The Rheila Golf
The History of the Rheila Golf
This story begins way back in 1981, the year I was actually born! The Pierburg Golf became synonymous in the history of Volkswagen Motorsport, moving from the Salzburg Beetle to the hot hatch era of 1976 where a small car took centre stage against some of the greats of rallying history. Immediately after the Sachs Winter Rally of 1980, one of the two Pierburg Golfs was repainted Rheila Green and was henceforth known as the Rheila Golf. One year later the last of the Pierburg Golfs was also painted Rheila Green but the technology that lay beneath the bonnet, a 180hp Oettinger 1600 engine, was retained. When driver Alfons Stock ‘landed’ on a tree in one of the Rheila ‘Frogs’ a little later on (the occupants were unhurt), the car was no longer used and subsequently scrapped. But that didn’t stop Stock and Schmuck; the car was constructed on a new body shell and the pair brought the German Rally Championship title back to Hanover for Volkswagen Motorsport in 1981.
Fast Forward to 2015
Wind the clock forward and the year is now 2015. We acquired two mk1 Golfs that were very run down at best. The aim was to build one into a rally car and between the two chassis find the best parts and go from there. But what Golf should we build? I spoke with the late Walter Ainsworth at great lengths back then. He had built, along with Ant Anstead, a replica of the Pierburg Golf. What a beautiful site it was. I wanted to build something that could compliment this Golf and one day run alongside Walter at events, so the decision was made back then to follow the Volkswagen Motorsport History and build a Rheila Golf.
Goodwood Festival of Speed – Silver Jubilee
I didn’t want to build just any old replica though, I wanted to make this one a true replica of the original to pay full respect to what it did for Volkswagen Motorsport in years to come. It took some time but I managed to get in touch with the heads of Rheila, a cough drop company in Germany! They were still in operation to this date and after a number of emails between us a contract was signed to build an “Official Rheila Golf” !!! We were incredibly excited but then time ran away from us.
A number of years passed and the Golfs remained stored away. Much research was done to keep planning the build but it kept being pushed back. The aim was to build the car specifically to debut at the world famous Goodwood Festival of Speed. We didn’t get the invite to compete in 2017 so the plans were put on hold once again.
Then after long conversations, during the winter of 2017, with the organisers of Goodwood it was agreed that the Rheila Golf would make its first appearance on UK soil at the 2018 Silver Jubilee of Goodwood Festival of Speed!!
The build began and what seemed a simple task of pulling together this unique but very simplistic rally car turned into the biggest challenge we had ever face….
The vehicles were currently in Hull at Alliance Steel Racing’s workshop. The bodywork of both cars was very bad and after removing the roll cage from the black Golf it became apparent that there would be much TLC needed to build a strong base for this project. We worked through in Hull where I was making the journey from Nottingham at every spare moment possible.
A week later and I had brought the shell down to Lee to leave with him for the next few weeks to start testing colours. The Green of the Rheila Golf did not exist back in 1981 and was a very unique colour, one only matched to the old Porsche cars of that era. It took a while but we found the colour and the work began.
I left Lee to it, the car still needed much work to be done on the body and some very tricky welding jobs were outstanding. I couldn’t see how it was possible to repair but Lee had confidence in himself and I soon realised that there was no other guy out there that had the skills this man did!
One of the trickiest parts was the frame where the windscreen sat along. It had rusted along the bottom edge and came away in big sections. The first think Lee and his guys at East Mids Customising did was to fabricate the most intricate welds to build a new windscreen surround and it looked amazing!!
I was sent constant pictures of the progress of the Golf. I could not believe the transformation this car was having!! We were going to make it to Goodwood!!
A New Partnership
During this time we needed to find someone who would be keen to take on this unique project and be able to colour match our Golf to the Rheila Green that became so famous in the early 80’s. During a breakfast meeting at a café in Nottingham I was pointed in the direction of an automotive paint artist called Lee Percival of East Mids Customizing. I went to his shop and walked through the door, never having met him before, and asked to speak to Lee.
