Group B Rally Cars are Old-School and Awesome

The Group B rally series ran from 1982 to 1987 and featured some of the wildest and most powerful rally cars ever made. The regulations on the cars were simple: There were none. Manufacturers were free to create as much power as they could, crank out as much boost pressure as possible, and use whatever materials they could find. And unlike other racing series, only 200 “homologated” road-going versions of each race car needed to be made.

Group B spawned cars like the Audi Quattro, one of the most dominant cars of its time and platform from which the current Audi cars have grown. Group B also popularized new technology like all-wheel drive, and it brought into focus the limits of both man and machine on the rally stage. Gnarly powerslides, tight twisting forest roads with 500+ horsepower on tap, and spectators practically standing in the middle of the road were all pretty standard fare for Group B racing.

The demise of Group B was caused by the very thing that made it so appealing; danger. After several fatal crashes, some involving both drivers and spectators, the FIA shutdown Group B. Since then, it has been succeeded by the WRC and other rallying series’, but none have been able to match Group B for its outrageous machinery. If given the chance, here are the Group B cars I’d love to have tucked into my dream garage.

Ford RS200

Many times in life, something great is born from failure. In the case of Ford and Group B racing, it was the R1700T, a failed automotive project that was intended to become Ford’s Group B rally car. The lessons learned with the R1700T lead to the creation of a successful purpose built rally car: The Ford RS200.

The RS200 was mid-engined, four wheel drive, cranked out around 450 horsepower in racing trim, had a fiberglass body, and had a chassis designed by former F1 engineers John Wheeler and Tony Southgate. Like several of the bat-shit crazy cars that competed in Group B, the RS200 was involved in several fatal crashes that helped contributed to the end of the Group B era, specifically the 1986 Portuguese Rally. Following the end of Group B, the RS200 competed from 1986 to 1992 in the FIA European Championships, and some where fielded as circuit racers.

Although it never achieved significant success on the Group B circuit, the road going “Evolution” version of the RS200 was without doubt the car’s most exciting flavor. Around 24 of the 200 road cars were turned into the Evolution edition which used a modified version of the Ford/Cosworth engine found in the racecar, and rumor has power ranging from 550 to up to a staggering 815 hp. In the right form, the RS200 could put down a high 2 to low 3 second 0-60 time, ridiculous even by today’s standards, never mind the 1980’s. Umm, yes please.

Lancia 037 and Delta S4

The Lancia 037 made its Group B rally debut in 1982 at the Rally Costa Smeralda in Italy. Rear-wheel drive, with a supercharged 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine making 300+ horsepower, the 037 won the 1983 World Championships with the legendary Walter Rohl in the driver’s seat and Finnish Markku Alen as co-driver. Lancia fitted their car with Kevlar body panels, independent double wishbone suspension both front and rear and dual shock absorbers at the back to deal with the punishment rally racing could inflict.

The 037 was soon made inferior with the introduction of all-wheel drive and the dominance of machines like the Audi S1 and Peugeot’s 205 T16. Lancia was forced to upgraded the 037 to an Evolution 2 model, and then introduce an entirely new car in the Delta S4 to stay competitive.

One of the things that made the S4 unique was that it used both turbocharging and supercharging to help churn out around 480 horsepower. The Delta 4 was blessed the benefits of each system; low-  end grunt with the supercharger, then top-end power from the turbo.  When operating a peak performance, the S4 could cranik out an  enormous 32 psi of boost. This, combined with AWD, could propel the  Delta S4 to 0-60 mph in an incredible 2.3 seconds. On gravel.

The S4 featured a tubular spaceframe and fully detachable carbon fibre  bodywork, so if the car was accidentally planted into a tree, at least  changing the body panels wouldn’t be too complicated. Speaking of  crashes, the S4’s legacy was tinged with tragedy as it was the car that  really signaled the end of Group B. Driver Henri Toivonen and co-  driver Sergio Cresto, overcooked a corner in their S4 at the 1986 Tour  de Corse and plunged over a cliff, killing both men. Group B racing  continued on for a while longer after this accident, but it proved to be  an major accelerator for the decline of the series.

Audi Quattro S1

Of all the Group B rally cars, the Audi Quattro S1 is without doubt one of the most iconic. Born from the Audi Sport Quattro of the early eighties, the S1 was introduced in 1985 and is widely regarded as the most powerful rally car ever fielded. Its inline 5-cylinder, turbocharged engine unleashed around 600 horsepower to all four wheels, shattering the 0-60 mph in the low 3 second range. Though brutally powerful, the S1 actually only won once race, the 1985 San Remo rally. Even so, the S1 and its predecessors were absolutely instrumental in helping sculpt rally racing into what we know today.

One of the most unique features of the S1 was the recalculating air system for the turbocharger. This ingenious system kept the turbo spinning at high rpm’s when the throttle was closed so that when the driver put his foot down, power delivery would be crushing and nearly instantaneous. Later generations of this technology are still used today and are known as “anti-lag” systems. The gearbox found in the S1 also continued to evolve after the golden light of Group B faded away, eventually becoming Audi’s DSG system.

