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::: Chapter Four :::

Cult Credentials

Car enthusiasts when asked to specify the perfect car, are notorious for losing sight of the fact that the vast majority of folk just want convenient and reliable personal transport. (Stevens 1995 p202)

In 1986, Volkswagen launched their performance flagship, the Golf GTI 16v, which featured a 139bhp 16-valve, twin overhead camshaft version of the original 1.8 engine. The 125mph car was of course particularly understated. Externally the car sat one centimetre lower than its eight valve counterpart on revised suspension with increased front and rear spring rates (ten and twenty percent respectively), larger brakes and new brake cooling ducts. The only external cues were tiny red 16v badges front and rear, and a fashionable amplified 'bee sting' roof aerial. The inclusion of green tinted glass, and central locking also differentiated the 16v. These features were in addition to the twin lamp grille, rear spoiler, twin pipe exhaust, sunroof, rev counter, sports seats and trip computer already standard on the eight valve (8v).

By the summer of 1985 when the 16v (Fig 4.1) was announced, the 8v EA 827 engine had already established itself as 'one of the classic four cylinder designs of the modern era' (Blunsden 1992 p73), with five million units already built. What the 16v engine intended to do was produce more power than the 8v whilst matching if not improving upon its fuel consumption. A tall order indeed, the engine succeeded in bettering the 8-valve power output by twenty-four percent, and showed increased torque of eighteen percent. The inevitable drawbacks of this engine were decreased driveability and a considerable price differential over the 8-valve model. What the engine displayed was a characteristic common to all multi-valve engines, with increased power only coming in the upper section of the extended rev range. Peak torque figures with multivalve engines whilst usually being greater than those of their lesser-valved counterparts are inevitably achieved at higher engine speeds.

On the open road this makes for blistering progress, but in traffic around town and especially when compared with the renowned torque of the 8v, the 16v engine offered diminished flexibility.

Fig 4.1: Golf GTI 16-Valve (Source: Blunsden 1992 p60)

What Volkswagen had managed to do in one fell swoop was cater for the 'out and out' performance enthusiast with one model and with the other model provide a fast tractable car that was as much at home in the town centre as it was on the open road. To extend the most profitable 'maturity' phase of a product within its life-cycle, companies tend to reduce the price, or fix the price whilst increasing the features. By introducing the 16v Volkswagen 'repositioned' the car within the market. They were offering increased status at an increased price, at a time when most manufacturers would have expected to start reducing the price.

Oncemore the pattern in this extraordinary success story was repeating, the 16- valve's prestige moved it upmarket to a new market segment, justified its price and increased the perceived value of the rest of the range. All this at a time when a generation needed an 'icon'. The boom of the mid eighties had arrived, aspiration fuelled endeavour, wages were rising, image was the ultimate quest and disposable income dominated. Volkswagen oncemore had the perfect car at the perfect time. People wanted to be 'Yuppies' and Yuppies hungered for fast German cars. Three cars defined the eighties, the Porsche 911 Turbo, the BMW 325i and the Golf GTI 16v. The waiting list for a Porsche 911 Turbo was growing, and for those unable to afford prices as inflated as £100'000, the £12'000 asking price for an unmistakably fast and understated Golf GTI 16v, with more than a tinge of Porsche, was perfectly acceptable.

The Golf GTI was authentic and indisputable. Volkswagen UK caught on to this of course, and in much the same way as Carl Hahn and his compatriots twenty year earlier, embarked on an award winning promotional campaign that 'captured singular moments as piquantly as yesterday's newspaper' (Bulgin 1996 p7).

Following the elementary Doyle Dane Bernbach style, Volkswagen commissioned a series of involving and humorous 'creative' adverts. Whilst carefully adhering to Volkswagens well accepted corporate style, they were fundamentally different to the original sixties publicity, being television commercials.

UK consumers by that point were being exposed to 2'000 commercial messages a day (Armstrong 1998 p14). Indifferent adverts typical of the seventies and early eighties were making increasingly little impression. Predictably, Volkswagen began advertising the Golf GTI to sustain sales, not create them. Again the adverts were correspondingly confident, refined and subtle. In short, the adverts reflected the car as much as they promoted it. The differences between cars in the intensifying 'sports hatchback' market were lessening all the time, so to safeguard sales Volkswagen took steps to enhance their overall brand image.

