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Round 8: Everything You Need to Know in a Brief History of the Volkswagen Golf GTI

The original hot hatch? Close enough, and arguably the all-time great.

Todd LassaWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Rule No. 1 of automotive history is to avoid calling any car or technology a "first," because it often turns out that somewhere in time, someone already did it at least once. So, when Volkswagen cheekily led off its recent media presentation of the new, upcoming eighth-generation Golf GTI with the words, "Since 1976: The forgery-proof original," it was sure to reignite fierce debates. The perfect opportunity, then, to take a brief look at Volkswagen Golf GTI history.

Wikipedia, often the knee-jerk go-to source for armchair know-it-alls, says the Renault 5 Alpine "launched two months before the original Volkswagen Golf GTI." The 1972 AMC Gremlin X hatchback, with its 150-horsepower, 304-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) two-barrel V-8 beat the VW by at least four years, though the German car's marketing later defined "hot hatch" as a "sporty, front-wheel-drive compact … "

But then there's the Austin Mini Cooper S of 1963. True, its 1.1-liter four-cylinder was rated at just 69 hp, but hot hatches, including the VW GTI, have been all about how they handled before top speed. Plus, those Shetlands rotating the front wheels were pulling just 1,513 pounds of hatchback.

Still, in terms of Volkswagen Golf GTI history, the model deserves recognition as the most consistent, tenacious hot hatch, having now made it to its eighth generation in 44 years. Here's a look back at each era:

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 1 GTI, 1976-1983 (all year ranges listed are Euro-spec)

Volkswagen designed its original Golf two- and four-door hatchbacks to replace the four-decade-old air-cooled, rear-engine flat-four-powered Type 1 Beetle as the next affordable car for the masses. Though ubiquitous now, the compact Golf's transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive layout was cutting-edge. Even as Japanese brands infiltrated the Beetle's import-car dominance in the 1970s, the only volume model among them with the same layout was the first-generation Honda Civic, itself a modern update of the Austin Mini.

VW management originally intended to build just 5,000 GTIs as a kind of halo for the new model, and stuffed a 1.8-liter eight-valve I-4 with fuel injection (the "I" in GTI) in the Golf's engine bay. The engine, in place of a 1.5-liter used in the U.S.-spec Rabbit, made 113 hp in European trim according to automobile-catalog.com, and took off with the European youth and enthusiast crowd. Signature graphics included black wheel arches, black rear-window trim, and a red stripe around the radiator grille. VW sold a total of 461,690 of the Golf 1 GTIs from summer 1976 until its replacement about eight years later.

Volkswagen purchased a Chrysler factory that the U.S. automaker never used, in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, to build the original Golf for our market, renamed "Rabbit." The Rabbit had more chrome than the Golf, except for body-colored bumpers, and came with more colorful interiors.

The VW Rabbit GTI finally arrived in the U.S. near the end of the Mk I model's run. It already faced such Japanese competition as the Honda Civic S and the Dodge/Mitsubishi Colt GTS Turbo, but it launched here with one of the most memorable commercials of the '80s, showing a pair of the hot hatches sliding and jumping around a racetrack to the soundtrack of a German-language cover of Ronny & the Daytonas' "Little GTO," called "Klein GTI." Obviously shot for German TV, it dubbed voiceover in English, read by movie star Roy Scheider.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 2 GTI, 1984-1990

Launched in Europe in 1984, shortly after the Golf 1 Rabbit GTI premiered in North America, the car's latest version of the 1.8-liter fuel-injected four had dropped to 107 horses because of its catalytic converter, VW says. Two years later Volkswagen swapped in a new 16-valve cylinder-head to boost it to 129 hp. The Westmoreland assembly plant was on its own schedule, and the second-generation cars, both standard and especially GTI, made their debuts later than the European versions.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 3 GTI, 1991-1997

The third-generation GTI got a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, launched in Europe in 1991 with an eight-valve head and 115 hp. A new 16-valve head boosted that to 150 horses in 1992.

A severe recession in 1991-92 hit the entire U.S. auto industry hard, and by now VW's annual sales here had dipped to less than 30,000 cars per year. VW nearly exited the U.S. market; it closed the Westmoreland plant in 1988, and was importing Rabbits, which finally got the Golf name here in 1995, from Wolfsburg, Germany.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 4 GTI, 1998-2004

Launched in Europe in 1998 with all-new sheetmetal but with the carryover 150-hp 2.0-liter four, the Golf 4 GTI was the first and only GTI without the signature red stripe around the grille. For many fans, this GTI lost its way, having become a sort of sub-brand, with several diesel and gasoline engine options in Europe In the U.S., it got the 150-horsepower 2.0-liter or an available VR6 engine. GTI fans felt that despite the power, the car was overweight and soft.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 5 GTI, 2005-2008

The GTI, as VW fans know and love it, returned to form. The fifth-gen version best-captured the original's spirit when it went on sale in Europe in November 2004. With its 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo engine, Denver design wheels, retro tartan plaid seats, and v-shaped radiator grille with red stripe, the GTI Mk 5 was lively and tossable. It was the first GTI VW offered with a DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission option, though the six-speed manual remained popular, especially in the U.S.

As a simple, straightforward hot hatch with excellent handling that was produced a few years before electronic complexity infiltrated the mass market, this could become the most collectible of GTIs.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 6 GTI, 2009-2012

Introduced in Europe in 2009 with a 210-hp, 2.0-liter TSI turbo four, "racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck [was] in charge of honing the vehicle's chassis," according to VW. That included the GTI's first electronic differential lock; yes, the car was getting more sophisticated and complex.

Volkswagen Golf GTI History: Golf 7 GTI, 2013-2019

The seventh-gen GTI's 2.0-liter TSI turbo is rated at 228 horsepower in today's U.S. spec. North America accounted for a full 45 percent of the volume of the Wolfsburg, Germany-built car, and 40 percent of those buyers chose the six-speed manual rather than the seven-speed DSG automatic. Although the Golf 8 GTI goes on sale in Europe this summer, a good 15 months or so ahead of North American production, the seventh-gen model will be sold here through the 2021 model year.

Volkswagen Golf GTI history: Golf 8 GTI, 2020 launch in Europe, 2022 in North America

The next GTI (and Golf R) will be the only Golf hatchbacks sold in North America when they premier here in the third quarter of 2021, and come with the freshest new sheetmetal since the Golf 5 a decade-and-a-half ago. VW says the handling is sharper and the car is more willing to rotate, with a stiffer front subframe and stiffer front and rear springs. Quicker steering has just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock. The latest generation of the GTI's 2.0-liter turbocharged four produces 242 hp and 273 lb-ft.

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The Future: Golf 9 GTI …

Can you name it "GTI" if there's no fuel injection, because there's no gasoline engine? VW is about to flood the U.S. market with small, cutting edge electric vehicles, and max torque at 0 rpm can make for a tasty performance variant. Look for VW to inject some GTI personality into a future hot electric hatch, if it doesn't convert the traditional Golf GTI model outright.