Back to the future in the original game-changing Golf
Introduced 40 years ago, the Volkswagen Golf was a revolution in driving. Put on your rose-tinted shades – we’re taking a restored Kermit-green model for a spin
Generation VW: A 2014 model Golf with its ancestor, the Golf Mk1. Photograph: Richard Pardon.
Time travel: Apart from the slow braking time on the Golf Mk1, you’d be forgiven for thinking cars haven’t advanced much in 40 years. Photograph: Richard Pardon
The interior of the 2014 Golf. Photograph: Richard Pardon
The interior of the 1974 Golf Mk1: Photograph: Richard Pardon
Let’s rewind 40 years for a moment, to when this Kermit-green first-generation Volkswagen Golf was brand new. It was 1974 – appropriately, when the pilot for The Muppet Show aired. Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest, President Erskine Childers passed away, Turkey invaded Cyprus and IRA bombs exploded in pubs in Birmingham, leading to one of the most prominent miscarriages of justice in British and Irish history.
In Wolfsburg, Germany, the problems were rather more prosaic: how do you solve a problem like the Beetle?
One of the world’s most successful cars, the simple rear-engined, air-cooled Beetle had sold all around the world, introduced a sceptical postwar public to the concept that German engineering could be used for good, and been a pillar of the Wirtschaftswunder – economic miracle – that underpinned, among other things, the rise of the European Union and the eventual fall of communism.
Quite some shoes to fill, and VW could have been forgiven for being conservative, sticking to what it knew best and simply creating the Beetle MkII.
It didn’t, however. It went to Giorgetto Giugiaro, a man who can lay solid claim to being the greatest car designer the world has ever seen, and had him create a simple, razor-creased shape that would eventually go on to be every bit as iconic as the Beetle it replaced. The prewar rear-engined, air-cooled layout of the Beetle was chucked out, and in came water cooling, front-wheel drive and a spacious hatchback body. It was revolutionary, and although the Renault 16 and Fiat 128 can claim to have settled on that layout first, it was the 40-year, 30-million-sales success of the Golf that would go on to influence almost every other family car subsequently built.
It’s easy to view the simplicity of this beautifully restored car as old-fashioned and simple. After all, its 1.1-litre engine makes barely 50bhp, and the car has no power steering, barely-there brakes, a push-button radio, no air conditioning, and you have to unlock each and every door individually. Forget all of that, though, and remember that this car was properly revolutionary.
After all, we’re looking at this car through the haze of 40 years of progress. In 1974, 40 years ago meant the tail end of the Great Depression, the debut of Flash Gordon in comic books and the start of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term as president of the United States. A car from 1934 would have seemed antediluvian in 1974, yet, driving this Golf today, one of the most striking things about it is how little the basics have changed: a hatchback body with seats for five, a four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels, a cable-operated manual gearshift, and the switches and stalks for lights, indicators, wipers and so on exactly where you’d expect to find them.
Aside from the need to telegram ahead to warn the brakes that you need to stop in about 500m – they feel like more of a suggestion of stopping than an actual mechanical device – you could be forgiven for thinking that cars haven’t changed, or even advanced, much in 40 years.