand drive examples in 1977 and 1978 before right-hand drive versions came on stream in 1979
- Earlier Mk1 Golf GTIs feature the desirable ‘spittoon’ three-spoke steering wheel with the classic Wolfsburg logo in a recess at its centre; early cars also separate the speedo and rev counter into round recesses in the dash while post-1980 cars have a single, rectangular binnacle with combined instruments
- Pre-1980 cars also have the original small rear lights, which some purists may prefer
- Rust is an issue on all Mk1 Golf GTIs but especially pre-1980 versions, which had less protection
- Check everywhere for corrosion, obvious spots being the seams on the front valance, wheelarches under the rubber extensions and door edges; of greater concern are the inner front wings, A-pillar bases, lower windscreen frame (look under the seals), front jacking points, fuel filler neck and spare wheel well
- The electrics are pretty simple but the location of the fuse box by the bulkhead means any water ingress from the lower windscreen can wreak havoc, as can bodged wiring for aftermarket alarms and other systems
- Engines are generally considered tough but most will have covered big mileages by now so check for smoke on start-up (valve stem seals), overrun (valve guides) and under acceleration (piston rings)
- From a cold start the revs should drop comfortably to a smidge under 1,000rpm without hesitation or stalling
- Original interior trim can be hard to find so a car with a cabin in good condition is an excellent starting point
How Does It Drive?
The enduring brilliance of the Golf GTI’s hot-hatch template is its simplicity – take a regular small car, stiffen the suspension a bit, keep the weight down, pep up the engine and let rip. Suffice to say, the team behind the Sport Golf (as it was known during development) absolutely nailed it first time, and with a kerb weight of just 810kg the 110PS (81kW) of the original 1.6-litre, fuel-injected engine is absolutely plenty.
By modern standards the Mk1 Golf feels tiny as well, the superb visibility as confidence inspiring as the square-cut, wheel in each corner stance. While the later 1.8-litre engine has a couple more horsepower, and offers a bit more torque and flexibility, many purists actually prefer the 1.6 for its revvier nature and invitation to thrash it in the authentic hot-hatch driving style.
Drivers of more modern cars may find the non-assisted steering and the firm brake pressure necessitated by the convoluted pedal linkage on right-hand drive cars a bit of a shock but, overall, the Mk1 is as delightful to drive as it is easy.
Those square-cut Giugiaro lines look as good now as they did back in the day, the wheelarch extensions and GTI trimmings giving the Golf just enough additional muscularity over the standard version to stand out. Details like the golf ball gear shifter and the checked cloth interior (created by VW’s first female designer, Gunhild Liljequist) are just the finishing feelgood touches.
The balance of size, power and weight are just perfect to enjoy even on modern roads, and indeed closely match the stats for the acclaimed Up! GTI of more recent times. In driveability terms there’s really little compromise here compared to more modern cars, crash protection and rustproofing the only real areas of concern. While parts availability can be a challenge the passionate VW scene also means a huge network of expertise and support for keeping a GTI running (or restoring it to its former glory) as well as ongoing demand for the good cars that survive. Values are only going one way, as a result.
Desirability is a double-edged sword, the fact for years Golf GTIs were cheap to buy and run meaning many will have been through periods of neglect, aftermarket modding, engine transplants, bodged repairs or dodgy maintenance.
So, while there may be a decent number around it’s going to take care to find a good one and an owner who has been willing to invest in the proper upkeep. While mechanically simple and tough it is, inevitably, bodywork that can make the difference between a car worth investing in and one you should run from, the many rust traps within that iconic shape meaning trouble could be lurking beyond where you can see.
As the GTI evolves into a proper, covetable classic that means extra scrutiny is required to avoid being ripped off.
Which Model To Choose?
As with many classics rarity attracts the real enthusiasts, so a super early four-speed 1.6 in good, original condition will now command serious money. For British buyers, and assuming you’re not holding out for the more attractive early interior, it’s probably better to go post-1980 to secure right-hand drive and the improved build quality in the hope of avoiding the worst of the corrosion traps.
If you’re after a 1.6 that leaves a narrow window before the 1.8 arrived in 1982, but this is probably the most desirable phase of Mk1 GTI production. All that said, the differences in character between the different versions aren’t enough to make it a deal-breaker and the wise choice would be to buy on condition and history and go for the best you can afford. That may not come cheaply, but should hold its value for the long-term.
1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol
110PS (81kW) @ 6,100rpm
139Nm (103lb ft) @ 5,000rpm
Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive