The Pilgrimage Russ Smith drives a Golf GTI MkI to visit the hidden factory facility where Volkswagen stores, maintains and restores its vast classic fleet. A landmark drive to Volkswagen’s classic HQ in a mint GTI MkI.
Here to pay tribute to the Golf GTI’s 40th birthday by driving one in its homeland, the first thing that hits me about this sober-suited small hatchback is how much attention it’s attracting. Lots of smiling faces, and small boys running over for a closer look. But this is Wolfsburg – Volkswagen town, the home of and owing its very existence to Europe’s largest car factory. Its heritage is writ large everywhere, from road names like Dieselstrasse to the Volkswagen Arena, where Bundesliga challengers VfL Wolfsburg kick footballs about. Even my Innside hotel room’s wall is papered with a two-metre-high period shot of a split-window Beetle opposite the minibar – the first thing you see on waking up. Sobering. It’s not like this in Coventry.
Our camera car wears the VW logo too. It’s a Golf GTE, today’s sporty hybrid successor to the GTI. It’s packed with more cleverness than a whole series of QI, but despite all that and its 201bhp, I don’t expect anyone will travel this far in 2056 to celebrate its 40th birthday. The original Golf GTI was so of its time, so good and so influential that it started a whole movement and is now in its seventh incarnation. But it’s a bit like with James Bonds – the first, the original, is remembered most fondly. The MkI GTI – like Sean Connery – has a purity of purpose that makes it more special than anything that followed.
We’re here to drive on its home turf, the back roads of Lower Saxony. Our car – an ’1983 model – is from Volkswagen’s own collection, and we’ll be finishing the trip with an exclusive look behind the scenes at the two-thirds of that collection that isn’t on display in the Autostadt museum next to the factory.
Time to meet our ride for the day, which is one of the first Pirelli Special Edition GTIs – the German equivalent of the UK’s ‘Campaign’ run-out model that wears the same ‘P’ wheels. It’s a well-preserved two-owner car (before Volkswagen, which has now had it back for ten years) that’s only covered about 55,000 miles and has never strayed far from the VW plant. It also still wears its factory-applied Platin-diamant-metallic paint – a rare shade to British eyes as we were raised on a palette of Mars Red, Alpine White or (just plain) Black GTIs. It adds a glow of subtlety to Giugiaro’s angular two-box design, but that fine red ‘lipstick’ outline to the grille is still there to remind you that this can still be a pulse-quickening little minx.
Obviously we’d have liked to have made our pilgrimage in a GTI from 1976 – the first year of production. But you might be surprised to hear that Volkswagen doesn’t have one, and despite efforts it has yet to track down a suitable unmodified original – such things really are that rare now. Still, any slight disappointment is mitigated by this car having the later, torquier 1781cc version of the engine.
Firing it up brings the reminder that this is a fairly unremarkable single-cam four-cylinder engine borrowed from a functional saloon car, the Audi 80 GT. Volkswagen focused its efforts on honing its dynamic abilities and wasted no time on fripperies like aural excitement, so there’s none of the fizz and pop you’d expect from something similar wearing an Italian badge. Only a slight roughness and fluttering at idle hints at its sporty nature, and that evens out once it gets up to temperature.
To really find out what a Golf GTI is about requires some open and empty roads, which is just what Autostadt tour guide Evelyn Arnett has pointed us in the direction of. It’s easy to think of Germany as the land of autobahns, but turn off those, then turn off again on to what we might regard as B-roads, and it’s easy to find great driving roads largely devoid of traffic. They look after them, too.
We’ve become used to crumbled edges, subsidence, potholes and patches on our back roads, but in Germany, despite being a multigreyed patchwork of surfaces, they tend to be wonderfully smooth. It makes them a great place to play. Should we be surprised? This is the country that gave us the Nürburgring, after all.
These roads are kind of familiar, though – stands of tall and ancient oak and pine break up swathes of rolling arable farmland – we could be in Essex or the Lincolnshire Wolds. Wherever we are, the GTI feels at home, the fairly flat torque curve and light weight combining to create a remarkable spread of power that surges from little over tickover to the redline in all five gears – another advantage to this 1983 car, as the earlier 1600s only came with a four-speed.