He came over, a little confused as to who I was, and I began enthusiastically telling him about this incredible rally car from 1981 and how we were going to bring it to Goodwood!
Lee simply asked, after I had ran out of breath, “ Soooooo what is it you want from me?”
“I want you to turn my old multi coloured shell into the famous Rheila Green to showcase to a generation of rally fans on the grandest stage of them all!!!” I said.
I think it was a little intrigue combined with pure shock that I had just walked in to his shop from out of nowhere that Lee accepted the challenge and we became partners from that moment forward.
The Rheila Golf was safely being resurrected at East Mids Customising so it was time now to figure out how we were going to power this little beauty when she came home. I had already had a conversation with Rheila regarding the build and it was agreed that we would keep the visual aspects of the car as close as possible to the original build but pay homage to some modern technologies that existed today. I knew it was going to take me a while to source and locate the correct engine and transmission for a period build so we made the decision to transplant a torquey 2.0litre engine from my VW Corrado so we had a good power plant to give the spectators something to cheer about in the forests of Goodwood.
I bought my Corrado home so I could work on it during the evenings and began taking the Engine, Box and wiring loom out of this retro classic. I was very lucky this year with the hottest summer beginning meaning I could work outside into the late evening whilst my neighbours looked on wondering what I was up to again!
Taking the kit out of the Corrado seemed a simple task but this car is 23 years old, everything was seized and snapped at the first sign of any pressure! Nightmare!!! The simple tasks began taking an age and time was running out when we had a target finish date of the end of March so we could get some good testing in before Goodwood.
The bare shell had been dropped at mine and now stood alongside my Corrado ready for its heart transplant. I lost count of how many people came over asking if it was the same old rusty golf that had been there so many months ago. The work Lee and East Mids Customising had done was incredible!!
Now doing a 2.0l conversion on a mk1 Golf is a common mod in the VW scene these days, even to the point that VW Heritage do a kit for mountings to help the build.
I made contact with VW Heritage and having been one of our most consistent partners throughout our Motorsport life they agreed to help us in any way they could to get this Golf built and out on stage come July. I spoke to a chap called Chris Rees and must have a hundred emails between us but never did he tire in giving me advice and support in finding the right parts throughout the build !! Kudos to this team, I couldn’t think of any other retro parts centre I would go to.)
So back on the swap and I started trying to shoehorn in this big lump into the small engine bay of the mk1. It was a tight squeeze but she went in although the engine mounts I already had were not suitable! I didn’t have time to order a new kit so I contacted a friend who is an expert in mk1 Golf builds, Tim Moll of TeaMoll Motorsport. Tim came round in a flash with a boot full of spares to help the conversion and the mounts he brought fitted like a glove! The Engine and Box were in!!
The Dream was over
I looked at the calendar and the end of March was looming in just days, I had only just got the engine and box in, the inside was empty and nothing was connected! I had my biggest moment of panic. I wasn’t going to finish this, I was going to let everyone down who had believed in me, our sponsors would not be happy and Goodwood would never invite me again!! I had failed despite all of the help and hard work that had brought us to this point.
I sat looking at the shell on the last weekend of March with a beer brought to me by the coolest fashion brand on the planet, Sauce and Brown, who just happen to be based round the corner from my house. I sat and wondered what might have been and then I got a message out of the blue on Facebook from Sam Bennett of Spark Developments. He had sent me a quote for some custom wiring loom work on the Golf prior but I was too busy trying to shoehorn the engine in on my driveway with a jack and a pry bar!!
I met Sam by chance at the Cadwell Park stages rally a few weeks before. He and David Simmons are the brains behind Spark Developments, a custom motorsport business with the ability to create almost anything!! They had built the most divine Renault Clio rally car that had an almighty accident on the inner complex at Cadwell right in front of us (It ruined our rally !!) but thankfully both Sam and Dave came away with just a few scratches and the car was easily repaired in time
Spark Developments saved the day!
I said to Sam “I need help, I won’t be able to finish this car in time and cannot do this on my own” He asked me how long we had till Goodwood. “12 weeks” I said! He said we can do it, this was a project that needed to be finished and if we had to work through the night every day till then we will do it!!
