Opinion : Volkswagen Golf – the missing link

Volkswagen Golf

A Volkswagen Golf? On AROnline? Why? This is my partner’s car, and I regularly get the chance to play with it. It’s not that I really like the Golf, but driving it always gives me food for thought…

This 1982 model Golf Diesel is a very basic model, it does not even have a courtesy light switch on the passenger door, but this makes it easier to concentrate on the concept of the car. The 1.6-litre diesel engine delivers 54hp, which doesn’t make it a rapid car, but certainly livelier then one would expect.

Performance feels to be on par with my 1.3-litre Austin Maestro, which is more powerful but also heavier and wider. In fact it was fun driving an old-style diesel engine without a turbo again – the power peaks at 4800 rpm and the engine is happy to pull all the way to the rev-limiter at about 5400.

An interesting diesel drive

There aren’t too many modern TDs which deliver such a wide and useable power band. The engine is not very refined – as to be expected – and causes some rattles inside the car. The car has done about 62,000km (about 38,000 miles), something the casual passenger or driver will believe when sitting in it. In reality, there is a ‘2’ missing in front of it – which makes a total of over 163,000 miles.

Apart from the slightly sloppy gearchange, the mileage just doesn’t show, giving credit to a well engineered and well made car. But back on topic – why the Golf in here?

Having BMC 1100s (ADO16s) and Maestros in the family, after driving the Golf, I have the feeling that it perfectly closes the gap between these two cars. The Austin Allegro had a nice ride and wasn’t as unreliable as people would believe, but that’s it. To me the Allegro always failed to take the concept of the ADO16 on, it even struggled to replace it in the first place.

1973 Austin Allegro

So, why the comparison?

That’s where the Golf comes in: developed by Volkswagen from 1970 to 1974 for 1.5 billion deutschmarks, it certainly draws comparisons with the original ADO16 and some of its ‘copies’, like the Autobianchi Primula, that came with a rear hatch. The ADO16’s in-house styling was abandoned at an early stage of its development in favour of a modern and crisp Italian effort and this happened in the case of the Golf with a switch to Giugiaro.

Surely, the Engineers at Cowley or Longbridge would have been able to use the available room more efficiently, and using Hydragas should have meant better comfort with similar handling characteristics?  Moreover, from a wider viewpoint, the Golf had an impact on the German market which was not too dissimilar to the ADO16’s a decade before in the UK.

Austin Maestro

Golfing troubles

There were early niggles and rather obvious rust issues, but VW took action and continuously improved the car. In the end, the Golf Mk1, built until 1983 in Germany, proved hugely successful with about five million cars built.

BL certainly had a close look at the Golf when developing the Maestro. The mechanical layout follows the one of the Golf completely, down to using VW’s gearboxes and then being taken to court about the rear H-frame axle that was copied from VW. Unsurprisingly, when driving the Maestro, it feels like an improved and updated Golf.

Space is used much more efficiently, the ride is more comfortable and yet it handles better with less roll. Even the steering gives better feedback with much less effort for the driver. Unfortunately, though, BL forgot about the rust-proofing. However, to me, the first Golf shows what the Allegro could have been.

Sadly, this wasn’t to be… and so, we’re left with a Volkswagen that looks like the missing link between the ADO16 and the Maestro.

Volkswagen Golf

Alexander Boucke


  1. Having seen the dubious routes on the net of what the Golf could have been, including the weird EA266, VW really did get lucky. Imagine if BL had got it right with the Aggro, with a nice Italian suit and structurally stronger, we could have been talking the opposite way?

  2. If the Maestro was said to feel like an updated and improved Golf, why did it fall short dynamically against both the mk1 and mk2 Golfs? The same could be said of the American and European Chrysler Horizons that were also said to have been influenced by the Golf.

    Do somewhat agree that the Golf shows what the Allegro could have been, at the same time couldn’t a similar result have been achieved with a late-60s ADO22 followed by what is essentially an mid-70s Maestro in place of the Allegro?

    Not sure how accurate the following is yet recall reading online the 1967 Volkswagen EA827 prototype’s engine was essentially an early 1.2-litre version of the EA827 engine, which makes for an fascinating comparison with what BMC/BL were developing at the time and how Volkswagen (unlike the former) did it properly with developing a bigger block modular engine family that pretty much covered all its requirements for the next few decades (as well as underpinned many diverse spinoffs).

    Realistically though rather than simply creating an EA827 clone, BMC/BL would have probably benefited more in developing what amounts to a modular O-Series (loosely in the manner of the L-Series derived Project Storm aka Td5) over a decade or so early at the upper end of the range, then to badly distort a small/mid block engine design beyond its intended purpose to replace the B-Series and C-Series engines.

    • I don’t think that the Maestro falls dynamically short of a Mk1 Golf. The MG 1600 was not really a good match to the early GTI due to the missing power, but the suspension set-up feels much more old-fashioned in the Golf with a significantly less communicative steering. The Golf Mk2 was only launched after the Maestro.

