The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the quintessential hot hatch, packing a disproportionate amount of fun into a practical, blessedly affordable package. We usually trumpet the GTI’s driving performance, but the tartan plaid cloth upholstery on the base model cars is a charming nod to the very first GTIs — and given the preponderance of dark, monotone interiors, a welcome change of pace.
This was originally the work of designer Gunhild Liljequist. “Black was sporty, but I also wanted color and quality,” said Liljequist recently of her work on the first GTI, which debuted in 1975. “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.” The dimpled golf ball-shaped shift knob was her idea, too.
Before she started working at VW in 1964, Liljequist had been a porcelain painter and candy box designer; her outsider perspective no doubt allowed her look beyond the realm of bland but functional interior materials, helping bring visual interest and fun to the attainable performance car. (This isn’t a totally unique idea; notably, Packard brought on interior designer Dorothy Draper to help spruce up its cabins in the 1950s, to less enduring effect.)
When done right, patterns and colors are timeless and memorable — there’s a reason the GTI is still offered with plaid seats today. And it feels like these materials were a much bigger deal in the past. We’ve seen wild patterns in big Duesenbergs, crazy brocades in Bugattis, gaudy faux-tartans in malaise-era Mopars … even Porsche has had its fair share of interesting, unexpected interior options, from the classic “pepita” houndstooth — which was brought back on the 911 50th Anniversary edition — to the truly zany op-art “pasha” checkerboard treatment of the late 1970s.
But it’s not done often anymore. Why? It’s always been the case that the majority of car interiors are boring and functional (that’s all most buyers want out of their cars, after all), but our theory is that, as leather became the go-to upgrade choice, distinctive cloth upholstery options got squeezed out.
So, what’s your favorite non-leather interior? What unexpected patterns would you like to see return to today’s production cars? Let us know in the comments below.