Volkswagen GTI MK1 History

The Volkswagen GTI was an original. It defined the hot hatch. Today, it remains the definitive sports hatchback.

Its original formula was simple: Take a Golf three-door hatchback, tune the engine for higher performance, tweak the suspension, transmission, clutch and some of the interior for a more sporting feel. Then, sell for it a small premium above the rest of the lineup. The result was a huge success. Since its arrival onto the scene in 1975, the GTI garnered a cult-like devotion from its owners and enthusiasts who wanted one of their own very badly.

In the U.S., the Mk I Golf was sold as the Rabbit. Originally imported from Wolfsburg, the Rabbit became pretty popular here that a plant to build them opened up in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. However, something was missing. Only a few of its owners knew exactly what it was.

The most intrepid of enthusiasts would take their regular Rabbits and search for parts to turn them into GTIs. Enthusiasts found badges, grilles and bumpers – that was just the start. Since the Scirocco offered the same kind of bolstered tartan cloth seat as in the European GTI, they began swapping them out into their soon-to-be-modified Rabbits. The next step was to modify the engine, transmission, suspension and put on the requisite “snowflake” wheels to complete the GTI look on their Rabbits.

To make matters more interesting, Volkswagen of Canada introduced the GTI for 1979, imported from Wolfsburg. For U.S. Enthusiasts, this was simply the last straw. We wanted our own GTI!

Volkswagen of America saw what was going on among these enthusiasts. They also listened. There had to be a way to turn some of the Westmoreland Rabbit production into GTIs without diluting its image. The current U.S.-spec engine only had 74 horsepower. It needed more, if not a larger engine.

The company went for it. VWOA delivered its first Rabbit GTI in 1982 for the 1983 model year to its U.S. customers. The engine was bigger – 1.8liters instead of 1.7. Power was up at 90 horsepower. In its final model year, power was boosted to 100 horsepower.

The Westmoreland-built Mk I GTI boosted sales, though it carried a higher sticker price above the rest of the Rabbit lineup. Yet, it put the GTI dab smack in the American conscious as its sporting charms engaged enthusiasts to have one ready made for the road.