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.
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