A history of Volkswagen in three cars

Written by Tom Flanagan | 26th September 2019 | Updated May 25th 2022

Volkswagen is more than just a car manufacturer; its helped set a precedent for where aesthetic meets innovation, where accessibility and affordability are never forgotten. We took a drive down memory lane with our Expert in Classic Cars Sander Houdel and looked into a history of Volkswagen’s most memorable models. 

Since Volkswagen's controversial origins as the brainchild of the German government back in 1937, the brand has managed to go from strength to strength and reinvent its image. Now owned by holding company Porsche SE, some of Volkswagen's early creations still remain its most popular.

Golf MK1


For a car that initially was seen as a fuel-efficient replacement for the iconic VW Beetle, the Golf MK1 exceeded expectations. “The Golf started its life in 1974 and was a real game changer for Volkswagen,'' says Sander Houdel. “It was the first mass produced water-cooled car for Volkswagen.” This was a significant change in Volkswagen’s approach, which had previously used air-cooled engines (as with the Beetle). It also adopted front-wheel drive, as opposed to rear-wheel drive, and marked another departure from the company’s previous car models.

The Golf GTI was billed as the 'sport' version of the car – combining speed and safety

But the Golf’s status as a trailblazer was much more than its features. It gained almost symbolic appeal after its release for speed and affordability, and was especially popular with young people in the 80s and 90s. Much of this can be attributed to the success of the ‘Sport’ version – the Golf GTI. Born out of a side project concocted by two engineers who used spare parts and a variety of clandestine tactics to build the car, the GTI proved there was a demand for a family car that harnessed the performance of a sportier car while still being practical and safe. In fact, this version of the Golf is credited with coining the term ‘Hot-Hatch’ – a high-performance hatchback. 

Golfs are still being made in the 2020s (currently on its 8th edition) and the model has surpassed the Beetle as Volkswagen’s best-selling car. Better yet, it’s one of the top-selling cars in the world. 

Volkswagen Scirocco

Volkswagen’s unusual tradition of naming cars after winds (the Golf refers to the ‘Gulf Stream’ and the Polo to ‘polar winds’) continued with the Scirocco, which takes its name from a Mediterranean wind that can reach up to hurricane speeds. Though the Scirocco wasn’t intended to hit quite the same thresholds of speed, it was positioned as a sports car.

“The Scirocco was launched in 1974 as a replacement for the Karmann Ghia,” says Sander.  “The car was meant to be more sporty, based on the technique of the Volkswagen Golf. It was a popular car for the younger folk because of its look – it's a coupé.” And much like the Golf MK1, it helped pioneer Volkswagen’s transition to water-cooled engines.

The Scirocco combined both looks and speed, which made it a popular choice with young people

What arguably made a difference in the car’s popularity was Giorgetto Giugiaro’s deft design. Giugiaro had previously worked on cars for both Ferrari—which was racing to world domination itself—and Maserati and drew on the race car sensibilities of these brands to inform the Scirocco’s design. A streamlined and aerodynamic hood, a four-cylinder engine and a large interior space all helped make the Scirocco especially appealing – and that’s without all the mod-cons added in later models, such as a sunroof and air conditioning. Volkswagen ran the production of this car until 2017, but the legend of Scirocco lives on. 

Van T2

Not since the Volkswagen Beetle has a car had so much romantic and nostalgic appeal as the Volkswagen Van T2. Synonymous with countercultures of the 1960s, these boxy vehicles were dreamt up by Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon, who sketched out the plans for a cargo-carrying vehicle set on the chassis (base frame) of the Beetle. 

While these types of vehicles were used by bakers and tradesmen, the T2 was designed with the idea of producing a more efficient van that put an emphasis on comfort and space. “The T2 is the successor of the famous T1 split window van. The T2 had better suspension, more interior space and bigger engines,” explains Sander. Alongside that, the engines were placed at the back (as opposed to the front) which made driving these vans easier, helping van-type cars break into the mainstream market.  

The T2 became known as the 'hippie van'

As to why it was so popular with counter cultures of the time, Sander has some thoughts. “I think that it was because the T2 was cheap, reliable and easy to drive. They also had a lot of interior space for a bed, kitchen etc. Ultimately it was a multifunctional van.” The car’s large body made it the ideal canvas for painting and decorating, which helped make them almost unmissable. And while the vans are no longer in production, stop by a festival and you might spot one of them decked out in pastel colours, their whimsical headlights still shining. 


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