This Was Volkswagen’s First (And Second) Twin-Engined Volkswagen Golf To Take On Pikes Peak
Photography by Robb Pritchard
Volkswagen made Pikes Peak history a few years ago with Romain Dumas at the wheel in their technological marvel called the I.D R. He all but decimated Sebastien Loeb’s previous record of 8:13.878, and VW took electric motorsport technology to a figurative and literal new height along the way, but the record run in 2018—timed at 7:57.148—was actually VW’s fourth factory-backed attempt at the mountain, and not the first time something utterly unique was built for the effort. Let’s step back to the 1980s and take a tour through VW’s ingenious twin-engined Golf.
The American market has long been a desirable place for European manufacturers to sell cars, and motorsport participation was an oft-chosen crucible to demonstrate their merits. For example, Porsche went to Can-Am in the early 1970s, BMW came to IMSA in 1975, Audi took on IMSA to great effect in the following decade, and in 1985 VW decided that the best way to show off the capabilities of its humble hatchback was to blast it up into the clouds on the legendary 12.4-mile, 156-turn hillclimb on Pikes Peak.
What they took to Colorado, in the foothills of the eastern Rockies, was far from a normal Golf of course. The rules for Pikes Peak have always been much more open than other forms of competition (the “unlimited” class does a good job living up to the name), and so VW was free to create a car that was even wilder than what was happening in Group B rallying. That’s not to say this car would have trumped the Delta S4, Quattro S1, or 205 T16, but from an engineering standpoint, this Golf is further “out there” than just about anything that was out there in the WRC.
Volkswagen installed two 1800cc 16-valve engines in their 1985 Pikes Peak Golf for a combined output of 390bhp, but with the finish line of the climb sitting at an elevation over 4000m and with oxygen content at the top about 50% of what it is at sea level, the naturally aspirated engines suffered quite considerable power loss as they ran out of air. Driver Jochi Kleint, then a VW factory driver in the ERC and selected rounds of the WRC, could only manage the third fastest time, which sounds good but was well over a minute behind the turbocharged Quattro S1 of that year’s overall winner, Michèle Mouton.
Lessons learned, in 1986 VW returned with a more serious car. The twin-engine concept remained in place, but out went the naturally aspirated lumps, and in went a pair of much smaller—and therefore lighter—1300cc Polo motors. These were each fitted with a KKK 24 turbo. The concept was sound, and with around 500bhp on tap from the new powertrain, the time up the mountain should have been much faster than the previous attempt. But unfortunately electrical gremlins slowed them down, and Kleint finished fourth, with a time of 12:31.93, exactly half a second slower than he managed in 1985 with the naturally aspirated version of the car.
Aware that using a road-going Golf as the base was a major limitation, for the 1987 attempt, a new car was built from scratch on a space frame chassis covered with fiberglass body panels, and it is with this version that they came closest to glory, for 1987 was the year in which Walter Röhrl went up in the massively winged Quattro and took the win and a new record, while Ari Vatanen finished second in the similarly outrageously aero’d Peugeot 205. But for almost the entire course, it was Kleint and the Golf leading on the split times… Until, cruelly, three corners from the finish, a ball joint in the suspension failed. Still retained by VW, this is the car you will likely come across when Googling the story of the twin-engine Golf. The one pictured here is the car from the 1985 and 1986 attempts.
The car was sold after the 1986 event to a private collector in Berlin, and shortly later to another in Bonn, and was basically lost to the public, kept completely untouched in private collections and unseen by anyone for thirty-plus years. But eventually it was offered to a one Wolf-Dieter Ihle, an avid collector of German rally cars and owner of several outstanding ex-works Audis and Porsches—he was only too happy to add the Golf with two hearts to his collection.
Fortunately for fans of historically significant classic rally cars, Ihle has the opposite philosophy of the Golf’s previous owners and doesn’t believe a car needs to be socked completely away. He is a firm believer that cars are made to be driven, so as soon as the Golf was in his workshop, he set about restoring it to running condition. Which, compared to some other incredibly rare machines he’s brought back to their former glory, was remarkably easy.
But then again what does “easy” mean when you have two full-time mechanics to look after your collection and their day jobs involve servicing and repairing ex-works Quattros? In this context the Golf wasn’t much of a technical challenge at all—specially since most of it is made from pretty standard VW parts.
“Their philosophy was that they wanted it to be easily recognizable as a VW that you could go out to a dealer to buy,” Wolf-Dieter tells me, so all the serviceable parts such as belts, filters, CV boots, and spark plugs, were easily found off the shelf and cost next to nothing. The engine internals are forged pistons and camshafts to cope with the extra power supplied by the turbos, but just about everything else was standard, although as a group they make up a real mix of the VW “parts bin.”
This was fortunate seeing as VW kept absolutely no known records of the car, nor even any press photos or promotional material. There was even a lot of ambiguity about whether there were actually two cars or just the one that was revamped for the 1986 attempt, something that was impossible to verify as the car wasn’t available to inspect for all of those years. That was one of the first things Wolf-Dieter wanted to verify.
