After 1973, Americans had to get used to pressing their faces against the glass and watching the Europeans get all the good stuff, beginning with the Porsche 911 2.7 Carrera RS and BMW 3.0 CSL. Even entertaining cheap stuff like the MG B V8 and Triumph Dolomite were forbidden. It seemed destined to be no different when VW launched the hot version of its new Golf sub-compact, the GTI, in 1976.
With more horsepower and a stiffer suspension, the GTI seemed like the heir apparent to the Mini Cooper S and became tremendously popular following its introduction in Europe. As its legend and reputation grew, so too did the demand that Volkswagen of North America redress the wrong of leaving the car to the Europeans.
By 1983, VW could no longer stand the hectoring of the enthusiast publications, especially in light of the drubbing it was getting over the Americanization of the Rabbit, which VW had begun producing in the U.S. in 1979 at its Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, plant.
U.S. quality not up to German standards
The U.S. Rabbit bore little resemblance to the European Mk I Golf upon which it was based. In addition to the square headlights in place of the European car's signature round lamps, much of the switchgear was U.S.-sourced and decidedly cheap, and the overall quality was not up to German standards.
The U.S. GTI, introduced for the 1983 model year, added better suspension, 90 hp (up from about 70 hp in the standard 1.8-liter Rabbit), alloy wheels, a sportier exhaust, more supportive cloth seats, and rocker panel stripes. Colors were black, a sort of dull red, silver, and white.
Underachieving as it was in comparison to the European Mk I Golf GTI, it was a revelation in the U.S., where the Vega GT is what had previously passed for a sporty hatchback, and it soon became a cult favorite. Road & Track and Car and Driver both deemed it among the best cars they tested in 1983. Not that there was much competition that year-other than the Porsche 944, things were pretty bleak. There wasn't even a Corvette in 1983.
Mk I GTI handling was excellent by front-driver standards. The 60-series Pirelli P6 tires that came standard were exotic low-profile tires in 1983 and gave the car excellent grip with predictable understeer for as long as you cared to hang on. Ride quality was jarring compared to the standard Rabbit, but it was a fair trade-off. The giant golf ball-shaped shift knob helped the driver row through what was a pretty standard (somewhat rubbery) transverse front-drive shift linkage. Acceleration was a tick under ten seconds 0-60 mph. For the day, this was quite quick when sub ten-second times were fairly rare.
"Little GTI" is a YouTube staple
VW in the U.S. was no stranger to brilliant marketing. The Rabbit GTI was the subject of one of VW's more memorable advertising campaigns. The visuals were essentially some pretty standard footage of a pair of GTIs frolicking around a race track. The background music was the old Ronny and the Daytonas song "Little GTO," but changed to "Little GTI" and sung in German. It's a YouTube staple. (Type in "little gti" at the site to find it.)
As a collectible, the Mk I GTI is significant in that it was the genesis of the tuner/hot hatch craze. Today good examples occur naturally about as often as the last couple of elements on the periodic table; that is to say, never. Most were used hard by their first owners and subsequently used up. Rust and Pennsylvania build quality didn't help matters. Nevertheless, there have been a few public sales of remarkable Mk I GTIs lately. The first was a red 1984 at the 2009 Mecum Spring auction in Indianapolis. A beautifully preserved 31,000-mile car, it brought just $6,100 at a sale that saw a collection of far more ordinary early Japanese cars bring stunning results. The most recent sale was a black car with just 500 original miles sold by the same dealer in St. Louis from which my brother bought both of his Mk I GTIs (both were stolen on the East Coast). The bidding ended at over $18,000 for a brand new 25-year-old car.
As collectibles, Mk I GTIs seem relatively in demand by bottom feeders looking for something hip and out of the ordinary. I know several people who are kicking themselves for not being in attendance at the Mecum sale in Indy. Worn-out cars, when they can be found, seem to be $1,500 all day long.
As usual, these cheapies wind up being the most expensive cars to own, as trim bits and other minor items like switchgear can be tough to source. You're far better off waiting to find one of the cars like the Mecum car with low miles and nothing missing or worn out.
It's hard to imagine the Mk I GTI becoming an enormously sought-after collectible, but at the right auction, good ones might just strike the fancy of a now-well-to-do late-30s software engineer who lusted after one as a teenager in 1985. Or think of them like a very affordable cult wine-something that surprises your friends with its robustness as you peel around the corners.