Here Is The Story Of How Tartan Became Associated With GTI

What is a GTI after all without a little bit of tartan on the seats and a golf ball as a gear knob?

There are perhaps few interior elements in the auto industry that are as iconic as the tartan seats on a GTI-badged Volkswagen. This plaid fabric after all has become as synonymous with the German automaker’s hotter offerings as it does the country of Scotland, with this typically-red chequered pattern making its debut all the way back in the first iteration of VW’s hot Golf back in 1976. 

But ever wonder where the idea for this now-iconic tartan came from? Well, it apparently all  began with a certain porcelain painter and chocolatier candy-box designer called Gunhild Liljequist. 

One of the automaker’s first female designers, Gunhild Liljequist was initially hired on to Volkswagen’s Germany-based Department of Fabrics and Colors in Wolfsburg in 1964 when she was just 28. Her work focused primarily on paint hues, trims and interior detailing, so when the first Golf GTI came about to be in the early 70s, she was tasked with designing various elements of its interior to add a bit of pizzazz to this upcoming hot hatch. 

And it was from this assignment that Ms. Gunhild gave to the GTI its two most iconic interior elements: the tartan seats and its golf ball gear knob. 

Speaking more about the tartan in an interview Ms. Gunhild gave to Volkswagen, she commented that she like the idea of black because it indicated sportiness, but also wanted some quality and colour too. “I took a lot of inspiration from my travels around Great Britain and I was always taken by high-quality fabrics with checked patterns … you could say that there is an element of British sportiness in the GTI,” she added cheekily. 

As for the golf ball gear knob meanwhile, Ms. Gunhild commented that this feature was a completely spontaneous idea. Apparently she was trying to express her sporting and golf associations out loud at the time, and the idea just came to her head: “how about a golf ball as the gear knob?”

Although her ideas initially faced some resistance from others at the time, the tartan seat pattern and golf ball knob has since become an iconic part of the GTI. And while the latter has slowly been replaced by a nub on the centre console due to the ongoing demise of the manual transmission, the chequered fabric is still nevertheless present in even Volkswagen’s recently revealed all-electric ID.GTI concept. 

Beyond her ever-lasting contribution to the Golf GTI, Ms. Gunhild has also left a mark on other Volkswagen products before her retirement in 1991. Another notable creation of hers was the 1987 limited edition ‘Etienne Aigner’ Mk1 Golf Cabriolet, a car design influenced by the luxury maker of handbags, luggage and various other leather accessories. 

Though more perhaps more industry-changing is her discovery of an iridescent, pearl colour that she applied to a car’s surface, using a transparent foil. The metallic quality of paint on modern cars today is in part the result of Liljuquist’s experimentation in paint and colouring.

Joshua Chin

Automotive journalist. Professional work on and Personal writing found at Instagram: @driveeveryday

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