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Volkswagen’s Golf is one of Germany’s design icons and best-selling cars, now in its eighth generation: With over 35 million units produced, the VW Golf is without a doubt a great automotive success story. But where is this story heading from here, especially in terms of design?

By Gerrit Terstiege

VW Golf: a new generation
Volkswagen Golf: An Icon ? | ©Volkswagen AG

Does the abbreviation EA 266 rings a bell? No? It gate keeps an exciting and successful story. Under the direction of Ferdinand Piëch, Porsche designers conceived a new compact car concept for Volkswagen in the 1960s – and perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Golf is an occasion to pay more attention to this almost forgotten gem. The „Entwicklungs-Auftrag 266″, or „Development Order Nr. 266“ in English, has a lot in common with the Golf I from 1974 in terms of its overall design and proportions, but – almost even more so – played an important role in the pleasing, soft transitions in shape that characterise the younger Golf model series. 

Perhaps it was simply too far ahead of its time. As Volkswagen never went ahead with it, and left behind a a million-dollar grave in 1960. Rumor has it, that tanks were used to roll over the pre-models and test engines on Porsche’s factory premises back in the day. Apparently, to prevent the technology fall into the wrong hands. Only two samples of the EA 266 still exist today, one of which is in the Volkswagen AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg. The economic situation back in 1970 was quite stressful for the manufacturer, as sales of the VW Beetle, which was considered aesthetically and technically outdated, had fallen drastically in the 1960s. Numerous attempts to come up with a promising successor model had failed. At some point in the early seventies, all signs pointed to that the concept of the air-cooled rear engine was to be abandoned in favour of a water-cooled engine in the front. The design concept for this car, both inside and out, played a key role in its rescue. And the rescuer came from Italy.

Volkswagen EA 266, Year of manufacture 1969 | ©Volkswagen AG
Projects for the Beetle successor (from left to right): development order (EA) 276, Golf and EA 266 | ©Volkswagen AG

Counter-Design to the Beetle 

The Italian automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who is still active today, clearly based its design for the Golf I on the EA 266 main concept. An alternative design to the Beetle. which, as we all know, is round. Giugiaro, now proudly 85, gave the car its very own, innovative angularity. Which resulted in a  straight-forward automotive design language. The 1980s were characterised by clear surfaces, acute angles and sharp silhouettes. “The reason why the Golf was so successful was because the whole thing was just right”, said Giugiaro in a recent interview for the Volkswagen Classic website.

In fact, if you look at the Golf I with today’s eyes, everything about it seems completely natural and understandable. The result is a fully designed, compact shape that does not polarise, but rather appeals to the largest possible group of buyers, as well as different social classes and age groups. As every designer knows, this is a major challenge, and not just in the automotive sector: catering to mass taste while at the same time being aesthetically convincing and creating a product that does not become obsolete after a short time is not an easy task. By contrast, it is easier to design wildly expressive, utopian show cars with eccentric detail solutions, aimed for just a few. Just as with haute couture, with practically no requirements for everyday usability.

Deliberate Evolutionary Design

The international success of the Golf I in figures: Between 1974 and 1983, 6.9 million were produced worldwide. Formally, the Golf II continued the success story of its predecessor until 1991. From today’s perspective, the strikingly cautious facelift respected the original concept and thus strengthened both the car class and the Golf brand in the long term. This deliberately evolutionary design approach was decisive for the Golf and for the ever-increasing number of its offshoots over the years (Jetta, Polo, Caddy, Passat, Estate, Vento, Bora, etc). No experiments, no revolutions. The Golf I was a success story, but rather a refinement of details without jeopardising the image characterised by simplicity, clarity and practicality. This is also demonstrated by the Golf III, which was produced until 1997 and remained recognisably a Golf with its slightly softer edges.

Volkswagen Golf - erste Generation | ©Volkswagen AG
Firt Generation VW Golf, Golf I: 1974 – 1983 | ©Volkswagen AG
Second Generation VW Golf, Golf II: 1983 – 1991 | ©Volkswagen AG

Third Generation VW Golf, Golf III: 1991 – 1997 | ©Volkswagen AG

A Big Design Hit

In 1997, the fourth generation of Golf was launched, an update that automotive designers, experts and Golf fans still rave about today. When you look at it, you are reminded of the words of the later “car chancellor” Gerhard Schröder: “We don’t want to do everything differently, but we want to do a lot better”. The rear of the car and the rear side views in particular radiate a simple elegance, as if we were looking at a device from Braun or Apple. The headlights and tail lights are cleanly designed, their contours and dimensions blend seamlessly into the overall picture. And the way the individual segments of the outer skin come together, creating clear lines and allowing calm surfaces to enter into dialogue with each other – that was a design masterpiece in itself and took the Golf IV to a new aesthetic level. But the four-series also set standards in terms of material quality, workmanship and motorisation. 

Fourth Generation VW Golf, Golf IV: 1997 – 2003 | ©Volkswagen AG
VW Golf – Front view of all generations from then to now | ©Volkswagen AG
Fifth Generation VW Golf, Golf V: 2003 – 2008 | ©Volkswagen AG
Sixth Generation VW Golf, Golf VI: 2008 – 2012 | ©Volkswagen AG
Seventh Generation VW Golf, Golf VII: 2012 – 2019 | ©Volkswagen AG
VW Golf: a new generation
WV Golf GTI | ©Volkswagen AG

Dynamic Overall Shape

In 2003, the fifth generation of golf was introduced, which marked the start of an engineering continuum development that has carried out to this day and which has also – gradually and increasingly – characterised the Golf VI, VII and VIII, the latest generation: the dynamisation – i.e. emotionalisation – of exterior components and surfaces. This trend can be observed at numerous manufacturers to varying degrees: the overall shape should radiate speed and dominance even when at rest, headlights are tapered like the narrowed eyes of a predator about to pounce, power and propulsion are visualised by elongated protrusions in the sheet metal, reminiscent of taut tendons under the skin.

This semantic interplay of forces can certainly be seen in the Golf model series of the last twenty years, albeit in a more moderate form than in the competition. Certainly, part of the Golf DNA has always been driving pleasure, and not just since the GTI. This sporty side is now emphasised in the current Golf, as standard and as part of the basic equipment, so to speak. Dramatic gestures in no way stand in the way of the car’s functionality, but as the driver of a Golf VIII you have to be aware of the signals you are sending to the outside world, to other road users. 

To conclude, here is a prediction: to continue with this design approach would take the Golf very far away from its roots. There is hope for a return to greater simplicity: not to old simplicity, but to new simplicity! Since last year, Michael Maurer, an experienced Porsche designer, has been responsible for the design of all Volkswagen Group brands. One thing is for sure: the next Golf already has his special attention.

VW Golf: a new generation
Golf GTI – Eight generations with an unmistakable front end | ©Volkswagen AG

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