- Maybe it wasn’t meant to be?
- 1. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII
- 2. Subaru Vivio RX-RA
- 3. Ford GT70
- 4. Hyundai Accent
- 5. Citroën BX 4TC
- 6. Mazda RX-7
- 7. Lada 2105 VFTS
- 8. BMW M1
- 9. Rover SD1
- 10. Triumph TR7
Maybe it wasn’t meant to be?
Success in the top flight of rallying is expensive and maddeningly elusive for manufacturers, usually coming only as the planets align and the perfect combination of driver, technological advancement and favourable regulations allow the best to flourish.
But for every Audi quattro, Subaru Impreza or Alpine-Renault A110, there are models that failed to impress on the stages. Some arrived too late to the party, otherwise promising machines that became the victim of rapidly changing rules.
Others were pressed into action through necessity, at a technological disadvantage that was never going to be overcome. And then there are those that were just plain rubbish. Join us on a journey through 10 of the most ill-conceived and ill-fated rally cars of the past half a century.
1. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII
Domination of international rallying usually comes in waves, and following Toyota’s early ’90s reign it was Mitsubishi and Finnish star Tommi Mäkinen’s time to shine – punctuated by Colin McRae’s title in 1995.
The Lancer Evo delivered the Japanese firm’s run of four titles from 1996-’99, each year bringing another version to conquer the stages. So when, in 2001, Mitsubishi was forced to move to WRC (rather than Group A) regulations, most pundits predicted that the latest Evolution VII would brush aside all-comers – but it wasn’t to be.
Despite sharing its powertrain with the outgoing car, and benefiting from 300bhp, the new machine was a disaster. Driver changes the following year didn’t improve matters, with Alister McRae’s brace at Rally Sweden the only points return of a dismal season.
Things were so bad that Mitsubishi sat out the following year, but even on its return in 2004, with a car that included thousands of changes, it failed to impress and finished no better than sixth on three occasions. A solitary podium in the following season marked a sad end to Mitsubishi’s stellar career in the World Rally Championship.
Anorak fact The best Mäkinen could muster in the Evolution VII’s debut season was sixth in Australia, despite winning three times with the outgoing ‘Evo 6.5’
2. Subaru Vivio RX-RA
Tax thresholds had an impact on car design across the world, but nowhere did it steer a segment so directly as Japan’s kei class. Regulations governing capacity, power and dimensions came into force in 1949, creating a new breed of pint-sized vehicles.
By the 1990s, the class had evolved from basic, affordable transport into miniature versions of full-sized cars, with all mod cons including air-con, turbos and even four-wheel drive. It was only a matter of time before performance models followed, and the inevitable forays into competition.
Enter the Subaru Vivio RX-RA, a stripped-out version of the humble hatch with a peppy supercharged version of its twin-cam, 16-valve 660cc ‘four’.
Colin McRae must have thought his Subaru Legacy had shrunk in the wash when he was charged with piloting the Vivio on its first and only works outing: 1993’s Safari Rally. Despite a valiant attempt, McRae’s car suffered complete front suspension failure. More a marketing stunt than a genuine tilt at success, the Vivio was only a failure by the high standards of its competition.
Anorak fact Two of the four-car entry finished the Kenyan epic, with local driver Patrick Njiru coming home a commendable 12th
3. Ford GT70
Think of mid-engined Blue Oval rally machines and the first thing that springs to mind is the mighty RS 200, but the special stage delivered another unlikely Ford so configured in the shape of the GT70, a bold play at the 1970 International Rally Championship.
Ford had thrown its weight behind the Escort since its first international rally win in 1968, but by the early ’70s the top flight was dominated by rear-engined cars such as the Porsche 911 and Alpine A110.
The Escort was beginning to struggle, so Ford turned to the driving force behind the GT40, Len Bailey, to come up with a mid-engined machine to challenge for honours. The outcome was a 44in-tall, glassfibre-bodied coupé capable of being powered by a range of Ford engines, primarily the Capri’s 240bhp 2.6-litre ‘Cologne’ V6, reckoned to be good for a 160mph top speed.
