Astride the beast with two engines
Volkswagen is heading to the notorious Pikes Peak hillclimb with a one-off monster. Michael Taylor drove the one they tried last time
This car was within a thousand metres of knocking off Walter Rohrl’s wicked Group B-inspired Audi Quattro at Pikes Peak in 1987, and then it died. Now it’s back, as wicked and nasty and loud and horrifying as it was back then. And we’ve driven it.
Something about old racing cars makes them frightening to their core. It’s not even that you might crash them, but that modern fingers, conditioned to dual-clutch paddles, could miss a gear and destroy a gearbox or the valve train, and there’s often no spare in existence.
But crashing them is, for the wise, always in the mind as well. The evolution of the roll cage has been a wonderful thing and now there are monster side-intrusion bars, big diagonals, neck restraints in the seat and even netting to stop flailing hands.
They didn’t do that sort of thing in 1987. They threw in some scaffolding as best they knew how, from experience, rather than bunging in support where the computer told them to, based on exacting geometry.
This was engineered to be thrown up the mountain at Pikes Peak, a 19.99km race that starts at 2,862m. From there it climbs 1,440m higher, stopping at 4,302m, just like it has for more than 100 years. There’s less oxygen at altitude, so internal combustion cars lose power as they climb (one of the reasons Volkswagen is going there this year with an electric supercar).
Volkswagen sent its factory rally driver, Jochi Kleint, to Pikes Peak in 1985 with a naturally aspirated, twin-engined Golf and he finished third, claiming the rookie of the year award. They sent him again in 1986 and he finished fourth. But 1987 was supposed to be the big year, and it very nearly was. Most of the Mark II Golf had no parts of a Mark II Golf in it, but to compensate, it gave it twice the Mark II Golf in the powertrain.
It had a turbocharged 1.8l engine up front (except turned around to run longitudinally, rather than across the engine bay), then it had another one at the back driving the rear wheels. Each of them had 240kW of power and more than 400Nm of torque — or they did at sea level, anyway.
In the middle of all of that sat Kleint, and after the second of the hillclimb’s split sector times, he was just a couple of tenths of a second behind Rohrl’s bellowing Audi and Ari Vatanen’s Climb Dance Peugeot 406 T16 coupe.
IT’S GLORIOUS, WITH A BRUTAL IDLE GIVING WAY TO SHEER SAVAGERY … IT FEELS LIKE BEING IN THE CENTRE OF A WAR ZONE.
And then it all ground to a halt, with a broken grease nipple draining leading to a catastrophic failure of a front ball joint.
The plan to hit Pikes Peak again was incentive enough to restore the monster "Twin Golf" and now we’ve been in it for five incredible laps of Spain’s private Ascari racetrack.
But there are nervous moments, with Kleint climbing aboard to turn his first metres in the monster since it failed him more than 30 years ago. With the same helmet he wore back then, too, resplendent in scrutineers’ stickers.
And then it’s our turn. Eeek.
First problem, it’s nothing like a Golf Mark Anything, much less a Mark II. Both ends detach completely, leaving two engines hanging off either end of a stumpy little core. Almost everything dates it to its era, from the circular window vent to the flat sheets of aluminium that support all of its interior switches and dials.
Then there are the pedals. It’s not a car for left-foot brakers, with the tiny brake pedal separated from the even tinier accelerator pedal by less than a centimetre. Even with race boots, it’s a squeeze down there.
There’s also conjecture from Volkswagen’s staff about the gearshift pattern, which is disconcerting, until Kleint explains it in broken English. He also delivers another warning that’s even more disconcerting: this is a gravel racer, on tarmac tyres, but on gravel suspension settings. Expect it to be interesting.
And it is. First, there are the vibrations. No modern competition car does this. This is violent and tremulous and the two engines seem locked in a life-and-death struggle to shake the middle part of the car to pieces.
Then there are the smells, with warm oils and coolants and lubricants all smelling richer as they get hotter, and the temperature itself climbing seemingly with the tacho needle.
But it’s glorious, with a brutal idle giving way to sheer savagery and with it coming from both ends it feels like being in the centre of a war zone.
It bangs home into first gear with a clang that sends a tremor through the entire car, then the clutch pedal eases out with surprising progression and it glides out of the pit lane with all the grace and dignity of a demented kangaroo. It’s only at speed that this astonishing array of then cutting-edge tech makes any sense. The two engines bellow and roar and have that wonderful harmonic warble between them and there’s even some sweetness to the way they pull from 4,500 up to 7,000r/min.
Then there’s second gear. First is in and up in the left-hand drive car, while second is straight down in the H-pattern layout. And it’s a long way down. First engages up near the dashboard, second slots home somewhere closer to the seat. I measured the throw later at more than 30cm.
But that was the easy one. The throw from second to third was 45cm in a diagonal shove that defies the existence of any gate. It feels like you’re wobbling around brushing away heavy stones from a square metre piece of floor, but the clunk always reassures you that you have, indeed, found a gear, so you can safely bring the clutch pedal back up.
After you’ve worked out the utter lack of nuance or tricks to all of this swishing and clunking and fishing about, it’s not that hard to settle down and understand the monster.
First, it’s as fast as it sounds. I mean, not supercar fast by today’s standards, but it’s more than fast enough to be frightening, given the driver aids it lacks. By "driver aids" I include "steering accuracy" and "brakes".
The noise is always monstrous, though, and it shoots you back so hard in the seat that you initially worry that you’ll strike the rear-most motor somehow. And the speed out of corners is, err, significant.
Yet it wobbles around so much on its mismatched undercarriage that the best idea, by some margin, is to wait until it is all more or less straight before stomping on the tiny pedal.
It more or less doesn’t stop, so corners have to be approached with severe caution. I mean, it obviously stops, but its ability to slow down in no way matches its ability to accelerate. Kleint explained that he mostly relied on gravity and, failing that, outlandish slides, to wash off speed on Pikes Peak. Which is probably why he’s still a legend around Germany.
It doesn’t go around corners, either. It sort of teeters around, like a woman playing basketball in high heels, and it prefers not to slide (again, like a woman playing basketball in high heels). It would slide nicely enough on gravel, but we’re not on gravel and Volkswagen doesn’t want us to be lest we damage the freshly restored paint.
Its steering is hefty, with the engine hanging way out in front of the axle line like an old Audi 90 adding its gravitas to any ideas you might have about changing direction.
Anyway, the job isn’t to set lap records, but to experience a piece of motorsport history in the little innocent-looking Golf that almost toppled the mighty 600 horsepower-plus of Audi’s bewinged quattro monster.
And it’s a lot of fun, mixed with fear, which makes it even more fun. It makes it hotter and hotter and the air is richer and thicker with every lap and the revs rise closer to the redline before each prolonged gearshift.
It’s a treasured moment to soak up, for just this day, before the Twin Golf heads on a tour around Germany and England and even America to add legitimacy to Volkswagen’s 2018 Pikes Peak effort. And then it will roll into a museum. But for this one day in the bright Spanish sun, it’s a snapshot in time for us to savour.