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The MK1 Polo wasn't originally a VW - and other interesting facts

The latest (sixth-generation) Polo is a blue-blooded Volkswagen of course, but its 1970s ancestor had interesting origins.

The latest (sixth-generation) Polo is a blue-blooded Volkswagen of course, but its 1970s ancestor had interesting origins.

Published May 8, 2020


Johannesburg - There’s no denying that the Volkswagen Polo is South Africa’s favourite passenger car, with the current-generation hatchback and the generation-behind Polo Vivo often switching places at the top of the country’s sales charts.

While the Polo has a long and storied history in South Africa, it has been around for a lot longer in Europe, and not many people are aware that the original MK1 Polo was not even a Volkswagen in the first place. Of course, technically you could say the same about South Africa’s first Polo models, but we’ll get to those a little later.

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This first-generation Polo wasn’t offered in South Africa, and we recently came across an interesting video posted by YouTube channel 

 (see below) which takes us through the early years of the long-serving hatch and how it came into being.

Interestingly, the car was originally developed by fellow German carmaker NSU Motorenwerke, which specialised in motorcycles and small cars, and which also invented the rotary engine, interestingly enough. 

However, the unreliable wankel’s warranty claims nearly drove the company under and in 1969 it was bought by the Volkswagen Audi Group. 

The Polo was nearly named Mini Golf

NSU already had a baby hatchback in development and given that Volkswagen was focusing its attention on the Golf as its all-important Beetle successor, it was decided that NSU’s little leaguer would evolve into the Audi 50. 

At some point, however, VW changed its mind and rebadged the Audi 50 as the Volkswagen Polo, also despeccing it at the same time. Even the name of the car sparked some debate at VW, with the company having considered other alternatives like Bonito and Mini Golf, Big Car reports. Mini Golf, can you imagine?

You can watch a more detailed account of the Polo’s history in the Big Car video below (and check out the channel to see other interesting historical videos):

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It’s interesting to note that the Polo’s South African history differs in many respects.

For starters, South Africa skipped the first two generations altogether, but it’s unlikely that we missed out on much as the MK1 Golf and later its Citi Golf reincarnation captured the country’s imagination and sold in droves through the late ‘70s and 1980s.

It was only in 1996 that South Africa got its first taste of Polo, this being the Polo Classic sedan that was actually based on VW-owned Spanish brand Seat’s Cordoba. This model also spawned the uniquely South African Polo Playa, which was based on the Seat Ibiza hatchback, and this was a lot cheaper for VWSA to tool up for than the actual MK3 Polo, which differed in many ways, and which wasn’t compatible with the Golf and Jetta engines that found their way into the Polo Classic.

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From the fourth generation onwards, VWSA went with the real Polo for the first time, and this also coincided with the small car range becoming a major export for the Uitenhage plant. 

The MK4 also eventually became the basis for the first Polo Vivo model, once the MK5 hit the scene in 2010. There was a similar shuffle in 2018 when MK5 became the Vivo and the sixth, and current, generation Polo took things upmarket with its bigger size (it’s larger than the first three generations of Golf) as well as its sophisticated digitalised cabin.

Lame as it might sound, the Mini Golf name would not have been inappropriate...

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