UK’s rarest cars: 1981 Volkswagen Polo GLS, one of only 12 left

Red Polo GLS on a drive
'I think everyone's dad drove one': this Polo GLS is described by its owner as a real head turner

In the very early 1980s, a Volkswagen Polo GLS was the perfect car for the motorist who eschewed the Essex-tinged flamboyance of a top-of-the-range Ford Fiesta Ghia and the novelty of the Austin Metro HLS. Today, Simon Elliott’s 1981 example is believed to be one of only 12 on the road in the UK.

The Polo began as Project 86 of Volkswagen’s Audi-NSU division. Work started in 1971 and the resulting Audi 50 debuted on 30 August 1974. An impressed Motor wrote: “Assuming they can build VW quality into this new four-seater, it could well retire the Beetle fairly smartly.”

This paper also noted: “The Volkswagen group, which produces both makes, says the VW version will have a smaller engine option and different trim but will be otherwise identical. A right-hand-drive version of the VW Mini will be introduced in Britain late next year, but there are no plans at present to market the Audi 50 in this country.” The resulting VW Polo made its bow in 1975 and, compared with its Audi stablemate, had no front disc brakes and a more spartan interior.

Inside the car, view of the steering wheel and dash
The height of design chic in 1981

However, Volkswagen’s management was keen to elevate the Audi marque socially, so production of the diminutive 50 ended in July 1978. The Polo had made its UK debut at the 1975 London Motor Show and sales began in February 1976. Power came from an 895cc engine and buyers had a choice of N or more luxurious L trim levels. The Telegraph found: “Its general performance and feel are remarkably good by mini-car standards.”

Autocar was equally impressed, reporting: “Most of the opposition is at least starting to show its age, so the Polo has the advantage of time on its side – not to mention its sheer practicality and its ease of driving.” The Fiat 127 dated from 1971, the Honda Civic, the Peugeot 104 and the Renault 5 from 1972, while the Mini’s launch had taken place way back in 1959.

In 1979, Volkswagen introduced the new GLS flagship. The 1,093cc engine shared with the Golf was a major attraction and Elliott points out the equipment included “headrests and a cigar lighter – so all mod cons”. There was also a quartz clock, a trip mileage recorder and additional brightwork. What Car? praised the GLS as “a well-made car that’s fun to drive”.

The Polo's engine
An engine that could get you up to 90mph was one of VW's big boasts at the time

VW facelifted the range for 1980. The following year, the GLS cost £3,936 compared with £4,377 for the Fiesta 1.1 Ghia or £4,296 for the Metro HLS. Volkswagen claimed that owners of the top-of-the-range Polo would be “pampered throughout with soft carpeting to match the luxurious velour upholstery” and boasted of a 90mph top speed.

The Series 2 replaced the Series 1 in October 1981, after 768,200 units. The Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) sold more than 86,000 Polos in the UK. The usual suspects of corrosion and general neglect decimated their ranks to the point that the example shown here is one of the rarest VWs in this country. Mann Egerton of Ipswich sold it in 1981 and Elliott remarks: “It has only done 29,000 miles and runs beautifully. However, the brakes are a bit scary until you get used to them, while only having one door mirror is an interesting concept.”

The Polo
'It gets more attention than my Porsche,' says Elliott

Elliott was the director of VAG’s commercial vehicle division and he observes of the GLS’s rivals: “I am very biased towards Volkswagen, so I’d say it was much better than the Fiesta or the Metro. The Ford looked good and was popular, as was the Metro, but reliability-wise it is VW Polo all the way.” He acquired this car in 2016 and says: “My friend James Wade, the professional darts player known as ‘The Mechanic’, knew I was looking for one and he spotted this Polo, so I bought it.”

The Polo Series 1 was Volkswagen’s fifth water-cooled car after the K70, Passat, Scirocco and original Golf. In 1975, certain Beetle owners muttered the word “traitor” about VW’s defection from air-cooling for its cars’ engines. Today, Elliott finds “it is a real head-turner. People point and smile, and I think everyone’s dad drove one as that is the common theme – it gets more attention than my Porsche 911.”

Or, to quote one modest VW brochure, it was “Small but Great”.