The Golf GTI’s secret Northern Irish ancestry

The first Golf GTI would have been left-hand drive only, if not for one dogged Northern Irish rally driver

The town of Ballymena sits more or less in the dead centre of Northern Ireland. Halfway between Belfast and Derry, it’s a typical country market town, built around an old town square that’s been modernised with a shopping centre. Mostly, it’s famous for being the hometown of Liam Neeson but for one brief moment, Ballymena became the epicentre of the 1970s hot hatch revolution.

By 1976, it was pretty clear that the classic two-seat roadster had had its day as an affordable form of fun motoring. The likes of the MGB and Fiat 124 Spider would soldier on for a while yet, but deep in the heart of Wolfsburg, Volkswagen was cooking up a recipe that would end the roadster’s day almost forever. Well, at least until Mazda created the MX-5 in 1989…

While Volkswagen had had its fingers burned trying to make sporty versions of the Beetle that no-one bought, within the company there were those who realised that the new Golf hatchback had potential to be rather more than just an economical family runabout. Against the wishes of the upper management, VW Press Department head Anton Konrad and engineer Alfons Löwenberg set about creating what was then called the ‘Sport Golf.’

Of course, you know the end of the story. Sport Golf became the Golf GTI — with all of 110hp from its E287 engine, thanks to the fitting of Bosch fuel injection — and success begat success. We’re now on the eighth generation of Golf GTI and, bar one or two clangers along the way (MkIII, we’re looking at you…) it has ever since been the king of the hot hatches.

That’s the end of the story. But what about the middle?

You see, when Konrad and Löwenberg created that original Sport Golf, it was a ‘skunkworks’ project, a Saturday afternoon job. When the VW high-ups got wind of it, they sighed, rolled their collective corporate eyes, and said: “OK, you can put it on sale. But we’ll probably only sell 5,000 of them…”

Such a short production run meant that there was no likelihood of right-hand drive. Although the regular Golf was on sale in the UK by then, VW’s engineers not only reckoned that converting this new fuel-injected model to RHD wouldn’t be cost-effective, it might not actually be physically possible at all. 

Robert McBurney wasn’t going to have any of that. McBurney’s father, Roger, had been one of the very first Volkswagen dealers on the island of Ireland, and Robert had taken over the running of the dealership by the mid-1970s. As well as successfully flogging Beetles and Type 2 vans to the good burghers of Ballymena, McBurney was a rally driver. A really good rally driver.

“Robert is one of the very few people that I know who could drive a rally car very well.” The speaker is Dr Beatty Crawford, and he’s a friend and fellow driver, who knew the late Robert McBurney well in the 1960s and 1970s. His high opinion of Robert’s skills as a driver aren’t the mere kindness of and old comrade, though — Crawford has driven and co-driven rally cars alongside the very best of them, from Vatanen to Waldegard and all in between. 

“He was chosen by Rootes to be a third driver on the London to Mexico rally in 1970” says Crawford. “He was more a long-distance type driver than a sprint driver.” Crawford got to know McBurney well while completing his medical studies at the main hospital in Ballymena. McBurney was frustrated, though — he wanted to compete in rallies, but he also wanted to stay loyal to the VW brand that he represented. VW, at the time, had nothing in the cupboard that could compete with contemporary Fords and Fiats, though.

Nothing, until McBurney got wind of the Sport Golf project, and the eventual LHD Mk1 GTI. “At the time, Volkswagen Beetles reigned supreme in Irish rallying. Robert was a brilliant mechanic too, but if he had a fault it was that he stayed loyal to Volkswagen for too long. 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’s 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.”

McBurney would take his home-baked GTI to a second-in-class result on the Circuit of Ireland rally, which back then was a gruelling five-day event that actually circled the entire island. VW heard about its success, and summoned McBurney, McSpadden, and the GTI with its steering wheel on the wrong side to the factory in Wolfsburg. “They couldn’t believe it. Well, they had to believe it once they saw the car in front of them” says Crawford. 

Given what a wild success the Golf GTI turned out to be in the UK market, as well as other right-hand drive markets, you’d have thought that VW would have struck a medal for McBurney, or even given him some kind of parade. Sadly, no. 

“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.”

McBurney would eventually end up working for Agnew’s Volkswagen, a rival dealer based in Belfast. But he wasn’t quite done with creating rapid under-the-radar VWs…

Crawford 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 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…”

Two creations on two continents that changed the face of fun motoring. Robert McBurney deserves to be better known.