Volkswagen in Motorsports
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” — it’s a time-honoured phrase from Sir Henry Ford that still holds true today.
It’s not just the fact that motorsports gives the manufacturers a chance to go and smash each other into the dirt. It’s way more than a display of technical superiority.
Motorsports in its various forms gives the engineers a chance to go absolutely nuts, a chance to come up with the wildest, and baddest cars on the planet. That’s why we love racing, rallying and pretty much anything else that involves a stopwatch and a checkered flag.
Volkswagen doesn’t have the same motorsports history as some other brands, but it still has its fair share of monsters.
Here are 10 of the coolest Volkswagen competition cars through the ages.
2014 Beetle – Global Rallycross Championship
The inspiration for this piece, the latest addition to VW’s competition fold takes the cute, feminine Beetle and turns it into a fire breathing dragon.
It’s the epitome of cool, when you think about it. It’s a 560bhp, four-wheel-drive version of the campest car in the Volkswagen line-up.
Ok so the new production Beetle doesn’t have a vase on the dashboard anymore, that is one feminine touch that the new generation does without, but even the most sporting version of the road car isn’t exactly fuelled by pure testosterone.
This one is.
X-Games icon Tanner Foust and former F1 driver Scott Speed will take the wheel of the VW Andretti Autosport’s cars in the Global Rallycross Championship. So you’ll see this curvaceous Beetle on full opposite lock with flames bursting from the exhaust on gravel and tarmac this year.
The Beetle is a beast might have started life as the people’s car, but this one is a plain monster.
It’s a ground-up rebuild using the basic shape and the engine block, that’s about it. With the speeds of the rallycross cars likely to be low then the aero kit is more about the show than actual downforce, but under the skin the Beetle is all business and more car than all but the butchest driver could handle.
1987 Golf – Pike’s Peak
Once a year motorsport fans make the pilgrimage to Colorado for the Race to the Skies, Pike’s Peak.
The ultimate time trial, Pike’s Peak is an epic run up the mountain which, until recently, mixed tarmac and gravel track in a death-defying adventure that took the drivers with inches of an impromptu bungee jump without a cord. Less when they get it wrong…
Despite the narrow confines of the course, drivers often turn up with 1000bhp monsters. VW has been a regular fixture at the event for decades and, in 1986 and ’87, brought an insane twin-engined Golf Mk2 out to play.
Jochi Klein was the daredevil at the wheel of this beast that combined two 1.3-litre Polo engines with a combined output of 500bhp the first year. In ’87 he decided that simply wasn’t enough and the Golf was equipped with a 1.8-liter and 1.6-liter, with 652bhp between them.
With an engine for each axle the car was inevitably four-wheel-drive, of a fashion. It was also a whirling dervish of pure ferocity. It would hit 60mph in less than 3.4s and weighed just 2200 lb, which gave it twice the power to weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron, on gravel, in 1987.
Sadly all that power was just too much for the car to take and Kleint retired a few corners from the end with broken front suspension. He didn’t fly off the mountain, though, so it was still a win of sorts.
Volkswagen Touareg – Dakar Rally
The Touareg is a car that’s normally found on the school run, it’s a family wagon for the well-heeled and you’ll occasionally spot one on the dunes in Dubai.
Launch one off a 20 metre ramp, though, and you should expect to end up on the back of a recovery truck. Unless it is this one.
This is the car that won the Dakar Rally three times, or an evolution of the one that made its debut in 2004 in any case. It’s technically a Touareg, if you squint, but in truth this is a silhouette racer that bears little more than a passing resemblance to the roadgoing SUV.
The spaceframe racer comes with a 2.5-litre turbodiesel engine that produces just 310bhp. That doesn’t sound a lot, and it isn’t, but then the 442lb/ft of torque is more impressive and kept the VW flying across the desert in one of the most spectacular endurance races you’ll ever see. Off road doesn’t quite cover it, the Dakar takes on uncharted territory and leaps of faith off dunes are all part and parcel of the event.
So the car has to be tank-grade tough. Just search Youtube for Dakar competitors barrel rolling these things and walking away unscathed if you want a lasting impression of their durability. The frame can actually take 17 tonnes of forces at any point.