      The EA827 and E-series are interesting to compare. I am not sure if the E-series kick-off preceded the start of the EA827 at Audi, but they show a very similar thinking. Including the start as a rather small displacement engine, with enlargements along the way. Whilst VAG used this engine universally across all products (well, nearly), the convoluted thing that was BL had no chance to do so: The individual divisions had their on small 4-cylinder engines and the facility at Cofton-Hackett was simply not designed to make engines for all of BL. Obviously this was not corrected later – possibly only with the arrival of the K-series ARG had a single engine covering nearly the complete range of cars.

      • Being old enough to have been around when the Golf I was presented I want to disagree on a couple of points.
        The EA827 didn’t start as a small capacity engine.
        The design target were 1.5 litres which were duly achieved in the Audi 80 75/85 PS applications. The 1.3 for the Audi 80 was reduced in capacity because nothing else was available. As soon as an EA111 with suitable size was available it found its way into the Audi 80 and VW Passat and replaced the small EA827.
        After Audi introduced siamesed cylinder bores with the 1.6 litre 80 GT this became the standard size. Further growth had to be achieved by longre strokes and this was prohibited by the intermediate shaft in the block which would collide with the conrods if the stroke was lengthened. Only after the introduction of racing type pistons with very slim piston heads it was possible to introduce longer conrods to stretch capacity to 1.8 litres which was the limit for a very long time.

        The VW Golf I was a revolution when it appeared on the market. It was nearly Italian in spirit because it was light footed to drive and had rev happy engines, something hitherto unknown to the German buying public in that class of VW Beetles and Opel Kadetts. There even was a press campaign blaming VW for being irresponsible because they offered 70 PS freely available to the average customer. The Golf brought something like power to the people.

      • It is likely development of the EA827 appeared a few years after the 1965 E-Series based on the Curbside Classics article below, which chronologically appears to corroborate the link with the 1967 EA235 prototype.

        However the E-Series including its more advanced crossflow belt-driven experimental precursor (that may have existed prior 1965), rather than being like the big block EA827 appears to be more reminiscent in some ways of the small-block EA111 with the latter (at least on the 1.6-litre) having a similar bore pitch of 82mm vs the 82.5mm of the E-Series.

        It it is almost like BMC were thinking along similar lines as Volkswagen. Yet thanks to Issigonis’s conceit (and desire for a small transverse six to fit into ADO17 with side-mounted radiator), opted instead to develop a modular 4/6-cylinder out of a cost-cut EA111.

        Effectively meaning BMC found itself unwittingly creating a pseudo-EA827 by attempting to repurpose a small-block engine into a modular design capable of fulfilling the role typically expected of a big-block engine.


    • Nate

      I don’t agree that the Maestro fell short dynamically with the Golf, as I recall from a review of MG 2.0 EFi at the time, I think it might have been in CAR.

      “Not as good as a Golf GTI, but then neither is a Golf GTI” and went on to highlight the fact that the Golf had a perception in the market of being measurably superior to all other alternatives, when it was not and the MG 2.0 was a worthy alternative. I recall them also in a hot hatch group test, CAR’s favour fell on the Abarth spec Ritmo/Strada with its twin cam engine.

      As for the Horizon, having driven both, its Alpine based underpinnings had virtues over the Golf Mk1, in that it felt far more substantial and stable on the motorway, with far far better seats. Whilst it was more ponderous drive with its heavy low geared steering, it did ride considerably better so was a genuine alternative to the “cooking” versions of the Golf.

      • Graham

        It may indeed be the case am mistaken regarding the Maestro, was immediately thinking of the early MG Maestro 1600 as well as the fact that despite being viewed as a worthy alternative, it was largely ignored and unable to overcome its image problem relative to the opposition. The same could be said regarding the Peugeot 309 (due to its exterior stemming from its origins as the stillborn Talbot Arizona) even though it was said to be even better dynamically then the Peugeot 205 or the Strada/Ritmo Abarth being unable to overcome the negative perceptions of buyers despite praise from the press.

        Was it likely the case the American Horizon had more softly tuned suspension-wise and thus had more scope for being better dynamically had it been produced across the Atlantic in place of the European Horizon as the “World Car” it was originally intended to be?

        Even though Rover ended up going with the Honda-based R8 in place of AR7/AR5 and the American/European Horizon was indirectly replaced by the Dodge Shadow/Peugeot 309 respectively (was the Neon a distant relation of the Shadow/Horizon?), could the Golf-inspired platforms of both in better circumstances have hypothetically been updated to loosely resemble the Corrado platform?

        The Corrado used a mk2 Golf platform with some components of the mk3, yet whereas the heavy mk3 Golf was a sign of Volkswagen beginning to lose the plot (as seen on the mk4 before returning to form with the mk5) and consequently couldn’t break out of the mk2’s shadow. The Corrado is very well regarded dynamically and considered a modern classic today, whilst also appearing to give a glimpse of a different path Volkswagen could have given in properly replacing the mk2 Golf.

