Depending on your allegiance to the Volkswagen brand, this bulbous arched, air-scooped, and be-spoilered Golf either instantly registers a respectful, knowing nod or looks just like yet another time-warp body-kitted tuning-shop Golf from the ‘90s VW scene. If you’re just buckling up, this Golf is indeed very special. Seasoned track goer, long-time VW enthusiast, and FCP Euro Event Director Nathan Brown lucked out with the keys for the accompanying Lime Rock Park circuit video. It was an unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In his own words: “I get to do a lot of very cool things thanks to my job, but spending two days with one of the rarest, most elusive, and special Volkswagens ever made has to rank at or near the top. This is a car I first read and dreamed about nearly 30 years ago.”
Designated simply as ‘A59’, this is the most powerful Volkswagen factory-sanctioned road-going Golf never to make production until the creation, 20 years later, of the Mk7 Golf R. A bespoke all-aluminum 16-valve DOHC engine making 275 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque in 1993 from, coupled with a computer-controlled 6-speed four-wheel drive system were figures and specs to elevate the A59 into an entirely different market segment, right alongside the rally bruisers of the era. It was created by some of the finest brains in motorsport technology who were out to win big.
Pause and imagine an alternative reality and the status this car could've had: 2,500 homologation special road cars and the factory Volkswagen Motorsport (VWMS) World Rally team fielding 400bhp Group A versions, rooster tailing down dirt tracks, hand-braking tarmac hairpins and spitting flames. Nothing shouts purpose like competition cars with gravel rash, dripping mud, and racing four-pot calipers poking out from magnesium rims. Parts hanging off, hot oil and mud hanging in the air, and all the motorsport credibility that goes with it. Plus, trading stage times with the likes of the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Subaru Impreza 555, Toyota Celica GT-Four, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 2, driven to the edge by driving gods of the era, some of whom would have got this VW gig: McRae, Sainz, Vatanen, Kankkunen, Mäkinen, Auriol, Delecour, Biasion, Thiry and Schwarz. Plus, the Golf would have entered all the domestic rally events with local drivers. Mega.
The A59 would have been storied around the globe, cementing a defining, ultra-desirable performance road car turned modern-day collector story which the road-going survivors would now be playing out in the classifieds and auction houses. That’s what this Golf would have represented. Far and away the best, most exclusive, outrageous VW Golf built, period.
The Volkswagen enthusiast had never previously had this opportunity, and it wouldn’t be seen again until Volkswagen returned with the all-conquering Polo R WRC some 20 years later. By this time, the very concept of a road-going homologation, special in the old-school sense, was dead. The Golf A59 would still trump the Polo today, though – you can’t buy an authentic Polo R WRC four-wheel drive road-going derivative because it doesn’t exist.
So what happened?
Winding the clock back to the 1980s, Volkswagen had the joy of endlessly playing second fiddle to sister co Audi’s dominant quattros in World Rallying, making do with its front-wheel drive Mk2 Golf and capturing the 1986 Group A World Championship with their 16-valve version. 1990 saw the debut of the Group A Golf Rallye G60, a transverse-motor, four-wheel drive version fitted with a supercharger. The project was a failure, partly due to reliability issues with the supercharger and partly due to the car being late with uncompetitive engineering.
In January 1992, to turn its Golf rallying ambitions into reality, VWMS gave the go-ahead to prototype a homologation special rally project with seasoned motorsport team Schmidt Motorsport. SMS, adjacent to the Autohaus Konrad Schmidt Volkswagen dealership in Cadolzburg, Bavaria, has a long history from rallying a Mk1 Golf in the German national championship to DTM Audi V8 saloons. Scheduled to tee off in Monte Carlo at the start of the 1994 season, SMS had the intricate task of re-engineering a Golf that was already in production into a winner, with all its existing compromises, minimizing structural changes and adapting the car in a way that it could be sent down an assembly line. And, as if that weren't enough, they had to keep the VW executives and accountants happy, too.
The car needed to be cutting-edge, so SMS hired heavy hitters, notably Eduard Weidl, who later worked for VWMS directly, ex-Zakspeed F1 and Toyota rally engineer Norbert Kreyer, and Karl Heinz Goldstein, ex-Opel rally team, later VWMS and FIA, to deliver leading power and traction thinking on the project.