Despite lacking any creature comforts whatsoever, and a carbon-kevlar shell, it still weighs in at 1750kg. Even with this weight behind it, the car takes to the air and comes crashing back down to Earth with alarming regularity. 250mm of trick suspension travel helps soak up the bumps.
The Dakar Rally is a slight misnomer now as the event stopped traveling to Africa in recent years as the war-torn continent proved just too dangerous. These cars now storm through South America, though, and the terrain is just as tough.
The 6000-mile rally is the ultimate test of man and machine, claiming multiple lives each and every year. From 2009-2011, VW crushed the competition with Giniel de Villiers, Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al Attiyah lifting the crown in successive years.
This whole list is based around making stock cars extraordinary. But Mental Breakdown might just take the cake when it comes to pure insanity. It’s a 1965 T2 boosted to 1700bhp that went to war on the dragstrips of Europe in the hands of the unassuming looking Wayne Allman.
This is about as unofficial as it gets and there was no VW backing for this monster. Allman, who runs the Intergalactic Custom Shop, didn’t care. He just wanted to create something unique and it’s fair to say he hit that nail squarely on the head.
Only the cab remains from the lovable Type 2 Split Screen Camper, Allman has grafted it on to the ubiquitous 8.4-liter supercharged Chevy engine that has been tuned to the heavens for the quarter-mile. It sits on a shortened Top Fuel dragster chassis.
Mental Breakdown has done the business, recording speeds of 170mph+ and a quarter-mile times of 7.6s on the drag strip in England on its first full pass.
In truth the VW connection is more about the looks. But then there’s something deliciously perverse about an old-school Camper sitting atop this kind of lunacy. Wayne, we like your world.
1963 Formula Vee
The Volkswagen Beetle was the people’s car that brought motoring to the masses. So there were lots of them and parts were readily available, which gave some bright spark an idea.
In 1963 Formula Vee, or Formula Volkswagen, was born at Daytona. It was designed as a cheap single seater for the young hotshots on their way to Formula One to race against each other. Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and more all took the wheel of a Formula Vee and it spawned some of the closest racing of the time.
Despite having just 1.2-liter powerplants, the cars were good for 120 mph thanks to a lightweight Beetle chassis with none of the creature comforts. In fact the cars weighed less than 1200 lb, including the driver.
Formula Vee is no longer the premier category for young racers, but it continues to this day as a club championship. It has evolved, of course, and the modern cars are faster and safer. It is still one of the most cost-effective single-seater race series in the world, though, and enjoys packed grids around the world.
Emerson Fittipaldi went on to become a Formula One legend in the 1970s, but before that he set his sights on the 1000 miles of Guanabara in his homeland of Brazil.
The usual endurance racing suspects were going to be there, including the Ferrari GT40 and Lola T70, which made Fittipaldi’s choice of a Beetle seem doubly bizarre.
There was method to his madness. The brothers were developing an Alfa Romeo-engined car, which was running late. A previously built Beetle, meanwhile, was already there, effectively in cold storage.
His brother Wilson and friend Ricardo Divila ran a Formula Vee preparation business in Brazil, parts were readily available and Fittipaldi didn’t plan on entering a standard Beetle. Not a bit of it.
He bored the engine out to 2.2-liters, pumping out about 200bhp, but that wasn’t going to be enough. So with the help of some clever engineering, Fittipaldi grafter two engines together to create a 400bhp 8-cylinder that would give them the power to mix it with the big boys.
The two engines were joined with an elastomeric gasket and the crankshafts were connected, as were all four carbs, while the Fittipaldis conjured up their own eight into one exhaust system. The five-speed gearbox, which was converted to a four-speed to save it self destructing, drum brakes, steering column and front suspension, meanwhile, came from the much more exotic Porsche 550 Spyder.
After grafting all this together into a tubular space-frame chassis that was built just for this race, Fittipaldi fitted rear suspension from a Formula Vee and draped a fiberglass body with four ducts feeding air to the engine. They were ready to go racing.
The car did surprisingly well, finishing third in free practice and running in the same position for the first hour of the race. Sadly all that engineering did not hold up in the white heat of battle and Fittipaldi was forced to retire the car.
