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Why the VW Golf became so successful


At the beginning of the 1970s, VW struggled with faltering sales figures and short-time work. An Italian designer designed the first Golf and brought about a change. 50 years later, the Golf is the best-selling car in Europe.

By Torben Hildebrandt, NDR

Ingo Weißenfels is a passionate golfer. In the 80s, it all started in his childhood room. “I held the Golf 1 convertible in my hand as a toy car,” remembers Weißenfels. A little later he saw the “Black Forest Clinic” on television. Actor Sascha Hehn liked to jump into his white Golf convertible in the TV series.

As an adult, the car lover from Eickeloh in Lower Saxony fulfilled his dream: he bought his own topless Golf. Year of manufacture 1983, color: papyrus green metallic, a sporty GTI engine with 112 hp. “I looked for so long until I found the top model,” says Weißenfels proudly. “I have a lot of fun with it because the other drivers don't think you can be that fast with it.”

If something doesn't work, the 42-year-old can do it himself; he knows his stuff as a car mechanic. Weißenfels' convertible model went down in car history as the “strawberry basket” – because of the distinctive roll-over bar, which is reminiscent of a handle. Controversial at the time, legendary today.

Ingo Weißenfels cherishes and maintains his “Topless Golf” from 1983.

Sporty and angular instead of small and round

Weißenfels' Golf is one of more than 37 million that Volkswagen has delivered to date. The Golf is Europe's most driven car. The success story begins in March 1974 – out of necessity. At that time, Volkswagen was in a deep crisis, sales figures were collapsing, and the company was sending employees on short-time work or home entirely.

In these turbulent times, VW showed courage and started series production on March 29, 1974 – for a car that Germany had never seen before. Volkswagen has hired the Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. It says goodbye to the round Beetle design and creates a sporty, angular compact car with clear lines.

The engine is no longer housed in the rear of the vehicle. Instead, the Golf gets a trunk with a large tailgate. “The Golf came out of the ashes like a Phoenix,” says Rainer Fessel, the current head of the VW plant in Wolfsburg. With its unusual design and front-wheel drive, the Golf “immediately captured people's hearts.”

“The Guarantor and the Constant”

The first version is available from 8,000 German marks, initially without headrests and right exterior mirror. For a while, Volkswagen offered Beetle and Golf in parallel. But it quickly becomes clear who is winning the race: in 1976, two years after the start of production, the Golf broke the magical barrier of one million vehicles sold. Diesel customers sometimes have to wait a year for their new car because VW cannot keep up with production.

Generation follows generation; The eighth model variant is now rolling off the assembly line in Wolfsburg. Some were more successful, some less so – but the cars were always clearly recognizable as members of the Golf family. The current model has been in production since 2019, but there was a lot of jerking at the beginning. Software problems slowed the start and customers were dissatisfied with the operating concept in the cockpit.

The Golf 8 has now got up to speed: with around 81,000 vehicles sold last year, it was Germany's most registered car – despite the SUV trend. Around 7,000 employees are currently working on the car in the factory in Wolfsburg. Wolfsburg without the Golf? “It’s unimaginable,” says plant manager Fessel. “The Golf has been the guarantee and constant here at the Wolfsburg plant since 1974.”

“Golf Class” and “Generation Golf”

Volkswagen set standards in the 70s and 80s, and the term “Golf class” became a household term. Later, in 2000, the author Florian Illies invented the “Generation Golf” for his non-fiction book of the same name. Automotive expert Helena Wisbert from the Ostfalia University in Wolfsburg explains the success of the model with the car's suitability for the masses: “The Golf is an all-rounder and is valued by both private customers and commercial customers because it meets many of the requirements of an everyday car,” explains Wisbert.

In fact, the Golf can inspire, but it doesn't bother you either. Some people find it boring but buy it because of its reliability. The Golf can be a family carriage – or a high-horsepower toy for the sporty driver. “The Golf is classless,” says plant manager Fessel.

The future is electric

When Volkswagen begins the conversion to electromobility and the ID models come onto the market, many see the Golf's days as numbered. It is often said that the eighth generation could be the last. But then things turn out differently. Volkswagen's electric cars apparently don't have what it takes to become icons. Last year, the combustion engine Golf sold three times better in Germany than the electric ID.3.

It is now clear that the Golf will live on – just with an electric motor. “The Golf will continue to play an important role in the future, even with different drive technology,” says Fessel. “Every child knows the name Golf, everyone in the world knows it – why should we say goodbye to a name like that?” What does the next Golf look like? When is he coming? Everything open.

For car expert Helena Wisbert, the popularity of the Golf can make the difference in competition with cheaper, international electric car providers. “This allows Volkswagen to differentiate itself from new brands that don't have the same history and have now entered the market,” believes the automobile professor. And so the Golf could once again become a beacon of hope for VW – just like it did when production started in 1974.

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