Taking a Mk3 Golf Syncro four-wheel-drive shell as a starting point, there was little in the Volkswagen parts bin to raise championship-winning eyebrows. Indeed it quickly became clear that the project would have little in common with the production car. Instead of using an iron-blocked 92.8mm x 82.5mm, 16-valve EA827 motor from the Golf GTI and turbo-charging it, with its weight, valve angle, and compact cylinder compromises, a bespoke short stroke 86mm x 86mm all-aluminum lightweight unit was created.
It was the same story with the transmission. The five-speed cable-shifted unit in every Golf, Passat, and successor was rejected in favor of a heavy-duty FF Developments 6-speed, transmitting torque to a computer-controlled Steyr-Daimler-Puch center differential, with hydraulic plates to vary the torque split between 25 and 100 percent across the front axle, using wheel sensors, throttle position and more. The adjustability of this system is borne out by the multitude of pipes feeding around the gearbox. It all shows the depths of thinking far beyond what the competition was doing. The A59 was being designed for success in production spec Group N rallying too, where the factory gearbox had to be retained.
Up front, the suspension was recognizably Mk3 Golf but widened on the prototype with cut and lengthened-then-gusseted VR6/GTI wishbones, one-off knuckles with revised geometry, and 4-pot Brembo calipers with over-size discs. Curiously the subframe is spaced downwards approx 10mm, potentially for drive train clearance. Open the hood, and most noticeable are the suspension turrets pushed upwards to the max for wheel travel, so much so that hood bulges were necessary for clearance. If there is one thing that matters on rough gravel roads, it is wheel travel. No other manufacturer had gone that far.
At the rear, the Syncro semi-trailing arm suspension with all its geometry shortcomings was ditched entirely and replaced with a fully independent multi-link design, using tension struts adapted to re-use existing body shell suspension attachment points wherever possible. The rear suspension is impressive, using multi-links with clear signs of fabrication, and yet all joints are road-durable dust-booted parts. Anyone that follows motorsport closely will have seen Ford do exactly the same with the Escort RS Cosworth once the shackles were loosened for the 1997-on FIA ‘WRC car’ regulations. Again the brake discs are oversized and clasped with Brembo single-pot calipers. All four shock absorbers run modified with height adjustment collars, and anti-roll bars moved from suspension arm mounts to shock absorbers drop links, immediately giving higher roll resistance.
Styling-wise, the Golf was now physically wider so revised panels were created by the Volkswagen Dusseldorf design studio. The front bumper is deeper and extensive wind tunnel work saw outrageous but very effective cooling ducting incorporated as well as multiple ducts in the hood. The larger rear spoiler fitted is only part of the story. At the time, manufacturers were getting cute by putting items on homologation specials that weren’t actually in use. In the trunk, the plan was to put a larger adjustable three-part spoiler, which would then allow even more downforce as well as duct air down the C-pillar to the wheel arches allowing cooling to the rear brakes and differential. Also lying in wait for competition use in the trunk is a water injection system for the inlet charge, sitting in the original Syncro spare wheel well alongside the relocated battery. The spare wheel is on top, leaving little trunk space, showing how compromised this homologation special really was. More superficially, there’s an early Mk4 Golf styling cue from the central VW badge on the hatch.
The interior represents the designed concept for a luxury and highly sporting Golf to help justify the price, with figure-hugging Recaro A8 front seats and just two rear seats – not a three-person bench - sculpted to match. The half roll cage by Matter is an obligatory test car safety item fitted just in case of an inversion at test venues such as the Nürburgring, where this car clocked up some of its 20,000 km of testing. Underneath, it bears the signs of rugged use, Nate Brown noting: “museum piece yes but by no means unused, it definitely has some hard miles on it - the bell housing is ground down significantly.”
To accompany the digital Bosch dashboard, there is a center dash mode selector for monitoring all engine data, including temperatures and pressures, exhaust, and three transmission areas. The glove box has an adjustable boost knob and drivetrain data connections. Nate Brown noted after his drive, “From the feel of the car, it was definitely around 250hp, maybe a touch more, but it’s so unlike any turbo VW motor. The boost knob in the glove box has a little arrow at the 12 o’clock position, which is where we left it.”
