By: IOL Motoring Staff
It's hard to believe that a car that was rolling off VWSA's Uitenhage assembly line in big numbers just five years ago will be 40 years old this year.
It was back in 1974 that the very first Golf I saw light of day in Germany and since then it has evolved through seven generations to become the most successful European car of all time, with more than 30 million of them sold around the globe.
This calls for a little trip down memory lane.
Golf Mk I
The first generation Golf left VW's Wolfsburg factory on 29 March 1974 as a practical, front-wheel drive successor to the long-serving rear-engined Beetle.
The Giorgio Giugiaro designed hatchback proved a hit in Europe, passing the million sales milestone in just two years and its success was emulated locally after the Golf finally commenced production in Uitenhage in 1978. Not long after, VWSA's MD at the time, Peter Searle, sounded the Beetle's death knell: “The success of the Golf has been so great and the public reaction to the car so positive that the Beetle has taken a back seat”.
The Golf line-up expanded through the years and in 1982 South Africans became acquainted with the modern day hot hatch when the GTI hit the scene with an 82kW 1.8-litre engine.
The Golf I outlived four subsequent generations of Golf in SA as it evolved into the Citi Golf, which remained on the market until 2009. Through its continuous improvements and spunky special editions, VWSA sure taught the world how to keep an old car young. In fact, it was a hit with the youth market until the very end.
Golf Mk II
Famously known as the 'jumbo' Golf, the second generation grew into a bigger and more mature package. It hit the South African scene in 1984, and a GTI followed suit, eventually enticing hot hatch fans with a 16-valve version that became somewhat legendary at the time and which made a name for itself on local circuits in the Stannic Group N series.
Overseas, the Golf II was credited with bringing technologies like ABS brakes, power steering and the regulated catalytic converter to the “lower medium class.”
Golf Mk III
Launched in Europe late in 1991, the Golf III was the first of the series to come with airbags, although this wasn't the case with South African models that were launched late in 1992.
This generation won't be remembered for its GTI - only an eight valve was offered in SA and it had a bigger body to lug around - but we did at least get treated to the first ever six-cylinder Golf. Who could ever forget the VR6?
Golf MK IV
The fourth Golf might have been a stylistic evolution of the III, but it looked a lot more elegant and its upmarket interior made waves in the segment.
It reached South Africa in 1999 and brought diesel power back to the range for the first time since the Golf I, but this time with a turbocharged kick. GTI fans were also given some turbo magic in the form of a 110kW 1.8T motor. A 132kW version gave the aging range a potent blast into the sunset in 2003.
Even luckier European buyers were treated to a Golf R32 with a top speed of 250km/h and a DSG dual-clutch gearbox, which was quite revolutionary at the time.
Golf MK V
The fifth generation might have seemed a little bland on the outside, but it did bring new levels of sophistication, particularly as far as its road manners were concerned - for the first time adopting a fully independent multi-link rear axle to achieve a sublime compromise between ride and handling.
South Africa got the fifth-gen in 2004 and a year later came what is considered by many to be the best GTI ever with its agile road holding a 147kW 2-litre turbo heart. South Africans looking for something even more special were treated to an R32 for the first time, this one boasting a 184kW normally aspirated six-cylinder engine and 4Motion all-wheel drive.
Golf Mk VI
This generation, launched abroad in 2008 and in SA in 2009, was considered to be something of a reskin of its predecessor - many dubbing it the Golf 5.1 - but it did bring the Golf up to speed with VW's latest design language, particularly at the front end where the grille connected the headlights once again.
For South Africans, this generation brought a greater spread of VW's direct injection turbopetrol engines, with two versions of VW's 1.4 TSI replacing the previous Golf's outdated normally aspirated 2-litre. The range also offered a turbodiesel BlueMotion that sipped just 3.8 l/100km on the EU combined cycle and at the other end of the scale the GTI got a slight power increase to 155kW.
Golf MK VII
The latest Golf, introduced here in 2013, follows an evolutionary design path once again, but continues to reach new levels of sophistication. Based on VW's weight-saving, modular MQB platform, it's up to 100kg lighter than its predecessor.
It also gains a raft of new technologies that have filtered down from upper segments, including active cruise control, second-generation Dynamic Chassis Control, fatigue detection, lane assist and more.
The hot versions continue on the evolutionary path, with the GTI and R both powered by evolved 2-litre turbo engines offering 162kW and 206kW respectively.