The Mk1 Golf is one of the coolest cars you can buy and for many its the ultimate water-cooled retro toy. There is more to grabbing a good one than a quick mouse click on eBay though, so here’s our VW Golf Mk1 Buying Guide to help sort the nuggets from the nails.

The history of the VW Golf Mk1

Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, Volkswagen started producing the front-engined, water-cooled hatchback in March of 1974, with a clear view for it to take over as the next generation of the ‘Peoples Car’.  This wasn’t the first time VW had worked together with Giugiaro, he was also responsible for penning the 1973 B1 Passat and 1973 Scirocco Mk1, the latter of which shared its underpinnings with their latest grocery getter.

The Swallow Tail Golf

The earliest of Golf examples (74-76) have become known as the “Swallow Tail” in reference to the design of the rear panel, below the number plate. Originally launched with drum brakes all round, these models also feature a smooth bonnet design, different wing tops, Beetle style seats and many more nuances that get enthusiasts hot under the collar. Take a look at the feature we wrote about the oldest known surviving Golf here.

Series 1 and Series 2 Golf

Following on from the Swallow Tail models, the Series 1 models (76-78) saw the recognisable bump below the number plate smoothed out, but retained most of the styling cues such as small rear lights, metal bumpers either in chrome or black, and the hard plastic dashboard with the prominent gauge pods. 1979 models bridged the gap between two more distinct designs, with the earlier body (small rear lights) but later bumpers and trim. The Series 2 (80-83) models had much larger rear lights, wrap-around plastic bumpers and a padded dashboard with a gauge cluster, rather than separate clocks.

The Golf Mk1 GTI

The story of the first Golf GTI is pretty well documented, but it hinges around an after-hours project by a handful of Volkswagen engineers who saw potential to release some hidden fun from within the latest VW family hatchback. With wider wheels, stiffer suspension, fuel-injected engine, styling upgrades and interior to match, the Mk1 GTI really set the bar for every hot hatch ever since. The GTI was launched in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1979 that a specific UK market RHD option was available on the forecourts.

GTI models up to 1982 were 1600cc, with 82-84 models boasting an 1800cc 8v engine. The last of the GTI’s are known as Campaign Editions and carry an extra premium. The Mk1 Golf Owners Club explain in detail here how to spot these cars from the ‘normal’ GTI models. You can read more about the white GTI example here.

Other Golf Mk1 Body Options

Along with the regular 3 or 5 door hatchback, Volkswagen also produced the Jetta, which was a 4 door saloon (or a rare 3 door coupe) version of the Golf. A cabriolet was also offered between 1979-1992 and the cult pick up truck the Caddy was also part of the Golf Mk1 range.

Check out our Golf Mk1 Cabriolet buying guide here for all the details on buying an open-top Mk1. They offer great value for money, especially if you buy one in the winter!

The VW Rabbit

If you are living in America, then you may know these cars as VW Rabbits. The Mk1 Golf was exported to the US from 1975 and rebadged upon arrival as the Rabbit. From 1978 the Rabbit was produced at the Westmoreland Factory in Pennsylvania, many of these featured square headlamps rather than round, wider taillights and much more pronounced bumpers due to the tougher safety regulations. They were available in both 3 and 5 door specification. A Rabbit GTI was also produced between 79-83. They rarely show up in Europe as their value doesn’t generally warrant the cost of importation on top of the purchase price.

The Citi Golf

Just before we dive into what to check for, the last model of note is the South African Citi Golf. Why is it so important? Well, they produced these 5-door only models from 1984-2009, which when production ended, it left behind the availability of parts for cars in South Africa and beyond. This has been key to the success of our Mk1 Golf parts range, as it meant so many genuine VW parts have been available to assist enthusiasts with their restoration projects.

