Golf GTI’s Northern Irish grandparents

Without Ballymena’s Robert McBurney we might not have had 45 years of fun

Time to go and meet the grandparents. No not me, I’m afraid my grandparents have long since passed on. However, there is someone, something, that’s the same age as me that I can bring to meet a distant ancestor.

It’s the Volkswagen Golf GTI and it’s the same age as me; 45 years old this year. Well, actually, that’s not quite right. You see the Golf GTI in general is 45 years old this year, but right-hand drive versions of the Golf GTI didn’t start to appear for another year after the original 1976 launch, and there is a very strong Irish connection to the right-hand drive Golf GTIs that we’ve been able to enjoy for the past four decades.

We'll come back to that in a moment, but let's first consider the scene in front of us. On one side of the car park is a brand new Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. This is, in so many ways, a truly remarkable vehicle. It has 300hp – more power than an early 1990s Porsche 911 – but it is in every conceivable way a truly practical family hatchback. In spite of its 5.6 seconds 0-100km/h time, it is roomy, comfortable, and has just averaged 6.7-litres per 100km fuel economy on the way to Fermoy, Co Cork.

Why Fermoy? Because we've brought the Golf GTI, on the occasion of its 45th birthday, to see its grandad. Wayne McCarthy from classic car specialists Edgewood Automotive has thrown open the garage doors and wheeled out the Clubsport's grandad – a 1992 VW Golf GTI 8v MkII.


Resplendent in red, complete with original inspection stickers, a first aid kit, and with a mere 93,000 miles on the clock, the ‘92 GTI is in some ways everything the modern car isn’t. It’s slow – at least by modern standards, taking almost twice the current car’s time to reach 100km/h (9.7 seconds in period, and I wouldn’t go trying such a clutch-frying standing start now) – and it’s simple.

A five-speed manual gearbox compared to the new GTI’s computer-controlled seven-speed dual-clutch auto. A simple eight-valve 1.8-litre naturally aspirated engine compared to the turbocharged 300hp monster in the nose of the Clubsport. Both get bucket seats (the 92’s made by seat experts Recaro) and both have the superimposed VW badge on the nose, but that’s where the similarities run out, right?

Happy growl

Well, yes, but also no. There is direct connective tissue between the two cars beyond the name and the badge. Of course the earlier car is slower – how could it not be?

But the eight-valve’s happy growl as you accelerate has a resonance in the noises made by the new car and the ample grunt on offer – 112hp and 155Nm does not sound like much but with a mere 920kg to haul around the MkII GTI never feels slow and gives you some of the same sensations on the road. Ditto the light, but fast, power steering.

In some ways the original car is far superior to the new one. Okay, I doubt we'd have driven from Belfast to north Cork quite so comfortably nor as economically in the older car, but its simple, clear instruments and chunky switches mounted a mere finger's stretch away from the rim of the steering wheel put the new GTI's fiddly, over-complex touchscreens to shame.

As does the ‘92 Golf’s ability to entertain and invigorate at low speeds – so incredibly capable is the Clubsport that you have to be doing silly speeds to squeeze much fun from it.

Of course it's notable in both cars that you're sitting on the right, as befits a car sold in Ireland. That almost didn't happen, though. Back in 1976, when VW created the first Golf GTI, it was meant to be a limited-run thing (VW would have been happy at the time with 5,000 sales) and right-hand drive was strictly verboten. It could not be done, reckoned the engineers in Wolfsburg.

One man thought it could be done, though, and helpfully he was a VW dealer with direct access to the necessary boxes of parts to do so. He was Robert McBurney, from Ballymena, Co Antrim, and he had moved on from storming rallies in Beetles, including the Circuit of Ireland as a team-mate to the great Paddy Hopkirk, to thinking that the new hot Golf would make an ideal rally weapon if only he could sit on the correct side of the car.

"At the time Volkswagen Beetles reigned supreme in Irish rallying." Those are the words of Beatty Crawford, legendary Irish rally driver and co-drive, and a man who knew McBurney well. "Robert was a brilliant mechanic, but if he had a fault it was that he stayed loyal to Volkswagen for too long."

Rallying scene

Although the venerable Beetle – a car almost endlessly responsive to being tuned and tweaked – dominated the rallying scene in the 1960s, by the 1970s it has been thoroughly usurped by the Ford Escort. McBurney, a VW dealer, and the son of a VW dealer, felt he couldn’t be seen rallying something else, or at least not often, so his racing career stagnated somewhat. Then came the Golf.

“Everybody was clamouring to get a Golf GTI in right-hand drive,” recalls Crawford. “But the Germans said no, and if you’ve ever dealt with Germans in business, once they make their minds up that’s it. It’s very difficult to turn a German.

“What Robert did was basically to go to the spare parts catalogue, and he just built a right-hand drive GTI. Then Reggie McSpadden, who was the head of VW sales at Agnew in Belfast (indeed, it was McSpadden’s wife who donated her own personal Golf to become the bodyshell for the right-hand drive GTI project) and with whom Robert had done some rallying, mentioned this to the VW high-ups. Who said it was impossible.”

The car, along with McBurney and McSpadden, was duly summoned to VW’s headquarters in Wolfsburg where, according to Crawford, “they couldn’t believe it. Well, they had to believe it once they saw the car in front of them.”

Changing the historical course of a manufacturing giant wasn’t on McBurney’s mind–he just wanted a decent rally car to replace the obsolete Beetle, and the Golf GTI was ideal. According to the archives of CarSport magazine, he got what he wanted from the car. “We drove it around the Circuit of Ireland rally at a steady speed and finished second in our class,” McBurney told CarSport.

VW, stunned into action, quickly put the Golf GTI on sale in right-hand drive markets, and it became an instant and enduring, success. The UK in particular has since been incredibly keen not just on hot Golfs, but on fast hatches of all kinds.

Without right-hand drive models would we have had the brilliant UK-produced TV adverts of the 1980s that – thanks to Paula Hamilton getting rid of her fur coat, pearls, and diamonds but keeping the keys to the GTI – did so much to build the Golf's image?

Big transporter

Sadly it didn’t do McBurney much good.

“It seems hard to think of it now, but back then Volkswagen was struggling for sales, couldn’t sell a car,” says Crawford. “They’d lost their way, and Robert had over-extended himself, investing in a big new paint facility, and lost a lot of money.

“And one day Volkswagen just sent a big transporter and they picked up all the cars from the dealership and took them away. He was bankrupt. Everything was gone in a fire sale.”

Crawford and McBurney weren't quite finished with their VW conversions, though. Crawford – a doctor – spent many years living and working in the US in Connecticut. "Robert would come over and visit us, and spend two or three weeks in the summer. At the time I had bought a Volkswagen Jetta saloon, and guess what? You couldn't get the GTI engine in the Jetta."

Seizing upon this, McBurney – by then working for Agnew VW in Belfast – arranged to have a GTI engine shipped to Connecticut.

"I had gotten to know the local VW dealer," says Crawford. "We asked if we could borrow an engine hoist, and a few days later I had the only Jetta GTI in the United States. "