The Parallel Universe of the VW Golf – Ancient and Modern
By Andy Bannister
As Volkswagen rolls out its sixth generation Golf (Rabbit) in Europe, the startling longevity of the new car’s predecessors is once again thrown into focus. Quite remarkably, the first and second generations are still in production in various parts of the world.
The original 1974 Golf, the car that saved VW in the 1970s, lives on in South Africa, now called Citi Golf and sold as Volkwagen’s price leader. The little vehicle has helped hundreds of thousands of South Africans get motoring, and nowadays is an intrinsic part of that country’s national car culture.
Over in China, meanwhile, a variant of the second generation Jetta (the saloon version of the Golf Mark 2) also remains in production, and is one of China’s motoring staple products, used by thousands of taxi drivers and government agencies.
Through the generations, the essential boxy style of the Golf has remained constant (for my money, leaving aside the classic original, the Mark 4 is the most successful variant to date of what in recent years has never been a particularly good looking car). Gradually, though, it has grown wider and longer, so the original Mark 1 is now smaller than VW’s next model down, the Polo.
The evolutionary new Mark 6, introduced with some haste apparently because the Mark 5 costs too much to manufacture, is unmistakably a Golf but is far from being the radical model its 1974 ancestor was. Back when the Golf was born, VW was still best known for the original Beetle.
The story of the South African Citi Golf has an American dimension. Golf assembly in the Republic started as early as 1978 from kits, but it was tooling from the former US factory at Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, which made the South Africans able to develop their own fully-manufactured car.
The original Citi Golf (also sometimes known as the Chico) was a cheap-and-cheerful affair, being available in a limited range of solid colours, and sold alongside its successor, the Mark 2, at much lower price. Since then, further Golfs have come and gone but the original item has remained firmly anchored in VW’s South African range.
Citi Golf variants built until recently included a Pick-up version (also originating from the USA) and a variant of the first generation Jetta, which the South Africans renamed the Fox.
Despite a couple of minor facelifts, the five-door Citi Golf still closely resembles Giorgetto Giugiaro’s delicately-penned 1974 original design. It certainly looks a whole lot better than the Westmoreland-built Rabbit in its later versions, which had strange square front lights and big federal bumpers.
The 2009 line-up features 1.4 and 1.6-litre engines, with the base model being the rather strangely-named TenaCiti, which costs 86,000 South African rands new (just over $9,000). Other plusher variants include the CitiStorm, CitiSport, CitiWolf and CitiRox.
The car, made only in right-hand-drive form, is essentially a domestic product only, despite the potential nostalgic appeal to markets which lapped up the original Golf and Rabbit.
South Africa, isolated for many years politically due to the apartheid regime, and still geographically far away from most other markets, is now opening up to competition more than ever. One symptom of this is the fact that Chinese cars are launching a serious assault on the home-grown industry (other makes manufacturing there include Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Opel), which could signal big changes over the next five years.
Persistent rumours suggest that the Citi Golf could soon finally be pensioned off, which would be a bit of a shame for fans of automotive dinosaurs. Its replacement is likely to be another slightly unusual VW Group product, a version of the confusingly-named Brazilian Gol (a South American-developed hatchback, unrelated to the Golf).
Nowadays, South Africa also builds a wide range of more up-to-date VW models (the Mark 5 Golf has yet to be superseded by the Mark 6 there, though). A similar situation exists in China, which is now one of VW’s biggest markets, but with the Chinese increasingly proving their independence by coming up with their own home-grown variants of the German designs.
The successful German Mark 2 Jetta, which first went on sale in 1985 belatedly entered production in China in 1991, and it has been a roaring success ever since. It is made by a joint venture involving Volkswagen and local manufacturer FAW (First Automobile Works).
Like the Citi Golf, this Jetta has been freshened a little over the years, with more contemporary lights and grille, but the essential styling remains unchanged and the simple, rugged design is ideal for the often difficult driving conditions in many Chinese towns and cities.
FAW still sees potential in this model, and one future option could be a Chinese-designed car using the old Jetta platform.
With such vehicles still in existence, it is clear that VW’s promise with the latest Golf Mark 6 of achieving “the evolution of an icon” is quite literally true.
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