By Sivan Goren

With production of the VW Beetle winding down in the ‘70s, VW approached Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to come up with designs for a compact new hatchback and thus the legendary Golf was born. What no one could have anticipated was how a small creative team in South Africa would be responsible for creating a red, yellow and blue (not green!) sensation out of a seemingly stalling model.

As was the case with the Passat and Scirocco, the new hatch would not only be of the new generation water-cooled, front-engined and front-wheel-drive variety, but would also be named after a wind – in this case, the tropical wind that blows through the Gulf of Mexico, responsible for creating the Gulf Stream.  It makes a bit more sense when you realise that in German this would translate to Golf Strom. The common misconception that the name is derived from the sport is further helped along by the fact that VW sneakily made the gear lever look exactly like a golf ball. But I digress …


Production on the new Golf started on 29 March 1974 and the press launch took place in June of that same year. The new hatch proved to be an instant hit and sales hit the roof, with the millionth car leaving the production line after only 31 months. With the fuel crisis that hit in 1973, and the star of the iconic Beetle on the wane, VW needed cars that were not only technologically advanced, but also economical – and it was set to deliver these ahead of its competitors.

The Golf 1 was selling far above expectations in Germany and was finally launched in South Africa in May 1978 and, as was the case internationally, was an instant hit. So much so, in fact, that the already declining Beetle sales tanked completely and the last one left the production line in Uitenhage in January 1979 after a production run of almost 28 years. As Peter Searle, VW’s managing director at the time, put it: “The success of the Golf has been so great and the public reaction to the car so positive that the Beetle has taken a back seat.”

Here was a car that was not only impressive in the performance department but also had all the space of a medium-sized car (even a station wagon when the seats were folded down) – despite being a hatch. Its loading capabilities were showcased by a famous television advert showing a woman loading 15 milk crates plus a ladder into the car – a feat that was then re-enacted (by the same actress in the advert) in front of major customers at the launch of the Golf 1 in Johannesburg. The spectacular response was just the start of things to come.


It took only 14 months before the 30 000th Golf left the production line in Uitenhage, meaning that in its very first year of production, the humble Golf had surpassed the highest ever annual sales of the Beetle. Within 3 years of its launch, 100 000 units had been assembled and after its SA launch in 1978, numerous variations were introduced to the line-up, including a diesel version, 1100cc, 1300cc, 1600cc GTS, 1600cc 81kW fuel-injected Cabriolet and of course, the original ‘hot-hatch’:  the Golf GTi (in 1800cc guise).

Almost 10 years after its international launch, the Golf 1 was replaced in Europe by the Golf 2 in 1983. The worry as far as the South African market was concerned was that as the Golf 2 was larger and more technologically advanced, it would carry a much higher price tag than its predecessor. This would leave a gaping hole in the entry level car market and VW South Africa realised something would need to be done in order to fill that gap. Plans and strategies were put forward, including the possibility of manufacturing the Polo in Uitenhage, which was dismissed for various reasons. There was one idea that kept popping up – and yet seemed unthinkable:  to keep the Golf 1, but in different form. This would mean huge cost savings as no major outlay would be needed for a new production line or tooling.


The question was: would it simply be marketed as a ‘cheap’ option – or could it be given a completely new identity? The former option was agreed upon and the Golf 1 was retained and rebirthed as the Econo Golf. In 1982 a concept car was assembled in order to gauge how it would be received. However, with its dull beige colour and lacking extras such as cigarette lighter, carpeting and more, the car looked cheap and it was clear a new way forward was needed.

VWSA turned to its newly appointed creative agency of Rightford, Searle-Tripp, Makin (RS-TM), led by creative director Mel Miller. The brief was a difficult one: to take an existing (and highly successful) design and change it into something completely fresh which would be embraced by a new market. After many hours of brainstorming and working into the night, the creative team saw red … and yellow … and blue. For Mel Miller, the inspiration came from images of the brightly-coloured Muizenberg beach change rooms which he had used in a previous ad campaign. Jenni Button, now a well-known fashion designer, was inspired by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who painted red, yellow and blue squares on a white background. The famous line ‘Get the freedom of the Citi’ was the brain child of art director Brian Plimsoll. And so the Citi Golf was born.


After designs had been implemented the next step was to create a prototype for each of the three colours of the car. Various factors needed to be considered and the team needed to think of a way to convince those in charge, in particular VW Germany, that the rebirth of a discontinued model was not only viable but absolutely crucial in the path forward. As many people involved still had major reservations, it was decided that the best thing to do would be to get advice straight from the horse’s mouth: the target market. A research study was organised where the red Citi Golf prototype was displayed along with the Econo Golf and various other competitor models within the same price range. When asked which car they would choose, 89% of the study group chose the Citi hands down – despite the fact that the Econo was the cheapest of all the cars – in fact, it was barely afforded a second glance. This proved, much to many people’s astonishment, that pricing in the entry-level car market was not as important a factor as was previously thought.

