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Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

On the Contrary: Mk1 GTI

I re-watched an excellent Jeremy Clarkson programme on the rise of the hot hatch during the 1980s, which obviously focuses heavily on the Mk1 Golf GTI. There are quotes from a few former owners, proclaiming the car as "the best I have ever driven" - which I can only assume refers to how they felt in 1983 because otherwise they've missed out on a lot in terms of automotive development in the last 30 years.

I certainly believe that the impact of the Golf GTi in the early '80s; relative to what was around at the time, is worthy of the superlatives used. But in what amounts to as close to motoring sacrilege as you can get; when I had the privilege of driving a Mk1 GTi myself - I wouldn't even have described it as the best car I drove that week, let alone ever.

I entirely recognise what the car represents and its significance on the automotive landscape. I also really do like the Mk1 GTI - I'd love to own one and have been very close to doing so on two occasions. It's an achingly cool car that transcends cultures, generations and even the automotive world itself.

I agonized over owning a Mk1 GTI for years before I actually got to drive one - seeing it as an instant ticket to alternative cool. With a tiny kerb weight (810kg) and lack of modern accoutrements such as power steering and airbags; I expected the Mk1 to feel like a go-kart and deliver an undiluted, connected drive.

I found the reality to be somewhat different, with wooden controls and a drivetrain that felt reluctant to get rolling. Even the most ardent Mk1 GTi supporter wouldn't claim that the brakes are any good, hence why most of them upgrade to the Mk2 servo, but I found the combination of a rapidly hardening pedal and no discernible deceleration understandably alarming.

I'm pretty sure the car I drove was a reasonable example of the breed - a lot of the perishable components had been recently replaced and it had no rust that I could spot in any of the usual places (hence why I was strongly considering buying it). Even so, the locks were very sticky and felt seconds away from snapping the flimsy key. It also refused to start until a battery booster was introduced, which obviously was because this particular car had been standing for a while rather than Mk1s as a whole. Nevertheless I had the feeling that this test drive was giving perhaps a more complete picture of Mk1 ownership than the seller had originally planned.

When push came to shove, I ended up buying the Mk3 GTi 16V I drove later that week. Despite being widely unloved, the Mk3 felt a lot more useable and cracked along the back roads I drove it on with vigour. I was also pleasantly surprised by the 16V ABF, which I maintain is an excellent engine. In fact, I have read more than one article supporting the view that the Mk3 16V was unfairly written off due to the dreary performance of its 8V brother. It also only gives away around 30bhp to the VR6 model - without having to deal with the weight of 2 extra cylinders slung over the front axle.

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I enjoyed ownership of my Mk3 "valver" - it's an oddly handsome car in 3 door form, probably more so now than it ever was during production. Mine came with full cream leather and heated front seats that soothed away the 40 mile a day winter commute that I used it for.

Granted, this isn't the sort of trip you should expect to use its grandfather for and perhaps modern cars have ruined me for simple pleasures such as the Mk1 GTi. I'd still love to own one but I think it would end up as more of a museum piece than regular runner - and that just seems like a waste of a car to me.

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