As a rally car it was a failure, plagued by reliability problems during its 1971 outings. With all the structural rigidity of well-cooked spaghetti – Ford’s words, not ours – a cramped cockpit and a high centre of gravity, it was doomed to failure and just six examples were built. Despite a promising road car styling exercise by Filippo Sapino, the GT70 eventually came to nothing.
Anorak fact The project’s lasting legacy was the bespoke four-spoke, four-lug cast-aluminium wheel design created for Bailey by Kent Alloys, which would go on to feature on fast Escorts for years and became a top aftermarket accessory for the firm
4. Hyundai Accent
Ask any petrolhead about the second-generation Accent and they will probably struggle to tell you anything beyond it having four doors and a similar number of wheels.
The Korean saloon made no more memorable an impression on the world of rallying, where it played support act to the likes of Grönholm’s Peugeot 206 and the Imprezas of Burns and Solberg.
The rally variant wasn’t as uninspiring as the road car, however. Using the two-door shell and adding four-wheel drive, a six-speed sequential ’box and a 1998cc turbo ‘four’ – not to mention an impressive roster of drivers – the Hyundai had all the attributes to be a contender. Yet the Accent failed to finish higher than fourth in its debut season, and did no better the following year despite revised suspension and improvements to the front differential.
The road car designed with budget-conscious buyers in mind wasn’t a success in such a budget-sensitive sport, and part-way through the 2003 season the management pulled the plug and withdrew the team from the World Rally Championship. Despite glimmers of promise, the Accent didn’t have the quality to last the distance and by the end of its three-year career, the cars had retired from more rallies than they had finished.
Anorak fact The roll-call of drivers to take the wheel of the Hyundai included such rallying heavyweights as Alister McRae, Group A champion Kenneth Eriksson and four-time World Champion Juha Kankkunen
5. Citroën BX 4TC
Group B represented a true golden age of rallying, producing the most outrageous machines to grace a special stage.
Despite the general consensus being that a mid-engined layout offered the best route to success, Citroën favoured its comparative hippopotamus: the front-engined BX. Unlike hippos, which are quick in water, the heavy and ill-balanced BX wasn’t quick anywhere, least of all on the loose.
Developed by Heuliez, purveyor of odd concept cars, the BX 4TC had a turbo ‘four’ hanging out over the front wheels and hydropneumatic suspension that accentuated understeer. And while competition variants produced upwards of 380bhp, it wasn’t enough: its best result from a handful of outings was a sixth in Sweden for Jean-Claude Andruet.
Anorak fact Only 86 of the intended 200-strong run of 200bhp road cars were built. Realising its mistake, Citroën scrambled to buy them back and destroyed every car it could get its hands on
6. Mazda RX-7
By 1984, Mazda had already homologated the RX-7 for Groups 1, 2 and 4, so it only had to build a mere 20 examples to have a crack at Group B. The temptation proved too great to resist and, under Achim Warmbold, Mazda Rally Team Europe took its seat at the top table.
The sports car got a wide-arch glassfibre body and a 300bhp, dry-sump version of Mazda’s 13B twin-rotor engine, mounted 4in further back to aid weight distribution.
Taking the fight to the forced-induction mid-engined monsters in a front-engined, rear-drive, naturally aspirated sports car was never likely to end well – and it didn’t. During its time in the top flight, the best the RX-7 could muster was third place on the 1985 Acropolis Rally – though after placing behind the Audi quattro and Peugeot 205 T16, that bronze must have felt a lot like a gold.
Anorak fact To aid cooling, the Group B RX-7 featured a radiator built into the large rear spoiler
7. Lada 2105 VFTS
The history of rallying is littered with brilliant production models that failed to shine when they made the transition to motorsport. The Lada 2105 is something of an anomaly here, because a small Lithuanian outfit took what was a pretty ropey production car and turned it into a rally hero.
Like most Eastern Bloc saloons of the 1970s and ’80s, the Lada was slow, rattly and uninspiring. Vilniusskaja Fabrika Transportnyh Sredstv swept aside these deficiencies, fitting a race-bred 1568cc ‘four’ that doubled the standard car’s power output to face up to the likes of Citroën’s Visa 1000 Pistes.
The lower echelons of Group B didn’t grab the headlines, but they offered a more affordable route for enterprising privateers. On the odd occasion the car was campaigned in the WRC, it repeated the success it enjoyed on national rallies in the east.
