Back to the future in the original game-changing Golf

Introduced 40 years ago, the Volkswagen Golf was a revolution in driving. Put on your rose-tinted shades – we’re taking a restored Kermit-green model for a spin

Let's rewind 40 years for a moment, to when this Kermit-green first-generation Volkswagen Golf was brand new. It was 1974 – appropriately, when the pilot for The Muppet Show aired. Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest, President Erskine Childers passed away, Turkey invaded Cyprus and IRA bombs exploded in pubs in Birmingham, leading to one of the most prominent miscarriages of justice in British and Irish history.

In Wolfsburg, Germany, the problems were rather more prosaic: how do you solve a problem like the Beetle?

One of the world's most successful cars, the simple rear-engined, air-cooled Beetle had sold all around the world, introduced a sceptical postwar public to the concept that German engineering could be used for good, and been a pillar of the Wirtschaftswunder – economic miracle – that underpinned, among other things, the rise of the European Union and the eventual fall of communism.

Quite some shoes to fill, and VW could have been forgiven for being conservative, sticking to what it knew best and simply creating the Beetle MkII.


Razor-creased shape

It didn’t, however. It went to Giorgetto Giugiaro, a man who can lay solid claim to being the greatest car designer the world has ever seen, and had him create a simple, razor-creased shape that would eventually go on to be every bit as iconic as the Beetle it replaced. The prewar rear-engined, air-cooled layout of the Beetle was chucked out, and in came water cooling, front-wheel drive and a spacious hatchback body. It was revolutionary, and although the Renault 16 and Fiat 128 can claim to have settled on that layout first, it was the 40-year, 30-million-sales success of the Golf that would go on to influence almost every other family car subsequently built.

It’s easy to view the simplicity of this beautifully restored car as old-fashioned and simple. After all, its 1.1-litre engine makes barely 50bhp, and the car has no power steering, barely-there brakes, a push-button radio, no air conditioning, and you have to unlock each and every door individually. Forget all of that, though, and remember that this car was properly revolutionary.

After all, we’re looking at this car through the haze of 40 years of progress. In 1974, 40 years ago meant the tail end of the Great Depression, the debut of Flash Gordon in comic books and the start of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term as president of the United States. A car from 1934 would have seemed antediluvian in 1974, yet, driving this Golf today, one of the most striking things about it is how little the basics have changed: a hatchback body with seats for five, a four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels, a cable-operated manual gearshift, and the switches and stalks for lights, indicators, wipers and so on exactly where you’d expect to find them.

Aside from the need to telegram ahead to warn the brakes that you need to stop in about 500m – they feel like more of a suggestion of stopping than an actual mechanical device – you could be forgiven for thinking that cars haven’t changed, or even advanced, much in 40 years.

That would be to wear a huge pair of rose-tinted spectacles. Take a look at yourself and compare that with what your father or mother would have been like in the 1970s.

They’d probably have been thinner, been far less concerned for the environment, smoked like chimneys, imbibed like fish and been upholstered in various sweaty, man-made fibres. All in all, the parallels with the cars of that time are clear.

Today we are generally heavier and bigger than our 1970s selves, obsessed with concerns for climate change, more technologically advanced and adept, and can’t go five minutes without tweeting. Ditto the cars we drive today.

Jumped the species barrier

Have cars got bigger and fatter? Yes. A MkI Golf weighs about 790kg at the kerb. Its modern successor hits the scales at at least 1,200kg. But there are valid reasons for that weight gain, and the most obvious is safety.

The Golf, in spite of keeping the same name, has jumped the species barrier since its first generation.

That MkI Golf is now closer in size, space, weight and performance to a current VW Polo. The Golf, along with every other car, has grown and added bulk to accommodate air bags, crumple zones and our increasing demand for comfort and connectivity on the go. Although the basic mechanical layout hasn’t changed much, the technology that goes into it certainly has, as has the ability to make all the systems work reliably.

The MkI Golf was one of the better-built cars of the 1970s, and this one has been lovingly cared for, but we still had to fix a broken window winder during our brief time with the car, as well as grit our teeth at the squealing sounds coming from the fan belt.

A modern Golf gets more power from a similarly sized engine – the 85hp 1.2 TSI petrol is an unsung sweet spot of the Golf range – yet uses far less fuel, emits a tiny fraction of the carbon, and all its buttons and switches will still be working come Monday morning.

The same could be said comparing Focus with Escort, Astra with Kadett or Corolla with, er, Corolla.

Forty years is a long time. In 1974 Apple was still just a record label, Gerald Ford was still more famous than Betty Ford, and anyone touching a screen would have been told to sit down and get away from the telly.

A spin in this bright-green Golf has put two thoughts into my head. One is that classic cars really are just a headache waiting to happen.

The other is just how incredibly sophisticated the cars of 2054 are going to feel, although by then we’ll all be passengers, looking back at the quaint world where Google’s first driverless car hit the road.