When it was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1975, the Gran Turismo Injected, or GTI, version of the Volkswagen Golf drew immediate attention from sports driving enthusiasts and an automotive press still singing the praises of the standard model released a year prior. The first generation Golf led the German automaker into a new era, and the beautiful upright design (penned by none other than styling maestro Giorgetto Giugiaro) was a marked change from the rear-engined, ovoid shell of the Beetle that the car was intended to replace.
It wasn’t first on the list of the hot hatch movement that began earlier in the decade, but ask a group of people today which car defined the segment and there’s a good chance GTI comes up quickly in that conversation. It changed the brand’s image without abandoning the democracy of the People’s Car. It was sprightly and fun to drive, but plenty of mothers still picked out GTIs from local VW showrooms because they looked practical and cute, a car that would become a reliable member of the family, unlike the impractical sports cars of its day, many of which the GTI could outperform with a trunk full of groceries.
The first GTIs were good for roughly 110hp, and though that’s not a large figure in an absolute sense remember that the cars weighed a scant 1,785lbs, which is a power-to-weight ratio that’s not far off from the Lotus Elise that came two decades later. There’s a reason for the GTI’s clout today, and I recently had the chance to have some time with a beautiful unmodified example owned by Volkswagen and typically kept in their museum.
The now-iconic thin red rectangle that surrounds the grille and the car’s twin circular headlamps pops even more than usual, contrasted as it is against the crisp white paint and complementing black trim pieces.
Another design element that’s since become synonymous with hot VWs is the red tartan pattern for the fabric of the seats, along with a few more pieces found in the cockpit like the golf ball-style dimpled shift knob. It’s not so often that the interior rivals the exterior in terms of impactful design, but the GTI is one of the best examples of the exception. These elements were created by former VW designer Gunhild Liljequist, who started work at the company back in 1964 in the fabrics department and went on to influence much of the company’s best designs and special editions during that time and until she retired in the early 1990s.
Where did the GTI itself come from though? The base-model Golf was never supposed to be a fast hatchback, indeed It was always aimed at being a small, fuel-efficient compact car, just the kind of thing people would be looking for in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis. As we know though, many of history’s most beloved sports cars and divisions were created in the off-hours by passionate workers who saw more potential, and in this case it was VW engineer Alfons Löwenberg and the recently appointed PR head Anton Konrad who saw such potential in the Golf, and so they gathered together a small group of like-minded colleagues at Wolfsburg to begin work on what they would call the “Sport Golf” at the time.
Available only as a three-door at first, the Golf GTI went on sale in Germany in June of 1976. A handful of special-order left-hand drive cars started to come to the UK in the following year, but it wasn’t until July of 1979 that the first right-hand drive GTIs arrived here. Combining performance, convenience and affordability, they were an instant hit, as we know has been proven time and time again with each successive entry into the line. By the end of the 1979, more than 1,500 GTIs had been sold, and as the hot Golf’s popularity continued to grow, a host of imitators soon followed from rivals such as Ford, Peugeot, Renault, and Vauxhall. But the VW would remain the benchmark against which all hot hatches would be measured for years to come. As the car that didn’t really invent the genre but put it on the main stage, that seems only right.