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Happy birthday to an absolute legend! Volkswagen’s best-selling car of all time and Europe’s most popular car ever turns 50 today. On March 29, 1974, series production of the Golf Mk1 started at the Wolfsburg plant in Germany. Since then, more than 37 million units have been sold. Doing the math, over 2,000 people have bought one every single day over the last half a century.

The Beetle’s replacement originally emerged at the end of the 1960s when Porsche developed the EA 266 prototype. Over 50 cars were built but the project was ultimately canceled in October 1971. Those cars had a water-cooled inline engine tucked away underneath the rear bench seat, which technically made the car mid-engined. The location of the gas engine made things difficult regarding repair and maintenance work.

Volkswagen EA 266

It did enable a top speed of 116 mph, which wasn’t too shabby for an econobox. Although a mid-engined hatchback sounds like a lot of fun, the reality was completely different. Rumor has it the engine ran too hot and fumes would enter the cabin. Not only that but the vehicle was claimed to be rather loud as well as unstable on a wet road.

Chances are it would’ve been too expensive to build anyway, so the car was scrapped. It also looked awkward and would’ve been a pain to repair given the engine’s hard-to-access location. VW says that of the 50+ cars produced by Porsche in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only a handful have survived.

<p>Volkswagen EA 276</p>
<p>Volkswagen EA 276</p>

Around the same time, the EA 276 was being engineered at home in Wolfsburg with a front-wheel-drive, front-engined layout. Only one was ever made, but even that prototype wasn’t fully functional. It had the Beetle’s air-cooled boxer engine under the hood, while the fuel tank was located beneath the rear seats. The small hatchback – which looked better but still a bit uncanny – had a torsion beam axle and a spacious cargo area.

The EA 276 project was abandoned as well because the engine technology it used was already outdated for what was intended to be a global product. However, the one-off car did influence the first-generation VW Gol launched in Brazil in 1980 with the 1.3-liter air-cooled engine from the Beetle but mounted at the front. The Gol hatchback spawned a Voyage sedan about a year later.

<p>Volkswagen EA 337</p>

The true Golf before the Golf was the EA 337, penned by none other than Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro. The production model transitioned from square to round headlights while the turn signals were moved from the fenders to the front bumper. In addition, the door handles of the Golf Mk1 stick out from the body whereas on the EA 337, the handles sit flush with the body. The Golf’s windscreen is not as flat as on the prototype.

Giugiaro wanted the rectangular headlights to go into the production model and echo the taillights in terms of size and layout. However, VW decided to go with round lights because these were cheaper to produce. He recalls being asked to draw a “mass-produced car that should be a modern compact car with a boot lid.” He remembers VW asking him to “design a successor to the Beetle for us. And will be satisfied if the space in the interior is about the same as that of the Beetle.”

Although Giugiaro has designed everything from the BMW M1 to the Lotus Esprit, he once said the Golf was “the most important car of my career.” Back in 2008 when he celebrated his 70th birthday, the iconic automotive designer said the success of the original VW Golf “opened many doors for me.”

As far as the car’s name is concerned, “Golf” comes from the German word for the “Gulf Stream” (“Golfstrom”) ocean current. Fast forward 50 years later, VW still uses the iconic moniker for the eighth generation of its compact car. The hatchback/wagon duo recently went through a mid-cycle facelift and will remain on sale for several years until an all-electric Golf Mk9 takes its place in the lineup.

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