It’s hard to ignore the quality of machinery that gets entered into the HERO rallies, there are exotic cars and superstar machines from all marques, from all corners of history. In fact, these beautiful machines often take the limelight away from many other just as capable cars, cars that often have their own following and place in history that is perhaps masked somewhat when the pageant beauty queen shows up. One such machine is the humble Volkswagen Golf GTI, the original pocket rocket that stole the hearts and wallets of teenagers in the 70’s and 80’s continues to do so to this day. The Golf is of course an icon, and certainly not a car that goes about its business quietly, but in a line-up of Porsche 911’s, Bentley Derby’s and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta’s (regular combatants on many rallies), the car that was named after an executives horse has the light from its star diffused somewhat.
The first Golf was of course designed to replace the then 40-year-old Beetle, and just like its 18-hole name-sake, it was a bit, well, boring. But then it wasn’t supposed to be exciting, value for money and reliability were king and it surpassed the brief set by those heading sat in the boardroom in Wolfsburg. So much so, that two years later, in 1976, the marque released a sports variant, the GTI, and the Germans had an instant classic on their hands, even if the sales figures didn’t immediately match the car designed to mess with Porsche on Germanys Autobahns.
The thought of a hatchback taking on Stuttgart’s much loved 911 was, of course, laughable at the time and with a top speed of 110mph the GTI was never going to beat a Porsche in a straight fight, but it did at least have the speed to promote itself to the same lane of the German highway. The concept of a family hatchback with sporting intentions was first conceived by VW PR director Anton Konrad and engineer Alfons Löwenberg and developed in secret, so that a finished design could be presented to the less than receptive board, who gave the go ahead for a production run of 5000. That first car was powered by a 1.6l inline four, that produced 110 bhp and a 0-60 time of 9 seconds, which in a world dominated by Escorts and Allegros was astonishing.
It would be the Mk2 variant, released in 1984 that would really secure the Golf GTI’s place in history though, with an larger capacity 1.8l motor at its heart, that created a machine that was capable of 124mph and looked as fast as it went. The Golf had come of age, gone was the wiry frame of youth, replaced with an altogether stockier and more muscular body, 2 inches wider than the Mk1 and 7 inches longer and it came with performance to match. All of that go was matched with an awful lot of slow, with disc brakes all round and a better suspension package. Through its life it was developed further with twin overhead cams, 16 plus valves and even four-wheel drive and supercharged variants.
The rest, as they say, is history and what a history it is. Now in its Mk 7 variant the GTI has captured hearts and minds for more than forty years, but it will always be the Mk 1 and 2 models that mean the most to classic car lovers and a certain generation of teenager and the car is slowly but surely becoming a permanent fixture in the entry lists of regularity rallies. In terms of motorsport, and stage rallying in particular, the Golf found itself competing on the world stage from 1978, although only one win would materialise, in 1988, before VW pulled out of the sport in 1990. Indeed, the polo has achieved much more championship success, but for once the on-track results don’t make a difference to its almost universal popularity.
But what is it about this machine that makes it such a good car for the varied and unpredictable sport of regularity rallying? Well, potential competitors can look towards the original Golf values of cost and reliability as big plus points, as well as plentiful spare parts and a performance to stick with the best of them. It may not have quite the same curb appeal as an Austin Healey or Aston Martin, but the Golf still has the ability to make those of us of a certain generation go misty eyed and look wistfully back at our youth, not to mention being great fun to drive. A Bentley it is not, fun though, it certainly is and surely part of the point of chucking a car around some of the world’s best roads, pretending to be racing drivers is the fun to be had, perhaps the whole point?
The Golf GTI is now in its middle age, and, at 44 years old, firmly ensconced into the world of families, mortgages and 9-5 at the office, or those that lusted after it the first-time round are at any rate. The car itself though, despite fathering a few offspring of its own, hasn’t ever really grown up and provides a comparatively affordable escape from the daily humdrum, a bright orange time machine for those lucky enough to have a key.