The Golf GTI’s success shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone because it pioneered the combination of a reliable hatchback with a relatively powerful fuel-injected engine and a sorted chassis.
It was launched in September 1975 at the Frankfurt Auto Show with the 1588cc engine from the Audi 80GTE fed by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection, giving 110bhp and an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 134bhp per tonne.
As with ordinary Golfs, the GTI had 10,000-mile service intervals and was known to be both frugal and durable.
The handling was kept in check thanks to a 20mm reduction in ride height, plus front and rear anti-roll bars. The result was a hard-charging hatch that could cock its inside-rear wheel around corners.
The only fly in the ointment came from the brakes – front ventilated discs and rear drums – that were adequate rather than impressive. You may find that they have been uprated by now, though.
Styling changes were limited to matt-black trim, wheelarch extensions, a small lip spoiler and a more aggressive stance thanks to the shorter springs.
VW originally intended the GTI as a limited edition, with a run of just 5000 cars, but its popularity would soon change that.
The car would not be offered in right-hand-drive form until 1979, though, when the five-speed gearbox was introduced, edging up the car’s top speed and adding motorway refinement to the mix.
In 1982, the original engine was replaced with a 1781cc unit that reduced the 0-60mph time to 8.2 secs (from 9 secs).
The following year would bring the most sought-after model, the Campaign, which featured a standard quad-lamp grille, tinted glass, a steel sliding sunroof, leather steering wheel, remotely adjustable door mirrors and signature Pirelli P-slot alloy wheels.
By 1983 – when the replacement Mk2 was announced – nearly 500,000 Mk1s had been sold worldwide, with around 20,000 of those coming to the UK.
There should be plenty out there to choose from and things to look out for include rot spots on the front panel, lower front wings, sills, wheelarches, door bottoms, fuel-filler neck, tailgate bottom edge, sunroof aperture and the lower corners of the windscreen.
The engine is known to be bulletproof (with regular maintenance), so the car is likely to have been thrashed if the motor makes any disturbing noises.
If it runs hot, the valve-stem seals may have hardened causing smoke, but this rarely indicates worn piston rings.
A tappet noise from cold is normal (they’re hydraulic), but it should go as the engine warms.
While under the bonnet also check the top mounts of the MacPherson struts, if they rot out then the springs can force the suspension into the bonnet.
A floppy gearchange can indicate a worn linkage, which is both expensive and tricky to fix, or the split bush on the gearshift rod may have come adrift.
The brakes were always a weak point, but check for fluid on the rear drums, which could indicate leaky wheel cylinders. Also inspect the rear axle mounts, which can rot out: the chassis box section is an expensive and lengthy repair, so look carefully.
Check inside the boot for worn seals, damp carpets and corrosion. The seat fabric for early cars can be hard to source; also be wary of ‘low mileage’ cars with worn seat bolsters.
Helpful tips on tracking down these bits can be found at Club GTI, TheGolfGTI and VW One, while replacement parts are available from VW Heritage – some previosuly NLA items may have been reintroduced.
The Mk1’s popularity means that cheap cars are hard to come by, but we did find this example in need of some attention and advertised for £1800.
The car has had money spent on it, including new fuel and brake lines, replacement injectors, a refurbished metering head, new battery and fresh mats. It has failed its MoT on rusty rear suspension mounts, though. A £300 job says the vendor.
A search through the VW Forums revealed this example up for £3995. It has been subject to a three-year restoration, comes with 12-month’s MoT and looks to be a solid car for the money.
But for £7250 you could have this Campaign, which had been off the road for almost 15 years. Now restored, the car has never been welded and has covered just 500 miles since the work was completed. Meanwhile, the vendor’s impending house move could prove a useful bargaining tool.
And this late minter looks to be about the best for sale at present, but you might expect that for nearly 12 grand! The same vendor has another for a bit less, too.
Whichever GTI you choose, it should combine cheap running costs with reliability and everyday practicality in a package that just keeps getting cooler and remains an everyman’s performance icon.