The fourth generation of the series proved to be the quintessence of Golf. Twenty years later, it still is.
In 1974, a teetering VW took a risky punt into the relative unknown by launching a car, which by no means avant garde, (even by the standards of the day), was nonetheless some way left of centre. While it would be facile to suggest it was anything but a commercial success, it wasn’t perhaps until its second permutation that it began to truly dominate the sector it would ultimately define.
Like most overnight successes the Golf’s rise to prominence masks innumerable false avenues and bitter reversals along the way, but today, its ubiquity makes for a slightly opaque subject to pin and mount. After all, the Golf is a such an entity in itself, what is there to say? But over a forty-three year lifespan, seven distinct series’ and roughly 30 million examples built, there are Golfs and there are Golfs. Most commentators can agree that Italdesign’s original is rightly the most significant, but perhaps the most significant in cementing its status as an object of desire was its fourth iteration, first introduced in 1997.
From a stylistic perspective, 1974’s Ur-Golf was all about hard edges, an athletic stance, superb proportions and the marrying of an Italian rationalism with a cool, Germanic precision. Its 1983 successor applied quantities of compressed air to Giugiaro’s themes, resulting in a somewhat bloated facsimile, albeit one which proved enormously successful both commercially and reputationally.
The difficult third generation adopted the softer form language of the early ’90s, lending the now familiar silhouette a rather melted blancmange aesthetic – one it seems that was replicated by the model’s reputation both for driving dynamics and overall quality. VW doesn’t much like to talk about Golf III.
With VW’s rivals nipping the sector leader’s heels, Golf IV had to offer more than just another iterative step. Hartmut Warkuss succeeded Herbert Schäfer as Styling Director, and was faced with one of the toughest briefs in the business. Where now? VW Group Chairman, Ferdinand Piëch is said to have offered Warkuss the benefit of his advice to the effect that the design team could do as they wished with the styling any other VW model, but the Golf was sacrosanct. Radical therefore was out.
In 2010, Warkuss outlined the basis of his inspiration for Golf IV to imprint, Car Body Design. “I asked myself at the time how Giorgio Giugiaro would design it… and so we created a timeless form again and intensified the character of the Golf through the distinctive C-pillars, among other things.” Indeed, Peter Schreyer’s chosen styling scheme could almost be described as homage, so much did it honour the Giugiaro original.
But while ur-Golf was dainty, angular and upright, Schrayer’s Golf Four was all gently radiused surfaces, scalpel thin, painstakingly disciplined shutlines, the removal of visual fat and the minimum of decoration. Larger in most dimensions to its predecessors, with carefully managed overhangs, a foursquare stance and pared back visuals, Golf IV was and remains a masterclass. Because despite being perhaps the Golfiest Golf yet, it signified total reinvention: Golf as design object.
But wasn’t simply the exterior styling that stood out, the Mark IV’s interior set an entirely new standard for the segment – one that utterly floored VW’s rivals. From the soft touch plastics, the upmarket fabrics, the cool blue instrument backlighting to the damped everything, Golf IV presented a new interior quality benchmark, one that sent everyone else scrabbling back to their CAD screens.
Reaction to the car was lyrical. Even Giugiaro was wheeled out to pronounce upon it. He nodded in approval – what else could he say, after all? Millennial style arbiter Tyler Brûlé, in his design for living bible, pronounced Golf IV as the quintessential Wallpaper* car. It was official, Golf had fully transcended its ‘Volk’ origins.
Mechanically, it was all very much the usual finely presented liebfraumilch. Struts and a twist beam, a range of petrol engines spanning a 1.4 litre four through to a 2.8 litre narrow angle V6. A 2.3 litre VR5 was also among the technical felicities on offer. Golf IV also saw the wholesale adoption of the infamous TDI acronym. The 150 bhp Pumpe-Düse turbodiesel version offering an unbeatable combination of economy and for the time, staggering performance; a combination that perhaps did as much to advance the cause of DERV than any single model. Top of the range Golfs also came with four-wheel-drive and were priced accordingly.
Never the most dynamic of the C-segment, the Mark IV was eclipsed in this area by Peugeot’s frangible but fine handling/riding 306 and later by Ford’s kaleidoscope-shaking Focus; the latter perhaps the Golf IV’s sternest rival, offering as it did, a superior chassis, less perceived quality, but a more radical interior and exterior style in addition to the (misguided) sense that one was driving the future.
Golf IV enjoyed a relatively short run, replaced in 2003 by the chintzy Murat Günak-inspired Golf V, a car which returned to the slightly blobular aesthetics of the third generation and remains one of the nameplate’s more forgettable iterations. Its lifespan was to prove even shorter – (as indeed was Günak’s), with a Walter de Silva-led facelift arriving in 2008, which really ought to have been dubbed Golf V.2.0, which saw a lot of the Günak-era excesses stripped away.
De Silva was under few illusions as to what bushel to look under for guidance telling Car Body Design, “Basically, Giorgio Giugiaro and Hartmut Warkuß have written the score, a beautiful piece of music. And with my team, with Klaus Bischoff and naturally all the others, we try to give a proper interpretation of this music. The basic score of the ‛Golf music’ has been written. What we’re carrying forward here is a further development.” The current seventh generation harks unashamedly back to Golf IV, reconfirming its stature in the marque pantheon.
For decades the unassailable sector leader, today’s Golf is under siege like never before, ironically from the VW group’s seemingly unstoppable Tiguan crossover. However, when the history books are written, the Mark IV is likely to be the variant that best encapsulates its reign. A totem for a car that transcended brand identity and troubled gestation to become a marque in itself. Global in appeal, ubiquitous, anonymous and probably as much car as anyone could possibly need. Universally known by a single four letter word: GOLF.