Volkswagen Golf GTi MkI Buying Guide
With the Golf GTi, Volkswagen showed that if you wanted agility and performance you didn’t have to sacrifice practicality
How much to pay
• Project £1500-3000 • Good £5000-10,000 • Concours £10,000+ •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
In a world of 300bhp shopping trolleys, the original Volkswagen Golf GTi seems rather lame now with its meagre 110bhp normally aspirated 1.6-litre engine. But when Volkswagen took the wraps off its Golf Sport concept at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show, it was onto something big.
While the world’s first hot hatch was the Simca 1300Ti that made its debut in 1973, it was the Golf that put the genre on the map. By the time it was launched in production form in 1976, it had become the Golf GTi – and while initially Volkswagen thought its uber-practical sports car had limited potential, it would become a runaway success.
In hindsight it’s obvious that car couldn’t fail, with its rev-happy and fuel-efficient engine, family-friendly hatchback practicality, zesty performance and sharp handling. Throw in front-wheel-drive security plus fabulous agility courtesy of the low kerbweight, and it’s easy to see why the initial production run of 5000 was an instant sell-out.
Your AutoClassics Volkswagen GTi MkI inspection checklist
Most of these cars were fitted with a 1.6-litre engine, but the final examples got a 1.8 unit instead. Whichever displacement is fitted it’s the same powerplant, which means they share the same weaknesses – or lack of them. Aside from wear from high mileage, there isn’t too much to worry about.
Once the valve guides have worn there will be blue exhaust smoke, but renewing these is easy; it can be done with the cylinder head in situ. A cambelt is fitted, so make sure it’s been replaced within the past 25,000 miles or four years; it also can be done easily, in a couple of hours.
If you’re buying a late car make sure it’s got the correct engine, as many 1.8-litre units have been swapped for 1.6 lumps. The water take-off gives the game away, because on the 1.8 it’s close to the nearside of the engine bay, while it’s above the alternator on the 1.6.
If you can smell fuel it’s probably due to perished rubber fuel lines. Because the system runs at high pressure, it soon starts to leak once the lines have started to crack.
The first transmission problem that’s likely to crop up is a worn gear linkage leading to a vague change. The only long-term and effective fix is to replace the linkage, the parts for which aren’t expensive, but it’s fiddly and time-consuming to do.
Once the gearbox has started to wear, the next sign of problems will be tired second-ratio synchro, leading to baulky changes. Also be wary of an incontinent transmission, as oil leaks suggest a rebuild will soon be due. Once this is needed, things will be noisy in top and it’ll jump out of gear, so any impending expenditure should be obvious.
Suspension and brakes
Tired suspension will have a big effect on the handling; fresh springs, dampers and bushes will transform most GTis. Other than that, the suspension gives few problems; springs can snap, while the top mounts can wear, but it’s all fixed easily enough. Vague steering points to worn rack-mounting bushes, but they’re cheap to replace.
The brakes are effective, but on right-hand-drive cars they don’t feel very reassuring because of the linkage used in the conversion from left-hand drive. Various upgrades are available, including bigger discs and calipers, along with harder pads.
A GTi looks best on its original wheels, rather than aftermarket items. If the latter are fitted, be prepared to search for a decent set of original rims. If the car is wearing its factory items you might have to refurbish them, but that’s no big deal unless they’ve been really badly kerbed.
Few Golfs built between 1976 and 1980 have survived, because most have been destroyed by corrosion. The rust protection was much improved from 1980, which is why later cars are more plentiful – although they can still rot badly. Panel availability is good because the Golf MkI was built until 2009 in South Africa, but some of these newer parts don’t fit as well as you might hope.
The first areas to rot are the most obvious ones: the sills, wheelarches, valances and nose panels, often because stone chips haven’t been attended to. Also analyse the tailgate edges, seatbelt mountings and rear-light clusters, and the sunroof aperture if one is fitted. Once the tailgate rubbers have perished, the boot fills up with water then rots out, so have a good poke around.
Play in the doors is probably down to rotten A-posts, and repairing these is a horrendous job. It’s the same for the rear-axle mounts; if these have rotted away, the car might be beyond economical repair.
The clutch cable passes through the bulkhead, which leads to it getting damaged, although it can be repaired easily enough. More of a problem is rot in the fuel-filler neck and fuel tank. Both can be replaced, but it means dropping the rear axle. If it isn’t attended to swiftly, rust particles will soon get into the injection system and the engine.
You also need to be on the look-out for crash damage, with bent chassis legs being the most likely problem. These can’t generally be straightened out, and while they can be replaced it’s a mammoth task that is not normally economically viable.
Electrical maladies are common because the fuse box gets wet if the windscreen leaks; it’s located under the dashboard on the nearside. A lot of GTis have had their electrics damaged by aftermarket stereos and security systems being spliced in, so check that everything works.
Volkswagen switched to blade fuses in 1982; earlier cars used the bullet design. While the later fuses are more reliable, they can still play up. Most problematic of all, though, is a non-functioning trip computer in a GTi 1.8. The LCD and ribbon cables can both be temperamental, and replacement parts are now all but extinct.
- Sep 1975: Golf GTi makes its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in concept form, known as the Sport Golf.
- Oct 1976: Golf GTi is now available to special order, in left-hand-drive form only, with a 1588cc engine.
- Jul 1979: A right-hand-drive Golf GTi is now offered.
- Apr 1980: GLi convertible arrives, with a 110bhp GTi engine.
- Aug 1980: Golf Series 2 makes its debut, with bigger rear lights, a revised dash and a 17-digit VIN (it was previously 10 digits).
- Sep 1981: There’s now a five-speed gearbox as standard.
- Sep 1982: GTi and GLi get a 1781cc engine.
- Sep 1983: Golf MkII debuts, but the original MkI-based convertible continues until 1993. The hatch is built in (and for) South Africa until 2009.
Hot hatches from the 1980s have become seriously fashionable, and few are more collectible than the original Golf GTi. As a result some cars sell for more than they’re worth, so don’t get sucked in by the hype.
As the GTi evolved and became more heavily developed, it also became more usable. But few of these cars are used for anything more than the odd show nowadays, which is why it’s the earliest examples that are the most sought after. On that note, the 1.8 offers no more real-world performance than the 1.6, so don’t go out of your way to buy one of these final models.
After the early 1.6-litre cars, it’s the run-out Campaign that most buyers want. As a result these tend to be quite valuable, so check that you’re buying the real thing. A genuine Campaign will come with a post-August 1983 registration, EW in the chassis number, green-tinted glass, four-lamp grille, spring-loaded fuel-filler cap and factory-fitted sliding steel sunroof.
If you want anything other than an average GTi, joining a club and getting to know people is essential, as the best cars change hands between club members. However, you don’t need a mint GTi to have plenty of fun; an average example will offer just as many smiles for a lot less cash.
|Golf GTi 1.6|
|Golf GTi 1.8|
Picture courtesy of Volkswagen Media UK
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