Once go ahead was given, planning began swiftly on all fronts. Production was scheduled to begin towards the end of ’83 and vehicle sales were set to start in February of the following year, which gave 6 months before the anticipated launch of the Golf 2. In fact, this meant that when the Golf 2 was finally launched in September 1984, it and the Golf 1 (in Citi guise) were being built side by side in the same factory.


Behind the scenes the creative team was feverishly devising advertising and marketing strategies. This would be an advertising campaign that was completely fresh and original – like nothing the motoring industry had ever seen. Unlike most car advertising of the day, these adverts were punchy, eye-catching and vibrant – unashamedly aimed at the youthful and stylish market. The campaign would become one of the most incredible business success stories which lasted more than 25 years.

What made these cars so appealing was the clever contrast of bright colour against white, which showed off their lines to perfection. They were so eye-catching that they drew attention wherever they went. Despite being classed as entry-level, the Citi came with relatively high level specs and extras such as a trip recorder and electric clock, fully reclining seats with headrests, rear window wiper and more – even the seats and door panels were stylishly covered in a tweed cloth. Some of the mechanical changes which had been made to the South African Golf 1 (longer 4th gear, lower profile tyres, carburettor refinement) were also carried over to the Citi, meaning that it was more powerful and economical than its German counterpart.


As 1984 went on, sales of the Citi soon overtook 300 a month and then continued racing on towards 400.  By 1986, 2 years after its launch, more than 700 units a month were being sold – exceeding wildest expectations. Unbelievably, by 1990, one in every 14 cars sold in South Africa was a Citi Golf.

In 1985 RS-TM became a partner in the worldwide Ogilvy-Mather group, which in 2004 saw a brand makeover with the name becoming Ogilvy. With the changes came new creative staff who had the difficult job of adapting the advertising strategy to suit the ever-changing market. Consequently the Citi moved with the times. For 1988 it received a facelift with new front wings, sloping grille, deeper bumpers and a pressed ‘L’ or ‘J’ (depending on which side of the car you were looking at) found its way into the C-Pillar panel.   In the ‘90s the original, primary-coloured cars began to evolve and change into a wider range of Citis that included, amongst others, the Citi Chico, Sonic, Blues, Deco, Ritz, Life and CTi. Over the years Citi added a 5-speed gearbox and spread its base with engines in 1300cc, 1400cc, 1600cc and 1800cc format featuring both carburettion and fuel injection. From 2002 quad headlamps became the norm on Citi and not just the sporting versions, but perhaps the most notable change happened in 2004 when a modern Soda dash found its way into the Citi. A keen eye and measuring tape will also note that the front window dimensions increased slightly in 2004. The final real changes to styling happened in 2006 when taillight inserts became round and the front bumper incorporated a second grille.  Although there were frequent changes, the brand stayed true to its values and the Citi kept a loyal following until production ceased on 21 August 2009. As a last hoorah VW waved goodbeye to Citi with a limited run badged Mk1 and individually numbered from 1 to 1000.


So how did a little car like the Citi become a giant in South African motoring history? Maybe the key to its unprecedented success was its unique combination of style and economy … maybe even its novelty factor. But more likely it was the result of a brilliant partnership between an agency and a motor manufacturer. So what’s the moral of this story? In the words of Ogilvy: “If you have the basic goods, if you have what people want, and if you communicate in a way that will let people respond emotionally to what you have to say, there is no limit to the success you can achieve.”


1984       Citi Golf (Red, Yellow Blue) – 1300cc Carburetor – 4-speed
1985       Citi Golf Sport – 1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1988       Cit Golf Sport -1800cc Carburetor -5-speed                              
1991       Citi Golf Parfait – 1300cc Carburetor – 4-speed
1990       Citi Golf CTi – 1800cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
1991       Citi Golf Designa – 1600cc/1800cc Carburetor – 5-speed              
1992       Citi Golf Shuttle – 1300cc/1600cc Carburetor – 4-/5-speed        
1994       Citi Golf Ritz  – 1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1995       Citi Golf Chico – 1300cc/1600cc/1400cc Carburetor – 4-/5-speed
1995       Citi Golf Blues – 1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1996       Citi Golf Deco -1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1997       Citi Golf Sonic – 1300cc/1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1998       Citi Golf Bafana Bafana – 1300cc/1600cc Carburetor – 5-speed
1999       Citi Golf Chico 1.4i – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
1999       Citi Golf Life – 1600cc Fuel-injection  – 5-speed
2000       Citi Golf – 1400cc Fuel-injection  – 5-speed
2004       VeloCiTi – 1400cc/1600cc Fuel-injection -5-speed
2005       Citi Rhythm  – 1400cc -5-speed
2006       Citi R-line – 1800cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2008       Citi Golf Tenaciti – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2008       Citi Golf Rox -1400cc/1600cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2008       Citi Golf Sport – 1600cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2008       Citi Golf Storm – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2008       Citi Golf Wolf – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2009       Citi Golf Xcite – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2009       Citi Golf Billabong – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2009       Citi Golf GTS – 1400cc Fuel-injection – 5-speed
2009       Citi Golf Mk1 – 1600cc Fuel-injection  – 5-speed

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