Yesterday it was reported that the Volkswagen Golf will die when the current generation, the Mark 8, reaches the end of its life cycle.
The German manufacturer will end production of the petrol-powered Golf, instead focusing its efforts on electric cars. Drum roll? Maybe.
The great thing about cars is not that they take you from A to B. It is that they teach you about status, style, class, design and history. And what history, too.
The Golf is Volkswagen’s most successful car and one of the most successful of all time, dominating the European market for decades.
Launched in 1974 — when you could still buy a Vauxhall Ventora and an Austin Allegro — its ubiquity has rendered it almost invisible. Well over 35 million have been sold, compared with 23 million of the Golf’s predecessor, the Beetle.
The Golf was originally a brash status symbol. The Golf had wonderful details, including a gear-lever knob that was pitted like a golf ball and a filler cap with indentations for thumb and fingers, which I found oddly thrilling. But most exciting of all were its origami-like lines, its generous ‘glasshouse’ windows and the sheer clarity of its design.
Compared with the insectoid globularity of the Beetle, the Golf was irresistibly modern. My honeymoon on the Cote d’Azur was in a Golf cabrio. It seemed absolutely the correct thing at the time. Yet you cannot understand the Golf without understanding its predecessor, the Beetle, whose ghost haunts its story.
The Beetle’s origins lay in the studio of Ferdinand Porsche, the independent engineering and design consultancy that had proposed a cheap ‘people’s car’ (‘Volkswagen’) to Adolf Hitler back in the 1930s.
This proposal was not much more than a four-wheeled motorbike and frugal in the extreme: it didn’t even have hydraulic brakes.
Hitler bought the ‘Volkswagen’ idea with enthusiasm, but — without consulting Professor Porsche — he announced at the opening of Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg factory in 1938 that it would be known by the Nazi slogan as the ‘Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen’ (‘Strength through Joy Car’).
The car’s fabled reliability was a result of testing on Germany’s uniquely long and straight autobahns. But it came to have other meanings as well.
After World War II, the Beetle astonished America into thinking small, helped by brilliant advertising. It became the car of the Summer of Love in 1967. It became the ubiquitous taxi in Mexico and Nigeria and Walt Disney’s Herbie The Love Bug. This, then, was the founding myth of Volkswagen, and thus the Golf.
By 1974, Volkswagen was struggling with the Beetle; sales were dwindling. The question nagging management was how to replace a global favourite. Like Boeing with its 747 aircraft, Volkswagen bet the future of the company on the predicted success of the Golf.
The proposition was a winning one: German technology and Italian design. Giorgetto Giugiaro was hired to design the Golf’s body and interior. The Italian maestro had been working in Turin, creating gorgeous shapes for Alfa Romeos, but after the 1973 oil crisis he admitted to himself that the time for long, low, sleek sports cars was over.
Giugiaro wanted to do something practical — and what could be more practical than a new People’s Car? Design suddenly became mass-market.
The great thing about the Golf was that, like the 1959 Mini, it was a small car that was strangely classless. Until then, small cars had been cognates of poverty. No stigma attached to driving a Golf: in fact, quite the opposite.
In aesthetics and function, it resisted social definition. No one could decide if it was a supremely well-designed and meticulously built small car, or a luxury product shrunk to the size of a Ford Escort. In fact, it was both.
The phenomenal success of the Golf inspired imperial ambitions in Volkswagen. Its subsidiary Audi brand was generously allowed to become a rival, some say a successor, to Mercedes-Benz.
Other acquisitions were made: Volkswagen now owns Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti, as well as Skoda, SEAT and MAN trucks. Porsche has become a money machine, a global status symbol. All this, of course, has been powered by the Golf.
So news of the Golf’s demise is both surprising and melancholic. But it also reveals that Volkswagen has made a complete hash of its product strategy.
What is a Volkswagen Golf in 2023? Clearly, even Volkswagen doesn’t know the answer. Audi now occupies premium territory, while Skoda is doing a better job of making a ‘people’s car’ that people actually want to drive. The Golf’s fate is evidence of the crisis in the middle market: a retail territory disappearing like a mirage.
But the rationale for killing the Golf is, of course, electricity. Volkswagen was scared into early adoption of electric cars because it had been so embarrassed by the diesel emissions scandal. (In 2015, the company admitted that about 11 million of its cars, including eight million in Europe, were fitted with a device used to cheat emissions tests.)
But the design process has been rushed: the electric cars Volkswagen sells today — such as the all-wheel-drive ID.4 GTX and the campervan-styled ID. Buzz — look as if two or three stages have been left out of the design process.
No one outside VW’s Wolfsburg headquarters knows what the Golf’s successor will be. But there are predictions that when governments need to recover lost tax revenue from declining oil sales, electric cars will become unrealistically costly. Mobility will become exclusive, not democratic.
The end of the Golf might even spell the end of the popular car altogether. How ironic that the next generation of what was once the ultimate People’s Car may be financially inaccessible to the people themselves.
© DAILY MAIL