2024 Marks 50 Years of the VW Golf

March 5th, 2024 by

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK1 Front View50 Years of the VW Golf - MK1 Dash

For 50 years, the Volkswagen Golf has been a staple of the VW lineup. Bud Brown Volkswagen is celebrating the longevity of this iconic little hatchback by giving you a brief history of the legendary Volkswagen Golf.

50 Years of the VW Golf - Golf II MK2

Time for a Change

The Golf set out to replace the most ionic automobile since the Model T. When the American car industry zigged with ever-increasing V-8 power, fat tires, hood scoops, vinyl tops, and swoopy styling that changed every year, the VW Beetle zagged with a humble-appearing economical 4-cylinder small car that kept its classic look year over year of its production. Subsequently, the Beetle became a symbol of the counterculture, a movie star in Disney’s Love Bug series, and a basis for all kinds of odd after-market alterations, from dune buggies and Baja Bugs to sprouting ironic hoods with simulated Rolls Royce or ‘37 Ford radiator grilles – for a car that had no radiator.

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK3 Front View

While the early 70’s gasoline price hikes favored Beetle selling points, those years also brought Japanese small cars that were far more modern and practical in design than the aging Beetle. Fortunately, Volkswagen had purchased Audi and NSU in the prior decade, which brought front-wheel drive know-how and parts, and VW had a plan.

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK4 Rear View

A Really Big Change

The first Golf was developed in extreme secrecy. Like the Beetle, it was small and economical but was the opposite in everything else. Owing more to the British Mini than the Beetle, the engine was in the front, water-cooled, turned sideways, and drove the front wheels. In contrast to the rounded Beetle, the styling was all straight lines and sharp edges from prestigious Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had designed many voluptuous Italian supercars in the 60s and later applied his new angular style to the DeLorean and Lotus Elite. The boxy cabin sat five comfortably, and the hatch opened to swallow a surprising amount of cargo. 

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK5 Front View

“Golf” was derived from “Golfstrom”, or the Gulf Stream wind as we know it. The later Golf-based Scirocco sport coupe and Jetta sedan also had wind-based names. But in the U.S., “Golf” was an upscale sport, which didn’t seem to fit, so the car was called the “Rabbit” to signify small, nimble, and if we are being honest, cute. 

The Golf/Rabbit was introduced as a 2-door hatchback but was soon available as a 4-door hatchback or “5-door”. In Europe, the Golf was sold with a 1.1-liter engine and 50 horsepower, but in the US, the Rabbit had 1.5 liters and 70 horsepower. 

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK6 GTI

Variations on a Theme

The Golf became an instant success, particularly in Europe, and Volkswagen immediately set out to do what it did with the Beetle: make variants. It started almost immediately with the aforementioned Scirocco, a Giugiaro-designed sports coupe successor to the aging Karmann Ghia. 1979 was the big year for variants as it included:

  • The Jetta sedan, which eventually outsold the Golf in the U.S. 
  • The Cabriolet, with its iconic “basket handle” roll bar. It quickly became known as the car for high school and college girls from affluent families, such as in 1988’s License to Drive
  • A short-lived 2-seat pickup was introduced in an effort to compete with the Toyota and Datsun pickups that were gaining popularity.

50 Years of the VW Golf - MK7

But by far, the most important and enduring variant was the GTI, introduced in 1976. It was fitted with the Scirocco’s 110 horsepower 1.6-liter fuel-injected and chassis upgrades. Its 9-second 0-60 time sounds tame or even pokey now, but at the time, it was in the Datsun 280 ZX and Mazda RX-7 territory. Its combination of high performance and practical packaging added “hot hatch” to the automotive lexicon, and it has been the standard of reference for the genre ever since.

50 Years of the VW Golf - Golf GTI MK8

Golf Evolution

After a nine-year run for the 1st generation, the Golf name came to the US with the second generation “Mk2” Golf in 1983. While the general shape was unchanged, the Mk2 grew a little in size, the edges were rounded a bit, and subtle aerodynamic influences were evident. And thus, it set the pattern for the way the Golf was going to change through its successive generations. You can trace automotive industry styling trends across the decades as they have been applied to the iconic Golf shape. Headlights change from round to rectangular to rounded to narrow LED slits. The curves get more pronounced, and the wheels get bigger. The grille goes from a black rectangle to being taller with horizontal body color slats for a couple of generations before going back to a black rectangle that is much narrower than before.  Meanwhile, the lower intake gets more complex as it takes on most of the breathing duty. 

Interior of the VW Golf

And, of course, the engines get more powerful. Eventually, a 1.8- and then 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 becomes the base engine. The unique, compact 15-degree VR6 was introduced on the high-performance Golf R and proliferated through the model line until VW’s turbocharged 4-cylinder engines became so powerful it was unnecessary. The Golf R also saw the introduction of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive to the Golf line.

The Next and Now

It will come as little surprise that the next Golf is likely to be electric. The VW ID.3 sold in Europe and other parts of the world is very Golf-like in appearance and, should it ever come to the US, could likely be called the ID.Golf. 

Rear View of the VW Golf MK8 R

For the present, now that crossovers have taken over as the default family vehicle, it is the high-performance GTI and Golf R models that remain in the US. It is a bit ironic that the high-performance wing of the VW lineup is represented by the model that replaced the anti-performance flag-bearer of the 60s, but you can’t argue with the results. The once 110-hp GTI now has 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of peak torque. Not to be outdone, the Golf R produces 315 horsepower – four and a half times the original Rabbit – and sends the power to all four wheels through the 4Motion with torque vectoring. Yet, they still can perform daily driver duties as a practical 4-door hatch that seats five and holds a surprising amount of cargo. Furthermore, both models execute their high performance with a refinement that can’t be matched by their handful of competitors. 

Check out both of these high-performance VWs at Bud Brown Volkswagen, home of the Bud Brown Advantage Lifetime Warranty in Olathe, KS.