THE DRIVING RANGE

By Graeme Hurst with photography by Jan van der Walt

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Few manufacturers can boast a step-change in product offering as monumental as Volkswagen can with the launch of its Golf back in ’74. A switch from the air-cooled rear-engined and chassis-based format that defined the much-loved Beetle to a transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive monocoque hatchback was about as radical as the adoption of the jet engine with the launch of the de Havilland Comet airliner back in 1949. Only the Golf was more than just a seismic technical change. It was also a watershed moment in the way family cars appealed to motorists.

Got any favourite advertisements from the late ’70s and ’80s? Colourful advertisements in the back of CAR or WIEL that still stand out for their marketer’s message? My own motoring recollections as a young petrolhead devouring the pages of my dad’s CAR mags include several memorable ones. Such as the can of Castrol’s GTX oil with the golden lubricant running down the side and into the open jaws of a spanner. Or the Datsun 1200 bakkie engine vibrating in the dust as it powered a pump on a farm (long after the body had rusted away) to show how reliable the Japanese carmaker’s engines were. Then there’s Mercedes- Benz’s double-page spread showing the trajectory that one of its sedans took after it accidentally left the road and plunged off Chapman’s Peak late one night…

Those were all in the 1980s but a standout one from the late ’70s was a bright yellow VW Golf pictured with no fewer than 15 blue milk crates AND a ladder, all of which could fit into it! To me it looked more like a David Copperfield routine involving smoke and mirrors than something you could actually pull off but either way it made an impression: this was an attractive-looking car that was clearly super practical with its rear hatch and four doors.

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And potential car buyers leafing through those same pages agreed: VW sold 5 000 Golfs in the first three months after the model reached our shores in early 1978 and broke the 100 000 mark a little over three years on – a record for a South African-assembled car! Six generations – and several further memorable advertising campaigns – later and the Golf is a serious mainstay of our new car market, having spawned a unique-to-SA budget model along the way.

And while today’s automotive listings fairly much mirror what buyers overseas can enjoy, that wasn’t always the case here. Especially in the late 1970s, when SA experienced a lag in new car launches; what debuted at the likes of Geneva and Frankfurt often took a few years to turn up on our shores. That was the case with Volkswagen’s Giugiaro-styled hatchback which was on European salesroom floors as far back as ’74, although the model’s origins go back as far as 1969.

That’s when Wolfsburg bosses, concerned about falling Beetle sales which had led to overall annual VW production nearly halving from a 600 000-unit high in 1966, visited the Turin Auto Salon for inspiration. Of the six show cars they favoured most, four had been designed by Italdesign and the firm’s founder, Giorgetto Giugiaro, was invited to Wolfsburg to discuss a new family car to take over from the Beetle.

Giugiaro had a preference for sharp, crisp lines which he delivered with the Golf and which would become his styling signature with subsequent projects such as BMW’s iconic M1 and the gull-winged DeLorean DMC-12 (of Back to The Future fame), among others. Despite the Golf looking radically different to its predecessor, the Italian stylist wasn’t given carte blanche: Wolfsburg’s engineers issued a clear brief relating to the car’s wheelbase and overall interior and exterior dimensions, although some of that was related to the need for component commonality across Volkswagenwerk AG, which had by then acquired NSU and Audi.

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His efforts appeared remarkably unhindered by those requirements, with both the three- and five-door shapes appearing fresh and resolved in their own right and the Golf’s strong C-pillar detail becoming a model signature as the Golf evolved. Giugiaro’s concept was largely accepted as was by VW’s board, apart from a switch from rectangular to round headlights in the interest of cost, and the adoption of narrower taillights. They also decided on the car’s name, although whether it’s a Germanised take on the Gulf Stream wind or simply a nod to the then increasingly popular game of golf is open to conjecture. VW fuelled the intrigue by adding a golf ball-inspired gear knob and – whatever the inspiration – the name hit the spot for the all-new industry concept that VW effectively pioneered: the family hatchback.

The radical-looking Golf made its SA debut in early 1978 in an equally radical way: in the ballroom of the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Joburg, stood a yellow five-door Golf, complete with the same scantily attired model from the then current print and television advert and her 15 milk crates. And that ladder. The launch kicked off with the model asking for assistance to pack all the crates into the car, which she did to a round of rapturous applause! This was motoring theatre and the audience just loved it.

Local production kicked off in March/April that year at a rate of 65 cars a day and CAR magazine’s editorial team soon had their hands on the 1500 GLS version for the July issue, with a test of the entry-level 1100 LS following a month later. As the entry-level model, the LS was the only two-door in the range and was priced at R3 995, some R500 more than the 1300 Beetle which ran concurrently until January ’79, by when a 1500 diesel Golf was added to the mix.

The price jump didn’t matter; demand for the Golf range was super strong, especially among fleet customers, at whom the ballroom theatrics at the Sunnyside had been aimed. A year on, the Golf had outsold the Beetle – which achieved 21 034 units in its best-ever year. The Golf was simply an instant success in our market.

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The addition of a 1.6-litre GTS version (with five-speed gearbox) in early 1980 boosted the little hatchback’s appeal even further with the start of the model’s sporty appeal. In 65kW carb form the GTS wasn’t a true hot hatch as we came to know them, but back then it was quick enough to embarrass Ford XR3 owners at the lights.

Of course, the real hot hatch chapter came with the launch of the Golf GTi. Although a fuel-injected Golf had been an option overseas two years after the Golf’s European launch, local VW fans had to hang in there until November ’82. It was worth the wait as Germany had by then upped engine capacity to 1.8 litres for competition purposes and we got that full-fat version straight off. Only ours was regarded as being quicker, without European power-sapping emissions equipment.

