This profile, by Derek Black, is reproduced from Carsport
“On first meeting Robert McBurney, many people are put off by his brusque and off-hand manner. This has on many occasions given him the reputation of being “stuck-up” by those who don’t really know him well enough. There are, however, many people all over Ireland who are more than grateful for help received from Robert when in trouble.”
Robert McBurney looks back at those words about himself, penned by Beatty Crawford back in 1970, and says with a smile, “I think Beatty got it about right.”
Fifteen years after he was dubbed “King of the Beetles”, Robert presents a somewhat smoother image today. Despite his own reservations, he is definitely more approachable, and more of the professional businessman. His hair is a distinguished white, but the face is youthful and the manner energetic.
Together with his younger brother, Roy, he runs the third largest, and one of the most successful Volkswagen-Audi dealerships in Northern Ireland. He describes it as a partnership, with Roy heading up the sales team and himself looking after everything else. Sisters Marion and Carol look after accounts and wages.
The business was founded by his father, Robert Gordon McBurney, back in 1926 at Bridge Street in Ballymena. It moved to the present location beside the bridge on the Belfast Road into the town during the thirties and became known as Harryville Garage.
The old-style business, with its petrol pumps at the roadside and cycle repair workshop, was a landmark for visitors to Ballymena. His father, who died last year, took it badly when his sons took away the petrol pumps to build a modern showroom, but later told them it was the right thing to do.
One of his first jobs in the business was to be a kind of cloakroom attendant for bicycles. Visitors to Ballymena often left their bikes for safe keeping at the Harryville Garage. Up to 200 could be kept under cover in a big shed behind the premises, and young Robert was in charge. On Saturday nights it was sometimes 12:30 before he got rid of the last one.
Robert is one of those bosses who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. In fact, he positively thrives on a mechanical challenge. This dates from the days when, as a boy, he watched his Father take engines apart by the fireside in the family home above the garage.
His first competitive outing was back in 1950 when he was a back-seat passenger in his father’s “hot” Singer in a UAC Boxing Day Rally. He grew up with the garage’s business and with rallying, navigating for his Father and later establishing his own formidable reputation.
“In those days, the rallies were mainly driving tests and ascents up muddy lanes. Myself and others bounced up and down in the back to get traction. Other tricks included putting water oil the tyres for extra weight, and bolting the tyres onto the wheels so that they could run flat for more grip” he recalls.
The Singer, as you might imagine, was highly modified. A three-bearing crankshaft had replaced the two-bearing original. At the time it was 14 years old but was hot enough to see off the competition of the day.
That was it until the first Beetle made its competitive appearance on the Circuit of Ireland. Robert remembers it as an ex-Monte Carlo car, finished in two-tone yellow and brown. Driven by O’Flaherty from Dublin, the first importer of VW into Ireland, its performance set the elder Mr. McBurney thinking.
“His old Singer was one of the quickest things around, but this VW was leaving him behind and he didn’t like it. He wrote letters to Volkswagen and could have had the franchise for Northern Ireland, but he thought we weren’t big enough to handle it” says Robert.
McBurney did not sell their first Beetle until December 1953. The original agreement is still in a drawer in Robert’s office and he took particular delight in pointing out the original stock requirement – one car and one commercial!
A lot of water has flowed under the Harryville Bridge since then, and many hundreds of VWs have been dispatched from the McBurney garage. But, in the early fifties, with the war still fresh in many minds, it took foresight and courage for Mr McBurney Senior to take a step into the unknown with a German marque.
“The first Beetles were acquired mainly by doctors. They liked the air-cooled engine which needed no anti-freeze in Winter, and it proved to be so reliable from a mechanical point of view” says Robert.
Robert was a bright schoolboy, bright enough to go to Ballymena Academy for some years. But he was more interested in spanner’s than foreign languages, and switched to the local technical college to study mechanical engineering. Later he went to Belfast Technical College and obtained his Institute of Mechanical Engineering diploma, which entitled him to teach.
“But my father decided I would be better employed as a grease monkey in the garage. I had to grow up with it, there was nothing else for it,” he says.
In the old days his Father was also very interested in motorbikes, and went to the sand races at Magilligan. Robert learned his mechanics from the basics, for they did what are now considered specialist jobs themselves, like boring cylinders. The original boring bar they used for this purpose is still around!
Eventually Robert graduated from riding shotgun with his Father to piloting rally Beetles with great aplomb. He became quite a legend for his hair-raising, yet controlled, driving of souped-up Beetles. The “silly engines” as he calls them, included one 2.2 VW unit producing 160bhp. When reliability suffered, he switched to Porsche engines and became dominant in Forest rallies.
The event he finds most memorable was the 1970 World Cup Rally in which he competed in an Avenger with English driver John Bloxhom. This event took in 16 or 17 countries, and the experience gave Robert what he calls a “wander-lust” to visit foreign lands. The memories are indelibly ingrained in his mind.
“We broke the suspension on a blind bend where locals had rolled stones on to the rally route in Peru. It was in the dark of night and we went into a little village with candles in all the houses, and somewhat optimistically asked if anybody had a welder. Suddenly there was a shout and lights came on all around us. There was a little workshop with its own generator and an electric welder,” he says.