Whilst by no means being Volkswagen's first TV commercials, they were certainly some of the best. Artfully shot and staged, they featured incisive dialogue and naturally, footage of the cars themselves.

'This is the man who bet a million on black when it came up red. This is the man who married a sex kitten just as she turned into a cat. This is the man who moved into the smart money just as the smart money moved out. This is the man who drives a Volkswagen. Everyone must have something in life he can rely on' (Transcript Dialogue - What Car 1996 p6)

The results of the questionnaire distributed to poll opinions of the GTI (An example of which appears in Appendix 1), makes interesting reading. The most commonly recalled GTI promotional campaign was the commercial set in the lonely petrol station with an eager mechanic, a bamboozled owner and his sleeping wife whose clinking earrings turn out to be the cause of the irritating squeak. Amongst owners The 'Changes' advert starring Paula Hamilton was surprisingly not so popular, coming second instead. The advert starred 'up and coming' Paula Hamilton, once a teenage model and 'It Girl', leaving her husband, posting her wedding ring back through the letterbox and ditching her mink coat.

Paula Hamilton… rejected the fur coat and pearl necklace but kept the car keys and spawned a new era in car advertising (Armstrong 1998 p15)

Whilst researching this dissertation references to this particular advert and its significance have appeared time and time again. To say that this advert above all else influenced the success of the GTI is perhaps somewhat naive. In the United Kingdom it was nevertheless a significant milestone in the life of the Golf, and for Volkswagen 'consequential' to say the least.

Ms Hamilton, of course later became a tabloid celebrity, enviably skilled at being famous for being famous, the hot hatch Elizabeth Hurley. (Bulgin 1996 p7)

In becoming a 'tabloid celebrity' Paula ensured her tragic personal life, and subsequent addiction to drink and drugs were never far from the limelight. In so doing, by her own admission, she would continue to publicise Volkswagen long after the adverts had ended, publicity whose value in real terms was immeasurable. That the Golf GTI meant different things to different people should not need qualification, and those who wanted to add 'vogue' to their love of the car had all the excitement they needed with Paula Hamilton alone: They don't remember all the good things I've done, the money I've raised for charity… all I always seem to be known as is Paula Hamilton, the alcoholic and Volkswagen girl (Cartner-Morley 1998 p7).

The parallel drawn by the Guardian (Armstrong 1998 p14) between Volkswagen's 'Changes' adverts and Renault's current 'Nicole and Papa' adverts provides a modern viewpoint from which to judge the advert. In much the same way as Nicole and Papa's broadminded attitudes toward each other's private lives have successfully attached 'positive French values' to the Clio, Volkswagen's 'real image advertising' campaign of the late eighties successfully addressed the power of women, animal rights and the role of marriage in one brief clip whilst reinforcing the Golf as the transcendent 'GTI'.

Minor ergonomic improvements were made throughout the Golf range in 1987, which included height adjustable seatbelts. The quarterlight windows were deleted from the front doors, and the wing mirrors moved accordingly forward to improve visibility. These changes were supplemented a year later by a series of further tweaks, which included a modernised five slot grill, subtly revised switchgear, bolder side-strips and a new steering wheel. The MK2 GTI's most striking facelift came in 1990, nearly seven years after its advent, with the introduction of newly integrated 'big bumpers' with revised fog-lights and wider side rubbing strips on the car's flanks. The 16v also gained 15-inch BBS wheels and power steering as standard specification.

Fig 4.2: A 1990 'Big Bumper' Golf GTI (Source: Watson 1998 p1)

The 'run-out' versions (cars produced during the final stages of production) of both the Mk1 and the Mk2 GTI are the most collectible GTI's yet produced. Sporting standard features that had previously only been available as optional extras, the cars were at their most evolved. They came crammed with extras and were sold at competitive prices. This enabled dealerships to clear their forecourts in preparation for the new models, and ensured the customers great value.