Mk1 Golf engines

The Golf Mk1 came with a number of engine capacity options. 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.6 and 1.8-litre petrol and 1.5 and 1.6 diesel including a 1.6 turbo diesel. Whilst most enthusiasts shopping for a Mk1 will have their hearts set on a 1600cc or 1800cc GTI model there is still plenty to be said for the other capacities on offer.

The lowly 1.1-litre engine produces around 50bhp but can still be a lively car to drive once up to speed. Sadly, once your momentum has been lost, acceleration is pretty slow. However, that does make the ‘small block’ 1.1 and the 1.3 insurance friendly for the younger motorist, not to mention it sips fuel rather than guzzles it, making first job wages last a little longer in the tank.

The 1.5 and 1.6 litre ‘big block’ carburettor models offered a more comfortable 70-75 bhp, but it was the range-topping 1.6 GTI with 110bhp and the 1.8-litre GTI offering 112bhp that understandably caused a stir with journalists and drivers alike when launched.

Should you find a diesel model do not expect refinement or speed! They are noisy, but frugal when it comes to fuel. Power ranges from 50bhp to a useful 70bhp for the turbo-diesel model.

What to check: Golf Mk1 Engines

Oil and filter should have been done at least once a year, with 6,000 miles the preferred distance interval. It’s an easy DIY job, with most Mk1 Golf engine parts readily available.

The biggest tell-tale of engine wear will be evidence of blue smoke on the overrun which points to worn valve guide seals. It’s not a particularly difficult job, but use it as a negotiating tool when talking price.

It’s always worth finding out when the cambelt was last changed. The official interval is every four years or 40,000 miles, so if you can’t find evidence of it having been done, this will be your first job. In comparison to modern-day cars this is a simple job, but get it wrong and your engine could be a write-off, so try and knock a bit off the price to cover the expense.

On small-block Golfs (the 1.1 and 1.3-litre models) chances are the original carburettor will be worn which means the car will have trouble idling. Equally likely is a split in the rubber carburettor flange that mounts to the inlet manifold. This will typically cause the car to stall at junctions when decelerating from speed.

Check GTI engines tick over nicely from cold and don’t stall. The fuel metering head, mounted on the airbox is all mechanical and can become troublesome with age, likewise, the throttle body will benefit from a cleanout if the previous owner wasn’t mechanically minded.

Golf Mk1 Gearbox options

Most first-generation Golfs have a manual transmission, with 4 speed being the default up until August ’79 when a 5 speed was fitted to all big block petrol and turbo diesel models. Whilst fairly uncommon in the UK, a 3-speed automatic was also offered for those who wanted it.

Like all Volkswagens of the era, the mechanicals are pretty robust but the synchromesh does fail on high mileage examples, so listen for a crunch as you shift into second. Linkages can also let go which will make gear changes feel uncharacteristically sloppy. The linkages are easier to replace on early cars but a bit of a fiddle on the Series 2. We sell gearchange bushing kits and new linkage arms should you need them.

Golf Mk1s like to rust!

Arguably the most important factor when considering a Golf Mk1 purchase is the condition of the bodywork. Unless you are spending tens of thousands on a fully documented restoration, there will be something nasty hidden away somewhere which could bite you later on down the road.

Inner sills and outer sills, floor pans, inner and outer wheel arches, rear panels, spare wheel wells, boot floors, front panels, bulkheads and lower windscreen panel, chassis legs and wings, and that’s before you look at the inside of the bonnet and tailgate and investigate any damage on the roof caused by a leaky sunroof.

The fuel filler neck is a common rot spot. It’s relatively easy to replace but the problem is, when it crumbles, rust can drop down into the fuel tank and get into the fuel system. This can be a right nightmare on injected models and lead to terrible running problems and even mechanical breakdowns.

If you are signing up for a full restoration, and have either the funds or the skills then this list shouldn’t put you off. But if you’re hoping for a quick doer-upper, pay particular attention to the panel work, rust bubbles and previous MOT advisories. You’d have to get very lucky to buy a cheap, solid Golf Mk1.

