Curbside Classic: 1975 VW Golf Mk1/Rabbit – The Most Influential Modern Global Compact Car

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(first posted 7/11/2013)     Despite everything we tell our kids, sometimes procrastinating and prevaricating actually pays off. Like this photograph, for instance. I’ve been wanting to do a Rabbit/Golf CC focusing on its role in succeeding the Beetle ever since I started this series, but the cars I kept finding weren’t genuine early (’75-’76) versions. So I just kept pushing it off. Then one day on our daily walk a superb red specimen appears, exactly like the first Golf I ever drove. I shot its profile first, than moved  to shoot it from the front quarter (above), and just as I was about to push the trigger, I realized there was a red Beetle in the background.

Well, it doesn’t get better than this shot if you want to tell the story of how VW replaced the Beetle with the Golf, especially considering how much dithering and just plain luck played into its birth and existence. It also perfectly captures the day I stepped out of my ’64 Bug and drove a new ’75 Rabbit; I couldn’t have staged it better. Children: there are times when dithering and dumb luck trumps all the (business) plans in the world.

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From a modern perspective of short model cycles, it’s difficult to fully grasp VW’s situation in the sixties and early seventies. They had been building essentially the same car for some thirty five years. The Beetle and its offshoots were a global phenomena and success story of remarkable scope and dimension. But VW knew it would some day have to replace its cash cow, but it was terrified of the prospect and possible failure. What could possibly replace the most widely built and iconic car in the world?

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The Type III (1500/1600/Squareback/Notchback/Fastback) was a tentative step to reduce its dependence on one model. But it was really just a boxier body on the VW chassis with a slightly bigger engine. And despite some decent success, it still had most of the Beetle’s limitations. The traditional RWD competition from Opel, Ford and many others were getting consistently better, and a whole new generation of advanced space-efficient FWD cars inspired by the Mini were increasingly showing the way forward. VW’s rear engine format was looking more ass-backwards by the day.

VW EA266

VW’s development department cranked out numerous prototype projects all through this period; there’s a great photo I can’t find right now of a whole parking lot full of prototypes from this era. The most promising one that was almost put into production was the EA 266 (above) designed and built by Porsche, with its water-cooled engine flat under the rear seat. But VW was profoundly concerned about the profitability of complex new designs, given how cheaply they had learned to build the Beetle and its offspring.

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The VW 411/412 of 1968 is the most extreme example of VW’s inability to break the over-ripe mold. Essentially a giant Super Beetle, it failed to gain traction in the mid-sized market that was dominated by RWD and FWD sedans that had better performance, economy, handling and trunk room. The 411/412 was the wake-up call, and VW entered its final performance-anxiety stage, knowing the long-procrastinated Beetle successor had to come, and come quick. In Europe, Beetle sales had started dropping off much sooner than in the US, where VW was still selling half a million per year and making enormous profits.

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In the end, and just like in my serendipitous picture, the answer was right under their nose, and where it had been since 1964: Audi. VW bought Audi from Mercedes in that year (imagine if that hadn’t happened), and Audi’s predecessor DKW had been building FWD cars since the twenties. In the early seventies, Audi had just finished developing their superb Audi 80 (US Fox), including a very advanced and compact OHC four to power it, the EA827. And Audi was already at work on an even smaller, highly space-efficient transverse-engine FWD hatch, the Audi 50. Bingo! Everything VW needed was at hand, if they could just get their arrogant head out of their rear (engine stubbornness).

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Out of desperation and the failure of the 411/412 as well as even the advanced but flawed NSU-sourced K70, VW finally sucked it up and got on with it.

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The Audi 80 was co-opted, fast-backed and re-badged into the highly successfulPassat (US Dasher). And the development work on the Audi 50 was highly useful: by blowing it up one size. Bingo! The Golf was born.

That’s possibly understating things a wee bit, and perhaps the Audi 50 and Golf were in development more simultaneously.  But lets just say that the Golf owes a huge amount of its existence, and its engines, transmissions, suspensions, basic form and all kinds of other technical and conceptual aspects to the very advanced and competent work being done at Audi while VW was busy gazing at its navel for fifteen years.

