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2019-06-11 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 5)

Wenn die Heide blüht

The VW Golf IV not only changed its maker’s fortunes. It changed car design in general.



Wolfsburg, Lower-Saxony, in one of the flattest stretches of Germany, is not a particularly charming place. Many executives working for the company that put it on the map in the first place hence prefer to commute there for their weekly chores from other, more picturesque places. Preferably in Bavaria. Wolfsburg simply is more of a necessity than a choice.

Nor is it a terribly inspiring environment. Much of the design coming from the VW brand in the 1980s and early 1990s betrayed as much, resulting in a moniker for Lower-Saxonian, middle-of-the-road, petty bourgeois style: Heidedesign. This tangible lack of aesthetic finesse may not have been among the core reasons, but certainly was a symptom of the dire straits Volkswagen found itself in during this period, which eventually resulted in this stretch of Lower-Saxony getting invaded by Bavarians - figuratively speaking, of course. For said ‘Bavarians’ were the very Austrian newly-appointed VW CEO, Ferdinand Piëch, Silesia-born chief designer, Hartmut Warkuß, the latter’s deputy, Peter Schreyer (a true Bavarian, for once) and quite a few other key personnel. All of whom had previously performed duties in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, where they had turned Audi, a brand once renowned for fast-corroding automobiles that somehow appealed to geography teachers’ tastes, into an internationally acclaimed car design powerhouse. 



In the early 1990s, VW was no powerhouse by anyone’s definition. There was little on offer in the way of innovation, and the third generation of the brand’s crucial Golf model had miraculously managed to combine the staid flair of its solid predecessor with quality issues hitherto unknown to the marque. Lacking the prerequisite reliability and solidity, while still being afflicted with the stuffy Heidedesign style made it very easy for competitors like Opel or Renault to appear considerably more advanced by this point. Therefore Volkswagen clearly needed no less than a design reinvention.

However, the Ingolstadt team’s eventual approach garnered an altogether different result - certainly very different in terms of scale. Because the Golf IV unveiled in 1997 not only did turn around the fortunes of VW design, but altered the parameters of automotive design in general. For once its clear head lights, wafer thin panel gaps and soft touch plastics had been seen and sampled by the press and car buyers alike, a term was widely recognised, which would alter the way in which car design is devised and discerned to this day: ‘perceived quality’.

Quality, after all, is a complex matter. A hand mixer, made of brittle plastics, performing its duties with the kind of discordant shriek suggestive of wedged-together mechanics, may end up being the amateur cook’s loyal companion for decades - yet its reliability would not automatically render it a quality item. Solid-yet-creamy-smooth mechanical action and sophisticated haptics, on the other hand, immediately convey a sense of an item created with an emphasis on durability and ‘honest’, substantial materials, rather than optimised building costs. Even though, say, a Lange 1 chronometer  requires far higher levels of maintenance than a common-and-garden Seiko quartz watch, it is the former that is associated with craftsmanship and quality.  



So how quality is perceived is not just about the result, but about how this is achieved. Hence how a door opens, how light or heavy it feels, how abruptly it stops and what noise it emits when it is shut, matters just as much as the fact that it opens and closes reliably. Particularly after the year 1997, when the Golf IV informed hatchback buyers that they deserved more than a car that ‘works’ - a car of engineering and design sophistication, whose premium over most competing products would not just be seen years in the future, when superior long-term quality might make itself apparent, but right away. The premium thus manifested itself in the ‘premium’ details of more pleasant haptics, greater sophistication of visible materials and ostentatious precision of manufacture. It also meant that the Golf’s fourth iteration was the first one that could sport leather seats without any ‘boy in a communion suit’ flair of unease. 

Just like the Mercedes-Benz vehicles of the 1980s, the Golf IV conveyed such a superior sense of solidity and refinement. In keeping with the design trends of the 1990s however, its appearance was considerably softer than those Mercedes models’, yet the designers exorcising Heidedesign from Wolfsburg ensured that the overall sense of precision and solidity - evident in the still substantial volumes and those impressively tight panel gaps - avoided any impression of flaccidness that blighted a great many car designs from that period. 



That the design of the Golf’s fourth iteration turned out to be so significant was obviously no lucky accident. Instead, it was the result of those Audi-trained designers cooperating with Wolfsburg staff, all of whom benefited from the significant investments in the styling department Ferdinand Piëch had granted, which may still not have turned Wolfsburg into the most inspiring of places, but enabled designers to work under drastically improved conditions, in significantly updated facilities. 

With the infrastructure thus in place, it was up to the talent and devotion of the designers to shed Heidedesign and create a mass-market statement car. Yet despite the Golf IV’s utterly coherent appearance, its form was not the direct result of a single designer’s stroke of genius, but a group of talented people working together in excellent conditions - and under significant pressure, which, on this occasion, turned out to add to the stylists’ ambitions and motivations. 



Among the particularly significant members of this group of designers was Karl Elmitt, whose overall responsibility was the Golf IV’s exterior. He himself reported to Peter Schreyer, just as he worked with two young designers, Steve Lewis (a Brit) and Jeff Teague (an American - and son of erstwhile American Motors chief designer, Dick Teague) on channelling and finessing their original ideas, which eventually resulted in those clear head lights that became an industry standard, the sheer-yet-solid flanks and the c-pillar that became the Golf’s modern-era visual trademark.  

Looking at this kind of hierarchy, it becomes obvious that the Golf IV’s groundbreaking design was not the result of any single eureka moment. Instead, it was the result of sustained dedication and focus, hard work and ambition - starting at the top with Ferdinand Piëch’s singular automotive vision, right through the ranks, including modellers, managers and, of course, the designers. 