I couldn’t believe it, a life saver and Spark Developments took the Rheila Golf into their stables to really kick start this project.
Well with three people working on the Golf things would go together super quick right? Wrong! The boxes of parts that came with the car had no history, we had assumed everything was there to build and how wrong we were to assume anything!
The first port of call was to finish off the exterior bodywork.
We had sent off the engine mounts to have new ones made as we only had the ones from TeaMoll on loan so needed our own. We also needed some pretty custom pieces of kit as the gearbox being used had a hydraulic clutch and the car was a cable system. When the box was mounted in the engine bay the gear tower hit the mounting bracket meaning we couldn’t select any even number gears!! Nightmare again!! So whilst Dave went away to make our custom mounts the focus went on making the Golf look correct from the outside.
I had already purchased some Berg Cup Arches that were being painted at East Mids Customising but I wasn’t happy with how wide they were, they didn’t look like the originals used. It was then I was contacted by Lee and told to come down and look at my wings he was about to paint, it was not good news. The mk1 we had obtained had a good amount of tape on some of the panels, which at the time we thought was to keep everything together but the reality was it was to hide some very nasty damage. The wings were scrap!! With every step forward two steps back was currently being achieved. The only option was to purchase new wings and new berg cup arches.
One of the modern twists I wanted to bring to this build was fibreglass. I had all the original parts but for Goodwood’s Forest Rally Stage the famous jump on the back straight was where the majority of spectators congregate to see how far and high their favourite cars could fly through the trees. I thought if I could make this car as quick out of the corners as possible and light as you can imagine, we would get some good air time!! So a full set of fibreglass wings and berg cup arches were purchased to compliment the fibreglass bonnet and tailgate we already had.
All the kit was taken to East Mids Customising to be painted Rheila Green and we waited with baited breath!!
May 2018 – 8 weeks to Goodwood
LWe got the roll cage back to fit into the car and found there were a number of sections that needed some TLC that had been hidden in the old car. We had some work to do to get this cage up to MSA spec and into this period car correctly. Spark Developments, Dave, spent a good few nights with his welder in hand and Sam with his trusty Grinder making things fit neat and tidy. At this point I was on Coffee duty as I sat and watched from afar on this testing bit of work that was one of the most important.
The cage was in finally and we could start plumbing in the fire extinguisher kit and braided brake and fuel lines. True to the theme of this build, the Pierburg fuel system wouldn’t match up in a number of areas and we were running out of time. So we shelved the Pierburg kit for phase 2 of the build and brought in a new kit to power this unit. Although it was usually next day delivery it felt like weeks waiting for the next part to arrive which held up the build process!!
I remembered I had a set of competition dampers and springs from LEDA Suspension at mine so I rushed off to get them. Sam, at Spark Developments, got his grinder out again and set to work on the body. Nearly the whole of the lower section of the rear quarters had to be taken back, rolled inside and welded to make a new, much bigger, WRC Style high arch design that would sit behind the Berg Cup arches. This was a painstakingly slow and meticulous process where on wrong cut would potentially destroy the car.
I had returned with the new suspension and by this point there was no closing time on the work, we were now working through the night into the early hours almost every night.
June 2018 – 4 weeks to Goodwood.
We got the arches back from the paint shop and I had been to fetch some Forest Tyres that I wanted to go on the car. When everything was lined up to go on the deck we soon realised that a mountain that seemed unsurpassable lay ahead of us.
The suspension that had been purchased for this car, albeit on a budget, was completely wrong. The tyres sat solidly wedged inside the arches and the rear of the car was balanced on the centre of the rubber. We needed to literally step back, re-evaluate and start again. 4 weeks to go!!!
A gift to bring the Hoonigan out of the Rhiela Golf
The Rally Gods shone down on us as we made a second attempt to lower the car onto its wheels and this time it sat true. There was not much of a gap to breath with the huge 15” forest tyres but we would soon know if the gap was too small after we landed the first jump!!