What these 'run-out' versions represent, goes further than pure 'desirability' however. Oncemore these cars demonstrated Volkswagen's policy of holding on to a model for longer and subtly but continually refining it. The lengthy production life of nine years for the MK1 and eight years for the MK2 contrasts sharply with Ford policy, and goes a considerable way to highlight the differences between Volkswagen and other companies both in the eyes of the consumer and those of the researcher.

As demonstrated by the Beetle and the length of time over which Volkswagen continued to produce it, manufacturers can choose to hold a single model and evolve it, or to scrap the model after a short time and re-launch a newer replacement. From the outset, Volkswagen discovered the value of 'design evolution'. Though they learnt this as much through force of circumstance as by design, they nevertheless discovered an alternative path. Whilst other manufacturers generated revenue through short-term obsolescence, Volkswagen discovered a niche for the Beetle, and managed to nurture and supply this market for nearly thirty years. Whilst by no means suited to every product in every market, Volkswagen demonstrated a radically different approach to product management that still has value today.

Volkswagen learnt that by making both the Golf and the Beetle easy to work on (and thus recognising the variety of mechanic's skills) they could help safeguard the car's reliability even after it had left their control. Properly maintaining a well designed and assembled car would ensure its longevity.

This longevity would translate into customer satisfaction and brand-loyalty, which meant further sales. Put in perspective however Volkswagen were not producing cars suitable for the fleet market, which Ford and others were.

Ford were operating a well publicised four year life cycle for their medium sized Cortina (see Wood 1984 p20) and this short term obsolescence pandered significantly to the fickle fleet-car market. Shorter lifecycles meant less time to eliminate flaws with cars, which had of course been designed swiftly in the first place. The transient nature of these cars tapped into a lucrative market, where buyers were less concerned with inherently lower resale values and dubious build quality, and more interested in novelty and styling.

With the Beetle, and then both the MK1 and MK2, Volkswagen chose to lengthen the duration of each of the models and spend the mid-production timespan listening to consumer feedback and addressing the problems highlighted. Banking heavily on the singularity of Giugiaro's striking design for the MK1 Golf, Volkswagen allowed the design to run visually unchanged for the duration of its life. With the advent of the MK2, Volkswagen remained sufficiently faithful to the design of the original to maintain brand loyalty, whilst modernising the design to an extent which would allow an additional life-span of almost a decade. Throughout its eight year life the MK2 Golf GTI was subtly improved, but never changed. Modifications to specification and trim were tangible, but never so extreme as to cheapen preceding models.

This factor is significant to the GTI's success. Longer 'product-life' allowed Volkswagen to eliminate the vast majority of faults with the Golf both as a design and as a specific model, and the car built an uncommonly strong customer loyalty. This allegiance ensured a sustained demand for the GTI, which Volkswagen produced almost unchanged from year to year. Sustained demand for an unchanging yet desirable car meant secure resale values. This helped anyone buying or selling a GTI and allowed dealers to offer good part exchange prices.

Towards the end of production, the MK2 range was supplemented by the addition of two even higher performance models. Both were based around Volkswagen's new supercharged engine, the G60. Driven directly from the engine by a ribbed belt, the supercharger mechanically pressurised the incoming engine air, before it passed through an air cooler and into the engine. At a time when other manufacturers favoured turbocharging as a means of boosting power output, Volkswagens G-lader supercharger was a bold move. Volkswagen justified specifying a supercharger on the grounds of its superior low speed torque, and minimal throttle lag. When they announced the G60 (Fig 4.3), Volkswagen claimed that 'Eighty percent of full charge pressure was available through the G-lader within 0.4 sec of opening the throttle and full pressure within a further 0.4 sec' (Blunsden 1992 p88).

Fig 4.3: The Motorsport Golf 'Rallye' (Source: Blunsden 1992 p83)

The G60 powered Rallye Golf (Fig 4.3), a limited edition four-wheel drive motorsport special with flared arches had barely been announced when it became a 'victim of its potential success' (Ibid. 1992 p89). The sport unfortunately ruled its supercharger intake had to be restricted which killed the long-term prospects of Volkswagen's first official motorsport Golf. (Despite the popularity of the GTI it was never raced officially - although not documented this was probably deemed at odds with the success of sister company Audi's triumphant Quattro, and as such ruled out).