In 1993 the teeth of the ‘90s recession were starting to bite. The project was said to be close to production, but the lack of a prototype fleet said otherwise. Its planned list price of $48,500 when a brand new road-going Mk3 Golf GTI cost $20,000 had spiraled way out of control. With Volkswagen reportedly close to bankruptcy and sitting on 200 million Deutschmarks of vehicle stock, not knowing how quickly the A59 would sell was its death knell. Despite his appreciation of high-tech engineering projects, freshly-appointed Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech waved the prudent accountant’s wand to bring the project to an unemotional stop.
This silver car is the only working mechanically correct version, with the bespoke motor and gearbox, and it was duly sent back to Volkswagen. By the mid-'90s, it was sitting in the Volkswagen Motorsport reception in Hannover, having had its test car 8" wide magnesium Speedlines removed, and instead the 7.5" wide road-going, curb-lipped, 5-spoke VWMS merchandise Speedline alloys fitted that it retains to this day.
Other A59s and the legacy
Elsewhere in the back story of the A59 is a handful of other cars: a red wind tunnel car (long disappeared) and a non-working ‘Car Zero’ dummy which precedes the car we have here and was created to demonstrate the basic modifications required (last seen at SMS but rumored to have been sold on). Of the two spare shells, one found its way to Greek tuner Boulekos where it became was painted yellow and sold on. The other, a Group A seam welded, Matter-caged prototype race-spec shell, found a motorsport life in rallycross with Rolf Volland, ironically with a turbo-charged EA827 16-valve motor, and residual Group A Xtrac transmission parts which had been destined for the A59. That car survives and is owned by rallycross privateer René Münnich.
As for the special engine, very few were produced, and no spares are apparent. The design was sold to legendary Volkswagen-Audi tuner Lehmann Motorentechnik in Liechtenstein, from where it lived on without a turbo in South African Audi A4 Touring Cars and later powered a VW France-instigated Reynard sports prototype to class victory at Le Mans in a 485bhp, turbocharged spec. Meanwhile, a spare A59 cam cover appeared at a European Volkswagen enthusiast event in the last decade.
What would they really have called the A59 if it had made production? Nobody knows for sure. A59 was simply the latest in a long line of designations used by SMS for their prototype shop developments, this one being the 59th consecutive project. For posterity, though, codename A59 remains all the most discerning enthusiast needs to nod sagely at what might have been. Had Volkswagen sent 2,500 examples of this car through to production and taken on the competition in the 1994 World Rally Championship and beyond, it would stand today as a five or even six-figure prized homologation collector toy of the highest order.
In a final twist, the fact this unique Golf survives and works is a minor miracle. In years gone by, it had strayed into an area of the Wolfsburg plant where prototypes are sent to be crushed. A swift phone call from a keen eye saw the car plucked to safety; otherwise, this unique piece of history could have been lost forever.
2022 USA Tour
More recent elevated interest in the A59 through social media - and not least a re-commission in 2018 by SMS - has seen the A59 move from a passive static museum exhibit to Volkswagen Classic’s operational heritage collection.
Prime mover and VW enthusiast Jamie Orr of Orchid Euro has achieved a huge, unprecedented achievement in bringing the A59 - and the stillborn Golf 8 TCR racer prototype - to the USA on loan to the people. Arriving in late August this year for the L’oe Show, the cars have also been featured on multiple Instagram live streams and YouTube videos before passing both cars to FCP Euro for a track test.
During this time, enthusiasts have been intimate with these cars, and it’s hard to think of any other heritage division which has permitted such an incredible tour entrusted to enthusiasts: wrenched on under supervision, shown, trailered, and then tracked around Lime Rock Park for the sole purpose of our collective enjoyment. FCP Euro’s Nate Brown assures us all it’s been a pinch-himself, paid-for blast with the odd emotion thrown in too. “Completely surreal and unbelievable,” he reflected. "We’re not jealous at all. FCP Euro gives huge thanks to Volkswagen Classic and Jamie Orr for his custodianship and for allowing and making this happen.
Sooner or later, the USA will say its long goodbyes as the Golf A59 heads back home to Germany. Check out the video above if you haven’t already, and - if you’re quick - catch the A59 for what will probably be a one-off appearance at Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo (next to SEMA) this week if you can. After all, it’s the unicorn, the one-of-one, fully-working A59 survivor.