Spark Developments then began what they do best. Building the custom wiring harness and, following the retro pictures I had supplied, building the original custom dash panel and steering system.
I had a day of rest and coming back I was met by a surprise. The guys at Spark had made me a present that was the very first of its kind and now a top product that they supply to the rally world. A custom built Aluminium and Carbon Fibre vertical handbrake!! I had been going on for some time that I wanted to be able to drive this car like a RWD and needed a vertical handbrake to help me get it going. It was a sure thing of beauty!! I literally couldn’t wait to go hard into a corner fully sideways in this amazing feat of engineering that was being born right in front of me.
I was sent away to get the driveshaft’s, simple enough task and sourced locally from a specialist close to us. On fitting these new shafts it became soon apparent that we needed to consider that every single thing we may buy, won’t fit! A gap of 25mm stopped these shafts from being connected on the car. It could have been the positioning of the engine in this build, the chassis being slightly different through its custom build or just some joker above us playing tricks to test our resolve. Once again TeaMoll came to the rescue and brought over a set of shafts that, although didn’t fit either, we managed to make a custom set between the lot. Time was really running out now!!!
The noise coming from the car was immense, the Heritage supplied Jetex competition exhaust was on song as it ran through the gears and after a few hours it was ready.
July 2018 – 1 Week to Goodwood
With everything now in place we managed to finally hear the engine roar to life. It had a custom DTA S40 ECU supplied and fitted by Spark Developments with its custom harness. We worked alongside AP Racing Engines during the set up over the phone, Andy was giving codes through to Sam until around 2am that morning as we tried to get her running sweet enough to get her to the rolling road. A few hours later we were at the door of AP Racing Engines and the Rheila Golf was on the dyno for the very first time. We explained that Goodwood was the destination and we needed certain characteristics in performance to get the most out of this engine on that particular forest stage. Andy sat with his laptop in the Golf with the car going through the gears and multiple codes being fired into the ECU, Sam and I stood by the door waiting like tired parents outside a doctor’s surgery waiting for their first child to be seen.
One last push
We headed back to Spark Developments and still much work needed to be done to fully finish the project ready for Goodwood. The days running up to the event we worked close to 20 hours daily and on the night before the car was due to leave I crashed at 1am. I had to go home and sleep knowing the journey the following day would be long. When I came back to Spark that morning at around 7am, Dave was still there. A problem had arisen on the Dash pod and they had to completely strip and rebuild to a different size to be able to fit the complex wiring set up sufficiently. This project was complete and without the tireless efforts of Lee at East Mids Customizinig and Sam and Dave from Spark Developments, I would not have been heading to Goodwood that morning or even at all.
VrDMotorsport – 10 Years
I made the trip across Nottingham to collect George Clarke, co-founder and Director of VrDMotorsport. He had just flown in from Dubai and whilst supporting the project both inventively and financially from the Middle East this was the first time he had seen the car in the flesh. We both hugged each other with a tear in our eyes. Ten years since the first time we had set foot as fans at Goodwood and we were about to head down there with the “Rheila Golf” as Competitors.
The Rheila Golf was reborn!
The story continues as we landed at Goodwood. The first day, Thursday, was a shakedown and our first chance to drive a car we had only just finished building. I took the wheel for the first run with George sat alongside me. The car was on song and it glided through the Forest Stage as if it had been in competition since the original back in 1981. We came round the corner for the back straight onto the jump and George asked on the intercom “Are you taking it flat?” Well of course, if Colin McRae had taught us anything it was to live life to the fullest, “We are here for a good time, not a long time”. The Rheila Golf hit the crest and launched into the air, there was a small moment of anticipation of a devastating impact but this was not to be, the Rheila Golf landed sweetly and we flew out of the forest to be met by cheers from the team!!
I released the handbrake and the Golf launched from the line, Matt couldn’t believe how quick the pickup of drive was in this little Golf powered by an AP Racing tuned engine. We hit the square left in third, flat as I began the Scandinavian flick on tarmac to enter the corner in full drift. I pull the handbrake and “SNAP” it came clean off in my hand!! I couldn’t abort what we were doing and had to continue the turn in and maintain the speed through the corner otherwise we would be hitting a ten foot wall of solid hay !