Both had the trademark golf ball gearknob, though, which is easy to reach and operates a shift that has a smooth, quality feel. The throw is perhaps a little long for something sporty, but you don’t need to stir it as often as expected to keep things on the boil as that spread of power means you never seem to be in the wrong gear. That becomes clear on the wind-turbine-lined road from Almke to Volkmarsdorf; fast straights broken up by 90º corners. I experiment with second and third gear for these and the only real difference seems to be noise level – the GTI pulls just as hard out of each bend in either gear. I begin to enjoy the irony of this energetic hot hatch’s econometer gauge, whose flickering needle to indicate an approximation of how much fuel you are using is spending much of the time off the scale, and is accompanied by a change-up light that illuminates when it would be sensible to select a higher gear. It quickly becomes apparent that the most fun is to be extracted by trying to keep this light on as much as possible.
Volkmarsdorf itself provides an interesting diversion, being peppered with Tudor-style wood-frame-and-brick houses and barns that make it look like the villages in the middle of Essex near where I grew up. The road opens up into more sweeping bends after that, so with less arm-twirling to do I switch on the Blaupunkt Bremen radio/cassette and find the NDR1 channel on 98.0 FM. It’s kind of like a German Radio 2 but with less waffle, and they seem to be tuned into us because the first song up is Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell – released in the same year as this Golf and guaranteed to add at least 10kph to anyone’s speed. They must be on a 1983 kick today as it’s followed up by Bowie’s Modern Love and Howard Jones (whatever happened to him?) singing What Is Love.
The GTI is really on song on these gently undulating and sweeping roads. Whatever kind of bend you aim it at, the Golf remains utterly composed and sends back clear and unhindered messages to your fingertips. It’s a real delight and remains so even when it tells you, on tighter turns, that you’ve reached the limit of this set of tyres. No drama, just the onset of gentle understeer and a little chirruping from the rubber. Lift fractionally off the throttle and the calm composure returns.
I touched on this car’s purity of purpose earlier, and part of that involves a remarkable lack of weight-adding electrical kit. Modern hot hatch owners would look in vain for their laboursaving luxuries – you even have to wind the windows up manually, with quite plasticky, low-rent handles, likewise the sunroof, and there isn’t even central locking. You’d never get away with that today, but I like the fact that there’s so little to go wrong, and it makes the GTI feel more classic. What I’m not getting on so well with is the ventilation system. It’s 27-28ºC outside and all cranking the fan up to ‘3’ does is blow more of that at you. It’s a reminder of how recently aircon has become standard fit in even the lowliest hatches.
So I have an unfashionably damp shirt, but even more annoying is the lateral spring in the seat back, which is playing tunes on my admittedly rather bony spine. On days like this when wearing thicker clothing is not an option, I’d need more padding in the seat or more pies in my diet to get really comfortable in here. And it’s not only a fault with this particular seat as I discover when I reach across and feel a poky spring in the same place on the passenger seat too. It’s therefore quite a relief to climb out and take a break in the shade of the tall trees of the Lappwald Nature Park at around the halfway point of our circuit.
Seat and heat aside, the GTI is proving to be a loyal and beguiling companion, eager and tactile enough to make me think I’m driving a sports car, yet practical enough to pick up that antique chair or take to the garden centre. It’s no wonder sales of traditional sports cars plummeted in the late Seventies once we’d got a taste of GTIs.
Temporarily several degrees cooler, I slip back into the attentiongrabbing red and black pinstripe driver’s seat – that splash of colour is a welcome break among all the charcoal plastics – and go in search of more driving entertainment. There’s plenty of it as the K51 dips and jinks its way – perfect GTI territory – to Querenhorst, where we hang a left on to the wider and swifter B244, still very lightly used – as everywhere off the main roads of Lower Saxony seems to be. That allows an enthusiastic blast that the Golf once again takes completely in its stride, until we turn off at Gross Sisbeck on to another delightfully empty back road through open countryside.
Mindful of our appointment at Volkswagen’s Depot, where the reserve collection is stored, I keep pressing on in the spirit of GTI driving, and find that the harder I push the Golf the more fluent it becomes and the more I bond with it. For all its humble and almost cobbled-together beginnings, the MkI GTI is still a great driver’s car. It’s only my back that’s glad to get out of the car when we arrive at the Depot – a nondescript former plastics factory in a small industrial area on the outskirts of Wolfsburg.
