There are a few truly enduring cars, those that have stayed faithful to a concept embodied by the name on the back, instead of just the name on the back. The Corvette is still how Uncle Sam gets to work, it’s still a national symbol like the F-15, sitting at the top with a V8, composite body, rear-drive, and a price any American suburbanite in a mid-life crisis can afford. You have to bring up the 911, obviously, maybe the 50-year old Mustang even with its bad spell in the middle, the Wrangler perhaps, and of course the Golf GTI. Those are the few that remain. And the last one was never even meant to happen… Back in the Seventies Volkswagen’s sales department protested the mere thought of a “Sport Golf” with their gaffe of the century: “You won’t sell 500 of these GTI cars!”
Now it’s been 40 years and Wolfsburg’s sold two million.
Defying the odds and the grave management board of Seventies’ Wolfsburg, six skunks navigated through the most sensitive era in the company’s history to put a performance Volkswagen into production. The merry band of enthusiasts were led by Anton Konrad who worked in the communications department at the time, and they clocked in plenty of unpaid overtime dedicating their Saturdays to a hot prototype.
Until then the only thing Wolfsburg had ever done was the Beetle, and 20 million cars was a tough act to follow. There was a global oil crisis to mind and uncompromising new emissions regulations. The company gambled with the unthinkable, a Volkswagen that wasn’t rear-engined or air-cooled. Fortunately this new front-wheel drive Golf sold well, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design doing it plenty of favours.
An affordable, dependable People’s Car with the cachet of Italdesign style was one thing though, and a fast, rowdy Volkswagen was entirely another. The board in the mid-Seventies — of one of the most conservative companies to begin with — was actually concerned with the image a performance People’s Car would convey, of speed and danger and irresponsible driving.
The skunks pressed on anyway — their secret project was still unofficial and the men just called the car the Super-Golf, Sport-Golf, über-Golf, whatever was handy. The famous badge was later chosen by those same sales guys who had to eat their own words — in vogue with the exotic homologation cars of the era, GTI sat trendily on the Golf’s tailgate, suggesting its giant-killing nature in the process and the ‘I’ emphasising the engine’s fuel injection.
Once Konrad convinced a heavy-hitter to take a spin in the über-Golf the executive was immediately sold on the idea of a fast Volkswagen, and the board reluctantly followed suit, but with a strict order to limit GTI production to just 5,000 units in 1976. Well, no one at the factory was counting (they even lost the build sheets, so no one has a clue when exactly the GTI started rolling out of Wolsburg) and people kept snapping them up. As they say, two million cars later…
… The GTI Clubsport. Konrad is back, only 40 years on as an ambassador to the GTI legend, and to smile for all the smartphones and reminisce of his team of skunks regaling the story of the original hot hatch here on the shores of Lake Wörthersee. Thousands gather in this area of villages dotted around the Austrian countryside, just to celebrate three little letters. At the 35th annual running of the GTI festival the man who started it all 40 years ago is the showcase, even if the brand new 2016 Clubsport is on display nearby.
An S version of the car with 306bhp and a 50kg advantage over the stocker recently nabbed the ‘Ring record as the fastest front-wheel drive car in production, lapping the Nordschleife in 7:49.21. Touring car driver Benny Leuchter was behind the wheel for the run — he had an hour’s window and nailed the lap on standard rubber in a two-door manual-transmission car. The double-clutch automatic would’ve added too much weight and Benny felt he could row his own way through the ‘Ring’s 170-odd corners quick enough.
That one, the Clubsport S, is limited to just 400 examples worldwide however, and none are officially coming to our region. The non-S on the other hand is already in showrooms. For us getting an early spin around Lake Wörthersee in the ultimate GTI is made better with an original MkI joining us for the drive fresh from Wolfsburg’s museum. By fresh I mean it has nearly 200,000km on the odo, and fifth gear is actually third, every darn time, so just stick to fourth and keep revving the eight-valve up front. Also, never require reverse because there is no reverse.
When it came out, a GTI would’ve cost you about $8,500 — accounting for inflation that’s the equivalent today of $20K, or Dh74,000, and a Porsche Carrera would’ve been four times the price. It’s relevant because the little giant-killer was a car that could truly stay planted to those rear impact-bumpers and Stuttgart plates, up and down tight roads, like these.