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But in the end it was worth all the anxiety. Despite VW’s great concern that the Golf wouldn’t really catch on and truly replace the Beetle (that’s why they kept building it for years still), the Golf is in every way as iconic and influential as the Beetle. Just like the Beetle’s design had borrowed from Tatra and other sources, the Golf was hardly original. But that’s how it often is in the car world: the true engineering pioneers often don’t succeed technically, because of a lack of pragmatism. The Golf was highly pragmatic; an assemblage of the best that Audi, Simca, Autobianchi,Fiat, Austin, Renault and others had pioneered, and refined into a practical, palatable and handsome box, thanks to its styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The Golf went on to define the whole class it dominates; well, outside of the US that is. In reality and with the benefit of hindsight, one can rightly say that VW’s anxieties were not all that misplaced. Because just like Toyota and Honda have in recent decades generated a lion’s share of their profits from the US, the same was true for VW in the sixties. And in truth, the Golf/Rabbit really never lived up to the Beetle’s huge success here. VW’s long decline from domination of the US import/small car market began in earnest just before the Rabbit appeared, and the Rabbit never properly stopped it, despite massive efforts such as building it in the US (we’ll cover that ugly chapter another time).

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But to those who could appreciate the Golf then, and like those that still do, as this featured car’s obviously enthusiastic owner, the Rabbit was a revelation. Count me as one of them. The picture above is so particularly meaningful to me, because it perfectly captures my first Golf drive. I was driving a ’64 Beetle 1200 at the time, exactly like in the photo. And a friend had bought one of the first Rabbits in Baltimore in the fall of 1974.

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He picked up one of the ultra-stripper models like this one, that was especially made for the US only, in order to be able to meet a sub $3k price ($2,999). It had textured hard-board for the partial door-panels (covered with some cloth on this car), and was utterly stripped of all excess and then some more. Ironically, VW wouldn’t have dared to sell this version in Europe! The closest thing to it was the Chevette Scooter some years later.

But who gave a damn when you were twenty-one and lived a spartan existence? I parked my 34 (net) hp Beetle and walked over to his Rabbit, and he handed me the keys. Its 70 hp 1.5 L OHC engine might have been a Golf R32 compared  to my poky little slug-bug with less than half the horsepower. Weighing barely 2,000 lbs, the Mk I Golf was a driver’s nirvana. The engine pulled and revved; the un-assisted steering was light and direct, with just a hint of torque steer; and the handling was just superb: I zinged, zigged and zagged it on the winding back roads of Baltimore County, and it was as much fun as I’ve ever had driving a car.

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Getting back into my Beetle was like taking off the latest Nike running gear and putting on a cave-man’s dirty old fur. That’s me in 1974 taking a smoke break to absorb and ponder my rite of initiation into the cult of the Golf.

The European Golfs came with either the little 50 hp (EA111) 1.1 liter  from the Audi 50, or the 70 hp (827) 1.5. In the US, VW showed an bizarre restlessness about the Rabbit’s engines. In ’76, it went to a 1.6 with 71 hp. The best year for early Rabbits is 1977, when it got fuel injection and pumped out 78 horses. I so lusted after one that year, especially after my boss bought one, a properly trimmed LS version. It was a somewhat-poorer-man’s BMW 2002 at the time. Very German, nice quality interior, tight;  just all-round perfect. But they were getting pricey. The dollar’s slide in the early seventies was a terrible problem for VW, and was the reason they built the first modern import brand factory in the US in 1979.

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In 1978, VW did a strange thing and reduced the Rabbit’s engine size to 1.45 liters and down to 70 hp. And from then on, they dicked around with engine size and output on an almost yearly basis. What was in the beer they were drinking?

Needless to say, the Golf created the Golf class, and it continues to be be dominant in Europe and successful in many parts of the globe. In the US, it took slapping a trunk on it in the form of the Jetta, to really make it more palatable to Americans. But its impact even in the US was a very significant and lasting one. It was the car that saved Volkswagen, and propelled it to a global giant. Not bad for being the result of dithering and prevaricating.

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