The first full-production Golf rolled off the assembly line in Wolfsburg in March 1974 and arrived at the Volkswagen dealerships that May. Where for decades the Beetle and thus rear-mounted engines and rear-wheel drive had dominated the scene, a new era had now dawned: that of the transversely mounted front engine and front-wheel drive. This trend had been heralded a short time earlier by the Scirocco and – as the first Volkswagen front-wheel drive car, following the K70 that was taken over from NSU – the Passat, introduced in 1973. With the launch of the Golf, the highest volume vehicle category had now also been switched to the new technology.
As the successor to the legendary Beetle, of which over 21.5 million units were built, the Golf I designed by Giorgio Giugiaro and Volkswagen Design had to live up to the immense expectations that it would carry on the success story of what until then was the world's most successful car. In the spring of 1974, nobody could really be sure that this would indeed be achieved. However, the modern and reliable drive concept, the spacious internal layout with a tailgate and fold-down rear seat, and ultimately the design as well, won over the market to such an extent that production of the one-millionth Golf was already being celebrated in October 1976.
At the time, Volkswagen described the new number 1 in the program with the words: "The Golf offers a maximum in usable space and safety. It is uncompromisingly geared towards practical use. The low waistline allows for good all-round visibility, the sloping front hood provides a view of the road right up to the car. Thanks to the drawn-down rear window, reversing is no problem." And those comments still ring true today.
Like every Golf that would appear after it, the first generation, too, reflected the progress and automotive trends of its era. In launching the first Golf GTI (in 1976) Volkswagen heralded the introduction of greater dynamism in this class, while the Golf D (naturally aspirated diesel engine, 1976) and the later Golf GTD (turbodiesel, 1982) marked the breakthrough for diesel cars in the compact segment. In 1979, with the Golf convertible – at times the world's best-selling open-top car – Volkswagen brought a breath of fresh air into a vehicle category that by that time had long been simply called the "Golf class." The global sales figures added up: 6.99 million vehicles of the first generation Golf, including all derivatives such as the convertible and the Jetta (at that time structurally identical), were sold across every continent of the globe – 0.87 million Golf cars per year. The Golf had proved itself a worthy successor to the Beetle.
The Golf I design
"It all began with a revolution in 1974," says Klaus Bischoff, Chief Designer for the Volkswagen brand since 2007: "The step from Beetle to Golf was truly revolutionary. The change from air-cooled rear engine to water-cooled front engine, and from rear to front wheel drive respectively, was a completely new vehicle layout at the time. Creatively, the Volkswagen designers changed from a round to an angular use of forms in those days, thanks to the legendary design by Giorgio Giugiaro. The main design elements of the Golf I, such as the silhouette of the upright, massive C-pillar, the prominent wheel arches and the typical horizontal front with slim grill and downwardly protruding headlights exist in every Golf to the present day."
To really understand why the first Golf – this cubic, clear, compact Volkswagen – constituted a revolution on its debut 38 years ago, we have to go back to this period:
in the early 70s, suddenly everything changed. The engine is no longer in the rear, as was the case with the Beetle, but in the front. Cooling is not implemented with air but with water. And the cylinders are not arranged horizontally opposed anymore, but inline. The first model, K70, which was still developed by NSU and sold under the VW label, demonstrated that a Volkswagen with a front engine and front wheel drive still exhibits a good driving behaviour. But the K70 is no more than a stepping stone on the way to the future. Volkswagen AG made use of synergies, transplanted Audi technology into Volkswagen models, and pumped around 2.5 billion marks into the basis for technical production of a completely new range of models. This proved effective. First, in the summer of 1973, the Passat appeared. In spring 1974, the Scirocco followed. No one would have suspected that this two-door coupe was to be the technical harbinger of the most successful German car of all time. It was still spring, still 1974, when the first of more than 30 million Golf cars made to date rolled off the assembly line.
"On the outside" people were still blissfully unaware of the car, which was set to repeat a German economic miracle. It was the time of Sunday driving bans and excessively flowered wallpaper on the walls. It was the year when the Swedes Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid delivered their show at the Grand Prix d'Eurovision - the first spark of an international career. It was the year Germany was to win the World Cup, the year Chancellor Willy Brandt went and Helmut Schmidt came in ten days later. It was May, and Volkswagen presented the new Golf to the international press in Munich.
The new Volkswagen was an instant success. The journalists were thrilled. And the former Beetle drivers were too. The original design by the grand master, that is, Giorgio Giugiaro and his body design bureau Italdesign, hit the taste of the time to the point. The Italian superstar had unveiled his Golf Design as early as 1971. It was perfected in the newly established Design Centre in Wolfsburg under the direction of then-Chief Designer Herbert Schäfer. Round instead of square eyes are added, and perhaps the most well-known C-pillar in the world. A C-pillar that literally looks like a C! Interesting: When the current Golf VII was created Volkswagen Chief Designer Klaus Bischoff and his team also had a Golf I in the studio. The team says "Up until then, C pillars were previously just there to support the roof, and in 1974 they were not a design element. They only turned into that with the Golf."