Other unforgettable experiences include driving through the countryside in Bolivia, which Robert describes as like a moonscape – completely devoid of vegetation. Driving in the Andes required that they routinely change the carburettor jets to compensate for the effects of changing altitude. Another problem was that brake pipes became extremely brittle at low temperatures and were easily broken.
Robert’s other successes included fourth place in the 1970 Circuit of Ireland in a BMW 2002ti, and a third place in the Scottish rally behind Paddy Hopkirk and Brian Culcheth. He also had driving test success in a Porsche-engined Beach Buggy. Earlier, with an old friend Reggie McSpadden, he took another fourth place on the Circuit of Ireland in a Lancia Fulvia. Various forays to Scotland, and to the Tarmac Championship events, brought success with the “Porschewagen”.
The VW Golf era brought with it one of the most celebrated McBurney stories, and one which brought his innovative engineering to the notice of the VW factory engineers at Wolfsburg in Germany.
Just on the scene was the hot Golf GTI and he, and Reggie McSpadden, were keen to launch the new sports hatch by entering it in the Circuit of Ireland Rally. There was only one minor snag – the GTI model was only available in left-hand-drive. Someone at the factory had said that it would not be possible to convert to right-hand-drive.
“So we decided to do a right-hand-drive car, but the problem was where to find the bits and pieces we would need. Reggie McSpadden suggested that we take his wife’s RHD Golf and switch the parts out of that. We started with the two cars side-by-side in the workshop and produced a RHD rally car”.
“We drove it around the Circuit of Ireland Rally at a steady speed and finished second in our class” he recalls.
A few weeks later, a Director of VW (U.K.) came over to Northern Ireland and asked Robert if he would build a car for them. The silver GTI was delivered on the weekend of the British Grand Prix, and it was duly sent on to the VW factory in Germany. No doubt there were a few red faces and an engineer somewhere had to eat his words, confronted with the evidence from Ballymena.
Technical posers like this is what Robert McBurney thrives on. Many a rally driver has found himself helped out of a tight spot by his expertise. In the everyday workshop, he has often designed special tools for particular jobs, some of which have been adopted by VW nationwide.
From his own experience of borrowing tools, Robert has learned that the only efficient way to run a workshop is for each of his six mechanics to have their own hoist and individual set of tools.
With a background like this, it is soon obvious that the McBurney success was founded on an intense pride in the service side of the business. Among the many awards they have won are the VW Blue Riband (three years) and high placings in the Dealer of the Year rankings. Theirs is the only A-Category dealership for body repair and paintwork.
“I like to see a job well done. I have been brought up in a tradition of pride in the mechanical side. If you generate goodwill, then you will get your customer back. This approach worked well up until four or five years ago” he says.
But even in today’s cut-throat price war, the McBurney reputation counts for a lot with motorists. In addition, they also concentrate on giving the best possible value for money.
“The problem now is that manufacturers have introduced 10,000 mile service intervals. We used to see customers every 3 or 4,000 miles, whereas now we are lucky to see them once a year. Another factor has been the increase in imports and the aggressive pricing” he says.
But the McBurney reputation for good deals is also high – it has to be to survive in a town like Ballymena! And they have regular, loyal customers from all over the Province – be it Portadown, Derry, Coleraine, Armagh or Bangor says Robert.
Married with three children, Robert says that one of his greatest supporters in his rally days was his Wife, Kathleen, who comes from Kells. Together with daughters Karen, Kirsten, and Son Denzell, they live in the countryside some four miles outside Ballymena.
Running a motor business is time consuming these days, and Robert puts in a typical 8am to 5pm day with perhaps a couple of hours of paperwork to take home. But he enjoys the garden, and family get-togethers for barbecue in the Summer. A keen photographer, he has his own colour darkroom, but find little time to use it these days.
Holidays are a high-spot, and after that World Cup Rally experience, he likes to go to further afield places liker Greece, New England, Turkey and most parts of Europe. The places he would still like to see are Africa and Australia.
“I like going to different countries and seeing how people live. I do enjoy lying back on the beach but I also like to go around watching the local people and seeing what they do” he says.
Back in the garage with a staff of 26, the thing that annoys Robert most is when somebody doesn’t do a job right. He admits to never switching off until he goes to bed, and is happiest when there is a challenge, preferably mechanical, to be met.
While no longer active as a driver, he couldn’t help following the Circuit of Ireland this year as a spectator. And his comments on the Audi team performance are unprintable – it is surprising that the back-up team didn’t find themselves with an extra volunteer in the service crew!
But his enthusiasm for the VW-Audi range is undiminished. He is currently driving an Audi 100 Avant Quattro, and his other favourite from the range is the Audi 200. Plenty of frequently-changed demonstrators are a keynote of the McBurney approach to selling cars these days.
“If you don’t get all the new models out, how are the public going to get to know about them?” He remarks.
Like VW, the McBurney garage has come a long way from the days when it was “stock one car and one commercial”. It is a long road from the rear-engined Beetle to the sophistication of today’s Quattro, but Robert McBurney has the advantage of having been around every bend on the way.