As well as storing the classics that don’t fit in Volkswagen’s Autostadt museum – currently numbering 180 and still growing – this is the workshop that looks after their heritage fleet. It has seven fulltime engineers, hand-picked for their ability to fix anything – the collection covers everything in the Volkswagen empire, from Beetles to Lamborghinis. Everything but body and paintwork is carried out here.
Our host is Andreas Hornig, the classic enthusiast who has now been in charge of the Autostadt collection for 16 years. His own car is perhaps the ultimate development of the Beetle – a 1988 Porsche 911. Despite the vast number of cars, he knows and has a fascinating story for each one. It quickly becomes clear that quite a number have been donated by people who have owned them from new and don’t want their treasured VW falling into the wrong hands. A prime example is the bright tangerine 1976 Scirocco that’s done 85,000km but still looks new, sold to them by the widow of its only owner with the comment, ‘He cared for this car more than he cared for me!’
There are rows of Beetles – ‘We are trying to collect one example of each model,’ says Hornig, ‘but there is still some way to go.’ There are quite a few Golf MkIs too, of particular interest being a GTI with just 176km on the clock. ‘We bought it back from a dealer; it’s a fantastic reference car and whenever it is displayed people are photographing every detail.’ There’s also one of the last CitiGolfs – the Golf MkIs that continued to be built in South Africa until 2009. Then Horning shows me a 1981 factory mule GTI that was used to test developments for the upcoming MkII, so has items such as rear disc brakes, two gloveboxes and a solid headlining.
Hours fly by – we could easily have spent a whole day there – but in the end there’s just time for a final short run to photograph the GTI by the factory’s iconic automated car storage towers, loaded direct from the factory via a glass tunnel and from where 500 cars a day are collected by their new owners. It’s quite a feat of engineering, but so was the MkI Golf GTI.
1983 Volkswagen Golf GTI MkI
Engine 1781cc inline-four, SOHC, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
Power and torque 112bhp @ 5800rpm; 109lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, FWD
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent by MacPherson struts, wide-based wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar. Rear: independent trailing arms, torsion-beam axle, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar
Brakes Vented drums front, drums rear, servo-assisted
Weight 872kg (1921lb)
Performance Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph: 8.3sec
Fuel consumption 29mpg
Cost new £6808
Values now £5000-£15,000
Noting original features in almost unused MkI Golf GTI.
Hard not to be fascinated by this early motor show cutaway.
This Passat was sold to the collection by the owner’s widow.
VW is collecting one of every Beetle variant. Still some way to go…
‘It has seven full-time engineers, hand-picked for their ability to fix anything’
Being readied for a weekend event.
‘So the fad for red braces really was inspired by GTI grille trims’
‘Whatever kind of bend you aim it at, the Golf remains utterly composed’
Trip ends at Volkswagen Autostadt.
Hornig points out unique features of a development car.
1800cc ought to do it. Russ inspects his ride.
With little over 50,000 miles covered, this GTI is fully on the button.
Russ gets the most out of the twisting, empty back roads near Volkmarsdorf.
This GTI’s a Pirelli Special Edition from 1983.
‘I begin to enjoy the irony of this energetic hot hatch’s econometer gauge’
OUR TEST ROUTE
Recommended by Volkswagen tour guide Evelyn Arnett, our 60km (37-mile) route around Lower Saxony featured a joyful number of smooth and near-empty B-roads – the perfect playground for an early Volkswagen Golf GTI in rude good health. It also served to remind just how well-surfaced German roads are.
The Guru Andreas Hornig
Andreas Hornig’s encyclopedic knowledge of MkI Golfs – not to mention pretty much any older VW-Audi product – dates all the way back to when he bought his first Golf GTI in 1982. That was soon followed by a Cabriolet version. Before taking charge of the company’s Autostadt collection in 2000, he ran a VW dealership for many years. Whether recalling a particular car’s history, or pointing out that the correct colour for cable ties clipping the wiring to pipes in the engine bay is brown, not black, he bubbles with enthusiasm for the cars, and smiles, ‘They were always for people who were young at heart.’