Another distinct characteristic of the S1 was the sound. No, let me rephrase that. It was the SOUND. Think of a savage, un-muted exhaust, with one of the most intense wastegates ever. It reminds one of Top Gear from a few seasons back when Jeremy Clarkson tested the Prodrive P2. “It sounds like squirrels are being pushed into the engine… This car is a squirrel mincer!”

If you’ve never seen videos of the S1 in action, stop reading this right now and go watch one. Many of the classic rally film clips from this area will be of the wide, square bodied S1 unleashing on some legendary course some where, rooster-tails of dirt spraying from the wheels. Are you still reading?

Peugeot 205 T16

Peugeot’s entry into Group B racing was the 205 T16, so named because of the car’s turbocharged, 1.8 liter 16 valve engine. In racing trim, this squat, boxy rally monster made around 450 horsepower, and it took the Manufacturer’s titles in 1985 and 1986. Watch videos of the 205 T16 catching air over rolling crests and getting seriously sideways around gravel roads, and it’s easy to see why some people look back on the Group B era as the golden age of rally racing. It was these early rally machines like the 205 T16 that gave birth to today’s rally inspired road rockets like the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Evolution.

After the end of Group B, Peugeot created the 405 T16, loosely based on the company’s 405 sedan. The 405 T16 competed in and won the famous Paris-Dakar rally, and set a Pike’s Peak hillclimb record that stood for several years before being broken by the legendary hillclimber Rod Millen. The record setting run by driver Ari Vatanen was documented an award winning film called Climb Dance. Watching Climb Dance will give you an entirely new appreciation for not only Vatanen’s driving skills, but also the incredible road that climbs Pike’s Peak. At several points in the film, you may find yourself clenching, uhh, parts of yourself, as Vatanen slides around hairpin corners with nothing but the vastness of air only inches from his wheels.

Peugeot also campaigned the 405’s for several years in the British Touring Car Championship during the 1990’s, as well as the French Supertourisme Championship, which it won in 1994 and 1995.

Porsche 959

Porsche’s original intent with the legendary 959 was to have it compete in Group B racing. Manufactured from 1986 to 1989, the car was first known as the “Gruppe B”, a pretty obvious hint as to what it purpose was. After the FIA pulled the plug on the series, Porsche turned its focus with the 959 to creating the world’s fastest street car (which it achieved in 1986), as well as a successful competitor in the Paris-Dakar rally and the Le Mans endurance race. Although it never actually competed in Group B racing, there is no question that the 959 became one of the world’s most sought after road cars and it owes it all to Group B.

Besides being gorgeous, wickedly fast and wildly rare, the 959 was really a technological showcase. It was the first high performance vehicle to use an advanced all-wheel drive system, capable of managing the torque distribution between the front and rear wheels, a precursor to the systems that can be found on a lot of modern cars. The 2.5-liter flat six featured sequential turbochargers and made around 450 horsepower. The price in the crazy 80’s for this dream machine? About $225,000 for each of the 337 cars made, with several later examples made in the early 90’s selling for far more than that.

At the time it was launched, the 959 went head to head with iconic machines like the Ferrari F40. While the F40 was a pared down racecar for the road, the 959 was classically Porsche; it created staggering performance through exquisite engineering, precision, and state-of-the-art technology. While the F40 announced its arrival with giant wings, NACA ducts and triple exhausts, the 959 was subtle and refined in comparison. The 959 became the platform for which much of the systems and technology found in Porsche’s 911 series came from. Das ist gut.

Lancia Stratos

Like the Porsche 959, the Lancia Stratos was never actually a Group B competitor, but it helped set the stage for the monstrous Group B machines by defining what rally racing had the potential to be.

Three years in a row, from 1974 to 1976, the Stratos took the rally championship crown. Its distinct wedge shape was powered by a mid-mounted Ferrari V6 and made roughly 300 horsepower in naturally aspirated form, and well north of 500 horsepower in forced induction guise. Unlike some other rally cars which began life as a street car and were reengineered into rally cars, the Stratos was the first car designed from the ground up to be a rally machine. Only 492 examples were originally built with numerous others produced by imitators as kit cars. But as the interwebs have thoroughly documented as of late, the real Lancia Stratos is experiencing something of a revival.

Funded by wealthy German businessman Michael Stoschek, the new Stratos has the underpinnings (engine, chassis) of the Ferrari 430 Scuderia, and promises to be one exciting machine. Its design was started by Jason Castriota of Pininfarina and Stile Bertone fame, and pulls many of the elements of the old car into its fantastic design – the low stance, distinct shape, short front and rear overhangs. And like the old car, the new Stratos will have an exclusive limited production run and will very likely to be bought up by eager enthusiast and collectors quicker than it can make the sprint to 60 mph. Considering it accomplishes that in a shade over 3 seconds, the new car is almost guaranteed to make the Stratos name a legend for the second time.

Seeing the iconic Stratos brought back to life is incredibly exciting. That’s why I’d have the old and the new car, both in their green and white livery in my garage. Now all I have to do is talk to Stoschek and convince him to give one up.

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