Matt saw it snap and he recalled “I just saw this handbrake being passed to me and a voice in my earpiece calmly say “Hold this please” and we just carried on as if nothing happened!”
Matt got his first taste of what it’s like in a Rally car that day and it made the whole experience of building this car worthwhile!
Trimsport gets a taste of Rallying
A few runs, shaking down the Golf, followed before we started taking out a few of our loyal and fantastic sponsors for a rally ride of their lives. Matt Staines of Trimsport sat beside me on the start line on one of those runs. We spoke fondly of all the years we had worked to get to this point and how we had finally achieved a dream that seemed so distant. I pressed the button for launch control and dually put my foot flat on the accelerator pedal.
The engine roared, popped and banged, eager to launch from the start line. Now the Goodwood Forest Stage starts on tarmac for around 150 yards before a square left onto a mix of gravel and clay into a further 150 straight then 4 right into 4 left into forest. Simple but easily catches many out throughout the weekend!
Driver Change and disaster strikes
We continued to push on into the competitive section of Fridays Stages and this time George got behind the wheel. Setting quicker times on every run. Disaster struck on the first of the afternoon runs though as George brought the car back into the service area and the oil pressure warning light was on and the engine had blown. As our Goodwood Adventure began it had ended almost immediately.
The only thing we had not fitted brand new on this car was the engine and gearbox from my Corrado. It was a good engine but untested in competition use. I was devastated. My parents were coming down the following day and all I had wanted was for them to see their son compete at Goodwood Festival of Speed just once, this dream was in tatters.
The Motorsport Community comes together
But then the reason I continue to be so passionate about Motorsport developed right in front of my eyes. We knew the oil pressure had gone and the possibility was it was terminal to the engine. It had continued to run without oil so anything was possible. But what if the oil pump had failed and the engine was still ok. We wouldn’t know until we looked and it was 3:45pm on Friday. I called VW Heritage, who were not far from Goodwood on the south coast of England. To my amazement they had the exact pump in stock!! Every year we collaborate at Goodwood with a great bunch of likeminded motorsport enthusiasts and two of these come from TeamHolmes Motorsport. Nick Holmes and Stefan Marsh told me to get gone and they would start stripping the Golf “Don’t worry Dave, we have got this covered! Get the pump and we will get you back out so your Dad can see you drive tomorrow!!” I was a little emotional to say the least.
VW Heritage come to the rescue!
Matt (Trimsport) jumped in his Golf R and whisked me over to Heritage. Now anyone who has been to Goodwood knows the traffic getting out is a nightmare. What should have been an hour drive became a race against the clock before Heritage closed down for the day. I stayed on the phone with them throughout our journey and they promised now to stay behind and wait for us to ensure we got the parts we needed to get back out on the stage! I couldn’t believe the support we were receiving to keep this special Rheila Golf going, the motorsport and automotive community really did pull together without any question.
We got the pump and returned to the car where Nick, Stefan and now Spark Developments had joined in to strip down the engine. It looked bleak as we found bits of metal in the sump but the new pump was fitted and the engine was swiftly put back together. We all closed our eyes as the ignition switch was pressed…… It fired up…. It ran like a dream!!! The Rally Gods were shining down on us once more! The car was repaired and we would make it to the Goodwood Hotel in time to celebrate a fantastic team effort!
Goodwood Festival of Speed – Completed it !
A full weekend of rallying saw this Rheila Golf bring back memories for so many Rally Fans who came to our paddock to tell stories of how they once had a love affair with the most iconic Hot Hatch of our time.
The Rheila Golf returned to the HQ of VrDMotorsport after Goodwood, battered and bruised but nothing that cannot be fixed and improved for next year’s Goodwood where we will return to enter the timed shootout with our next goal, to win a Goodwood Trophy!!
Keep an eye on the stages across the UK throughout 2019 as the Rheila Golf will be taking part in a number of Demo Runs alongside the Rallying with GroupB historic Rally Club!