Getting close up, he pointed out some of the details from the earlier 1985 version of the car that weren’t lost when it was upgraded with the turbo engines. At the rear end for instance, are the gaps for the previous two exhaust pipes to exit, which are roughly blanked off, and there is still the mount for the earlier, larger dashboard that wasn’t ground off when the new dash went in for 1986. “These little details prove that the 1985 car didn’t get lost somewhere, and that this is the same one, which is pretty nice for me,” Ihle says with a laugh, “It means I have two Pikes Peaks Golfs in one!”
Up on the ramps in his workshop, the car is a delight of relatively low-tech but effective engineering solutions, and Wolf-Dieter is happy to show me around. The first thing he points out is that the rear subframe is the same as the front, just with the mounts for the steering joints cut off. The air intake manifold on the rear engine is a standard piece too, just flipped upside down to fit—looking up from underneath, the letters DOHC are visible.
The suspension is adjusted by sliding a clamp out and putting it back in a higher slot in the spacer above the top mount—wonderfully simple you could say—but the most awesome of all the hand-crafted solutions for running a twin-engine set up over thirty years ago has to be the connector at the bottom of the shifter. A selector cable runs off to either gearbox. The central position, held in place with a small pin, engages both. Push it to the right and the left cable is disconnected and remains in neutral so that drive is engaged to only the rear engine. And vice versa. Effectively the driver can convert the car to all-, rear-, or front-wheel drive at will.
Perfectly synchronized gear changes are another critically important part of running a twin-engine car, so to get the clutches to engage and release at exactly the same moment, a pair of pressure adjusters were mounted on the dashboard next to the bright white steering wheel so that they can be fine tuned on the move. Getting the exact amount of fuel to both engines was also very important, and the solution they came up with was a fly-by-wire electronic pedal linked to an ECU that in 1985 was probably just as technologically advanced as the I.D. R was in 2018.
Another bit of non-standard Golf is the beautifully hand crafted bunches of the exhaust manifolds that some skilled engineer welded up. Once in a single pipe, each engine’s exhaust exits at the side, along with a pair of pipes for the turbo waste gates, which from certain angles make it look like a Hot Wheels design feature.
Another low-tech solution to a potentially very big issue are the coolers in the scoops in the rear side windows, which aren’t for the oil as I originally thought, but for the fuel. The exhaust outlet manifolds for the rear engine are positioned a little too close to the fuel tank for comfort and actually heat the petrol up so much that they had problems with the fuel vaporizing. Hence the coolers protruding from the rear windows. The gearboxes turned out to be pretty unexpected items as well. In case they needed spares, Ihle’s team checked the serial numbers and found out that the gearboxes are prototypes for the diesel GTi, a car that wasn’t released for another ten years.
Another amazing find when they started stripping it down was an American windscreen washer water bottle stuffed in the back. A tube runs through a little electric pump to a water spray system aimed at the rear-mounted radiators. In practice runs, it seemed that the rear engine was running a bit hotter than ideally, so before the race VW’s team rigged up a system to spray cooling water. The bottle of fluid that was left in the car still has the original label on it. As well as finding all the history in the car, they also knocked out about three pounds of dirt. Wolf-Dieter didn’t just sweep it away—this is dirt with history that most dirt doesn’t have—opting to store it vials he keeps in a special box.
The hardest part of the rebuild was getting the period correct wheels for the car. BBS had long ago stopped making the design that the Golf ran on in 1986, and apparently they took some convincing to make a bespoke set of six E49 wheels. When a man of the means of Ihle rolls his eyes and says it was crazy expensive, you know it must have been really expensive! The end result is worth it though, sparkling in the summer sun the golden lattices help complete this an amazing period piece.
As mentioned above, he isn’t interested in his cars being just static displays, and he invited me to take the seat next to him, the passenger accommodation being just about the only part of the car not from 1986.
The doors are steel, and apart from trying not to stand on the bunch of braided pipes and fuel lines in the footwell, I strapped myself in and was a little surprised to find that it felt just like a solid, normal classic rally car. With the final dual-gearbox linkage setup not quite complete at the time of our drive, Ihle ran through the village on just the front engine, but we would have a chance to feel both soon enough.
Out in the country we went to check that the little car park at the end of the dead end lane was empty, performed a deft handbrake turn, and then drove the 800 meters or so back to the workshop. Gently getting up to third gear and changing before the turbos kicked in, Ihle then flicked the retaining pin into the central position to connect both engines and put his foot down. There was a second or two of normal hard acceleration, but then with the pair of KKK 24s kicking in I was pushed back into my seat with a force of Gs much greater than I’d ever expected to feel from the innards of a Golf. It was as violently fast as the Ford RS200 I’d recently been in, and almost immediately we were at a speed that I really wouldn’t want to be power-sliding on gravel at, especially somewhere like Pikes Peak in its lack-of-guardrails 1980s configuration.
That was pretty much the shortest demonstration of the car’s performance as it would be possible to get considering we couldn’t change gears when both motors were connected, yet it was still seriously impressive. And after thirty years of being shut away, this little engineering marvel is now going to be a regular part of the historic rally festival scene, such as the popular Eifel Rally Festival in Germany. In the past Wolf-Dieter Ihle has had some rallying luminaries drive the cars he owns—like Walter Röhrl and Stig Blomqvist—and since sorting the issues with the linkage, the Golf was piloted at the festival by someone intrinsically linked with the car’s history: the only man to ever drive it in competition, Jochi Klient himself.