The Rallye nevertheless made a particularly accomplished road car, and the 5000 produced sported an advanced 4WD system, electronically controlled ABS, and a high level of standard features. The logical mass production version of the Rallye was the GTI G60, which was launched on the continent in February 1990. Introduced to sit above the 8 and 16-valve models the new flagship model was a fast and attractive range topper that remains a highly coveted car to this day. Unfortunately the G60 never made it to the UK, but a small number of left-hand drive Rallyes were officially imported by Volkswagen, which were sold to collectors and enthusiasts, and which still fetch premium second-hand prices.

Fig 4.4: The Golf GTI G60 (Source: Blunsden 1992 p87)

After more than 12 million Mk 1 and 2 Golfs (1.1 million of which were GTI's) the altogether softer and more mature MK3 Golf was launched to the world in August 1991. The eight valve GTI was there at the launch with a new two litre engine and more refined character, it was not however the car that so many had expected it to be. The MK3 was heavier, slower and safer, 'an even more rounded version of the square cut original' (Car 1996 - Web source). It was 700lbs heavier than the 1975 car, yet the equivalent 8v version had only 5bhp more. The MK3 range was headed by the 2.8 litre V6 engined VR6, which was a genuine range topper 'The V6…sounded fantastic and pushed the humble Golf on to a genuine 140mph. When we first drove it, it seemed close to perfection' (Frankel 1996 p18). The engine raised the performance and sophistication of the VR6 far over the traditional 'hot hatch'. At twenty thousand pounds it sported a price tag to match however. The VR6 (Fig 4.4) created a class all of its own, a class above and beyond the GTI that is unfortunately beyond the realms of this investigation.

Fig 4.5: The Golf VR6 (Source: Frankel 1996 p18)

The range was supplemented by the addition of a 16-valve model in November 1992 and this three-model line-up was offered until March 1998 and the launch of the MK4 Golf. The Guardian summarised the evolution succinctly:

The Golf, in its fourth incarnation, has once again put on weight. It is longer and wider than before, and is increasingly becoming a caricature of its original neat and nimble self. The new Golf is certainly a leap forward from the current car in almost every way, but with every generation it gets more sensible and less fun to drive. (Barnes 1997 p15)

Volkswagen themselves are keen to point out that whilst the dimensions of the car have expanded in size over the years, the economy and quality of construction are better than ever. With the benefit of hindsight, the metamorphosis that occurred in the change from the MK2 GTI to the MK3 and more recently to the MK4 reflected a world-wide recession. The cars reflected the changing image of the nineties. Softer and smoother textures replaced the earlier sharp edged, dark hued interiors. The car, much like the 'yuppies' that adopted it, had become safer, and more predictable. Volkswagen had left the GTI to other manufacturers, and the Golf was moving upmarket.

The new Polo ('Car of the Year' in its first year - Chapman 1995 p57) is an altogether larger and better car than its predecessor, and with the launch of a new 1999 Polo GTI (Fig 4.5) and Volkswagens 'Lupo' supermini, we can clearly see an upsizing shift occurring within Volkswagen's model policy.

In perspective however, a recession-led market shift changed the GTI and the market it sustained, and these changes have shifted the car's status far beyond the scope of this study.

Fig 4.6: The 1999 Polo GTI (Source: Watson 1998 p1)

Chapter Five: Steps to success

 

 1 » Introduction: Can lessons be learnt from the Golf GTI?
2 » Chapter One: Giorgio Giugiaro and the ‘Sport Golf’
3 » Chapter Two: Volkswagen’s uncertain beginnings
4 » Volkswagen’s development in the United States
5 » Chapter Three: The new Golf ‘GTI’
6 » Chapter Four: Cult Credentials
7 » Chapter Five: Steps to success
8 » Volkswagen’s constitution
9 » The Eighties environment
10 » The high volume Golf
11 » Bibliography
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