For anyone brave enough to undertake a motoring holiday on the continent during the mid-1980s, the sight of hundreds of Volkswagen Golf GTIs flying along the outside lane of the autobahn at Warp Factor Nine would have created an indelible impression. There was something sexy about the low-key way these cars were styled – you only knew it was a GTI if you looked closely and spotted the red pinstriping and fat tyres. But things weren’t quite what they appeared. You see, most of those GTIs weren’t GTIs at all… a close look at their badges revealed something strange: GTD.
In 1982, VAG bolted a turbo to its sweet 1.6- litre diesel engine, and dropped it into the Audi 80. It proved an instant hit. So much so, that production couldn’t keep up with demand in Europe, which left dealers clamouring for cars that customers desperately wanted. But once production was suitably ramped up, the engine found its way into the Golf to create what should have been the optimum small diesel. However, by this time, the Golf was already winding down, as VW had already paved the way for the larger and more sensible MkII model. It arrived in August 1983. The Golf may have lost its pert Giugiaro-penned styling and compact wheel-at-each-corner packaging, but the MkII was fundamentally a better car. It was roomier, more refined and better built. The 1.8-litre GTI proved instantly popular, too, becoming a cult car the moment it appeared in the showrooms. The original Golf GTD concept had already been accepted in the marketplace, so all it needed was for Volkswagen to launch an identical MkII version, and they would fly out of the showrooms once more. And so it proved. The GTD might have packed a 70bhp punch as opposed to the GTI’s 112, but compared with the normally aspirated opposition, it was a rocketship. Start-up was noisy, and the engine lost the sweetness of its non-turbo 54bhp cousin, but the GTD was still a genuine 100mph car – a fast lane warrior. The Italians and French in particular, lapped it up, and soon they were able to own a diesel-engined car that was fashionable enough to be seen in all the smartest places.
However, when the MkII arrived in the UK in February 1984, the GTD was absent from the range. Due to the unfavourable tax situation that existed in the UK (and still does, to some extent), diesel was up to 20 per cent more expensive than petrol per gallon. And although a GTD would deliver 45mpg against the GTI’s 32mpg, it would take the average owner well over 100,000 miles to recoup the higher initial purchase price of the GTD. Volkswagen quickly realised that the UK was a relative no-go area for oil-burners at the time, and consequently, it didn’t ship Europe’s first diesel hot hatch to our shores.
It was a missed opportunity, but one that many other European manufacturers repeated. In fact, the only way you’d get close to a new GTD was by taking that continental holiday – and trying to keep up with one on the autoroutes.