Golf Mk1 Body Trim

The older the car the trickier it will be to source original body parts. Chrome and black powder-coated bumpers are something we can supply, as are the anodised aluminium body trims. Front spoilers and plastic bumpers are both likely to have suffered scrapes which may or may not have you searching for replacements; either way, see if you can knock a few quid off for your troubles.

Early cars have manually operated wing mirrors, later models are controlled by a knob on the inside of the door panel. Exterior door handles differ early to late, with the metal-bodied 70s handles, or Porsche script handles being a popular swap over for show cars.

Golf Mk1 Running Gear

Mk1 Golf parts are generally affordable and easy to get hold of so there’s little to worry about here for potential buyers. Starting with the suspension; springs can snap and the top mounts, both front and rear can wear, producing a nasty knock when you mount a lowered kerb or hit a pothole. Again, these are things that should show up on a test drive. Tipping less than 850kg on the scales, handling is far from terrible in standard trim, steering is responsive and almost exclusively without power assistance from the factory.

If the direction changes feel sloppy then initially investigate the steering rack bushes, rather than the rack itself. Be mindful of the fact that VW didn’t strengthen the rack mount on the RHD cars and this is an area that can (and will) corrode so give it an eyeball if you can.

There are a host of Golf Mk1 bushes at the front, and also around the rear axle. Stock replacements are great for an original car, but many favour a Powerflex polyurethane upgrade for a fast road or track focussed build. This will, of course, make the ride on the street a little harsher, but reward you in the twisty bits and on track.

Performance suspension options are also plentiful from Eibach springs to shocks and springs and full height adjustable coilover kits. If you pick up a car with these fitted do your research on the brands chosen, how much they cost and always ask if the seller has the original parts, even if you have no plans to refit them straight away.

VW Golf Mk1 Brakes

With your head programmed to driving an older car, the brakes aren’t terrible for day to day use. Almost all models had 239mm diameter discs on the front, the smaller engine models had solid discs either 10mm or 12mm thick and the GTI models were vented, measuring 20mm thick. Even the GTIs had rear drum brakes from the factory, although it’s not uncommon to find a fast road car that has been upgraded with Mk2 GTI rear brakes.

When it comes to driving the Golf Mk1 quickly, the RHD cars suffer a lack of pedal feel due to the connection rods between the driver’s foot and the master cylinder on the passenger side. This sadly was the VW workaround when they launched the car in the UK, luckily LHD vehicles don’t suffer from this as the driver sits directly behind the master cylinder.

Larger brake master cylinders and servos are a popular modification for track day drivers, just be sure to adjust the rear balance valve, otherwise, you could find yourself facing the wrong way on the apex!

VW Golf Mk1 Wheels

The majority of models will have been supplied with 13″ steel wheels either in 5″ or 5.5″ width. Series 1 GTI models typically came with 5.5 x 13″ steel wheels, whilst the Series 2 cars featured the ‘Tarrantula’ alloy wheels in the same dimension. It was only the runout GTI models that originally had 6×14″ Pirelli P-slots.

Naturally many Mk1 Golfs have acquired alternative wheels over the years. 15″ G60 steel wheels are a popular choice, as are any of the BBS back catalogue. Aftermarket wheels can cause problems when lowering the car, especially if you don’t fit coilovers (which have a much thinner body than the original struts) so do some extra checks before shelling out on your dream set of split rims.

Golf Mk1 Interiors

Besides the general state of the bodywork, the condition of the interior will reveal a lot about mileage, originality and how well the car’s been looked after. Early trim is horribly hard to find these days, and massively prone to tearing. A car that is looking shabby inside will probably need a complete retrim, which will mean stepping away from the factory material unless you have one of the iconic GTI fabrics on your seats, which fortunately we have a good supply of.

Carpet sets are simple to source, headliners are readily available but finding an original undamaged dashboard will cause you a headache if Concours d’elegance is on the cards.