Anorak fact Ladas locked out the top six places of the 1300-1600cc class in the 1986 1000 Lakes
8. BMW M1
BMW’s supercar broke cover in 1978, beginning as an alliance between Stuttgart and Sant’Agata before the German firm went it alone.
Very much a product of the two companies, its tubular steel spaceframe chassis was designed by Giampaolo Dallara, the bodywork was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and at its heart lay Paul Rosche’s sublime 3453cc twin-cam straight-six, mounted amidships.
The M1 missed out on Group 5 competition as a result of the stuttering partnership with Lamborghini, and was instead homologated for Group 4 and the one-make Procar BMW M1 Championship that ran from 1979-’80.
Few would have considered the supercar’s suitability for rallying, until Reseau BMW France instructed Hugues de Chaunac to transform the Tarmac racer into a rally contender. Beyond a wider glassfibre body with a large spoiler, the beating heart of the M1 was tuned to 430bhp.
Despite that the M1 was not a success – perhaps unsurprisingly, given its size, weight, rear-drive layout and pathetic handbrake.
Anorak fact As Group 4 gave way to Group B in 1983, the M1 duly made the transition but its fortunes didn’t improve. Not even a spectacular second in its final outing of 1984, the Rallye d’Antibes, could save the BMW’s reputation
9. Rover SD1
After a lengthy gestation, as Rover went head-to-head with in-house rival Triumph over a replacement for the P6 and 2000, David Bache’s sleek SD1 hit the showrooms in 1976. The four-door saloon didn’t scream ‘competition’, but the decision to give it the firm’s venerable 3.5-litre V8 – coinciding nicely with an extension of British Saloon Car Championship regulations stretching permissible capacity to 3.5 litres – drew the model to the track.
As a racer the SD1 was surprisingly successful, with the likes of Steve Soper, Andy Rouse and Win Percy making full use of its tuned 290bhp motor and lairy rear-drive handling. As a rally car it made less sense, carrying more timber than the outgoing TR7. Nonetheless, the Austin Rover Competitions Department thought it had the legs for distance events and began testing in 1981, with a view to taking on the ’83 Peking-Paris. When that was called off, the project stalled and things went cold until Tom Walkinshaw stepped in, developing a number of cars for the 1983 Austin Rover RallySprint.
Never really suited to the loose, the SD1 probably helped convince Austin Rover to develop a car from scratch, and by 1986 it was rendered obsolete by the mid-engined, four-wheel-drive MG Metro 6R4. But it wasn’t without the occasional success, the high watermark set by Ken Wood and Peter Brown as they landed the Scottish Rally Championship in 1984.
Anorak fact F1 aces took on rally heroes for the 1983 RallySprint, tackling a special stage in the SD1 Vitesse, an autotest in an MG Metro and a wild 10-lap race at Donington in MG Maestros. Nigel Mansell came out on top
10. Triumph TR7
In standard trim, the underpowered, short-wheelbase Triumph TR7 wouldn’t have made a successful rally car – but that didn’t stop Canley trying to turn it into one via a convoluted set of regulatory loopholes in 1975.
The engine was thrown out in favour of the Dolomite Sprint’s 16-valve 2-litre – despite no ‘TR7 Sprints’ being produced until two years later. Usefully, the FIA only required that the requisite number of ‘bolt-on’ kits be offered for sale. The Dolomite’s overhead-cam ‘four’ was never the happiest of engines, and so it proved in the TR7.
Early outings resulted in a litany of problems including head-gasket failure and loss of oil pressure. Despite a rocky start – and a power-to-weight deficit to its closest rivals – Tony Pond and Brian Culcheth brought home some impressive results as the season drew to a close, but it became increasingly clear that extra power was required.
The TR7 became a more comfortable competition car with the 3.5-litre Rover V8 – and a bit more homologation jiggery-pokery. Of the 500 examples required, it’s likely that fewer than 150 had been built by April 1978, when the car was approved for Group 4.
Pond duly delivered the model’s first win and scored a number of other high-profile successes – including dominating the 1980 Manx Rally – before the TR7 V8 was withdrawn from competition.
Anorak fact BL used the kit loophole to add the Dolly’s overdrive ’box, bigger front brakes, rear discs and a host of other tweaks, from pistons to carbs