Someone, somehow, has sneaked a Volkswagen GTi into the parking garage of my building. I say "sneaked" because most of this condo's elderly residents would regard a Toyota Camry as a performance car. I've made it my mission to find this interloper and hopefully draw him into a conversation and maybe even a test drive, or at least a ride. But wait. This is not your ordinary clapped-out GT1 boy racer. It appears to have been restored to as-new condition and has a BC "collector" license plate affixed.
When the GT1 was launched I must have been looking in the wrong direction because frankly, I don't remember. Yes, I recall the hype about it being the original hot hatch, but my attention was diverted and that's odd because I was a Volkswagen disciple back in the Beetle days, assistant to VW Canada's sales promotion manager and class winner in a modified road racer that doubled as family transport. I still feel an allegiance to the German company that took me from a lowly-paid radio announcer and turned me into a semi-sophisticated junior executive.
The GTI version, launched in 1976, virtually created the hot hatch genre. It was one of the first small cars to adopt mechanical fuel injection for its sports version, raising the power output of the 1588cc engine to 108hp. But that was in Europe. US marketing chiefs couldn't get their tiny minds around the idea of a car called Golf and so the front-wheel-drive VW became a Rabbit. Worse still, they began making them in a Pennsylvania factory with handling specs softened to meet supposed American tastes. Bad idea. That plant is long gone.
The US Rabbit debuted in 1983. The 1.8 liter engine delivered 90 horses through a close-ratio 5-speed box, good for the compact class though far less than what the Europeans enjoyed. Fortunately it had the same precise handling, steering, and shifting, making the GTi a fun car to drive as well as a practical family hauler. The squared front end styling, alloy "snowflake" wheels, and red or blue felt plus leatherette trim, gave it a distinctive appearance; still enough to get my attention as I walked through my garage and spotted the restored white VW.
So where was I when the GTi arrived? When the European version was introduced I was creative director of GM Canada's ad agency, thus my attention was diverted by some mostly boring autos. By the time the GTi arrived in North America I'd become associate creative director of Trans Global Films, producing inflight car commercials for the world's airlines. With Ford of Europe and BMW USA as primary clients, it was easy to ignore the GTi and that's a shame as the dynamic VW was, in a way, a reincarnation of my 1960's racing Beetle. The engine had swapped ends and so, obviously, had my attention. Until now, that is.
Click here for the VW GTi Club of Great Britain
And here for a list of North American VW GTi clubs