Golf Mk1 Electrics

By today’s standards, the first-generation Golf is basically clockwork! There are a few electrical bits and pieces of course, but the biggest issue you are likely to face is brittle wiring that has broken down inside leading to failure or intermittent issues. A continuity test with a multi-meter should help diagnose this fairly quickly for you.

Heater switches are a common failure point, but replacements are cheap and simple to fit. Should you need to remove the heater blower it has to come out under the dash and is a bit more complicated. The good news is modern upgrades can be retrofitted to the Golf quite easily. Headlamp relay kits will help improve vision at night, and if your starter motor sounds lazy, try our Hard start relay kit before shelling out on a brand new one.

The audio systems were limited if not non-existent in the Mk1 Golf, but this can be remedied fairly easily to help keep you entertained on road trips in the future.

Should I buy a Modified Mk1 Golf?

There are probably more modified Golf Mk1s on the market than there are original, non-messed around examples. So whilst a seller may have stacks of bills showing how much their engine conversion or fancy wheels cost them, realistically they won’t see that back when it comes to finding a buyer.

Talking of engine swaps, these can be anything from 1.3 G40 supercharged, 1400 16v, 1.8 16v, 2.0 ABF (Mk3 Golf 16v) G60 Supercharged, 2.8 VR6, 1.8 30v Turbo, R32, 2.0 TSI and the list goes on. Each has its own merits and complications, but we’ll tackle that another day.

Getting your Mk1 Golf to sit low has always been considered cool, but do ask questions if the car in question is sporting a heavy drop. Have the chassis legs been notched? Does it have air-ride, and if so who installed it – how reliable is it?

It could cost you more to convert a modified car back to standard than it would hold out for something less breathed upon, so don’t get too excited too quickly. However, if you want a Mk1 to tune or race, buying a car that has already been done will save you a fortune!

How much is a Golf Mk1?

Mk1 Golf tin top (non-cabriolet) prices fluctuate pretty wildly, ranging from £2,000 for a five-door restoration project, through to £20,000 or more for a GTI that’s been very well looked after or wonderfully restored. A 3 door tin top is the pinnacle of Mk1 Golf ownership in terms of cash needed to buy one, commanding close to double that of their five-door friends in most circumstances.

If you are shopping for a Golf Mk1 with a valid MOT, you are unlikely to find one for less than £5,000 with scruffy GTIs changing hands around the £10,000 mark. Originality, history and condition are what will separate one car from another and lead your quest well into the teens and beyond.

Swallow Tail cars don’t come up very often, so are tricky to put a price on, and it all depends on the state of the vehicle and if it has been modified. Early, small light cars will command a premium over larger rear light models. Jetta’s are in short supply but prices fit in-line with a similar 5 door Golf, the LHD only Coupe, however, will command stronger money for its rarity and coolness factor.

In the UK, there isn’t much call for an imported Rabbit (the costs have always outweighed the benefits, unlike with the aircooled scene) and whilst the Citi Golf has its charms they are an acquired taste amongst the purists bringing them in around £5-8k for a late 90s example that’s ready to use.

Money no object we reckon you’d struggle to spend more than £30,000 on either a very early GTI or a perfect 1984 GTI Campaign model, with the exception of finding 1 of 1600 ever built, French/Swiss market specials, with the 16v Oettinger engine, known as the Golf 16S.

Be sure to check out the Mk1 Golf Owners club classifieds, this club is excellently run and they also organise a fantastic annual event too.

Whatever Golf Mk1 you end up with, if it’s half-decent you should be sitting on a sound investment, and you’ll be smiling ear to each time you go for a drive.

Happy hunting.

Andy / Ian

Heritage Parts Centre delivers quality parts for VW and Porsche enthusiasts worldwide. Check out our car parts website here www.heritagepartscentre.com and follow our fun with #driveheritage on social media.