Road Tests Sales Legends

Sales Legends: MK1 VW Golf

Time 12 years ago

mk1The sixth-generation Golf is hitting dealer showrooms right now. Volkswagen’s most important car is ideally timed to help dealers through the gloom of the plunging new car market.

Thing is, 35 years ago Volkswagen dealers were similarly doom-laden – and also looking to the Golf as the great white hope.

Back then, the Golf was completely new – in so many ways. See, until then, Volkswagen dealers were one of the last air-cooled specialists around.


The Beetle had dominated since the 1950s, and the business had built up around it. But, by the 1970s, it was sorely off the pace. Every attempt to replace it had failed. Models such as the K70 and NSU Ro80 had left retailers reeling. Something revolutionary was needed.

Vince Kinner is now VW’s head of fleet services. But, back then, he was also a VW employee – and was working in a dealer as the Golf was launched. Car Dealer caught up with him to explain what a big step the Golf was for the company.

‘The culture back then was quite different,’ he revealed. ‘The air-cooled mindset was almost a religion. Yet dealers were also pretty down in the dumps.

The competition, such as Leyland, Hillman, Ford and GM had established a market, with cars like the Escort and Maxi. Alongside them, the Beetle was simply not as reliable or competitive.’

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Kinner added in the 70s reliability was the thing everyone spoke about. ‘Cars were always compared to the Datsun Sunny – that was the benchmark.’ Alongside this, the Beetle really struggled.

Other models also left dealers disillusioned. The K70 was ‘challenging’ and the Ro80 unusual but had ‘no reliability’.

Added to this were bigger things underway in the network itself. UK dealers were merging with Audi, selling them side by side. Staff had to be
retrained, new premises invested in and substantial new equipment purchased.

This change would broaden the two brand’s profile in time, but major league sales, including key fleet business, would have to wait until the 1980s. In the 70s, the network was still very much retail-focused.

It was the Golf that heralded the change, from ‘Beetle’ VW into the giant we know today. A front-drive model with water-cooled engines, clever suspension and iconic Giugiaro design, it was
an immediate hit.


Sales were limited to less than 800 in 1974, the car’s launch year. But, by 1975, says Kinner, the model soon became the core of the UK dealer network. It shot up to retailing nearly 20,000 per year – talk about a comprehensive sea change!

‘Training for dealers was quite different,’ says Kinner. ‘Dealers were already familiar with the engines, for example, due to the links to Audi. What was different was the big leap into modernity.’

Golfs were reliable from day one too. So much so that Volkswagen has since sold itself on the slogan ‘if only everything in life were as reliable…’ It may not have been the cheapest car on the market but, like today, it was probably the most solid and well made. Hence the sheer scale of that dealer sales ramp-up in less than a year.

The car’s reputation was cemented, says Kinner, with the GTi. ‘This set the world alight,’ he says, and had a similar impact on the UK franchise. Here was Volkswagen leading the pack. And, since building its UK business around the core that is the Golf, it has not looked back.

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Now, of course, the sixth generation Golf  is with us. Annual UK sales of 60,000 should be expected – and with an entire range of other cars to supplement it.

Today, Volkswagen is a true global giant. And the car that helped it get there? Well, in our eyes, how could it be anything but an icon?

Road test: New Mark 6 Golf

 

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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