The Clubsport starts from Dh140,000, so money certainly doesn’t go as far any more in 2016 but what’s 40 years of inflation done to fun?
The little original is so much more playful and skips along the road and dives into bends.
The little original is so much more playful and skips along the road and dives into bends. A bit of play in the steering of this high-mileage example makes no difference — the GTI is an arm-out kind of drive and if you’re just resting on the rim you let it slip a little through your palms and wind the windows down, but as soon as you throw the car into a corner it’s on call and tight, and suddenly the front end’s pulling you along like a leashed terrier determined to mark its territory. They created a smile-a-minute car, a free spirit that flew around country roads everywhere with the throttle wide open.
In the Clubsport it’s all much more serious, squared-off steering wheel, a bit of red centre ‘tape’, contrast stitching, shiny pedals and a general brash display of intent. I guess when you own the ‘Ring record you can do what you like. It takes more focus to drive the new Clubsport too so you end up scowling instead of grinning, along with that serious looking Alcantara and all that purposeful faux carbon fibre… The Clubsport’s attempt at some lighthearted GTI lowbrowism is a flatulent exhaust that pops every time you lift-off. But it’s so artificial it’s the comic equivalent of a whoopee cushion and gets old quick.
Speaking of throttle lift-off the Clubsport doesn’t uphold tradition to cock an inside-rear into the air either — this thing is planted and that’s the whole idea. Several changes over the stock GTI make the big impacts: the new aero treatment to the bumpers along with the added diffuser and rear tail spoiler reduce lift, and a 15mm lower suspension with 235/35 R19 semi-slick Michelins normally found on GT3s provide huge traction. Sharper steering and a trick front electronic differential let you put foot early through the corners and wonder where the front wheels find all this grip.
Meanwhile in the MkI the iconic tartan seats offer no support so you’re tumbling around the cabin holding on as much as the car’s tumbling around Lake Wörthersee. Large cars dissipate energy better and today it seems weight is the cure to all NVH ails. In something so intimate (the photographer couldn’t fit up front alongside me for wide-angle interior shots) and lightweight, weighing eight, nine hundred kilos, the driver is always the point of contact no matter what happens. All that information from the road, the car, has nowhere else to go, really, so you end up feeling everything. And smiling a lot. That’s why people must’ve fallen in love with the GTI that summer of ’76.
It’s immediate interaction, and rolling about in the original there is almost a feeling that it’s you shifting around the saddle so to speak that tells the GTI what to do next. The Japanese later called this Jinba ittai when Mazda launched the MX-5 in 1989, but over in Wolfsburg they were getting all equine way before that.
Several changes over the stock GTI make the big impacts.
So of course there is body roll in a car designed four decades ago, and still 14in wheels with 185/60 tyres seems like all the rubber you’d ever need. Because of its size — the MkI is a lot smaller than today’s VW Polo — it’s genuinely like sitting in an amusement park ride. Just your own lane, and a narrow Alpine one at that, is all the playground a GTI needs. In the Clubsport suddenly I’m conscious of all that machined shine on the 19in Brescia wheels. Dirt shoulders don’t seem so inviting any more, the speed factor’s now doubled, easily, and the short straights between hairpins are just bursts and braking zones — the Clubsport feels like more than 350Nm of torque. All that shouting and popping and hot air, but the engine’s power backs it up and it’s apparent, sure, though it wouldn’t be as effective if the Clubsport wasn’t so unshakeable coming out of bends.
For its 261bhp total getting 40 or so extra horsepower over the stock GTI out of this EA888 lump is no big deal — the 2.0-litre turbo four’s been around since the MkV GTI so here they just plugged in a laptop and then messed around with the exhaust.
It’s the weight saving and the chassis that makes the Clubsport special, a huge, perceptive difference over the base car and it also affects the Clubsport’s ride quality verging on the limit of what’s acceptable for a GTI. The three letters still denote usability after all — 40 years ago it was probably correctly regarded as the first everyday performance car.
Some things truly don’t change and I’ve no doubt you could hound a 911 with a Clubsport all day up twisty passes. It’s not the 40-year old laughathon — the Clubsport’s much too stern for that, even with all the GTI make-up and the red stripes, poker-faced, all about them ’Ring lap times and Alcantara and carbon fibre. A working reverse makes a big case for it too.