My First Car: In Polo position – Volkswagen ‘shopping car’ fuels lifelong ‘obsession’

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Richard Gooding recounts how a little green Volkswagen went on to play, and inspire, a bigger part in his life than was originally scripted…

Why? That’s probably what I get asked most. Why a ‘shopping car’? I’ll happily have you know that the Volkswagen Polo is more than a shopping car. Much more. It’s also the car that started my driving career (okay, there was my driving instructor’s Metro, too), and has no doubt influenced more than half of my life since.

I’ll admit it is a strange car to have any kind of affection for, but I blame that 1978 Manilagrün Mk 1 Polo, which was passed on to me from my maternal grandparents when I was learning to drive in 1991. I’d loved Beetles as a young boy (an affliction my dad had apparently shared), and Volkswagens as a teenager. Although WVG 361S, pictured above, wasn’t a Bug, it did have that coveted ‘VW’ badge.

An entry-level ‘N’ model, the car was powered by an 895cc, 40bhp engine, with a four-speed gearbox, and would almost scream along at higher motorway speeds. It ran as sweet as the proverbial nut most of the time, its very smooth little engine purring along all of its 685kg. Nimble and light, it was a ‘pure’ and quite neat handler, too.

Bought from Cluer’s Cars in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, on January 3, 1978 for £2,367 (and built on August 8, 1977), the sole reason the Polo was in my grandparents’ garage was the fact it was green. My nan’s favourite colour was green and their (brown) 1971 Ford Escort 1100 L was traded in to part-pay for the VW. What they didn’t know at the time, of course, was that the Volkswagen shade of green they’d chosen was one of, if not the most, contemporary VW colours prone to fade. Fast-forward three years and the Polo’s patchwork appearance once I started to attend to the corrosion…

Being an entry-level model, luxuries were things that single sun visor/wing mirror Polo drivers had no idea of. Yes, there was a radio (fitted later) and a rear wash/wipe but little else. Even carpets were an afterthought, my car having rubber floor matting (with at one stage, rubber mats to cover the rubber mats!). Yes, I added to the car’s features but I’m not sure brown seat covers (come on, what other colour goes with green?) and a similarly-hued leather steering wheel wrap were tasteful in the 1970s, let alone 1991.

Up until I sat on the houndstooth-trimmed driver’s seat, the Polo had done 54,000 miles in 12 years. The low mileage didn’t last long, as it was soon pressed into service, ferrying me from home in Lowestoft to art school in Norwich. Around 300 miles a week, it had soon racked up another 30,000 miles in three years. The little green machine took me everywhere, one very memorable drive being the 448-mile round-trip to the 1993 British Volkswagen Festival at the Three Counties Showground, Malvern. Undertaken in a day, the car was being exhibited in a celebratory line-up to mark 50 years of Volkswagen in the UK. I wouldn’t dream of doing that now!

A select few creature comforts made journeys more enjoyable, including an Astrali four-spoke steering wheel, Kamei door pockets, rear seat belts, mudflaps and a passenger sun visor purloined from a Phoenix Red Polo L at my then local Volkswagen dealer.

The exemplary condition of WVG 361S, when it was passed to me, was largely due to the fact the car had been resprayed after damage to a front wing in 1988. Just after it reluctantly left me in April 1994, it was (badly) painted a kind of British Racing Green, which I never liked.

The baby Volkswagen had been a joy to own and drive, if not the paragon of reliability. A check on the government’s MOT check website indicates that it went to the scrapyard in the sky in 1996.

But it’s perhaps more the legacy the little car left than what it was that means more to me now. It’s led to a succession of four Polos over 27 years (marque dedication or madness, I’m not sure!), replaced by a 1985 hatchback, a lovely-looking 1986 Coupé S with a Zender body kit, a 1994 Coupé GT and my current car, an increasingly rare 2001 Polo GTI.

There’s also a fit-to-bursting cupboard of brochures and books, magazines, model and toy cars, DVDs and even a website at PoloDriver.com.

I’ve also been the ‘go-to’ man on several occasions when the Volkswagen UK press office has needed cars for press launches, resulting in my GTI representing the third-generation Polo at the sixth-generation model’s launch in January 2018. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement!

My fondness for the Polo has also inspired my foray into writing, starting with pieces for the Volkswagen Owners Club GB newsletter, and going on to bigger and better (and thankfully more varied!) things.

And, while I’d agree with the sentiment of those who ask the ‘Why a Polo?’ question, it’s also one I can’t fully answer. The little (or not so little these days) car has wormed its way into my affections for reasons I can’t quite fathom. ‘Shopping car’, small family car, sporty car, world rally championship-winning car, the Polo has had many personalities over the past 44 years.

To play even a small part in its story is still a privilege and, even though I may be classed as odd, I’m not as fervently odd as some of the Polo fans in Germany. I mean, who would have so much memorabilia in their living room that it looks like a garage or museum? While I admire them, those friends take the need to ask the ‘why’ question to a whole new level.

SGMW members can send their first car feature with a picture to andrew.russell10@sky.com

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