It only raced once after the 1000km and it broke down again. The car was sold and broken up, but even though it featured just this once, the Beetle has wormed its way into the affections of VW fans around the world and is still remembered fondly to this day.
Volkswagen even asked to send engineers out to examine the car as they could not understand how it was competitive. Apparently after looking at the car, they were none the wiser.
1981 Mk1 Golf
The Mk1 Golf is still an icon and in 2013 UK company Forge Motorsports paid homage to the legend with a $70,000 creation, a time attack car that takes the old icon to a whole new level.
The shell was stripped back to the metal before Forge Motorsport rebuilt the car around a 400bhp version of the 1.8T powerplant, bored out to 2 liters. A monstrous Garrett GTX 2860R Turbo replaces the stock unit and all the internals were uprated to cope with the additional power. Even the bearings are coated in Calico to help keep the engine spinning smooth.
A Quaife 34G 6-speed sequential gearbox harnesses the power, while sophisticated KW coilover suspension keeps all four wheels on the ground at all times. The inside is little more than a seat, gauges and a rollcage, but then that’s all you need on track.
The massive wings are what truly set this car apart, though. Time Attacks are won and lost by fractions of a second, top speed comes a distant second to cornering and downforce is critical. That’s why the Golf sports what looks like a snow plough on the front end and a massive roof spoiler that could feature on the back of an F1 car.
There’s a hint of Group B rally car about this Golf and its cartoonish proportions have given the Mk1 Golf a new lease of life and taken it back to the future.
British people are famously eccentric, that’s the only explanation for this van going head-to-head with more suitable Golfs, Beetles and Jettas in the VW Racing Cup in England.
Then head of VW’s commercial department Peter Wyhinny decided to draw attention to the company’s workhorse by entering the 1.9-liter Turbodiesel into the VW-backed championship himself.
So with a few subtle racing modifications, side windows so that it could effectively class as a car and enter the series and a set of slicks, one of VW’s top brass hit the track with 260bhp of diesel-burning fury under his right foot.
Actually to begin with he had just 140bhp and was 12 seconds off the pace, but a concerted effort to boost the power drew help from VW’s German HQ and Wyhinny soon had a potent machine at his disposal.
It isn’t a winner, but it has given the commercial division at VW some much-needed sex appeal in the UK. It shows that the German marque can have fun, too, which is sometimes what racing is all about.
The Scirocco has become a star in the motorsports scene and the Scirocco R-Cup has established a huge following around the world with a variety of championships. The German domestic series is still the flag bearer, however.
The 285bhp cars are completely equal, only the tyre pressures and front suspension can be tweaked for each race.
It is a truly elegant racing car, producing its power from a near stock two-liter engine and featuring a DSG gearbox. It comes with 235bhp from its engine that runs on compressed natural gas, with a further 50bhp available for short bursts from its push-to-pass button.
This is a tactic borrowed from Formula One to encourage overtaking and, combined with a support slot at the DTM touring car meetings and star turns from star drivers from the DTM’s past, it has helped the Scirocco R-Cup to start status.
There are wilder examples of the car that was originally billed as the affordable dream car when the first Scirocco was unveiled in 1970. There are even first generation cars on the drag strips of Europe to this day. But this is a truly beautiful racing car and its unusual fuel source was the final straw. We had to include it.
Polo R WRC
VW may have missed out on the glory days of the World Rally Championship, but it would still seem childish to omit the Polo on the grounds that the series isn’t in the rudest health.
It’s still an almighty piece of engineering, too, with 315bhp coming from a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine. A sequential six-speed gearbox is attached to that highly-stressed engine and the car is inevitably a purpose-built piece of madness that is taking the fight to Ford, MINI and Citroen.
Sebastien Ogier won the Drivers championship in the Polo R in 2013, while VW took the Constructors championship in its first full season. That is an incredible achievement and one which fills VW with pride.
It looks the part, too. The Polo’s beefed up wheel arches and monstrous rear wing make this tiny hot hatch look all butch, masculine and muscly. It doesn’t make the car you buy in the showroom any tougher, sadly. That doesn’t matter anyway, the Polo isn’t for sale in the US.