Replacing the Beetle was a vital goal for Volkswagen's continued survival. By the early 1970s, the company had fallen into financial woe. The novelty of the Beetle had worn thin. Sales were in terminal decline. The front-engine, rear drive small cars like the Toyota Corolla were refined enough to woo customers away from Volkswagen's noisy underpowered engines and dated styling. The Type 3 and Type 4 fastback and squareback failed to attract much interest, whilst the NSU-developed K70 was a failure.
The solution arrived with Auto Union. They had attracted a small following with their technologically advanced Audi front wheel drive medium sedans. Volkswagen had acquired the Ingolstadt-based company in 1964 from Daimler-Benz. Audi's expertise in water-cooled engines and front-wheel drive would be essential in developing a new generation of Volkswagens. FWD offered more performance with lighter weight and more room in a smaller package. The Audi technology in the Golf would regain for Volkswagen the engineering lead over rear drive cars that Ferdinand Porsche had bestowed on the original Beetle over its large conventional peers. The small Golf had to succeed in replacing the high volume Volkswagen sedan. The upmarket Dasher/Passat would be VW's first front wheel drive car, and it was relatively well received for its lower volume market. The Golf would adopt an efficient "two-box" layout with a steep hatch rather than a formal trunk, which would be later added in the Jetta. The water-cooled engine would be mounted transversely in the front. Work on the Golf began in 1969, shortly after Kurt Lotz became head of Volkswagen.
The GTI version, launched in Europe in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1983, virtually created the hot hatch genre overnight, and many other manufacturers since have created special sports models of their regular volume-selling small hatchbacks. The idea behind was rather straightforward - take a basic-transportation economy car and give it a high-performance package, making it practical and sporty. It was one of the first small cars to adopt mechanical fuel injection for its sports version, which raised power output of the 1588 cc engine to 110 PS (81 kW/108 hp). In 2004, Sports Car International declared the Golf Mk1 GTI to be the 3rd best car of the 1980s.
There was a minor facelift in 1985 which saw the adoption of larger rear lamp clusters (more in line with Giugiaro's original concepts), revised bumpers, a new dashboard with a more modern-looking instrument display, and for US versions square headlights.
The convertible version, named the Golf Cabriolet (or Typ 155), was sold from 1980 to 1993 (a convertible version of the Mk2 Golf was not made, so the Mk1 Cabrio with slight modification was produced until the introduction of the Mk3 Cabrio). It had a reinforced body, transverse roll bar, and a high level of trim, and kept the pre-1980 style of rear lamp clusters. The Mk1 Cabriolet is of unibody construction built entirely at the factory of Karmann, from stamping to final assembly; Volkswagen supplied the engine, suspension, interior, etc. for Karmann to install. The vinyl or cloth tops were insulated and manually or automatic operated, with a heated glass rear window.
On September 22, 2006 in order to celebrate the continued success of the Mk1 based Citi Golf in South Africa, Volkswagen SA announced the limited edition Citi R which is powered by a 90 kW (120 hp/123 PS) 1.8L fuel injected engine with a five-speed manual transmission as well as a GTI trademark red outlined front grill.
There was a special version, named LX with 1.1L engine, which produced more power than the 1.3L engine. This version had a tuned GTI-like front grill, four front headlights, spoiler, alloy wheels and Recaro seats.
Details of the 2007 VW South Africa Citi Golf range are as follows. The range starts with a standard Citi Golf, in either 1.4 or 1.6 litre fuel injected models. Many variants of the standard version are/were available with different extras packages, which included the Citi Rythm, Citi.com and so on. The current range topper is the VeloCiti, also available in 1.4i and 1.6i, made as sportier versions of the standard Citi to replace the previous sports version, the Citi Life. The latest Citi Golfs produced feature modern features, such as a new dashboard adapted from a Škoda Fabia, and minor body "facelifts" such as revised tail-light clusters. The Citi Golf is still one of the best-selling and most popular small cars in South Africa.
The 2008 VW South Africa Citi Golf range consists of 4 new models:
In 1978, Volkswagen began producing the North American "Rabbit" version of the Mk1 Golf in New Stanton, Pennsylvania, thus becoming the first European car manufacturer in modern times to produce a vehicle in the United States. (The plant was called Westmoreland because New Stanton is in Pennsylvania's Westmoreland County.) Former Chevrolet executive James McLernon was chosen to run the factory, which was built to lower the cost of the Rabbit in North America by producing it locally. Unfortunately, McLernon tried to "Americanize" the Golf/Rabbit (Volkswagen executive Werner Schmidt referred to the act as "Malibuing" the car) by softening the suspension and using cheaper materials for the interior. VW purists in America and company executives in Germany were displeased, and for the 1983 model year the Pennsylvania plant went back to using stiffer shocks and suspension with higher-quality interior trim. The plant also began producing the GTI for the North American market. ('Rabbits' were built in Pennsylvania until 1984). The first VW Caddy pick-up, based on the Mk1 Golf, was also created at the Pennsylvania plant.
The Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, the North American version of the high-performance Golf GTI, debuted in Canada and the United States for 1983 model year. Assembled from parts made in Mexico, Canada, Germany and the U.S. in Volkswagen's Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania assembly plant, it had the same Mk1 chassis, and the same A1 body type as the Mk1 Golf GTI that had been on sale in Europe since 1976, with a few exceptions. Key distinct features of the Rabbit GTI were its squared front end styling, and its alloy "snowflake" wheels. The interior came in red or blue felt and leatherette trim. The squared styling of the front end, particularly the wraparound direction indicator lights, gave it added safety and slight improvement in performance. Under the hood, the engine was a JH 1.8 liter 4-cylinder petrol engine that ran on unleaded fuel. The JH 1.8l was transversely mounted, and it would peak in stock condition at , delivered through a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission. Claims for gas mileage of near-perfectly tuned Rabbit GTIs range between and .
When the Rabbit GTI first appeared in Canada, it featured the 1.6l engine and five-speed transmission. It was initially available in red, white, and black. These Canadian cars were German-built and were nearly identical in bodyshell and interior appearance to the Golfs built in Europe. Unfortunately for enthusiasts, the entire driveline and running gear was identical to the other Canadian versions. Five-MPH bumpers were fitted as well as anti-intrusion bars within the doors. The integral towing eye fitted to the front of the European car was deleted as the crashworthy bumpers had towing facilities as part of their design and the car had been crash-tested for Canada with the North American front apron. The car was very attractive but drove no better or worse than a Rabbit of the same era. Only with the arrival of the American GTI was a faster Golf available in Canada, and it was down compared to the 1.8 litre Golf GTI Mk1.