Performance was simply scintillating for the time: 0-100km/h in 9.3 seconds and a top whack of 182km/h. But the GTi was more than just about numbers: the 82kW its fuel-injected engine pumped out sharpened up the Golf’s already legendary handling and – along with perfectly matched gear ratios – made for a hugely entertaining drive.

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CAR magazine reckoned it was the fastest production VW and the catchy GTi moniker quickly boosted the Wolfsburg marque’s image with those three letters arguably becoming as synonymous for a hot hatch as Mercedes-Benz’s SL badge was for a luxury sports car. Only VW’s prodigy did so for a fraction of the price, as saleroom figures showed – some 2 991 GTis left dealer floors in the first year of production. And the GTi proved itself off the public road too, with hot-shoe Sarel van der Merwe winning the 1983 Group One Championship with one and a team of GTis breaking 24 Hour endurance records in February the year after.

VWSA upped the ante with the launch of the Golf 2 in September ’84, an evolution that took all that made the Golf great and improved on it by offering 13% more interior space while being 50% quieter. Despite the increase in size, the range still kicked off with a four-speed 1.3-litre CL, but the bigger 1.6-litre CSL and 1.8-litre CSX models boasted five on the floor.

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Volkswagen Germany made much of the new Golf’s increased interior dimensions and load-carrying space (almost a third more) at its European launch and VWSA’s famously creative advertising agency – Rightford Searle-Tripp Makin – capitalised on this by coining it the ‘Jumbo Golf’ when it arrived in SA just 13 months later. Their campaign centred around a series of memorable print run ads involving a rather animated elephant and a dark blue Golf CSL, one featuring the elephant standing on the roof (which appeared to be only mildly compressed) and another where he was spraying the underside of the car with water out of his trunk after evidently flipping the car over!

There was even more creative advertising to come on the Golf front; although the second-generation Golf was well received, VWSA predicted (a year earlier) that there would be a role for the outgoing shape. This was after concerns were raised over the new Golf’s higher price point, which would’ve likely pushed it out of the reach of first-time buyers. So, in partnership with the same creative advertising agency from the Jumbo ads, its product management team re-developed the model as the Citi Golf – a budget offering appealing to a younger, lifestyle-oriented target market (remember the ‘Get the freedom of the Citi’ strapline?)

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A previous generation model on a show-room floor concurrently with its replacement? This was simply unprecedented in the SA motoring industry, with fears of market cannibalisation, but VWSA management made a compelling enough case for the company’s German HQ to allow it. That was in part as the local outfit didn’t have the capacity to take on assembly of the European Polo, yet the SA market was in need of an entry-level model of that ilk. And, as any local petrolhead knows, the gamble paid off spectacularly: some 300 Citi Golfs a month were rolling out of Uitenhage by the end of the first year, while Golf 2 sales continued to climb. The appetite for a budget model showed no sign of waning as the years rolled on: by 1990, one in every 14 cars sold in SA was a Citi Golf, making the model a fixture of both our roads and our automotive lexicon all the way until production finally ceased in 2009, after some 370 000 had been built.

The second-generation Golf’s strong sales helped cement the model’s standing in the country and the range was again topped with the desirable GTi, listed at R14 800. Despite the Golf 2’s added bulk (around 40kg), its performance was up on the Golf 1 GTi with 0-100km/h in 8.73 seconds and top speed now a fraction over 190km/h. There was more to come when VW adopted multi-valve technology in the form of the GTi 16-valve, which came to our shores in 1990. Boosting power to 102kW (at 6100rpm), the 16V GTi cost nearly 20% more than a regular 8-valver (which sold concurrently), but that bought the owner true 200km/h action – performance that put the GTi ahead of rival Opel’s GSi, which had been developed to woo GTi buyers.

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Two years on, VW pushed capacity up to 2 litres (and gave the GTi a facelift centred around integrated bumpers) to up the performance stakes yet again. But the big news, of course, was the Golf 3 from February 1993, specifically the 2.8-litre six-cylinder VR6 which finally closed the numbers gap with BMW – as CAR magazine noted when it pitted a VR6 against a 325i in the November 1993 issue.

Although VW had faced off against BMW on the track on many occasions, this was the first time the rival carmakers were competing in the marketplace. And, despite a 13kW penalty (the narrow V6 of the Golf offering 128kW against the 141kW of the Bavarian straight-six), the VW hatch proved it had the punch with a 222km/h top whack that was 6km/h shy of the 325i’s. The Golf’s all-important 0-100km/h figure was actually a shade lower at 7.98 seconds. A lot of that was thanks to a 120kg weight advantage but it was still good news for VW die-hards, especially as the VR6’s R112 533 price tag left them with over R20k in their pocket compared with the blue-and-white-badged offering.

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The third-generation Golf had a long run – over six years – as VW initially declined to bring out its replacement from Europe (citing engine incompatibility), however that changed in late ’99 and then Golf 5 followed five years later. With local production boosted by export demand, production increased until December 2008 when VWSA’s product rationalisation plans saw the end of Golf assembly in Uitenhage after more than 800 000 Golfs had been built locally over three decades.

Fast-forward another ten years and the Golf legacy continues to grow, underwritten by its reputation as a quality car that’s as entertaining to drive as it is practical, thanks to its five-door configuration. And that image of 15 stacked milk crates AND a ladder.

Thanks to VW author John Lemon for production data.

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