  3. The Golf was definitely more of a successor to the ADO16 than the Allegro ever was. Crisp up to the minute styling and the inclusion of the hatchback, the allegro in comparison appeared to be stuck in neutral, swollen like it had taken an allergic reaction to something. Such a pity, the likes of the Apache, the Victoria, even the Nomad, showed what could have been done with the ado16’s platform.

    The Nomad even proved it was possible to fit the e series with a five speed to the ado16. Imagine they pursued this path instead of the allegro. Not only would you have an improvement to a best seller, but you could increase production of the two after building that expensive factory to make them for the Maxi.

    Call me crazy, but I always thought that the Marina coupe had a pretty decent shape, let down by the wrong sized door. It also bares somewhat of a vague family resemblance to the ado16’s 2 box design. Imagine if you will, an ado16 with the e series engine and a five speed, clothed in the skin of a Marina coupe, with the option of rear doors too. Plus with the booted saloon, estate, van and pick up options too. Could have been a winner.

  4. The Golf had to succeed: Volkswagen was in a terrible financial state in the early seventies with only the antiquated Beetle and a Beetle based estate car to sell. Emissions controls and safety concerns had seen the car’s American exports dry up, Germans had mostly moved on to newer designs from Ford or Opel or imported cars, and exports to other European countries were tumbling against better opposition. The Golf had to succeed and fortunately it did and was light years of the Beetle it replaced and was one of the best cars of the seventies and eighties. Also the success of the Golf saw VW launch the highly successful Passat and develop the Polo from an Audi design.

  5. The Polo was an NSU project first, the K50. It makes you wonder if NSU hadn’t been bought by VW, would we had the VW recovery.

  6. Since the Golf MK1 was launched, I often considered buying one – but was put off by higher prices and lower equipment levels. However, the more recent Golf’s look more appealing to me as a future purchase, so time will tell if I give into temptation!

  7. When you look at the Innocenti Mini reskin by Bertone, you appreciate that the Allegro could have looked like that, had the management, shocked at the way the Marina’s costs had ballooned, not become so focused on saving every penny they could on the Allegro’s development. No doubt one of easiest cost savings they did was not to conduct any consultancy work with the Italian studios as they had done with the Marina. Unfortunately it was also to turn out to be the most expensive mistake they made.

    I suspect behind this decision was a lot of the thinking that had been imported from Ford, as BMC and Standard Triumph had had great success with using Italian stylists to the point (until Issigonis intervened) that it was a given that the styling would be done by them.

  8. Volkswagen needed the Golf, or would have died as the Beetle was becoming an antique and even necessary safety updates and a less spartan interior in the seventies couldn’t save it in First World markets. The Golf offered buyers what they increasingly wanted in the seventies: a hatchback with plenty of boot space, fwd for better handling, revvy, economical engines and decent reliability. It inspired Chrysler to launch the Horizon on both sides of the Atlantic( the Golf was a decent seller in America as the Rabbit), GM to totally redevlop the Kadett, and Ford to launch a fwd Escort.

  9. I had one of the last of the Mark 1s in 1982 in the shape of a 1.8 Gti . It was fine to drive with really excellent acceleration, and I loved it. However, it did have 2 glaring faults in the shape of really bad torque steer, ( a zippy takeoff from a T junction was quite an experience ) and in right hand drive form the brakes were just not up to the performance probably because the rhd linkage had to go right across the car . Also, the gearbox on mine was always a bit sticky and the service people were never able to cure this even though it went back under warranty several times. Lovely… but flawed

  10. In Mark 2 form, the Golf matured into a really good car and any niggles on the original had long been sorted. Compare the Golf with the noisy, hard riding and cheaply made Mark 3 Escort and there is a world of difference and spending extra on a base Golf over an Escort L always meant better resale and a better ownership experience. Also the Gti was a far nicer and socially aspirational car than the XR3i.
    Then came the Mark 3, which was a bloated looking car that was very underpowered if you bought the 1.4 or a diesel, had an interior like a seventies Marina, and wasn’t as well made, with bad rust traps behind the rear wheelarches and electrical issues. Rover must have laughed their heads of in 1994 when the Maestro did better than the Golf in the 1994 JD Power survey.

    • Agreed. The Mark 3 Golf was a massive misfire when compared to what the rivals were doing (except Ford, whose 1990 Escort was pants too). The base Golf 1.4 produced 60hp at the time when the 214/414 was producing 95hp! The Mark 4 Golf couldn’t have come too soon for VW

      • @ P6 John, the Vento that was derived from the Golf was one of the ugliest cars of the nineties, a shame as the Jetta that preceded it was a good looking car. Also reliability wasn’t as good as the Mark 2 and coupled with the weird looking Passat from 1988, Volkswagen seemed to have hit a bad patch. However, the fightback did come with the 1995 Passat and 1997 Golf, which were much better cars, and the Passat looked every inch the upmarket family car.

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