For better or worse, the assessment criteria of a car’s design would never be what they used to be in the wake of that fateful 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. For better in that the Golf IV did herald a new era in terms of design sophistication. For worse in that the cyphers of ‘perceived quality’ would sometimes cover up shortcomings in terms of actual quality. In that context, it is not without a sense of irony that today, the most obvious sign of a VW Golf IV’s advanced age is the peeling of its soft touch paint - whose silken haptics had been so impressive two decades ago.

Peeling door handles excepted, the VW Golf IV has matured rather gracefully - to such an extent that it still is not considered old. Which proves, once again, that quality (‘perceived’ or not) matters. And that ambition and dedication are more important than geography. 


Thanks to Transport Museum for supplying the demonstrator car.


©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt


car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

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Comment by Jeroen |

Thank you for another nice article. I'd like to comment on a couple of points.

1. This generation of Golf embodied at best the notion of 'perceived quality'. It also inaugurated the quest for 'premiumness' in small cars. In my view, this had mixed success: on the one hand, it raised the general level of style, safety, and durability of B- and C-segment cars. On the other hand, the concept soon drifted away from solid construction and came to stand for unnecessary, voluptuous features or supersizing, or both. But it was an ace move by Volkswagen: by setting itself apart from all the previous hatchbacks, the MkIV Golf made many quirky, yet charming cars of the 1990s feel outdated or immature.

2. In my recollection, decisive signs of the mid-1990s overhaul of Volkswagen came with the 1996 Passat (B5). Although the exterior design still made compromises with the previous generation Passat, for me the B5 represented one of the biggest leaps forward in quality and style among all D-segment cars. And it's of course no coincidence that the other 'surprise' in the D category came with the Audi A4.

All the best, J.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Agreed on both counts.

Comment by Dave Klink |

Another enjoyable and insightful read, CB.

@Jeroen, I also found myself thinking of the Passat introduced just previously and the A4 throughout this read.

Comment by Rafael Braga |

The Golf IV was such a groundbreaking design, that it became a sort of status symbol, here in Brazil. For a long time, VWs were synonymous with VW Beetles, since the Beetle was manufactured here unitl 1994 (And with this fact you will understand that our options were very limited.)

The car is often referenced in brazilian rap ostentatious lyrics, as a sort of a "Bling Machine". Perhaps its stance, volume, engine and lookalike-ness to the upper Audi A3 gave it some sort of exoctic premium feel to most people. Almost the same feel that people had when Audi and Alfa Romeo came into the scene.

To this day, you can still find many in very good condition over here. Most owners (who gave the car the "Big-Frog-Face" nickname) can take some considerable care of them, unless when they cut their springs, slam them to the pavement and fit then 18 inch wheels.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Thanks for that insight, Rafael. It's fascinating to learn about how differently other cultures may treat the same object. 

Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |

As Christopher and the other commentators have said, Volkswagen really hit a design high point in the late 90's with the B5 Passat and Mk4 Golf. Both articulated a cool, disciplined rationality that immediately made all their competitors look rather ersatz in comparison.

Significantly, the Golf Mk4 lived for six years without any sheet-metal changes, receiving only minor tweaks to bumpers and light graphics. The B5 Passat was not so fortunate and suffered a facelift in 2001 aimed at making it more "premium" looking. This involved addin fussy and chintzy looking head and tail lamps that were rather at odds with the overall design theme. I suppose this hinted at what was to come, the awkward looking B6 Passat with its high-tailed stance and big chromed grille.

Similarly, the Mk5 Golf was a real disappointment after the sublime Mk4, reverting to a more rounded shape and also being saddled with fussy tail light graphics and that very un-VW style brash chrome grille.

For me, though, another (quite improbable) high point of VW design was the superb facelift of the unsatisfactory Mk5 to create the fine Mk6. A very well conceived nose and tail reworking produced a handsome car that runs the Mk4 close. In five-door form, it's solid shoulders and panel curvature give it an almost Sacco-esque (W124) quality.

What about the Polo? The model replacement timeline meant that there never was a true equivalent to the Mk4 Golf in design terms. The Mk3 Polo lived from 1993 to 2002. Its Mk4 successor was at launch given the facelifted B5 Passat's fussy tail light graphics and a "twin headlamp" front end design, shared with the smaller Lupo. What worked (to a point) on the W210 E-Class looked a bit contrived and silly on VW's small cars, and was discarded in the Polo's 2005 facelift in favour of large single lights that aped the B6 Passat's units.

Comment by Dave |

For me, the Golf IV combines high quality design with a high quality product.
It also shows why German industrial design is held in high regard throughout the world as it is designed more like a machine tool than a car. The only weak detail is the overdose of chrome in the headlights.
My absolutely favourite detail are the parallel shutlines of the rear hatch/light unit/bumper and trailing edge of the rear door. Together with the pinstripe panel gaps this is an absolute masterpiece of shutline management and the opposite of the ham fisted approach some competitors from Germany (Munich) had.
The design has the quality of being well done and of ageing very favourably.
The product itself is testimony to Fugen-Ferdls mantra that God is in the details. Polished gas struts for the rear hatch, spring loaded reels for the parcel shelf hangers and spring loaded chromed lashing eyes are much more pleasant then the Mk V’s cheap detail solutions. Our own IV is eighteen years old and looks like a brand new car when driven through the car wash – the only exception being the peeling off rubber paint of the door handles. That’s light years ahead of the Mk V which looks and is made very cheaply to pay for its expensive rear suspension.