Our first stop is Circuit Zolder. The track’s tight in infield does little to impress Aston as we hunt for picturesque photography locations, but this malaise is ended abruptly by the sight of an Ariel Atom with a camera rig built onto its nose for fast tracking shots. I let Aston down gently, suggesting that it might be difficult to sneak one through in his monthly expenses.
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With no track time booked, Zolder is little more than a convenient point at which to stop for lunch, but I have bigger plans for our next destination. I’ve never been to Spa- Francorchamps before, and while we’ll once again be denied track time (something called the WEC is in town and they’ve inconsiderately occupied the circuit), the Ardennes roads have their own challenges. Many are quite narrow, but so too is the Golf and the view through its extensive fenestration means you can skim along millimetres from verges and hedges with total confidence.
Were the helm as sharp as Giugiaro’s lines then slicing between the forests and fields would be easier still, but this is one area in which hot hatches have certainly advanced. Not in terms of feel, necessarily: there’s a wonderfully garrulous sensation through the steering wheel rim once you’re past the first few degrees of springy, old-car slack, as changes in resistance telegraph scrub and surface changes through the 185-section Pirelli P600s. It’s in precision and speed that the steering loses out. Anything but the gentlest of turns requires significant steering angle and the yawning ratio and considerable weight (there’s no power assistance) mean extra inputs or corrections are difficult to achieve with precision.
Then there are the brakes. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, they aren’t ineffective – apply significant pressure and you’ll stop in short distance. But the convoluted network of pipes ’twixt pedal and nearside-mounted master cylinder results in a significant region of dead travel before the pads bite, and the stoppers never feel less than spongy in their application. The result is that the emphasis is less on late braking, aggressive turn-in and encouraging the rear end to share cornering duties, and more on smooth inputs and maintaining momentum. Those shots of three-wheeling GTIs show a more aggressive approach is possible, but the satisfaction in adopting this driving style is low, because the Golf doesn’t punch out the other side with as much vigour as a modern equivalent.
Where no modern hatch can compete is the sense of constant interaction. I don’t want to invoke the curmudgeonly cliché that modern cars drive themselves, but they tend not to complain if you let your concentration slip. Journeys can pass by unmemorably with no greater concern than setting your ‘climate’ just so and making sure you don’t miss The Archers.
Conversely, you’re a vital component in the Mk1. Gearchanges must be undertaken with deliberate movements from the shoulder, and perhaps a little brutality when the car heats up and the shift becomes obstinate and sticky. Stay a gear too high or too low and you’ll be alerted by extra noise or lack of progress respectively. Heel-and-toe shifts are not only necessary to enact the smoothest downchanges but also require considerable contortion of the lower body thanks to the sinking brake pedal and unusually high throttle pedal position.
It’s a car of contrasts. There’s noise, feedback, weight and mechanical sensations to nearly every control, yet you luxuriate in soft, squashy seats – with greater bolsters than those of the regular Golf – and a cabin of remarkable airiness. It feels rough and ready to drive fast, but also remarkably relaxing when you’re travelling at a cruise – tall tyres absorb minor road zits far better than any modern hatch and their narrow section does wonders for reducing road roar.
We stop for fuel in Spa town and a chap with an old Polo strides over. ‘What year is it?’
I’ve never actually seen someone’s jaw drop, but his does. ‘But it’s perfect!’ Around this point I’d normally break the illusion and mutter with a kind of reserved English embarrassment that it isn’t really mine. Today, for some reason, I remain quiet.