One could say: He is an honest man. The term sounds like colorlessness and boredom. Good point. Or this assessment: In terms of appearance, it resembles brown bread. Also not entirely unreasonable. But you could also describe it like this: It is a timeless creature that does not attract attention and that is one of the reasons why it has become so widespread. That’s the best way to do it.

This refers to the VW Golf, which first rolled off the production line in Wolfsburg on March 29, 1974 and which saved the company from ruin after two catastrophic years. In 1973, after spoiled decades, Volkswagen only made a meager profit of 82 million marks. In 1974, the balance sheet finally hit the bottom so hard with a loss of 807 million marks that the press was already speculating about a possible bankruptcy. The fact that things changed just one year after the blood-red numbers and the look into the abyss was primarily due to that new automobile.

Actually, in the five decades of its existence, everything has been said and everything has been tested about the Golf, which inherited the legendary VW Beetle and would also become the group’s most important revenue generator after it: What price (7995 DM), how strong ( 50 hp), how fast (145 km/h), how road holding (great), how economical (nine liters), how spacious (five people), how economical (1st price/performance), how advanced (very), how safe (first-class at the time), what customer service (great) – and how the sum of these characteristics enabled him to be miles ahead of the competition for years to come. Its future is also clear: electric.

The majority of owners, on the other hand, are still puzzled to this day as to how they were able to achieve this evergreen, always well-dressed, cult status on a plain means of transport around the world. Sure, on the one hand, the car became an icon of the compact car segment because of its modern technology, reliability, simplicity and space, just as Nivea is for hand creams or Tempo for tissues.

This nimbus was achieved not least through a massive constant barrage of advertising on all media channels, which will have cost hundreds of millions of marks over the years. The images in the advertisements were carefully staged. It wasn’t just any photo of the Golf and a more or less clumsy or blatant line of text that caught people’s attention, but rather the main character was embedded in a small story that could be grasped in a matter of seconds, garnished with clever, cheeky, self-confident or even provocative headlines.

The engine strength or top speed were less emphasized. More important was the gut-punching and unwritten subtext: “One for all.” At the market launch in 1974, the target group of millions of people was addressed with the apt line “A car for a wide range of people”. There was also a picture that showed the Golf from the front and half from above, with a person looking into the camera from each of its four open doors.

Or in the same year the variant with the flippant saying: “The new popular sport: golf.” In 1975, when a wave of austerity swept through the country, large-format color advertisements said snappy: “Go golfing. Gasoline is expensive.” And for the stingy diesel version, the advertising strategists skilfully wrote: “The six-liter car.”

In mid-1976, when the hot GTI version with 110 hp and a top speed of 184 km/h was introduced and was supposed to become a terror on the highway, the double-page spread read: “Car, engine and sprint” – based on a car magazine with almost the same name. Many a youngster has enjoyed blowing away the more powerful and sedate bourgeois sedans like a Ford Granada or Opel Rekord on the easy-grip sports steering wheel of this hot stove.

These clever ad compositions not only created curiosity and stopped the instinctive need to quickly turn the pages. The viewers almost always smiled because of the clever ideas in the images and text. The cool technical and design qualities of the car imperceptibly hammered their way into the subconscious of potential new customers.

However, that alone was usually not enough for a signature on the purchase contract form. What was missing was an instinctive feeling that often only emerged unconsciously during a test drive: Like the Beetle, its generic design does not allow for any social classification of the person behind the wheel. This is pleasant and still applies today.

It doesn’t matter whether a rich button in the upgraded but almost anonymous six-cylinder R32 with 241 hp accelerates or whether a poor wretch in the rusted third-hand Golf with 150,000 kilometers on the clock – the exterior of the Wolfsburg Everyman has revealed nothing for 50 years about the thickness of the wallet.

This simplicity is considered by experts to be the real key to global success. This is certainly one of the reasons why more than 37 million customers worldwide will have chosen it by the end of 2023. A former VW chief designer described the strict design recipe as follows: “A new Golf should never be a visual revolution. This would make the previous model look old. The owners wouldn’t like that. You have to proceed very carefully.”

Which doesn’t rule out having to do without potent brothers in the large and almost identically dressed Golf family. The still valid design credo that less is more is signaled on the hot variants in addition to wider tires only by small type abbreviations such as GTI, VR6 and R32 in the rear or on the radiator grille. With a lot of power under the front hood, these visually underestimated Golf offshoots can cause drivers of much thicker sleds to experience annoyance up to almost 250 things in no time.

The company’s ambulance also pulled ahead when it came to new car registrations. As early as 1975, the bestseller took the lead in the official statistics: 166,869 Golfs received new license plates, around 47,000 more than its second-placed sibling, the Passat. At the end of 1983, the mark of almost five million Golfs manufactured (exactly 4.9 million) was reached.

Back then, Volkswagen looked for the reasons for its enormous success with the help of a customer study*. Result: 40.1 percent of those surveyed cited brand loyalty as a reason for purchase, for 35.7 percent the low loss of value, cost-effectiveness and low fuel consumption were decisive and 30.2 percent valued the robustness of the car.

Furthermore, image studies* at the time revealed that the typical golf buyer considers himself to be self-confident, active, cultivated, versatile, pragmatic and progressive. 73 percent are male, 41 percent said they had elementary school as their educational qualification, eleven percent had a high school diploma and 43 percent were employees.

As it got older, the veneer of success on the Golf eventually started to peel off here and there, despite constant improvements. Especially because the competitors in the compact class, which he had founded in the first place, were becoming more and more numerous.

In 2022, the Wolfsburg statisticians only recorded 84,282 new registrations of the car. That was enough for the top position, but it doesn’t meet Volkswagen’s demands. And the downward trend continued in 2023: only 81,117 units of the eighth-generation sales flagship were registered for the first time by the end of December.

Now VW is facing similar major changes to those in 1974, when the VW Beetle, which was far too expensive to produce, almost drove the company into the abyss. This time, however, there are no red numbers that need to be turned into black. It’s about expanding the electric range and also the answer to the strategic question of to what extent the group concept should be expanded towards synthetic fuels.

*stern library – 20 years of golf, marketing communication for a successful product, pp. 49/66-68, December 1994